Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 29, October 1985
By GUY SPURR
As the 1970's progressed and the Ministry of Works dug deeper into the Kaimai Range, time was beginning to run out on the stretch of railway line officially known as the Paeroa - Apata section of the East Coast Main Trunk. The 8.9 km. Kaimai Tunnel and associated 25 km. deviation would cut 51 km. off the link between the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. Although nothing had been made public, the "writing was on the wall". The "hole in the hill" as it was affectionately known would almost certainly mean the closure of the Paeroa - Apata line. Railway Enthusiasts seemed to be coming "out of the woodwork". At almost every bend, bridge, hill cutting, station or crossing loop gorse was being trampled, cameras focussed and trains photographed. The 19 or so trains each day were closely followed, watched and carefully recorded for posterity.
Inside the dusty, cobwebby Waihi Railway Station on an autumn Wednesday night, the clock ticks on towards 8.00 p.m. Two men sit and talk. One leans back in his chair and stretches his legs. The other sits on a clerk's desk leaning forward. They're both waiting for train No. 391, due in at 8.15 p.m. One waits to pull the signal lever, record the arrival time and fill the engine driver's and guard's teapots. The other waits to look carefully at the locos, wagons, and anything unusual or out of the ordinary that might eventuate. To one it's the beginning of a long, busy night shift away from the fireplace and family. To the other it's a few more daylight minutes of hobby.
The man in the chair puts down his newspaper. "What are you going to do when this is all closed, young fellow?", he starts. "Try to remember", comes the reply. "Getting some good photos, mate?", the former continues. "Yeah, one or two". The man in the chair adjusts himself, attends to one of his socks and checks his wristwatch with the clock and settles back. 391 can faintly be heard climbing Snake Hill. "What are you doing Sunday night?", comes the question. It's answered with a shrug. "Why not come down here and see if you can get a ride on 304? Go through to Morrinsville, then come back up on 319? I'll be on....I'll have a word to the driver for you..." The traffic assistant had 319 to himself that night. I was home explaining the details of a "once in a lifetime" trip to my neighbour and fallow railway enthusiast, Peter Roberton.
Well equipped with cameras, thermos flasks, sandwiches, swandri and quite a few other assorted items absolutely essential for any self respecting rail fan, Peter and I arrived at the Waihi Station at about 4.00 p.m. on Sunday. We hurried inside the office to find out how the trains were running. "Our train" was away from Tauranga and its opposing train, No.303 was away from Morrinsville. They would "cross" at Waihi. Here, the train crews would swap. The Tauranga crew would take charge of 303 and take it on to its destination and the Hamilton crew, 304.
Although not due to depart Waihi until 5.05 p.m., 304 would arrive much earlier. Being Sunday afternoon, meaning no opposing trains or intermediate shunts, 304 would be a "flyer". At about 4.25 p.m. it "spotted". A buzzer sounded and a small light lit up on a panel inside the office at Waihi. It was activated by the train passing over a trip switch at the Waimata crossing loop and indicated to the attendant at Waihi that "Up" train ("Up" meaning travelling towards the Home Terminal, which in this case was Te Rapa) was approaching.
The traffic assistant reset the "spotter" and took a large rather odd shaped key from a hook on the wall, moved out of the office proper into the foyer-cum-general odds and ends room and took a green flag from a rack. We followed him onto the platform where we all stopped and waited. Waimata was about 15 - 20 minutes distance from Waihi, so over the years staff had formulated a foolproof method of knowing just when to start walking from the station building up to the town end of the yards to "switch the points" and give the approaching train the green flag. If you stood on the platform and looked out towards the back of the Waihi N.Z.C.D. Co. Cheese Factory after a wait of perhaps 5 minutes, you could see the approaching train cross the Ford Road level crossing and swing around towards the Creans Road crossing. If you started walking then, you didn't have to wait too long at the points. A small "on the job" practice that was far handier on a wet cold night than a fine day. It worked well so it was always used.
