Saturday, 10 July 2010

Early Years of the Weka Pass Railway – Part 4 : Trackwork

This article is written about how much of the track maintenance and construction work was performed in the early years of the Weka Pass Railway. As you might imagine, track repair is fairly heavy work, due to the materials involved, especially rails which individually can weigh a ton or more, and to the need for very strong construction of a track which has to support in turn a weight of tens of tons over one panel length (typically the old imperial length of 42 feet in New Zealand). Hence, methods of track construction such as those described, involving mainly hand tools, were fairly primitive at the time, and often required a lot of heavy manual effort and perhaps a large number of people to achieve. More tools were purchased as time went on and some of the work became easier, especially when the 10 ton diesel crane arrived on the scene. The original article has been revised for this posting. 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.

In 1985, the Weka Pass Railway’s only locomotives were two large DG diesel-electrics, and as the costs of operating these were high, they were not commonly used for work trains except when ballasting or carrying large quantities of materials to sites. The typical work party of the time travelled to sites by motor trolley. At this time most of the Railway operations were based from McCaskey's Crossing in McKenzies Road, about 1 km up the track from the junction. Passenger trains were operated from there, the locomotives and rolling stock were stored on the line at this location, and the trolley shed and tool shed were located nearby.
For the general work of replacing sleepers, the work party and materials travelled to the site by motor trolley. A number of trolleys were coupled together with flat-top trailers to carry equipment and materials such as sleepers and track fastenings. Equipment was loaded onto the trolleys from the tool shed each morning and unloaded at the end of each day, together with returned materials, before the trolleys and trailers were offtracked. On arrival at the work site, the trolleys were offtracked or derailed, and equipment and materials were unloaded. The entire day’s work, including breaks, was carried out in the open air with no protection from the elements.
The mechanised equipment available at the time consisted of a portable generator and electric drill for sleepers. Firstly, the gang began the task of removing the old sleepers, which was achieved by removing the fastenings and then trenching the ballast alongside the sleeper, moving the sleeper into the trench (typically with a sledgehammer) and then sliding the sleeper out of the track (typically with a pick). The sleeper bed was then dug out in a similar manner and the replacement sleeper moved into position. With the aid of a crowbar to lift each end firmly against the rails, the sleeper was drilled and then fastened with screwspikes using T-bar spanners turned by hand, usually two people would turn each T-bar due to the force required to tighten the screws. Ballast was then spade packed (rammed) under the sleepers, a physically arduous and slow task. At the time the replacement of 30 sleepers was considered a good achievement for the gang in a day's work.
Occasionally the DG locomotives were run up the line for ballasting ploughing and other purposes – the Railway had a few YB wagons in its rolling stock collection - and on one occasion in November 1985 one of the locomotives was used to provide an air supply for mechanised track tools which were hired from NZR. Obviously this was rather an expensive way of operating such equipment, and so in 1986 the Railway purchased a Broomwade air compressor from the NZR. A special compressor trolley enabled it to be coupled in with the motor trolleys. The compressor was powered by a petrol engine which had to be cranked by hand, but once operating it enabled the sleepers to be drilled, fastened and tamped using air tools, a big advance at the time. After some years of hard work it was replaced by a diesel powered compressor with an electric start, which was mounted on a specially modified flat-top trolley. At other times the railway had the use of some hydraulic tools known as “Prolines” which were borrowed from the NZR. A Plasser tamper-liner track machine was purchased second hand from the NZR in an auction. It needed a lot of work to get it running and for maintenance thereafter. The few times that it worked were reasonably worthwhile. However the huge burden of continual repairs needed made it too much of a liability for the society to continue to operate it, and after sitting disused for several years outside the workshop it was cut up for scrap.
Locomotive haulage for most work trains became standard practice in 1987 when the Z class work wagon, providing for the storage and transport of materials and equipment, and transport and lunchroom facilities for members out of the weather, was purchased. Work trains in addition to this wagon and a DG locomotive on the rear usually included a UB class flatdeck wagon to carry sleepers and track fittings, plus ballast wagons if required. The air compressors were typically transported on their own wagons at the head of the train for safety reasons. Trolleys were still used occasionally after this date for smaller work parties. The 10 ton diesel crane was used quite often to lift track panels when it arrived at the site. But before then, a lot of new track was laid by hand with the rails being moved into position by many people’s hands, and lined up manually with crowbars. Much of the earlier trackwork around and inside the original engine shed, and the loop at Glenmark station, was laid in this way. As time went on, hired excavators were used to lift track as panels, as happened at the Whistle Board cutting in 1991. The crane was used to lift in a lot of pre-assembled track panels at the Waikari station development up to 1999, some of which was most probably recovered tracksets from the mothballed line beyond that location.
Members travelling to Waipara to join the work gangs often pooled their cars at Christchurch for the 60 km journey north. The General Manager's car, firstly an Austin 1100 or 1300 which passed through the hands of several WPR members, and later a Mazda B1600 utility, was often overworked carrying a full load of passengers and also towing trailers loaded with equipment to Waipara. The GM was a very active member of the society who was often at Waipara on both days of the weekend and even his days off, for many years. Due to the location of the line far from the road in places, it was essential that members reached Waipara before the work train pulled out for the day. If not, they had to travel by another trolley or inspection car to the site, work in the yard instead, or if the worksite was reasonably close to the road, they could drive up. From time to time a work party operated on the same day as a regular passenger train ran which if meant that provision if necessary had to be made for the train to pass through the site where works were being carried out at reduced speed.
Track Recovery
