Saturday, 10 July 2010

Early Years of the Weka Pass Railway – Part 3 : Personal Reminiscences

This text appeared originally as a linked article from the introductory page. It has been edited in this most recent republication due to the fact that it is a personal memoir. Please note that this blog is a personal journal and does not purport to be officially representative of the Weka Pass Railway in any way.

The first opportunity that I had to travel on the Weka Pass Railway occurred in April 1985 during the Easter Weekend train running, when passenger trains were operated from McKenzies Road in Waipara over three days of the holiday weekend. With my parents and other family members we went up to Waipara to ride the 2 pm passenger train on the afternoon of Easter Sunday. The train was hauled by DG 2468 with DG 2232 on the downhill end, which was necessary at this time because there were no run-around facilities on the line. The train was operated as far as Herbert's Crossing at around 10 km, as the track was not opened to Waikari at the time, due to major works that were being undertaken near the terminus. However, a “train” consisting of the Wickham inspection car and motor trolleys was available from this point running nearly all the way to the end of the line.

About six weeks later I had an opportunity to attend my first work party. We travelled north from Christchurch by car early on the morning of Saturday 18th May, 1985. It was a cold frosty morning and we arrived to the sight of the DG locomotives performing as they typically did in such conditions: with a lot of noise and voluminous clouds of blue smoke. Basically when the locomotive’s engine was cold, it would run quite roughly for some minutes until it warmed up. Waipara is a place that can get very cold in winter, with hard frosts and occasionally snow, and the design limitations of English Electric diesel engines at this time made it very hard to start the engines in such conditions (see this post for some sample videos from the UK).

The locomotives and carriages were taken down to the Waipara yard to be turned on the NZR triangle. After some shunting had been carried out, the work train consisting of a loaded ballast wagon, flatdeck wagon with weedspraying equipment and DG locomotive headed off up the track. Whilst the finer points of the operation have eluded me I do recall:

  • Running over detonators as the train left the work depot. A member who used these in the course of NZR employment insisted that this was necessary "to use up old stock".

  • The train reaching Waikari at the road crossing, which was one of the earliest occasions on which it had been possible to do this.

  • Ballasting at "Timpendean" where fill had been cleared off the formation.

  • Spraying weeds all the way from Waikari back to Waipara. Water was pumped from the creek at the No.1 bridge to fill the tanks. A member who lived at Waipara managed to fall into the creek during this operation and had to drive home to change his clothes. The weedspraying at a slow speed took up much of the afternoon. With other operations such as offloading sleepers at work sites, we finally returned to the depot after darkness had fallen, aided only by the headlight of the locomotive. Due to the cold I was riding in the locomotive cab by this time along with other members and the train was being shunted by torchlight.

I worked regularly on the Railway, mostly on Sundays, from that time until late 1991. The early work trains are described in another article. The first tasks we carried out were general track repairs which enabled the line to be opened to Waikari by December 1985. In November 1985 we also removed the telegraph wires above Waikari due to thefts which had occurred at that time. In 1986 the Railway began developing the depot site at Waipara and the station site at Glenmark. Both required a considerable amount of trackwork including the installation of points and sidings. 1986 was also the year in which the backshunt at Hawarden was lifted by some members. I was not present when this occurred but it was found to be a time consuming and not especially worthwhile activity, in terms of the effort involved and the quality of the track materials which were recovered.

It was in 1986 also that there was a heavy rainfall and the track was affected to the extent that passenger services were suspended for a time. The weather also delayed the movement of the Mina station onto its new foundations at Glenmark until ground conditions allowed the foundations to be constructed. The decision was taken to recover the line beyond Waikari, an outcome that divided the membership, but that in time was seen as the right choice. In May 1986 with other members I travelled to Medbury to begin recovering the line at 29.5 km, the northernmost extremity of the Weka Pass Railway. Track recoveries continued until August 1987 when, with the work entering the Medbury yard, trolley rides were offered to the public from the Hawarden yard, across the long Waitohi River bridge to Medbury. There was, however, no equivalent set of trips between Waikari and Hawarden when the track was lifted back to the latter station. The removal work was a major activity of the railway until 1991 when the last track was recovered at Waikari. It was very hard manual labour as described in the trackwork article.

I attended only one work week, in May 1991, when there was a major track rehabilitation project in the "Whistle Board" cutting which involved removing the track, earthworks in the cutting, and replacing the track. We stayed in the Social Hall which was fitted out with beds, and were joined during parts of the week by other members travelling up for the day. Sleep tended to be disturbed by NZR trains passing on the main line a hundred metres away. It was during this week that a major failure occurred at the Islington substation near Christchurch which also cut power to parts of North Canterbury and we were left in darkness at Waipara for several hours one evening.

From October 1991 I was unavailable for working at Waipara and allowed my membership of the Railway to lapse the following year. Since then I have attended the 1999 and 2001 Waipara Vintage Festivals and continue to take a passing interest in the activities of the Weka Pass Railway, although not as a member. In 1986 I had the opportunity to travel the entire length of the Waiau Branch by road with a friend and took photographs of many accessible features of the line as they existed at that point, some three years after the track had been lifted. This has been documented on the old Railways of New Zealand website and will be republished as a future series of postings on this blog.

Looking back now, the involvement that I had in the Railway was an important part of my life. I was young and had limited socialisation opportunities up to that time. The days that I spent working at Waipara made an important contribution to my life over that period. Moreover, it was the attitude of the members including those in office which made a difference compared to other groups I was also involved in. The General Manager of the time, who I believe is still in that role 20 years later, obviously had the necessary skills of management of "human resources" that were necessary in all organisations making use of volunteer resources, to motivate people to keep coming back week after week, year after year.

In summary, the whole attitude of the Railway organisation showed a degree of professionalism that was lacking elsewhere. That atmosphere contributed greatly to the working environment, and today it is still important for an organisation such as the WPR to produce such an atmosphere as members will buy into it and increase their own contributions to match. The achievements of the Railway are in no small part due to the creation of this atmosphere through policy and actions. Because of this the Weka Pass Railway is the best railway preservation society in Canterbury, and its members can be justly proud of this. The society has continued to endure challenges but remains in operation which is a credible record all round.