The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (January 1, 1934)
A Girl Driving
Illustrations by M. Matthews.
The Loco. Heads were proud of their new engine, the ZY class, which they claimed could climb a moderate grade on half-throttle; what she could do with everything wide open, they never set any limit to; it was a sore point with them that in the steam sheds there was an attitude of conservative criticism which most old drivers adopt, until they are convinced that a new engine is worthy of her steel. Jonah, the greatest sceptic of all the drivers, found many faults with the new engine; and by an odd chance, it was he who demonstrated what capable machines they were. Tom Ellis was his fireman and Tom's girl played a part in the matter, too.
There had been trouble through bush-fires at Frog Junction, the heat had been terriffic, yet by their dogged spirit the railwaymen kept the service going.
On that hot summer day the officials at the Junction were waiting for No. 82, the “fast passenger” from the West. Every moment they expected to have word of her.
The despatcher's office was hushed as Jack Lucas, the chief despatcher bent over his key. At last the message came, flashing through the heat from Red River.
“No. 82 out on time.”
A sigh that was as loud as a cheer in the quiet office came from the lips of the four men. They knew that it would be barely possible to get the train through the fire area in the ranges ere converging fires met, but with the train on time and everything in its favour, they felt that it might be done.
Jonah had been given orders to run as fast as possible within the bounds of safety and they had confidence in Jonah. In two hours he should be at Frog Junction.
The train was next reported from Blue Gully, eight miles away, a bit ahead of time. Between that point and Frog Junction were places where the smoke was suffocating. All carriage windows would be tightly closed, but the enginemen, being regarded as a species of salamander, were expected to breathe in any heat.
Knowing all these things, the four officials—the others were: Fred Rogers (Loco. Foreman), Bill Lane (Assistant Despatcher), and Frank Lampers (the Road Boss)—gave another silent cheer when they heard the chime whistle of No. 5000 ringing up the gorges below. She came into sight on the level piece, rolling with her speed. Everything was set to let No. 82 pass straight through. Entering the station limits she set the switches and frogs squealing under the tread of her heavy wheels, ripping across the steel. The roar of her speed was a tremendous sound passing the engine-sheds which echoed it. A flash of bright metal, a looming engine and she was past, and tearing eastward at 40 miles an hour.
But the four in the office were white-faced and speechless, for they had seen there was no one at the throttle of the giant engine; she was doing the job without a driver's hand to guide her.page 42
They called up Bells and Happy Valley. It was only three miles to Bells, there was scarcely time to stop her there, and from Bells to Happy Valley is a down grade going east, though the distance again is only three miles. They took heart at that thought. Maybe the engine would keep the rails, and she would be stopped at Happy Valley if it were humanly possible or she was not overtaken before, for Fred Rogers was away after a light engine on which to chase the runaway.
The three others waited. Though it was only ten minutes, it seemed hours ere the Morse stuttered, loud as hammer-blows:
“Bells reports No. 82 passed with a girl driving,” said Jack Lucas.
In staccato Morse they swore their disbelief. Bells repeated the news. The train had gone through at regulation speed, with a girl driving.
“Rummiest thing I ever heard of,” Lampers said. “There goes Rogers after her,” he added as a big-wheeled light engine raced through the yards and away up the line. “But he's miles behind her.”
They had told Happy Valley to let the train go through if all was right, no matter who was driving. Anything to get her out of the fire zone.
“No. 82 through, 4–24, all in order, Jonah and Ellis on engine,” Happy Valley reported.
“Well, I'll be blowed,” Bill Lane exploded. “Is the train bewitched?”
Away west of Frog Junction, before the train was heard by the four men in the despatcher's office, No. 500 was thundering along at 35 miles an hour. Though no fires were near her, the dense smoke was acrid, and Jonah had a grim look on his face as he held on. Tom Ellis, with perspiration pouring off his face and arms, was firing. He was grilled to a frazzle. They were putting up a great run, and were praying that they would soon get out of the smoke, when they roared into a cutting.
