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

A True Story of the New Zealand Railways

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A True Story of the New Zealand Railways.

Four men were smoking and chatting together in a smoking compartment of the South-bound Limited. As the Express sped on with a rhythmic clank-clank-clank of racing wheels and a comfortable haze of tobacco smoke rose to film the steadily-gleaming lights which studded the roof of the gently swaying carriage, the talk turned on different modes of travel.

“Speed,” said one man, “that's” the world's-objective to-day-to get there with as little waste of time as possible.”

An older man shook his head deprecatingly.

“All very well,” he said, “but ‘Safety First’ is a good slogan. What good is it to arrive at your objective with a broken neck?”

“Oh, if you're a sport you'll risk the broken neck,” returned the other with a reckless laugh. “After all, the percentage of broken necks is small compared with the amount of fast travel to-day.”

“And, broke in a boyish-looking man eagerly, “look at the broken necks or their equivalents which are saved by the speedy means we have to-day of dealing with sick or injured persons-rushing patients to hospitals by fast cars or aeroplanes-or rushing doctors to back-block cases or accidents. Many a life is saved which would have been sacrificed in the old days of slow travel. Even the Limited here doing her so many miles an hour-or the Flying Scotsman or other fast trains couldn't compete in a crisis with a fast, ‘plane or a racing motor.”

“Well, gentlemen,” observed the fourth member of the party, looking up from the book he had been studying; “I've heard your case for the plane and the car, but I'd like to tell you an experience of my own which has left me in debt to the Railway Service for saving a life very dear to me, and incidentally winning me a wife. I am a doctor—”

“Ah,” interrupted the first speaker, “then you must have had rush cases where time was all important.”

The doctor nodded.

“Yes; and the most important of all my cases, from which I was separated by more than a hundred miles of flooded country at an acute crisis for the patient, was won for me by the sheer dogged determination of the New Zealand Railways to surmount all obstacles and keep faith with its patrons.” He paused to fill his pipe, and then proceeded: “It was a good many years back, long before the days of the Limited, when aeroplanes and speed-wagons of all descriptions were yet in the womb of time. I was a young doctor with my first practise in Auckland, and very keen to make good. Doing well, too, in my chosen field of surgery-for skilled operators were not as numerous then as now. In my eagerness I rather over-did things, and finding myself a bit nervy, which a man in my profession can never afford, I prescribed myself a holiday and decided to go to Rotorua for a spell Only one important case was looming, an operation on a young girl in whom,” he smiled thoughtfully, “I don't mind confessing, I was beginning to feel a more than professional interest.”

“Lucky dogs, you medicos,” laughed the boyish-looking man; and the doctor continued:

“The operation was not due for a month or so, as I had placed the girl in a nursing home for rest and attention first. It was as much for her sake as my own I had decided on the holiday, feeling that I must be absolutely fit before tackling a job which might mean the destruction of my own happiness as well as grave risk to the patient, should I bungle through weariness or overstrained nerves. I left her in good hands, and though she tried to be brave I could not forget the clinging of her hands and her earnest entreaties that I should not fail her, but be back in time to help her through her ordeal.”

“Back? Of course I shall be back,“’ I said rallyingly. “'If I'm alive, with the full use of my wits and my limbs, I'll be back long before your operation is due. Nothing less than the loss of those essentials can stop me,’ I added, with a re-assuring smile, which she bravely tried to return.”

”'Oh,” she whispered, “'I could never face it if you were not here. I rely on you-absolutely.“'

And with these words ringing in my ears I left her, little dreaming of the page 29 difficulties and delays ahead of me before I should see her again. I'd only been a week at Rotorua when the worst spell of bad weather I've ever known in a New Zealand summer struck us. Day after day rain poured down in an unceasing deluge. In a short time creeks became rivers, paddocks were swamps, the roads were quagmires. All road traffic stopped, supplies could not reach the town, and so many wash-outs occurred on the railways that the train service was suspended. Miles of lines were under water, for the great Waikato in an ugly mood does not do things by halves. I was uneasy, but I reflected that there was still a margin of time before my patient's operation, and the weather must surely clear soon.

“To make matters worse, all telegraphic communication was cut off for a time owing to gales which accompanied the floods, and when at last I received a delayed telegram it was an urgent request to return, the patient having developed alarming symptoms and refusing to be operated upon by any other surgeon. How I cursed my luck at being shut up in this rain-swept town, and the impulse which had sent me away from my patient when she most needed me. My thoughts were bitter as I walked moodily about the puddled roadways and watched the soaking green herbage crouch and shiver under the blustering wet wind. I haunted the railway station and sent off wires to the authorities arguing the urgency of my case and the necessity to make an attempt to get through. The crisis of my patient's illness was rapidly approaching, and though I wired urging her to submit her case to another surgeon my heart sank with foreboding. I had studied her case so closely and knew all its complications as no one else could possibly know them, and I also knew her absolute dependence on me, and every doctor knows how much the personal equation counts.

“With these words ringing in my ears I left her.”

“With these words ringing in my ears I left her.”

“A thousand times I seemed to see her imploring, tear-wet eyes, and hear her say with a tremble in her tones, ‘I rely on you-absolutely.’ And like a cock-sure fool I had so jauntily promised her I should not fail her so long as I had my ‘wits and my limbs.’ Well, there was nothing wrong with either of those, I thought bitterly, and yet-she must die because I had failed her after all.