When the Weka Pass Railway was established it purchased the entire 29.5 km of line from Waipara all the way to the south bank of the Hurunui River. I presume that the reason that more track was not purchased was, among other things, the poor condition of the Hurunui Bridge, which was probably still standing at that time. The early plans for the Railway included the option of constructing a link track from Medbury to the Hurunui Hotel alongside State Highway 7. This would have entailed construction alongside Medbury Road for several km through mostly flat country. The main obstacle to operations beyond Waikari was the removal in 1980 of the level crossing of State Highway 7 by the Roads Board. Permission to reinstate this was refused. A box culvert under the road as Glenbrook Vintage Railway had (apparently) done on its line was the only real way of crossing the road but was considered to be too expensive.
With the realities of the division at Waikari and the difficulty of maintaining even 13 km of track becoming apparent the first decision to lift track was made in 1985. A party of members travelled to Hawarden and dug up the backshunt. This effort was said at the time to be not especially rewarding in terms of the quality of the materials that were recovered. In March 1986 it was decided to recover the track beyond Medbury on the grounds that the sleepers were in very good condition and that this section of line would not be needed should it ever be possible to run to Hurunui Hotel in the future. The winter of 1986 was extremely wet and the resources of the Society were spread over an increasing number of projects. The line had to be closed to passenger services because of the damage caused by the weather and it became obvious that far more major works would be needed to reopen it. It was therefore recommended to members that all of the line beyond Waikari be lifted. This was not a unanimous decision when taken in 1988 but has proven in time to be the correct choice.
As the line was divided at Waikari and Hawarden where the level crossings had been removed in several places, and as the society also did not possess sufficient equipment for rail-based recovery, all of the track was dismantled by hand and the recovered materials were transported by road. The dismantling was a backbreaking manual task. Most of this track was dogspiked and these spikes had to be removed using heavy crowbars. Screw spikes were typically used at joints and were removed using T-bar spanners. Not all fishplate joints were broken, allowing a number of rail lengths to be dragged along the formation with a tractor. In other places, however, individual rails were hand barred off the sleepers after the fishbolts were unfastened using the appropriate spanners or gas cutting gear. The sleepers were then dug out of the formation using picks, or lifted by tractor forks, and were then transported along the formation by the tractor. Track fittings were collected by hand into drums that were later lifted by the tractor.
All materials were taken to the nearest road crossing to be loaded onto trucks for transport back to Waipara, or sold from the nearest station yard. Given the hard physical labour involved it is not surprising that it took four years to complete this task. Most of the work parties that I participated in during this time for track lifting were not well attended, as often there would also be work on other activities at Waipara at the same time. On occasion however combined work parties saw a good turnout, and at least one work week was dedicated to this activity. Occasionally the air compressor and tools were transported by road to a particular site to enable the mechanical removal of fishbolts and screwspikes, and trucks with Hiab hoists would be used to load quantities of sleepers at one time, but most of the time it was as I have described.
There were a number of bridges of various types between Waikari and the Hurunui River; a total of 12. Most of these were dismantled by the Weka Pass Railway as the work progressed. However Bridge No. 13 across the Waitohi River was left in place due to its size after the rails and sleepers were removed. The bridge beams were finally lifted by Tranz Rail Ltd in 1996 to be used in reconstruction of a bridge on the Midland Line (possibly at Cronadun). Les Dew states in his history of the line (The Great Northern) that the piles were removed from the Waitohi riverbed but I presume that this could not have been undertaken until after 1996, if at all, so I am not clear on whether the piles were removed in all cases, particularly with the smaller bridges. In the cases of the smaller bridges north of the Hurunui River the piles were not always removed by the contractors who dismantled the line. On Google Earth today pile remnants are still visible at the Waitohi River.
The recovery process took place in three stages corresponding to three decisions that were made by the Railway's members at special meetings. In March 1986 the lifting of track beyond Medbury was approved. Work began on this in May of that year and was completed in August 1987. In November 1986 a decision was made to remove the track between Hawarden and Medbury. The backshunt at Hawarden had already been lifted in 1985. Work started in this section towards the end of 1987 and was completed in mid-1991. Finally in October 1988 the Railway decided to remove everything beyond the Waikari road crossing. Again this was completed in mid-1991 when the track in the Waikari yard was lifted. Whilst the latter two dates were the same, this reflects the fact that the removal process was somewhat piecemeal rather than sequential by milepeg. Logistics contributing to this were mainly connected with access difficulties along the formation and availability of additional machinery and vehicles to retrieve recovered materials.
The later lifting decisions (the ones that involved the track south of Medbury) were drawn out processes as the Railway was then seen to be abandoning the premises on which it had been set up and betraying to some extent the foresight and vision of the early members. The Railway may have even lost a few members over it. However the full restoration of the line to Waikari took until 1999 to achieve. That process would not have been possible without being able to recover track materials from the closed section to reuse in the Weka Pass line. At the same time, the sale of some of the sleepers and rails that were recovered raised valuable funds to help pay for restoration work and the purchase price of the entire 30 km of track that required a loan to buy. The track in the closed section was also deteriorating every year it was left in the ground and this represented a considerable expense to the Railway in terms of depreciating value and appreciating replacement cost. There was also the question of doubtful financial returns from running trains over the closed section given its relative lack of appeal to the public, not being as scenic as the Weka Pass is. In the end I like so many others involved there at the time remain convinced that this was the best decision and it remains as such, even though as railfans we might still dream nostalgically of trains running through Waikari, Hawarden and Medbury to the Hurunui Hotel.