Telling the story afterwards they said that was all they remembered for some time. The smoke had gassed them, and they fell like logs to the footplate, while No. 5000, with her throttle half open, hammered away at the miles. When the train raced through Frog Junction, the enginemen were stretched on the footplate, and the train was running wild, uphill. But without a fireman's urging, the steam could not keep up. Gradually the speed fell, and when the train was approaching a cottage by the rail-side, a mile out, the engine was labouring heavily. The smoke was not so dense there, and passengers began to think they would soon be out of the fire zone.
Sally Ranson, who was Tom Ellis's girl, was a railwayman's daughter, her father being stationmaster at Blue Valley. She was staying with a married school friend in the cottage beside the tracks, and knowing that Tommy was on No. 5000 she was listening for the sound of the train, ready to wave as he passed. Presently she heard the slow approach of a train, and thought at first that a “goods” had got in ahead of the fast passenger. Something told her, however, that all was not right, and when the mighty 5000 came round the bend and Tommy did not lean out in his accustomed way to greet her, real alarm seized her. She ran to the fence and got through and, as the tall, handsome engine laboured past, every stroke of her pistons a sob, the girl realised that there was trouble somewhere. It was unnatural not to see the enginemen smiling down at her.
Sally was practical. She ran alongside the engine, and seizing the gangway rails, swung herself up to the footplate. The sight of the prostrate men gave her a turn, but only for a moment. She assured herself that they still lived; then she turned her attention to the task of driving the train through the fires to High Summit. One glance at the threatening smoke clouds rushing overhead brought her to this decision.
Often in her younger days, she had fired on engines for fun, when her father, who was on page 43 the office staff, found a friend of the footplate to give her a trip with him. She knew how to throw the coal.
Taking the shovel which lay with Tom's hand still grasping the handle, she dug it into the coal which made a neat heap by the opening from the tender. She turned to open the firedoor and found that the pressure of her foot on a rocking bar in the floor had opened the door. Sally realised that this engine was different from any of those on which she had ridden; it was cleaner, simpler and more comfortable. Being a woman, this cheered her, as though the big engine was helping somehow. She turned the throttle wheel giving her more steam and thrilled to feel the response. Every ounce of coal thrown into the furnace seemed to tell. They roared through Bells at a good speed.
From there, less steam was needed on the down-grade. Sally half closed the throttle and turned her attention to the enginemen. Plenty of cold water was at hand and she was versed in first aid. After they had their lungs filled with air and received generous cold water bathings, both Jonah and Tom took their places on the engine, and they sailed through Happy Valley one minute ahead of time, this being due to high speed downhill while Sally was giving first-aid to the men.
There was a breathless dash through thick smoke ere High Summit was reached, but once there, the danger was over. A cluster of railwaymen greeted the engine crew; they had heard of the surprising trip of the engine that changed her crew at every station, and they wanted to see the girl. Sally smiled happily at them, for Tom was beside her, and she was proud to have helped him. The passengers wondered at the enthusiasm, and then Rogers came in on his light engine a bit late, as he could not get running rights from Happy Valley till the No. 5000 had reached High Summit.
Rogers was puzzled to think that a girl had brought the train through alone.
“I'm sure I did nothing,” Sally said in reply to the steam-shed boss. “It was the engine herself, she is the loveliest thing I have ever seen, even opened her own fire door for me and slid the coal on to the shovel. I believe a baby could drive her.”
And that set hard old Jonah chuckling.
“I've been thinking Tom,” he said to his mate, it's time you and Sally joined up as a crew.”
While sally blushed and Tom looked uncomfortable, Fred Rogers said:
“Anyway, Miss Ranson, I'm going to recommend you for an engine, first chance, and you can hand her over to Tom as soon as the clergyman gives you your running rights.”
And then Sally realised what a wonderful thing she had done for Tom and herself for they could be married on a driver's pay.
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