“At last it was decided to attempt to get through the flooded area with an engine and the guard's van only. I was warned it was only a forlorn hope, and a forlorn hope it proved to be, though a very gallant attempt, for the floods were so deep that apart from the dangers of wash-outs the fires might be extinguished by the rising water. So in the grey light of dawn after a dreary night of wind and rain, wet through, chilled to the bone, and filthy with rain and coal-dust, the few who had set out to make the dash returned to the rain-sodden town, to be greeted by the jeers and laughter of those who had prophesied the failure of a foolhardy attempt. I do not easily give up hope, but my spirits were at low ebb. Then a miracle happened. The low-hung curtain of ragged cloud parted, there was a watery gleam of gold along the sky-line, then a strip of pale-blue which widened and widened until the sun burst forth brilliantly. It seemed an omen, and my spirits rose with a bound. Praying that I was not too optimistic, I wired a single word, ‘Coming,’ for well I knew the value of hope in a case like hers.

“The following morning, after twenty-four hours without rain, the second attempt was made to get through, this time a few carriages being attached to the engine. It was a wonderful journey, and under less anxious circumstances I should have thoroughly enjoyed its thrills and hazards. A brilliant morning, not a cloud in the sky, the sunlight glittering on miles of flooded country which looked like a vast and peaceful lake, with the treetops barely visible on its surface.

“We crossed bridges over which water was washing wheel-high, the engine running dead slow, for who knew what snags or obstructions lurked under water or if the piers of the bridges might not have collapsed under the strain of the floods? Cautiously we mounted steep grades, and as cautiously ran down into depressions filled with water, and negotiated spots where wash-outs had been hastily repaired. And I was filled with admiration to think that man with his courage and resource and determination to carry on, could thus outwit the savage caprices of Nature and defeat her on her own ground.

“As we approached the low-lying station of Mercer heads were eagerly stuck out of windows and there were exclamations of half-comic dismay, as the train, running very slowly and sounding her whistle repeatedly, came to a stand-still in several inches of water.

”'Oh, I say,’ groaned the usual wag, ‘it's an Ark we need here, not a railway,’ and a nervous looking girl exclaimed almost tearfully: ‘Isn't it dreadful? What on earth are we all to do?'

”'Trust in God and the railways,’ replied a cheerful little ‘Commercial’ opposite. ‘I've never known ‘em fail yet, and I've travelled on this line often enough.'

”'There, the train's stopped!’ she exclaimed desperately, as with a protesting squeal of brakes the wheels ceased to revolve.

“Certainly the prospect was daunting. For miles around us stretched a shoreless sea, dead calm and glittering in the sun. The waiting-room roofs and big red railway sheds’ corrugated tops were all that could be seen above the water; the roads, the lines, the platforms, the surrounding fields had all disappeared. Just then the wag appeared again and began hauling down his luggage from the rack.

”'Abandon ship and take to the boats -Captain's orders!’ he cried.

“The Railways had found a way out of our difficulties. As it was impossible for the train to proceed, riverlaunches had been hastily requisitioned. A dingy but serviceable little fleet of them was moored at a spot which had been dry land not so many days before.

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“This way to the gondolas!’ cried the irrepressible one. ‘Madam, may I assist you? I am a gondolier-,’ he trolled, shouldering the nervous girl's suitcase as well as his own.

“Our ‘gondolas,’ which we reached by traversing a narrow track along a bank, were neither more nor less than cargo and coal barges used for transport on the river; squat, bluntnosed, broad-beamed craft with coaly floors and plank seats covered with sacks. With great fussing and splashing and churning of mud, and snorting of stumpy little funnels, out of which poured a vomit of thick, black smoke and a swarm of vicious red sparks, our grotesque flotilla got under way. A channel had been marked out, each boat had to follow the immediately preceding one, and so we went on like a flock of ducks waddling in single file to the pond. The last boat in the line was loaded deep with all the heavier articles of luggage.

“Strange sights we saw that day, the roofs and chimneys of submerged houses, the feathery tops of a row of gnarled old trees, telegraph poles with wires so close above us they nearly fouled our funnels, a three-storied boarding-house where the tradesmen in boats were delivering supplies to the inhabitants at a third-floor window, all the rest being under water. For miles we were puffing and wallowing along over buried roads, paddocks and fences; once we collided with a submerged willow grove and became tangled in the branches; we passed many pathetic corpses of farm-yard animals, floating out-houses, and a stack of hay. Ours was the leading boat, and we kept up a constant shrieking of the whistle as a warning to keep to the channel and avoid a wire fence or a floating snag.

“So we snorted, puffed and rolled along in the sunshine down the bosom of the great Waikato, emitting showers of sparks and smuts and trails of sooty smoke. And at long last-incredible sight-we saw a train apparently swimming out to meet us. It whistled to us-a shriek of welcome and encouragement-and then we saw that it was on the line, standing wheeldeep in water. The strangest sight we had seen that day, and the most welcome. With more manoeuvring than an ocean liner coming to berth our quaint vessels splashed and blew and snorted and sidled into position beside the train. A plank was laid from ship to guard's van, and we literally ‘walked the plank’ to safety. The baggage, all safely conveyed, was then stowed, the barges backed away to the sound of three rousing cheers from their late passengers, and a shrill concerted blast from all the whistles. Then, slowly, the wheels of our train began to revolve, sending up a flying spray of river-water as our speed quickened, and at last, with a triumphant hoot, she shook off the clammy embraces of the Waikato and settled into her stride.

“The rest was plain sailing… We arrived in Auckland without any casualty or the loss of a single piece of luggage, and only a few hours after schedule time, a triumph of organisation and resource. So I always say, ‘Well done the Railways!'

“Oh, my patient? Yes, I was in time to perform a most successful operation, and a year later I was again en route to Rotorua-with, my bride.”

The railway bridge (in the foreground) spanning the Tangarakau River on the Stratford Main Trunk Line, North Island, New Zealand.

The railway bridge (in the foreground) spanning the Tangarakau River on the Stratford Main Trunk Line, North Island, New Zealand.

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