Steaming past, Murray King

Farewell to Steam — Four decades of change on New Zealand Railways
G B Churchman and Tony Hurst
HarperCollins, $49.95, ISBN 1 86950 187 X

Steam, Steel, and Splendour
Dave Leitch
HarperCollins, $49.95, ISBN 1 86950 141 1

Journeying with Railways in New Zealand
Roy Sinclair
Random House New Zealand, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86941 307 5

The End of the New Zealand Passenger Train
Robert F F Miles
Robert F F Miles, no price given,
ISBN 0 473 03320 8

Train spotting is a much maligned hobby, its practitioners often regarded as being on the slightly outcast, “lunatic”, fringe of society and its books as arcane and esoteric pieces aimed at no wider market than themselves. But Churchman and Hurst in their book (and to a lesser extent Leitch) have gone beyond that and have rather more seriously attempted to chronicle change in rail’s activities. Admittedly, they’ve sought to do this from an aesthetic perspective, as the foreword to Farewell to Steam suggests, but in fact their text and illustrations go far wider.

Not many hobby groups have unconsciously portrayed changes in a wider frame than the one they purportedly study; not many have as public and ubiquitous a subject as trains. But in these books we can look at many trends in our society in a way few other hobby groups enable. Sinclair takes a more anecdotal, human-interest approach, but still records aspects of life around the railway as an important part of rural and other communities and his stories can also be read in the wider context of changing patterns of life.

Of course, these books do record, in a popular sense, the changes in railways. Tony Hurst’s text to Farewell to Steam describes the changes in locomotive power, operations, traffic and organisation in the past 40 years (and particularly in the past 15). He understandably has a nostalgic bias, a yearning for a more romantic era and a tendency to decry the modern railway and its organisation. Leitch and Sinclair are unabashedly romantic. Sinclair’s tales are of life on the past railway, with memories of such things as refreshment rooms, railway crockery, the Nelson and Rimutaka Incline railways and recollections of a number of accidents by those involved. Leitch’s brief text dwells on the experience of riding steam engines, which in turn are the principal subjects of his photographs.

Underlying the changes, however, have been dramatic improvements in productivity that have kept the railway as a vital force in the modern economy, just as important as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, though the way it contributes has changed. With only a fifth of the 1983 staff level, for example, the modern railway has a higher output than then. It has many fewer wagons and they are bigger, faster and carry more. It has strong growth objectives and is a profitable company listed on stock exchanges in New Zealand and the United States. All these books (and no doubt their market) are nostalgic, looking back at the old ways of doing things — especially steam engines. While nostalgia is a positive enough emotion, without such changes there would be no railway here to be emotive about.

The pictorial books, especially Churchman and Hurst’s, do record some modern railway shots. But their strength lies in the comprehensive look at the economy and landscape over the 40 years, as seen through the unifying theme of train photographs. The hardware of the railway has changed, not only locomotives and wagons, but also signals, buildings and other equipment. The personnel and skills and ways of working have also changed. Looking behind these we can see wider themes.

Churchman and Hurst acknowledge this om p11 with a picture of Mangapehi: “Today most of what is in this scene has gone.” Here in microcosm is rural New Zealand of the 1960s: a busy railway station, owing its presence to local extractive industries (and to the legislative monopoly rail then had and lower road standards than today’s); a substantial railway station building, in the state house style of of the 1940s, clearly well used; several passenger trains a day; a substantial settlement, now much reduced, reflecting the bustling saw milling and coal mining activities.

The shots of various branch lines are even more evocative: small tank engines hauling small wagons, with loads of only eight tons (compared to the modern 50-70 tonnes) along with rundown passenger carriages serving small rural communities. These trains and carriages took the role of the bus and road truck of today. Prominent in many of the views are livestock wagons, which have disappeared. The once ubiquitous stockyards (to which stock were usually driven on the hoof) feature. In the decades these books deal with, freezing works were large plants at major towns, usually near ports, and the stock moved to them by rail, with shorter hauls of the frozen meat (as carcasses, manhandled in and out of the wagons) to the ports. Many works today are small plants located out amongst the stock, so hauls of stock can be shorter (although competition between works still brings about longer hauls). The output is in containers, precut and packaged. If anything in Churchman and Hurst’s book is symbolic and indicative of the changes in the economy, it is the change in the composition of the goods trains, as shown by the contrast of the earlier shots with the predominantly container-borne loads in the modern goods trains at the end.