Our train eventually came into sight and we moved up the yard to "let it in". As two opposing trains were to "cross" on a single line of track, one would have to be diverted onto the crossing loop. (In this case, the siding immediately next to the main line in the Waihi Railway yard). The area train controller working from his centrally located office in Hamilton had earlier instructed the traffic assistant at Waihi by telephone that train 304 was to be placed "in the loop". (One reason being that it would arrive first, but more importantly, it was the smaller of the two trains so therefore better able to stop and start more often).
As our train came into view over the Silverton Road level crossing we could see that it was being pulled by two DB class locomotives. (Although both Peter and I already knew that; the distinctive deep aeroplane-like throb as they climbed the short grade approaching Waihi gave their identity away to us). The DB class was a 17-strong fleet of diesel electric locos and were used on the Te Rapa - Tauranga run. Built by General Motors, Canada, their "squarish" shape bore a strong resemblance to the DA class (a common sight on the North Island Main Trunk Line). The tortuous nature of the Paeroa - Apata section, more particularly the Karangahake Gorge and Athenree Bank required reasonably powerful locomotives while the "light rail" used along with certain bridge weight restrictions complicated matters by requiring lighter locos. The DB class weighing 68 tonnes spread over six axles (4 of which were drivers) and rated at 705 Kw. (950 h.p.) were ideal for the job. Two locos "working in multiple", that is coupled and connected so that both were running but operated by one crew, could easily manage up to 1000 tonne trains.
With the points unlocked with the large key and correctly set, the 304 was given the green flag, in lieu of the semaphore signal, indicating the driver that his train would take the loop. After 304 safely entered to the siding the points were re-set in the main line position and locked. The traffic assistant, the guard, the loco crew of the now stopped train, Peter and I all walked to the station. The guard filled his teapot from the "Zip" water heater. The driver and his assistant took their tea from thermos flasks.
Train Control was notified by 'phone of 304's arrival and the authority given to give the approaching 303 the "all clear" signal. Another similar large key was taken out onto the platform and one of two large red painted levers unlocked and pulled down This operated the "Down House" signal, its arm dropping, indicating to an approaching train that it was safe to pass The way would be clear on the main line.
After their "boil up" (railway talk for smoko or tea break), the drivers and guard moved back to their respective ends of the train and awaited the "crossing". 303 eventually arrived and stopped only briefly while the crews changed. After its departure Peter and I waited what we thought a decent time for the Hamilton crew to settle into 304 and then walked up to the idling locos, having a little earlier learnt that our traffic assistant friend wasn't in fact going to speak to the driver for us. Standing outside, alongside the cab looking up and almost shouting to the driver that we were keen local railway enthusiasts, we asked if we could ride through to Morrinsville in the empty cab of the second loco. Our hearts dropped to our shoes when he shook his head and said, no sorry, he did things by the book and that it was more than his job was worth to have riders seen in the back loco. However, he went on, his face breaking into a smile, if we didn't mind standing up we could certainly ride through in the cab with him and his assistant. Needless to say, we almost flew around the loco, up the steps and into the cab in case he changed his mind!
Before we departed the locomotives were uncoupled from the train, run forward, then reversed onto the "shed road" (goods shed siding) and three left off wagons were hooked on. Having completed the required shunting, we were almost ready to go. After coupling the train back together, the traffic assistant went back to the station and, as well as the required key to "let us out" and green flag, he also collected a notebook and very important slip of paper, a document known as a "Safeall".
