Topic: A Ride on H204 by Mike Becket

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A Ride on H204 by Mike Beckett was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

As the completion of the Rimutaka tunnel drew near I realised that the busy little Fell engines would soon be a thing of the past. I knew that if I didn't act soon the trip of a lifetime would be lost. 

Fortunately I knew one of the drivers, Norm Carey, quite well. Norm had a 'Stacey Jones' reputation among the railway fraternity. He once ran a Fell engine to the Summit in under 15 minutes. Such exploits did not make him 'Mr. Popularity' with the fitters who had to service his engine, number 204, which, I was told, always required more maintenance than the others.

Norm was a big, ruddy-faced man of Irish descent, seemingly always cheerful and a compulsive swearer. In an age when such words as 'bugger' or 'bloody' were considered to be extremely uncouth and never to be uttered in female company, he unconsciously sprinkled his conversation with them.

I asked Norm what the chances of a ride would be. He assured me that it was no problem and told me to be at the station by 7.30pm a couple of evenings later. He added, with a bit of a grin, "And don't wear clothes that you are particularly fond of."

I was to find out why.

Since 1937 when the considerably quicker railcars took over the passenger services the Fell engines had been confined to hauling freight trains. The trains worked at night with up to four trips being made to haul the freight that had arrived at Cross Creek station during the afternoon. This left the line free for the passenger services and track maintenance gangs during the day, and gave the fitters to service the engines for the next night's toil.

On evening we’d arranged there was the train all ready to go. A foggy sight, with light clouds of steam emitted from numerous parts of the engines and from the couplings between wagons, then rising to mingle with an autumn evening's natural mountain mist. The glimmery yard lights added to the scene a strange and somewhat surreal atmosphere.

I found Norm treating his engine, the second in the train, to some last minute squirts of oil.  Each driver stayed with the same locomotive, knowing its particular idiosyncrasies. Drivers were said to develop a personal relationship with 'their' engine. Indeed, with the little Fell sitting there, steaming, and seemingly keen to get started, it was easy to imagine it as a living object.

The engines were a dull sooty black, both inside and out; whatever you touched rewarded you with a black smudge. The voracious fire gobbled up a ton of coal during the five kilometre trip to the top. The engine had no coal tender. The coal for the trip was simply piled up in the cab, leaving just enough space for the fireman and driver to work.

Norm indicated where I would travel, perched on top of the coal, with the fireman digging it out from under me.

A shrill whistle from the lead engine, which the other three spread along the train replied to, confirming that they were ready - it was time to go! On the final blast Norm pulled one of a pair of large horizontal levers to allow steam to be fed into the pistons driving the four outside wheels.

With slow, long hisses, each followed by a short chuff, the train began to move. This gradually sped up to a staunch huffing, chuffing and clanking, with violent jerks as we crossed points in the yard.

The drivers made the most of the short flat run before the climb began. By the time we reached the gradient we seemed to be rattling and bucking along at a fair old pace. This was about to change.

On arriving at the centre line Norm slid the second control lever across to feed steam to the set of pistons driving the horizontal wheels under the engine. With the two sets of driving wheels being of different diameter the driving pistons were seldom chuffing in unison. In the cab it was obvious that there were two engines within the locomotive each working completely independently. The noise created was incredible rendering normal conversation impossible. Only necessary exchanges were held, brief and shouted.

Norm juggled the two control levers until the engine was pulling to his satisfaction. As a passenger perched somewhat precariously inside the cab, I could feel it tugging staunchly at its 65 ton share of the load.

The track wound up the hill in what was really a series of curves. Being near the front and looking back, I got a great view of the following train with its spaced engines shooting glowing exhaust high into the dark night sky like a never-ending firework. In the book, When Steam was King, an English train enthusiast had described the scene adding that "it was well worth coming twenty thousand miles to see."

The engine had settled down to a steady tugging, rocking motion. The fireman worked hard, continuously tossing coal through the tiny firebox door with his stubby little shovel, expertly spreading it to keep the fire burning evenly across the long grate. I was fascinated. His was surely a Herculean task - he shovelled away and my perch lowered rapidly.

Without warning one of the steady beats became a frenetic chuffing accompanied by the engine bucking violently. One set of driving wheels had lost traction.

Shouting an even stronger oath than usual, Norm grabbed one of the regulator levers, cut off the steam and then gradually reapplied power until all was again working to his satisfaction.

"It's a bastard when that happens in a tunnel," he shouted at me.

I was soon to realise what he meant.

The engine chuffed and snorted along and I had settled down to enjoying the ride when there was a short blast from the lead engine's whistle. Suddenly Norm produced a damp towel from somewhere and thrust it at me, shouting in my ear, "Here, wrap this around your bloody face and get down as low as you can."

Unsure as to what this was all about I did as told - this was clearly not the time for a question and answer session.

Into the first tunnel. The fiery exhaust that had previously been shooting high into the air was now hitting the tunnel roof less than a metre above and raining back down on the engine. Almost immediately the cab was full of choking, sulphurous smoke. At the same time the temperature rocketed up. The exposed skin on my hands began to sting. I could now appreciate the damp towel.

To my relief we exited the tunnel and fresh air rushed into the cab. Wow!

Norm soon destroyed my feeling of wellbeing, shouting in my ear, “The next bugger's worse."

He was not kidding. All too soon the now dreaded whistle sounded from the lead engine. This time I wrapped the towel around me carefully and crouched as low as possible, thankful that my coal pile perch had lowered considerably. We were again swallowed up with a whoosh of air pressure on the ears. Smoke, sulphur and heat once more, and this time it went on and on with the temperature going up and up.

Now even covered skin began to sting. Hotter and hotter, until breathing became like swallowing fire. I held my breath as long as I could but, too soon, another gulp of searing atmosphere was necessary. I was genuinely scared, scared to breathe and scared not to. Dizzy, I put out a hand to steady myself and found the walls of the cab were burning hot.

So this is what Hell is like.

Panic was fairly close as the cab seemed to become yet hotter and hotter. Just as the end seemed nigh, I was grabbed by the collar, pulled across the cab, the towel whipped from my face and my head shoved out into glorious fresh, misty air. Balm to my scorched lungs. I sucked in lungs full of the cool, damp, lifesaving substance. Thank you, Norm!

By now I was a worried lad, well aware that the last tunnel was the longest by a considerable margin. I knew I could not possibly survive longer than I had already experienced. As though reading my thoughts, Norm leaned close to bellow reassuringly in my ear, “The last bugger's not so bad."

Thank goodness for that!

And so it turned out. A short distance into the tunnel a bell activated by the passing wheels clanged loudly announcing the top of the 320 metre climb. Norm throttled back and the train clacked effortlessly along. The ride was comparatively comfortable through the tunnel and we emerged with a rush of fresh air to the Summit marshalling yard.

Returned to the bottom I thanked Norm and, to his amusement, politely declined a ride on the evening’s second trip.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/KUN8-FMKW

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