Monday, October 18, 2010

Steam Train, Day (and Night!) Eight: Christchurch to Wellington

Today is a day that I will certainly recall fondly for years to come... and a day that will likely inspire jealousy in my fellow ferroequinologists (yes, Ron, this means you).

It didn’t start to my liking: I had to be up and out of my hostel by 6:20am so I could be at the Copthorne Hotel downtown and meet up with the rest of the group by 6:30, so we could take the tour bus back to the railway station at 6:45, so we could leave at 7:10am (ugh!). The day’s mission: to travel from Christchurch to Picton by rail, and then ultimately on to Wellington on the 6:30 InterIslander ferry.

Ab 663 at Christchurch Station

Oh no, the ground's on fire!

The first stop of the day was at the Weka Pass Railway depot in Waipara to refill the locie’s tank; we were traveling with only the locie’s fuel and water tanks (the extra tanker car behind us was empty), so as a result had to stop for water several times throughout the day. The unexpected bonus was being able to see engine 428 steamed up in the yard, getting ready to go; a cruise ship was coming into Littleton that morning, and the Weka Pass Express was expecting an influx of interested passengers and was doing a special Monday run. This fulfilled a dream of mine to see two steam engines fired up at the same time in the same rail yard... quite a sight. With a little imagination, I could look through the lens of my camera and step back in time to a place where such a sight would have been common.

Ab 663 and the Weka Pass Express (background)
steamed up side by side

Ab 663 at the Weka Pass Depot

A sight that I did see that at one point would *not* have been common in New Zealand’s past was the mountain hills filled with broom and gorse in full flower. For all its trumpeting in tourism promotions, and fame for having a natural, untouched beauty, the landscape of New Zealand is also one of disturbed land. Yes, all those picturesque verdant hills where the sheep may safely graze (due to New Zealand’s lack of any natural predators) are the result of massive clearcutting and burning of the native forests. On many of these cleared hills that have not been turned into farmland or planted with pine trees for the forest industry, the native plants have not returned, but have instead been supplanted by acres and acres of invasive species, such as broom. Certainly Vancouver Island has problems with broom, but the site of these entire mountainsides covered in yellow was enough to make my jaw drop.

Yes, that is an entire mountainside covered in broom.

Ab 663 steams across a viaduct

A journey of a thousand miles begins
with a single rotation of the wheels.

The Pacific Ocean

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as I will explain in a moment), the water pressure was rather weak at our next water stop at at Wharanui, and it took longer than expected to fill the tank. Combined with several delays seeking permission to cross through track crew work sites, we were quickly an hour behind schedule, then two. (I spent the 45 minutes at Wharanui having a quirky conversation with Bob about telephones and telephone systems... he is a retired telephone repairman from England, and we talked about old “click and bang” selector exchanges and different systems of prefixes and area codes in the UK and Canada.) Ultimately, it was decided that the passengers should leave the train just before Seddon and board the tour bus, which would then make a dash for the ferry (the bus being capable of traveling at 100km/hr, significantly faster than the train’s 70km/hr imposed speed limit). The situation was a bit more complicated for Allan, Gary, Jean, John, and myself, who are arranging our own accommodation: there was no room for us on the bus, and as a result we would have to stay on the train and catch the 10:25pm ferry out of Picton instead.

Whitewall tyres!

As it turned out, this was a blessing in disguise... when everyone got off to get on the bus, I hopped up in the cab for a ride, and ended up staying on the locomotive all the way to Picton, including through our final water stop at Seddon. I was up in the cab for almost two hours! It was glorious, riding up front, watching Trevor (the fireman), Ken (the engineer), and Vic (the Mainline Steam representative) keep Ab 663 steaming down the track. Vic, whom I had spoken to before several days earlier, knew I was involved with steam trains in Canada, and promptly invited me to try my hand at firing and driving the locomotive (which wasn’t much, just more of a photo opportunity, but oh, I relished it anyway!!). So I have photos of myself grinning from ear to ear, sitting in the fireman’s and engineer’s seats of Ab 663 as we cruised down the mainline.

Getting friendly with the engine crew

Ab 663 is a 4-6-2 built in 1917 by the New Zealand Railway Workshops in Addington, and was rebuilt at the Maineline Steam workshops in 1997. As part of Ian Welch’s fleet of locomotives, Ab is named “Sharon Lee”, after his youngest daughter. At 86.8 tons, she is the smallest of all the locies we have had pull the train so far, and also the one that reminds me the most of #25 (although she runs at 180psi, 30psi more than Samson). Ab 663's specs and history can be found here.

