Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011

(Ron Brown, of Hamilton, recalls his days as a Fireman on the steam locomotives which hauled the trains between Paeroa and Waihi during the 1950s.)

A goods train is standing in the Paeroa yard. The engine driver returns to the locomotive after querying a changed crossing order, climbs into the cab and asks me: "Got her hot?" while briefly glancing at the Ab's steam gauge and water level. Three-quarters of a glass and the steam approaching the 180 degree red line, and a fire evenly spread—mainly flat but thicker around the edges of the firebox as we are burning Waikato soft coal.


For those unfamiliar with the steam locomotive footplate that must seem a ridiculous question. The first impression one gets when stepping into the cab is not just the array of controls but the overwhelming heat. It may take months to feel comfortable in a cab, particularly with the older classes of locomotive where one's legs are between the boiler and the cab side. Long sleeves and heavy clothes may be necessary to keep the heat out, not in.

For experienced locomotive men, the locomotives will not be hot until it starts to superheat adequately with a white-hot fire, and a clean funnel, steam wise, until we slog through Waikino or into Waihi some 9-13 miles uphill. The load for an A or Ab with a banker (a second locomotive at the rear pushing) was a mere 240 tons and a L class 290 tons, which was deemed sufficient for the almost mile-long local "rat" hole which was the Karangahake tunnel with its steep 1-in-50 grade and often greasy rails.


"Right away" is given, the guard is aboard, and, first whistling twice, the locomotive starts a steady plod lifting the train onto the yard ladder through crossovers and onto the eastern-most track of the parallel main lines. We now pass the cement works, Mobil and Atlantic oil sidings, over the Puke Road crossing, past the railway station (this building previously the Mackaytown station) and up the grade to the top of the Ohinemuri River stopbank. Coal has been added judiciously (an old rule word!) across the brightest areas of the grate already three or four times in this first mile. From the river (note twin parallel bridges), the track swings in a long left-hand curve on flat ground behind the Paeroa District High school with the train's speed increasing to approximately 30 mph.

Now is the best chance to catch up on any steam lost and operate the Sellars injector pump to top up the water level. After passing Paeroa South Station, Rotokohu Road is crossed and soon the local pa on Te Moananui Flats comes into view. A small grade is encountered with the track now running along the Ohinemuri River and continues to do so almost to Waihi. A gorge area is entered with a series of curves some six chains in radius, resulting in the train's maximum speed of 24 mph being allowed.


The train crew keep a look-out for slips as the area has unstable soil. The fire has been built up as much as the soft coal permits without smothering it, steam pressure is maintained, and water added as the undulation permits. The grades from Paeroa South have been level, then an upgrade of 1-in-82, then a 1-in-104 down grade, level at Mackaytown, then alongside the river the upgrade is 1-in-110. At this point, on a left-hand curve, a white post marking a historic level crossing comes into view on the right-hand side. From this point the climb to the tunnel begins in earnest.

The fireman now has to build up the heaviest fire that the grate can handle as the train climbs up to the "Hake" yard, which is straight and level. By this time the train is probably doing some 20 mph, with the aim to increase the speed to 25 mph or more to maintain speed on the large curve and the bridge before entering the tunnel. One may add another light fire knowing that the black smoke will clear before the train reaches the tunnel. Before entering the tunnel the injectors are turned off and one hopes for a smooth climb, no slipping, and enough steam to clear the tunnel before the grate or the steam pressure demands more coal.

As an aside Karangahake was a holiday switch-out station and had a water tank and co-acting home signal at the south end.


In the tunnel the heat, steam and smoke were all encompassing and the exhaust noise reaches a crescendo. Despite the locomotive's 32 volt electric light system there is no forward visibility with the steam, brake and water gauges mostly visible though the steam and fog.

Taneatua Express leaves the Karangahake railway station

The Taneatua Express leaves the Karangahake railway station and about to enter the Karangahake tunnel.

"Rat-hole" Tested the Train Crew
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011
Taneatua Express leaves the Karangahake railway station

In the Karangahake tunnel, the engine crews had to put damp cotton waste to their faces to breathe, unless they were issued with World War Two gas masks. These masks were issued to Paeroa-based locomotive crews that were involved in banker duties and should they do so, they would be limited to three trips through the tunnel each shift.

