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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 3 (June 1, 1940)

Nostalgia of the Rail — Whistle With Romance

page 45

Nostalgia of the Rail
Whistle With Romance

Who hasn't discovered the personality of a railway train is cheated of a choice fragment of happiness; has, indeed, failed to share in one of the grandest experiences of life. He to whom a train is at best a rattle of steel and smoke, and at worst a necessary evil, owes himself a great deal.

When he wrote “An Artist in America,” Thomas Hart Benton opened his heart on the subject—and made a host of understanding friends. “To this day,” he says, “I cannot face an oncoming steam train without having itchy thrills run up and down my backbone. The automobile and the airplane have not been able to take away from it its old moving power as an assaulter of space and time. Its whistle is the most nostalgic of sounds to my ear. I never hear a train whistle blow without profound impulsions to change, without wanting to pack up things … and go anywhere.”

All the world loves the lover of a railway engine—that first love of every fortunate boy—and no man in that category is, so far as trains are concerned, more than the little boy that used to be. Bigger days bring bigger engines and longer trains—to the initiated, scarcely related to their predecessors. But the true train-lover knows that at heart they are all the same—the essential soul of the railway never dies, cannot be relegated, is unchanging. The rhythm, the beat, the drive, the very song of the “Ka,” “Kb,” and the “J,” resplendent in their rearing boiler boxes, are essentially the same as those of the old “B,” “Wab,” even the “Fa” and the “F.” They are, of course, all personalities of the one big railway family.

For myself, dearest preference (because it is my first love among all engines) rests with the “Fa” … and if you would be particular to a point, with “Fa” 251 and “Fa” 41. Where they are now I don't know, but I have a notion their days in the south are by no means over. Cheeky, efficient, brave, fussy perhaps, they have pulled their weight—and many a heavy train—in preparing the way for the “Ab's” and their ilk. I've never known an “Fa” to be quite beaten. There is a confidence in its build quite undeniable.

Years ago—well! More than a decade (before the peculiarly depersonalised motor bus took over that particular route)—“Fa” 251 and “Fa” 41 performed a noble service “up the branch,” and always their train comprised car A31 and van F420 with varying rakes of wagons. They are memories now, but how rich only those who shared their fortunes know. There were nights when, coming down the Forks hill in driving rain before a howling winter's gale, they negotiated the treacherous “blue reef” section with cautious success. Nights, too, when the rails were greasy and the load was great, and “Fa” required the aid of a run from the hill to negotiate the last rise to the Downs. It was indeed a rare occasion when they had to split the train.

There were prosperous days, and busy ones, after the Great War, when farmlands yielded their full quota of wheat—and the railway carried it all. Days when “Fa” headed a daylight special with long rakes of fully-loaded L's and La's of grain … times when the
Members of the Railways Department who controlled and operated the Railways Exhibit at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, Wellington, 1939–40.

Members of the Railways Department who controlled and operated the Railways Exhibit at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, Wellington, 1939–40.

shed was stacked to the roof with sacks and the yard hard pressed to accommodate the wagons. Times, too, when sheep populated whole trains of doubledecker J's.

But the summer evenings and early mornings saw “Fa” and her train at their best … I know of nothing more nostalgic than memories of the dignified little train reaching her destination ten miles up the branch punctually at 7.20 p.m., the guard's van fragrant from the raspberry and strawberry cases that had packed it during the day … the single carriage glad to be rested … and “Fa” placidly sleeping with her fires drawn. She must have been an ancestor of the Good Morning Club, for she always greeted the new day after the best traditions. Radiant in her jetblack boiler box and tank, and with her brasswork sparkling in the early sun, she was an engine par excelsis, replete to make nodding acquaintance with the express “Ab's” at the Junction.

The branch is different now; “Fa's” 251 and 41, “F” 420 and “A” 31 are there no longer … neither are the men who worked them … some are off “the job” … some have gone to patrol their last length and grasp their last throttle. Sometimes another engine and another van work a goods train as traffic requires … but to me they are almost as interlopers, for they know not of other days.

But I'm quite content … we who care to remember have still the rich memories of those days before yesterday … and the youngsters of to-day who feed its spell may make friends with this other engine. I hope they discover how nostalgic a whistle can be.