Several different systems of train running safety operate in New Zealand to ensure that two opposing trains are never on the same section of single line together, thus averting a head-on collision. Unlike the Apata - Waihi section, which was controlled by an all automatic, electrically operated system known as "Single Line Automatic Signalling", the Waihi - Morrinsville section (which we were about to enter) was under the "Tyers No. 7 Electric Train - Tablet" System, a system adopted by the N.Z.R. at the beginning of the century. Each station en-route (Waihi, Paeroa South, Te Aroha, Waitoa, Morrinsville) was a Tablet Station. The driver of every train must carry a tablet for that section, and the "tablet machines" at each end of a section are electrically interlocked so that only one tablet can be issued at a time. It is a foolproof system, the only drawback being that it was rather slow. To streamline things, and cut the number of staff required, trains from midday Saturday to late Sunday ran under "Safeall". This document, dated and timed read, "Safeall No. 304", (or whatever) "Waihi to Morrinsville No. 304 will NOT be signalled at Te Aroha. This does not authorise the engine driver of No. 304 to pass the home signal at Morrinsville in the 'stop' position". This is dictated to the traffic assistant concerned by the Train Control Office. It is then given to the engine driver who signs for it in a notebook.
The loco assistant of our train was soon to complete his final "ticket" so the driver allowed him to take the controls. Having collected our "Safeall", obtained "Guard's Right of Way", (the Guard being the official person in charge of the train) by two way "walkie-talkie" (these radios only recently utilized by the N.Z.R. being on loan from "main trunk" lines for the weekend), sounded the whistle to acknowledge the green flag, the throttle notched up and the brakes released, our train moved forward. We were on our way!
Having bumped our way over the points out on to the main line, we quickly accelerated along a reasonably moderate down-grade. A little further on, the line ran for a distance close to State Highway 2, our driver "notching up" again for the climb up a grade. Soon we sped out onto a high embankment and across S.H. 2 over a high wooden viaduct. Speeding outward from behind "Queen's Head" and her companion rocks, we travelled again alongside and slightly above the main road. Further on we slowed from our 55 k.ph, to a slow 15 k.p.h. to cross a wooden "truss bridge" over the Waitekauri Stream.
As we entered Waikino our driver pointed out where the Waikino Railway Station had once been located. The line crossed the Highway again at Waikino this time by means of a level crossing, road traffic giving way to the flash of blinking red lights and warning bells, these being activated by the train passing over a trip switch on the line several hundred metres previously. The Ohinemuri River was also crossed here for the first time, the next time not being until we negotiated the cuttings and tight curves of the Karangahake Gorge.
Our cab was lashed by gorse and blackberry in the cuttings, our wheel flanges protested loudly against the rails and our breath was taken away by the steep drop to the river on our right hand side. Near the end of the Gorge the line made a right turn shortly before crossing the river by means of a steel truss bridge and entering the Karangahake Tunnel. The tunnel 1070 metres long, with a grade of 1 in 50 climbs from the Paeroa side. Near this the loco assistant indicated toward a narrow scrub covered flat area, explaining that it was the site of a "tunnel relief siding" where, in the days of steam engine motive power trains that were too big and heavy, were divided in half and pulled up through the tunnel, the first half being in the siding while the other half was brought through. After speeding down through the tunnel, we emerged straight onto an impressive "double deck" bridge structure that carried, first the line over S.H. 2 again, then the line and access road across the Ohinemuri River to Karangahake.
Later, as we approached the small station of Paeroa South (opened in 1959 some distance out of the Paeroa town so alleviating the need for "Bay" trains to go into Paeroa in the "cut off" saving several miles) the signal light failed to turn from red to green (being semi-automatic). Our train slowed, then stopped a short distance off the offending fixture. A few swear words were uttered and it was explained to Peter and me that the signals in this area had been "playing up" on occasion lately. After some deliberation we proceeded the last kilometer or so to the small station at reduced speed, "just in case". Although we had our Safeall, it was better to be safe than sorry.
At Paeroa South our driver telephoned Train Control, who assured him that we were the only train on the section and therefore safe, and saying that he would contact the faultman on call to attend to the troublesome light.
