Six of the best go off the rails
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.
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.