Clearances in the tunnel were close with the roof being 24 inches above the top of the funnel and the brick walls were 12 inches beyond the cab handrail. As the train progressed through the tunnel, the driver needs to control any potential slip by easing the regulator open and applying a minimum of sand.

After what appears to be an eternity of sauna-type heat, thunderous exhaust on the almost one mile of 1-in-50 upgrade, the tunnel is cleared and the train bursts out on the bridge above the river into the Karangahake Gorge proper, with a towering wall of rotten rock on one side and a drop into the river on the other. At this point the track is level and the train comes alongside the tunnel relief siding at the five miles 40 chains mark from Paeroa.


Should the train have been banked at the rear with a second locomotive working, the banker would be uncoupled at this point. For working through the Karangahake Tunnel the banker would have to be fully coupled, including Westinghouse brakes. The guard uncouples the banker and gives "right away", with his signal being acknowledged by the banker and then a whistle from the leading locomotive as the train stretches around curves and into a cutting, there being no straight line visibility.

The uncoupled banker assists with the restarting the train, with a good push being appreciated by a train worked by A or Ab class locomotive. Caution was required, especially with the tight curves, because buffer locking could be embarrassing.


It is now a seven-mile steady climb to Waihi and the fireman must concentrate on maintaining a good head of steam in the boiler. Initially the grade was 1-in-380, then 1-in-200 and the last mile into Waihi was 1-in-70. The boiler water level should be one or two inches at best, the fire evenly spread across the grate, a good head of steam and the Sellars injector kept on as much as possible. The firemen's seat was largely surplus as appropriate firing, whether light or heavy, had to produce black smoke, and as soon as the exhaust changed to grey another charge of coal is required. By the time Waikino was reached the boiler would be hot as was the fireman.

Leaving the tunnel siding the track was relatively flat but the series of six-, eight- and nine-chain curves means a speed of 25 mph to Owharoa, and 30 mph to the Waihi goldmine battery siding 20 chains short of the Waikino Station. Before 1952, coal was delivered to the goldmine siding for transfer to the Martha mine by the mining company's two-foot nine-inch gauge railway with steam locomotives. After the Martha closed in 1952 the same siding only loaded out scrap, probably destined for Japan.

Originally the train would stop at Waikino to pick up passengers for Waihi (mainly workers and school children) and it was a bit of a drag restarting on the curve. Fifteen chains past the station, and immediately before bridge 8 was a siding to a quarry that supplied slab stone to railways, particularly for bridge abutments. The quarry had a five-ton hand crane.

Crossing the Waitekauri River the track climbed steadily at 1-in-150 to 1-in-70 grade parallel to the main highway and river, passing Queen's Head (which is a good likeness of Queen Victoria). The line crossed the highway by means of an over-bridge at Snake Hill, which was a continuous climb of three miles.


Ab steam locomotives were extensively used

The Ab steam locomotives were extensively used on the Paeroa-Tauranga section of the East Coast main trunk line from 1940 into the 1950s. They were replaced by diesel-electric powered locomotives in the early 1960s.

"Rat-hole" Tested the Train Crew
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011
Ab steam locomotives were extensively used
Now came the challenge. The water level in the boiler with the regulator wide open would be, perhaps, three inches, which was enough to reach home signal at Waihi. If the regulator was shut on entering Waihi yards the water level would drop to the bottom of the glass or lower, and on applying the brake may drop too low for the fusible plugs. It was better to stop on the grade, but this did not help the fireman's reputation, nor would the driver be impressed to receive a blister ("Please explain") in the next day's mail.

There would be no excuses for such a failure with an Ab or J, but Ww or Bb locomotives were certainly a challenge. Fortunately by the 1950s the latter two classes were either relegated to shunting services or employed on the Thames branch. It was better to use the second injector to ensure there was a good supply of water for the boiler, but this could also result in a drop in the amount of steam available.

It was best to enter Waihi yard slowly and ease to a stop. Waihi yard was on a level and so the water level in the boiler could become very low. One of the first jobs for the fireman was to fill the boiler with water, then get up steam for the journey to Katikati, and after any shunting was carried out, to ensure that the tender was topped up with water from the water vat.

It was always a sense of relief to reach Waihi, for the track between Paeroa and Waihi was a tough section.