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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (November 1, 1933)

The Man in Front — Footplate Impressions

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The Man in Front
Footplate Impressions.

The men in front—a camera study by W. W. Stewart.

The men in front—a camera study by W. W. Stewart.

Steam and Spuds.

He is not very talkative, the man in front; but he is pleasant and entirely human.

He is not weighed down by the sense of his responsibility, because he is a master of his craft and possesses calm confidence won from experience. His eye is blue and steady, and his complexion is ruddy and a trifle glossy, as if the heat of the tunnels had been mitigated by a touch of engine oil.

He never hurries, but his every action is the essence of quiet promptitude. You, who ride behind, do not see much of him. While you recline in your comfortable seats with your newspapers and books, he is leaning out of his window, watching the track ahead, slowing down on the bends, noting the signals, and keeping a vigilant eye on the crossings. When your train has pulled up and you are bustling to and from the refreshment room or absorbing the details of the countryside, he is quietly going round his engine—touching her here and there, as a horseman tenderly seeks a sore spot on his mount; armed with ubiquitous oil can and wad of cotton waste, he ministers to his engine's joints and pins and bolts and bearings, all of which he knows by their right and proper names (which I do not); a squirt of oil here, a pause, and an extra squint there; everything O.K., and he heaves himself into the cab again.

A shunter, walking by, passes the time of day with him. They discuss potatoes; spuds! Somehow it seems incongruous that an engine-driver should be interested in growing potatoes; potatoes are so immobile and engine-drivers are so moveable; but it reduces him to the level of ordinary mortals while, paradoxically, leaving him on the pedestal on which we placed him in the days of our youth. I even suspect that he has a wife and family and reads the paper o'nights, like lesser people, with his feet on the mantelpiece.


Perhaps the title of this article should have been “The Men in Front,” for there are two.

The second—the fireman—is younger. He, too, is inclined to be quiet and vigilantly ruminative. He, also, understands how to achieve results by an economy of effort, which is necessary in the confined space of an engine cab.

All his actions are neat and effective. He never fumbles, and his muscles function with a kind of fastidious precision; he is never hurried, but, to the uninitiated, he seems to do an amazing number of things simultaneously.

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The Day's Work.

Such are the men who, when you travel on a train, hold your life in their hands, and control the destinies of you and yours. To me it seemed a fact worthy of comment, but to them it is “the day's work,” done with undemonstrative efficiency; they sense no drama in their job—not even when an emergency calls up the heroism which slumbers in the hearts of most men and women. But to me there are the elements of drama in every minute of their toil.

The Emotions of a “Mug.”

If you are a railwayman, probably you have ridden the footplate. In any case, let me tell you my feelings on riding an engine for the first time—the emotions of a “mug.”

I had imagined a breathless rushing through the air, a deafening roar and rumble, showers of sparks and cinders, and a fireman dripping with sweat and stoking like one of the minions of Hell. Instead, I found order, cleanliness, a fleck or two of soot, a pleasant pulsating rumble, and less sense of speed than the passenger experiences in his carriage.

But I enjoyed other experiences of a higher order, the chief of which, perhaps, was the unobstructed view ahead: miles of twin silver threads converging to a point and disappearing round a far bend, while distant specks rushed forward, unfolded themselves as buds of scenery, burst into full view, and then made way for other moving vistas.

And the scents of the countryside which flung themselves through the open cab windows in waves and ripples of “feeling”—clover, hay, smouldering raupo, the scent of cows. It was as if Nature had pumped jets of her assorted perfumes through our windows.

But let's start from the beginning, which is the tunnels between Thorndon and Ngaio, near Wellington.

A black portal rushes at us, light disappears, and a hot, suffocating blanket
(Railway Publicity photo.) “A squirt of oil here, a pause, and an extra squint there.”

(Railway Publicity photo.)
“A squirt of oil here, a pause, and an extra squint there.”

descends upon us. It grows hotter, and the blanket is wound tighter round our heads. We try not to breathe and, when we're forced to do so, it seems that we are inhaling burning brimstone. A sense of suffocation takes possession of us. We feel that we must struggle and kick against it. The heat seems to be lifting the skin off our faces. We wonder how much longer we can bear it—and then we puff into daylight; the air clears, and we find the driver and fireman looking as we had not been anywhere near the portals of Hell. The second tunnel does not seem so bad, and we believe that we could become accustomed to suffocation in time.

We observe the driver sitting at his window, right elbow on the sill, left hand lightly touching the control lever. Occasionally his left hand changes from control to Westinghouse; the while, his glance is set ahead.

Moving Pictures.

The fireman watches the water gauge. While we climb it behaves itself, but, page 7 running down hill, the water drains to the front of the boiler and the gauge drops abruptly. Then the fireman turns on the injector which runs more water from tank to boiler. Meanwhile, he keeps an eye on the pressure gauge where the indicator fluctuates between 160 lbs. and 180 lbs. (the maximum). He opens the door of the firebox and we get a glimpse of a long flat glowing floor. In go two or three shovelsfull of coal, followed immediately by a belching of fumes from the funnel.

The engine is galloping, “wagging its tail” gently. The fireman fills a bucket and sluices the steel floor—to keep it cool. The driver says something unintelligible, to us; but the fireman uncoils a hose and sprays the coal in the tender. He explains that otherwise the dust would be blown back into the carriages; we commend these men for their thoughtfulness.

There is, to us, a spice of romance about these common activities. The driver raises his hand to a cord above his head
(Railway Publicity photo.) New Zealand's crack train, the Auckland-Wellington Limited near the end of its 426-mile run.

(Railway Publicity photo.)
New Zealand's crack train, the Auckland-Wellington Limited near the end of its 426-mile run.

and his action is answered by a long hoot from the whistle. Away down the track we see a toy station with a miniature signal pole in the foreground. The semaphore is down. A midget emerges from the toy building and fits the tablet to the tiny tablet-exchange appliance. We see him wave a small green flag. The driver sounds another toot, the building grows rapidly, the man gains in stature, everything rushes at us; there is a “click” and the whole scene has disappeared. But we have a tablet in our holder to prove that it was no illusion.

The picture is repeated, but loses none of its wonder to us, whose sight is unimpaired by familiarity.

We leave the engine with enhanced respect for the men in front; the men who carry responsibility, not lightly, but with the confidence born of usage and training. When we were young it was our ambition to drive a railway engine, and we realise that, in this respect at least, we have never grown up.

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