Six of the best go off the rails

The Tribune (NZ) - - NEWS - RICHARD MAYS

Driver­less trains and sig­nal-free tracks are the prob­a­ble fu­ture for Kiwi Rail.

That’s con­sen­sus from six train driv­ers who re­tired last month. One of the 65 year-olds, Eric Cairn­cross says hav­ing six driv­ers re­tire at the same time is un­prece­dented.

Be­tween them the ‘ doughty half­dozen’ have ‘clacked’ up just shy of 290 years of ser­vice to New Zealand rail­ways.

‘‘We joined for a life­time ca­reer, but I don’t think en­gi­neers start­ing to­day will be here in 40 years,’’ Pru Bordell says.

The first job Eric re­mem­bers when he be­gan in 1966 was clean­ing RM31, the 1938 Stan­dard rail­car ‘Toko­maru’ then run­ning on the Welling­ton – New Ply­mouth route, and now re­stored at Pahiatua. That sort of work was part of a lengthy ap­pren­tice­ship of nearly seven years be­fore they were able to call them­selves lo­co­mo­tive en­gi­neers.

Phil Wa­gener and Ray Gutschlag trained on steam en­gines, and Bob Ngataierua re­mem­bers there still be­ing steam trains at Palmer­ston North in 1967.

‘‘But within a fort­night of my start­ing here, they were all re­placed by diesel electrics.’’

The tran­si­tion from steam was only one of the many changes they’ve adapted to, and all agree it’s a vastly dif­fer­ent or­gan­i­sa­tion to the one they joined half a cen­tury ago.

‘‘Back then, there were 22,000 rail­ways em­ploy­ees,’’ Phil ex­plains. ‘‘2000 of those were train driv­ers and fire­men – there was a lo­co­mo­tive de­pot ev­ery 80 miles (around 130 kilo­me­tres). Now there are only 4000 em­ploy­ees to­tal, and 400 driv­ers.’’

Then there’s the com­pany’s chang­ing name. In 1981 NZR be­came the New Zealand Rail­ways Cor­po­ra­tion; in 1991 NZ Rail Ltd. It be­came Tranz Rail in 1995, Toll Rail in 2003 and Kiwi Rail in 2008.

Con­tainer­i­sa­tion, the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the Main Trunk, in­tro­duc­tion of the pow­er­ful English Gen­eral Elec­tric lo­cos, stronger cou­plings and buf­fers, longer trains, and the first fe­male driv­ers in the 80s were among other sig­nif­i­cant changes.

Colin Por­te­ous is con­fi­dent rail has a fu­ture. ‘‘New Zealand can’t sur­vive without a rail net­work.’’

But he and his mates say it will still need gov­ern­ment sup­port and in­vest­ment to re­main vi­able.

One thing all agree they won’t miss about the job is shift work – lone op­er­a­tors bul­lock­ing through the dark in sole-charge of a heav­ily-laden night train.

PHOTO: DAVID UNWIN/FAIR­FAX NZ

Lo­co­mo­tive driv­ers Pru Bordell, Phil Wa­gener, Colin Por­te­ous, Eric Cairn­cross, Ray Gutschlag and Bob Ngataierua have all climbed aboard the re­tire­ment train in the same month.

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