The Train Control telephone was situated inside the locked office but could be reached by opening a small door set in the wall. This door was however jammed shut by something inside as the station building had some weeks earlier been badly damaged inside by vandals. Security had thus been increased. Doors, windows, etc. were made sounder and securer and a fair amount of oaths and brute force were needed to gain access to the 'phone.
We made more speed on the long, flat straights between "the South" and Te Aroha, reaching up to 55 kph. in places. With almost total darkness now upon us, Peter and I had to be contented to settle back on the floor. After passing through Te Aroha, we continued to maintain a steady speed out toward Waitoa, where the bright lights of the multi-storey N.Z.C.D.C. Factory blazed out into the night.
Farmland that had been with us since Paeroa South gave way to a few orchards and cornfields silhouetted by the moon as we passed through the Piako area before eventually reaching Morrinsville.
Our driver pulled up at the platform to let us off, joking that it would be a long walk home if we couldn't get back on 319 (idling in the loop, having arrived some time earlier, waiting for the crossing). Telling us that the drivers (who were not in their cab) would be watching T.V. in the station, then wishing us good luck, good photography and all the best, etc., train No. 304 eased off, the rhythm of the wagon wheels rattling over a set of rail joints steadily increasing, and disappeared into the night.
After hesitating for a moment outside the station office, I nervously poked my head in through the door. Five people sat about watching a black and white T.V., placed on a table at one end of the office. One (obviously by his dress a traffic assistant, the thick black jacket and heavy boots giving his identity away) looked around at us.
"Can I see the driver of 319?", I asked. He indicated towards one of the group, whom I recognised by sight. I crossed to him and explained who I was, what I had done and, most importantly asked, "Could we get a ride back to Waihi?".
"Cab's pretty full", he said, "have got my father, -, you'd know Dad, - in with me. He's been staying in Hamilton for the weekend".
It clicked. A name and the face came together. I looked across the room to check. A friendly face winked and grinned back, the "father" of the driver of 319 was the head of track maintenance, "...getting some good photos? Saw you along the track somewhere the other day...", he continued, "cab's full but there's plenty of room in the second engine. Help yourselves. We won't be away for a while yet. We're waiting on some Bay tonnage off a Kinleith - Te Rapa train on its way up - shouldn't be long now. It's through Kereone".
The awaited train eventually turned up, passing on the opposite side of the station to where the waiting train idled. Morrinsville was an "island station", situated between the tracks - East Coast main Trunk on one side, Rotorua branch on the other, both of these forking from the main line from Te Rapa several hundred metres west of the station buildings. The tonnage we were waiting for was "reduced" (taken off) at Lorne Street (a marshalling yard about 500 metres from the actual Morrinsville Station). We had to uplift it from there.
Our driver and his assistant gave us a few instructions - where the light switches were and how to regulate the heater - as we climbed into the rear engine of the pair. Both engines were of the DI class. Supplied by the English Electric Company of Australia in 1966, they weighed 60 tons each and were rated a 1012 h.p. The six axles they were carried on were all driving. Slightly lighter and a little more powerful than the DBs, the DIs were also used extensively on this section of the line. After a bit of general "fussing around", unhooking, running back to Lorne Street, uplifting, the required rake of wagons, hook on again, etc., we eventually got away. The trip back was completely different to the one down. Whereas it was a trip of "sights", the one back was one of "sounds and smells".
A most memorable part of the journey was the gruelling slog "up the tunnel". Our two DIs pulled hard for more than 10 mins., almost at a snail's pace. Fresh air was scarce, the exhaust fumes being very thick, so we were pleased to open the windows - stick our heads out to cool night air, when we were through.
Soon we were back in Waihi, our very memorable journey over.
* * *
Notes and Documents from my own collection.
NZR Locomotives and Railcars 1977: T. A. McGavin N.Z.R.L.S. 1977.
Display of Locomotives and Rolling Stock: N.Z.R. 1963.
Rails: (January 1981) Southern Press.