Other industrial archaeology is captured in these pictures: and behind them stories of changing local economies and employment. The KP fertiliser works at Aramoho, for instance, is long closed; it already has a rundown air in a 1960 photo on p39 of Churchman and Hurst. Oamaru’s gasworks figure prominently in a 1966 shot. A trainload of limestone for Dunedin’s former Burnside cement works, little trains from West Coast and Huntly mines and gold tailings in Westland and Central Otago are similar reminders. Sinclair, too, captures some of the variety of old stations and the attempts at preservation. No actual sawmill has crept into shot but their products are on many of the trains.

Tranz Rail’s revenue now is 70% from freight. The pictures and stories in these books show a different world entirely, with many passenger trains — express, local and, that real relic, the mixed train or “with car goods” which provided local public transport over many lines. Partly this reflects enthusiast bias, but in fact in the 1950s and 1960s railways were the main public transport. Miles’s book, deriving from an academic thesis, tries to attribute the asserted demise of the passenger train to political lack of will but in reality improving standard of living, better roads and increasing use of airlines reduced rail’s role as a means of point-to-point travel. The railcars of which Miles bemoans the lack of replacement were the last symbol of the rural and point-to-point travel role of rail. But Miles misses the resurgence of rail as a tourist attraction in its own right, as epitomised by the Tranz Alpine train. Churchman and Hurst and Sinclair do not and the pictures and anecdotes of these modern trains are one of the more striking comparisons in these books.

The railway of 40 years (even 20 years) ago is so different from that of today that, apart from the track, it is barely recognisable. The jobs, tasks and functions are different; the hardware and technology is different — and look it.

This, then, was the protected, government department railway; the railway with over 20,000 staff, the railway that was as much a political lever as a transport mode. In the days covered by all these books long-distance transport had to go by rail, unless permission was given by a special tribunal. “Long-distance” was initially defined as 30 miles, later eased to 40 miles and then 150 kilometres. The Railways Department had numerous staff whose duties were to resist the granting of such permission. The 21,068 staff at 31 March 1982 represented nearly every imaginable skill and trade, for the organisation was highly (and determinedly) vertically integrated and self-sufficient. For example, it had a printing works, photographic section, made its own equipment such as track gauges and had a full range of tradesman to maintain some 3800 houses (and that was down from a peak of 6000;  Tranz Rail now owns almost no houses). Indeed, a recruitment brochure of the times made a feature of the breadth of employment.

The staff is now only some 4600 for what, apart from running buses, is essentially the same core business task, albeit now at higher levels. There were 26,900 wagons in 1982, 77% of them of the out of date, small and slow four-wheel type. Now there are fewer than 7000, only a quarter of them four-wheelers. Freight staff each produced an average 173,000 net tonne kilometres a year in 1982. That had grown to 764,000 by 1996. Much of the traffic dealt with these books existed because of the protection. Certainly much of the branch lines’ traffic did and so did the small locomotives with short trains that carried the traffic — and that make such appealing photographs.

The major impetus for change on the railway system was in fact the abolition of the 150-kilometre rule which represented a challenge for survival of the whole organisation, especially as it was accompanied by tariff reductions on trucks and tyres and other measures which reduced trucking costs. Thus the boards of the New Zealand Railways Corporation and of its successors from 1990, New Zealand Rail Ltd and Tranz Rail Ltd, sought to radically restructure the business to improve efficiency. Board and management looked under every stone. Apart from the major staff reductions, there was substantial investment in new technologies such as computers, radio systems, signalling systems and other mechanisation, elimination of staff housing, reduction in workshops and freight handling places, and new wagons.

The result has been dramatic improvements in labour productivity and use of assets and a profitable company. The result has also been a totally different railway visually — a difference that is well captured by Churchman and Hurst. Trains are longer, stations fewer, branch lines virtually eliminated, semaphore signals replaced by coloured light systems, containers much more numerous, tarpaulins no longer dull black, and fewer, locomotives diesel or electric rather than steam (and no water tanks for them), passenger cars modernised — and the whole livery changed. Even though Leitch’s book does not show the modern railway, it certainly underlines the contrast by its pictures of how it was. And Sinclair draws out a number of contrasts between then and now in his text and photographs.

Both the picture books will be enjoyed by enthusiasts, with the high-quality of the photographs and reproduction – and for the evocative scenes. But Churchman and Hurst deserve a wider audience for their capture of the essence of change. Sinclair may find a different audience for his yarns. Miles records a passing chapter, but not, in hindsight, with particular prescience.

Murray King is corporate manager at Tranz Rail Ltd and a longtime train-spotter 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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