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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May 1, 1934.)

The Man Behind — A Layman's Impressions of a Railway Guard

page 22

The Man Behind
A Layman's Impressions of a Railway Guard.

“He is the rear-guard, the safeguard and the vanguard of the travelling household known as the train.”

“He is the rear-guard, the safeguard and the vanguard of the travelling household known as the train.”

The Man Behind “The Man Behind.”

That is he—the man who nimbly steps off the rear end of the train as it glides to a halt at the station; neat, efficient, patient, punctual to the split minute— that is the “man behind.” Such words are not mere metaphorical bouquets, but constitute a worthy description, earned in daily service and justified by the traditions of railway-running since the days of “Puffing Billy”; hence the title, “guard”—the guardian of all those who entrust themselves and their belongings to the care of the rail. Like the “man in front,” the “man behind” does his job unobtrusively but thoroughly, promptly but unhurriedly, calmly and surely. He is never bustled, but what he does is done with despatch—with surety of action and systematic exactitude. He is human, of course; no mere automaton could meet the demands hourly made upon his initiative. He is always ready with information and assistance, and the passenger has learned to regard him, not as a mere official—brass-bound by uncompromising officialdom—but as one who, man to man, will explain a point and discuss a difficulty; for this is the man behind the “man behind.”

His Home from Home.

His “home away from home” is a cubby-hole at one end of the van, combining the functions of office, lunchroom, workshop and “look-out.” A seat, which can be extended to a short settee for those rare intervals which I presume even guards find for rest, faces a desk where, between punching tickets and doing all the things guards do, he sorts up his way-bills, fills in his running schedule, and does other jobs of work which are doubleDutch to the unversed.

There is a spice of romance in every job, but it seldom is apparent to the person whom it concerns most. I put it to the guard—foolishly, no doubt, “Does it ever strike you that, while this train is running, you are the keeper of hundreds of lives and goodness knows what value in property? Don't you ever feel the weight of your responsibility?”

He smiled, a trifle pityingly I imagined, and answered: “Oh, I don't know—a fellow gets used to his job.” To him it is a “job,” and if you and I had it, it would be our “job”; but, observing him through the unblemished eye of the outsider, it looked something a little more than a “job”; I thought of slips on the line, of wild winter nights, of bridges over flooded rivers— of all the possible hazards of any track—hazards which fortunately seldom become actualities on New Zealand's railways in consequence of meticulous examination and supervision of the permanent way. But, nevertheless, in any such emergency he must be prepared to face the music. In mute testimony of the fact there are two cupboards in his cubby-hole; through the glass front of the one you see a crowbar, a shovel, and other useful tools, whilst, strapped to the outside is an axe; the other cupboard houses a first-aid outfit, and both provide an unostentatious indication of the responsibilities of the “man behind.”

In a corner lie a bunch of accessories, overhead is a fire extinguisher, nearby is an emergency hand brake; a locked mail bag is in the rack, and, through the open door, one glimpses the interior of the van with its stacks of freight neatly arranged in order of destination to facilitate speedy unloading. The “man behind” has an entry of every article on his way-bills, and the responsibility for their delivery is his; deck-chairs, bicycles, boxes, perambulators, portmanteaux, suitcases, a wheelbarrow, a crate of ducks, a bundle of shovels, a mysterious article shrouded in scrim, and a box containing a noise; the noise is a compromise between a yelp and a thin howl and is as persistent as toothache. Whenever he can find a moment to spare, the guard taps on the box and speaks soothingly to the noise, whereupon it subsides to a thin whimpering.

“It's a pup,” explains the guard; “all the way from Invercargill. I've fed him and given him a drink, but he's tired of it—poor little brute.”

So, the guard is, among many things, a protector of pups.

The Man All Over.

He tilts his hat back from his brow, produces a pencil and becomes absorbed in something which looks to me like a large-scale cross-word puzzle. He endeavours to explain it, but its columns and sub-columns, its headings and tailings, leave me dizzy.

“Must hop along again,” he says, “to tell ‘em that there's time for refreshment at the next station,” and out he goes with a knowledgeable smile on his face.

The average traveller knows little of the activities of the “man behind.” He sees him pass through the carriage with an intent expression on his face which advertises that he is going somewhere and knows where he is going—but just what he is up to at the moment is a secret; except when he divulges his intentions by inviting “all tickets, please.” But sometimes he stands inside the door dumbly examining each passenger in turn; I used to think that he was on the lookout for erring passengers who place their feet on the opposite seat, and many's the time I have removed my pedals with stealth. But now I know that he is merely taking a tally of “heads”; for periodically he must page 23 count the passengers for the purpose of ascertaining the average accommodation needed—so many people, so many tons; so much feight, so much weight. He knows the weight of carriages, wagons and van, and, armed with this information, he arrives at the aggregate tonnage of the train; for certain sections of the track include inclines or “banks,” as raiwaymen call them, which will allow an engine to haul only a specified weight. Consequently it falls to the “man behind” to keep a tally of the tonnage behind the locomotive. Correctly speaking, the “man behind” is the “man all over,” because he spends more time all over the train than he does at the end of it.

In Loco Parentis.

With the end of his small green flag (furled “pro tem”) peeping out of his breast pocket, with his silverbanded hat, his whistle and his air of alertness, the “man behind” epitomises the spirit of “service”; if you take the trouble to look, you will see him here, there and back again—at the door of the van tallying out luggage and goods, on the track at a siding, writing a ticket while he balances with spread feet to the sway of the train, semaphoring the brake test signal, poking his little green flag out of the centre of the train, shrilling his whistle at a wayside station, flitting, hovering—elusive, yet omnipresent. He is the rear-guard, the safeguard and the vanguard of the travelling household known as a train. He is “maitre d'hotel,” tourist agent, family adviser, protector of the weak, director of the strong, announcer of glad tidings concerning the inner man, keeper of the baggage, and guardian, “in loco parentis,” of his temporary family. He keeps his third eye open (for he must have a third eye to see all he sees) to ensure that you don't endanger life and limb by leaning over platform gates; that you don't try to catch trains on the wing, as it were, and that you do not do any of those things which he knows you ought not to do for your own comfort and safety.

The “man behind,” equally with the “man in front,” is the man who sees that you get to where your ticket says you are going, and that you enjoy getting there. Like many of the good things of existence, he is taken more or less for granted but, since riding with him in his cubby-hole, I have found him out. He is no hero—and doesn't pretend to be one—and is essentially human; but he is an efficient and sympathetic human.