The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 1 (May 1, 1932.)
The Brains Behind the Brocade — Life of a Stationmaster
Many years ago Mr. Isaacs, a recognised authority upon railway transport, when General Manager of the Great Eastern Railway, said: “Station work is the backbone of the railway system.” The responsibility for the way in which station work is performed lies with the stationmaster.
Auniformed figure in gold braided hat, promenading the station and signalling the departure of successive trains, between which he sits in solitary splendour in his private retreat—that is perhaps the idea that some of the general public hold of the duties and the functions of a railway stationmaster No doubt his existence becomes all the more Arcadian in our eyes through the tendency to look upon the next man's job as more desirable than our own. Actually, with a multiplicity of troubles besetting him, the stationmaster might himself have plenty of reason to sigh for the next man's job.
What causes stationmasters? Well, some of them can be accounted for like Topsy, as having “just growed,” from sound, orthodox beginnings. With others something of the romantic factor has operated, as it operates in every profession that is worth the brain and brawn and devotion of men. Already, in this young country of New Zealand, heredity has worked its magic and has inspired father and son to the service of the iron trail through generations. The master at one railway station in this country to-day comes from two generations of railway-men. His interest (let us whisper it, because it is against all rules and regulations) started at the age of nine years. His uncle was at that time an engine-driver, and that worthy hid his young nephew on board the engine. Out on the open road, the youngster would make his appearance, and find infinite delight in firing the engine, shovelling in the coal with the enthusiasm of a tyro. What finer adventure could there be than feeding fuel to a real engine that responded mischievously and raced away into the sweep of sunlit countryside? The iron trail had already fastened upon the heartstrings of this youngster, and through the next six years his interest quickened rather than abated, so that at the age of fifteen years he joined up with the service as a cadet in a proper and thoroughly respectable manner, burying his irregular boyhood in his memory. His was now page 28 the training that was required of every cadet before at last attaining the rank of stationmaster, nevertheless a thrill shot home to him across his more matter-of-fact years when, thirty years afterwards, he once more encountered the old engine that had given him so much illicit joy in the days of yore.
Well, well, we must have rules and regulations, and the adventures of this boy of the coal tender are not revealed to be emulated. But it shows that men are attracted to the service of the railways by something more than we imagine, and that they become station-masters by an incentive greater than “the sake of a ribboned coat, or a selfish hope.”
The early training of a cadet was particularly exacting when the railways were younger than they are now. He found himself checking the numbers of the cars, assisting the guards, visiting country stations to load fruit, wool and milk. Nowadays, a cadet generally begins his work at a country station, and thus obtains early a thorough insight into all the varied duties that attach to the conduct of a station. Like the professional journalist, he soon comes to know “something about everything and everything about something” connected with his job. Passenger, goods and parcels traffic reveal their secrets to him, and by his contact with the work in all its phases he is able to store up valuable knowledge for later years: a station-master must know from the ground floor up the structure that he controls, either by his own experience or from observation during the course of his duties in his training years.
It is when the cadet is brought to a city station that the varied work to which he has been accustomed is necessarily, because of its greater dimensions, subjected to division and sub-division, and he finds himself in a specialised department. The change gives him perspective, among other things. The extensive system of which he is a cog forms more clearly in his mind, like lines taking shape on a chart. His little country station has been magnified into a dozen busy departments. The rumble of the shunting yards has succeeded the chirp of the birds outside the window. The express trains that roared impatiently past his country station, with a blur of faces at the windows, now come home here to rest. Around this place is the buzz of power.
But he will go into the country again, this rising young cadet, this time to take charge of a station there, to practice what he has learned from that city system, whose hot, quick breath has warmed his heart. The big shunting yards are far away, and the birds are outside his window again. He will come to know Strawberry, the vagrant cow, and chase her off the railway track; he will exchange good-days with Farmer Brown entraining for the wool sales; he will cultivate a garden patch around the station platform, with all the railwayman's traditional love for flowers. He will handle the waybills for the produce of his district—sweet, golden butter and springy wool, to tempt some distant palate and to clothe some foreign skin. He will stamp a ticket for the nervous Widow McGurkinshaw, plumed for a visit to the city to see her son. And his station will resound to the rumble of the trains that come and go with majestic instancy.
But his grip is tightening, and some day it fastens on the chief position at a city railway station.
Threads of Control
Innumerable threads of control meet under the hand of the stationmaster. He has at his disposal a certain number of passenger cars with which to make up his trains, and these have to be so handled as to be used to the best advantage. Each train has its varying passenger requirements, and it is as bad to have too many cars on a train as too few. An unexpected party of footballers filling up the one smoking carriage will at once incense John Citizen, bring the stationmaster page 29 under fire, and often upset all calculations. Eleven cars and one van weigh 310 tons, for instance, and that may be the last ton a steep grade will take without extra engine power. These are some of the factors that a stationmaster has to consider in making up trains.
Another of the stationmaster's many charges is the ticket reservation department. What would you say if two ladies asked that they be given seats facing each other and also the engine? Well, whatever they think, the clerks put their finger in the index sheet, and do the best they can. Reservations are obtainable there for any train at a moment's reference—unless the seats are all gone, and then the clerks are sometimes expected by an anxious public to be able to conjure up more from the blue. (Oh, dear! After all this I have resolved to be a much more reasonable member of the travelling public for 1932.)
A Sherlock Holmes.
Nearby are the ticket-selling windows, behind which are rows of multi-coloured pasteboards, marked “single,” “return” and “child,” numbered successively and strung up like tiny hams These are the open sesames to home and friends and far-away places. Next door the clerks are entering up the waybills for all manner of goods, destined for stations large and small over the rolling miles ahead. At Thorndon station there is a big influx of parcels at 4.45 p.m. daily, intended for the “Limited” Express, in fulfilment of orders received during the day by city firms. page 30 That is when trucks are filled up rapidly and formed into a caravan of tempting offerings that are later poured into the cavernous mouth of the “Limited's” van. Sometimes a parcel goes astray—perhaps a ham, some fruit or other edible goods, at Christmas time—and then the station-master is called upon to exercise the powers of a Sherlock Holmes. And sometimes the problem is anything but elementary, my dear Watson. Losses like this occur in the best of regulated circles, but the percentage is infinitesimal—perhaps one parcel will be lost out of the 10,000 handled each month.
But the schedule duties of a station-master do not end his day. He is often the friend and counsellor of his staff, and even family troubles find settlement in the quiet of his room.
All of which shows there is more to a stationmaster's job than parading in gold brocade and signalling a train's departure.