That's what Samson needs! Labels for the valves!

When I alighted into the cab things immediately looked more familiar (the first most noticeable thing being the throttle extending horizontally rather than vertically like in Ja 1275, Ka 942, and Jb 1236). There were still lots of unfamiliar things: the hydrostatic lubricator for the air compressor mounted in the cab at the front of the boiler was a complicated-looking piece of equipment that kept me intrigued when Vic started to adjust it, and I did notice the steam pressure gauge (definitely not original!) was in kPa as well as psi. The injector was also interesting: in my understanding, Trevor turned a dial to open up the valve for the steam(?), then pulled a handle back to release the steam and inject the water into the boiler.

Vic refills the hydrostatic lubricator

Trevor injecting water into the boiler

Kevin starts us out again after one of our track warrant stops

Despite being so far behind schedule, the train crew was in good spirits; when the other passengers had left to board the bus, Adrian (one of the Mainline Steam volunteers) brought us up four coffees (graciously bringing one up for me; mercifully, it was weak and I was able to drink it), and we gleefully disposed of the cups by stuffing them down the rat hole when we were done... as Trevor said, “think of the environment: we’re conserving oil!”

While this trip is unquestionably exciting and rest assured, I am having a fantastic time, my wardrobe is suffering somewhat... mainly, my green rain coat. This morning when we were at the Weka Pass depot the engineer pulled past me in #428, and I was the lone person perfectly placed to be hit with a spray of hot water and vapor from the stack... he primed right on top of me! Seeing as #428 is a coal-fired locie, I was hit with a delightful spray of hot, sooty water. This situation was only exacerbated during my cab ride... I constantly found myself in the path of smoke and soot, either from the rat hole, or coming in the sides of the cab. This was particularly bad when we went through tunnels, but made up for infinitely by the coolness factor of plunging into darkness and suddenly having everything reduced to the glow of the fire in the rat hole, the headlight shining in front, and the four soft lights in the cab illuminating the pressure and brake gauges and two gauge glasses. I will definitely be doing laundry in Napier!

It's coming out the top, Adrian! That's enough water!

When the train pulled into Picton at 6:30pm I wasn’t sad to leave the cab; rather, I was feeling extremely happy and satisfied: I had had almost two hours riding in the cab of a steam train, on a main line, watching the locomotive crew work to keep things running smoothly, and even getting to blow the whistle at crossings... I was on cloud nine. It was a nearly perfect afternoon.

Ab 663's shadow

New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful sometimes.

Yes, they even have the warnings on the pavement!

This evening Alan, John, Gary, Jean, and myself wandered around downtown Picton, settling on a place (dubiously) named “The Flying Haggis” bar for dinner. I ate, but somewhat apprehensively... we had a three-hour ferry ride ahead of us, and I hadn’t taken too kindly to it the first time. Now we are in the midst of that ferry ride; I am typing this on my computer from the Queen Charlotte lounge at the front of the vessel Arahura, and we have just left the protection of the South Island’s bays and are heading out into the open water between the two islands, where the water is starting to get rougher... and the roughest to come will be when we enter the shallower water of Wellington’s harbour. I am sincerely hoping the ocean swells do not conquer my stomach... we have been at sea for almost an hour now, and still have two to go. Wish me luck... it is going to be 1:30am or so before we get into Wellington, and then we still have to make our way to Downtown Backpackers. Since I got up at 6am, this is proving to be a twenty-hour day... sheesh, I feel like I am back in school pulling an all-nighter!

Thankfully, it was tastier than its name suggests.

The ferry (as seen through a raindrop-lashed window)

My two consolations: a) the hostel is across the street from the railway station, so I can literally roll out of bed and drag myself 500m and be on the train, and b) we don’t leave until 10:35am tomorrow, so I can get at least six hours sleep tonight. Whee!



  1. Your broom observation makes me laugh! (Yes I'm late reading your blog...) My neighbour actually plants broom in her yard as a decoration and I am always puzzled by what she see in it.

  2. I'm flattered you're reading the blog at all. :-) And I agree, who would ever purposely plant broom?!