Topic: The last of the electrics

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The engineering wonders of the Midland line have become folklore in Canterbury and Westland, but last year, with no ceremony and little publicity, one of them passed quietly into history.

The engineering wonders of the Midland line have become folklore in Canterbury and Westland, but last year, with no ceremony and little publicity, one of them passed quietly into history. JOE PICKERING reports.

It was just 75 years ago - August 4, 1923 - that rail travellers to and from the West Coast could for the first time board a train in Christchurch and get off in Greymouth without having to leave the comfort of their railway carriage seat. No more the perilous coach ride over the pass; now it was five straight miles of darkness under the Southern Alps in what was then the longest tunnel in the southern hemisphere, longest in the British Empire, and seventh longest in the world.

Use of steam meant tunnel journeys could be grimy affairs, but travellers through the Otira Tunnel were to be spared all of that. From the outset, the tunnel section between Arthurs Pass and Otira was electrified, the first part of an electrified system that was planned to run eventually from Jacksons in the west to Springfield in the east. The extensions never happened, but the web of overhead wires that fed power from the coal-fired power station at Otira to the electric locomotives, became a landmark in Arthurs Pass and Otira.

The opening of the tunnel and the inauguration of the electrification - New Zealand's first - was celebrated in typically moist West Coast conditions. After a delay due to an electrical problem in the tunnel, trains arrived at Otira bringing guests and VIPs from both sides of the divide, including the Prime Minister, W. F. Massey. A sense of excitement would occur when the train taking you to the Coast or back again drew in under the wires, for it meant that the first part of the journey was over and that the trip deep into the heart of the Southern Alps where no steam locomotives would venture was about to begin. Only the big rumbling electrics could take your train safely through this alpine underworld.

The first five electric locomotives, supplied by the English Electric Company in 1923 for the tunnel, were purpose-built for the long slow grind up and down the one-in-33 gradient, and used 1500 volts DC. They weighed just 50 tons and produced 680 horsepower - small beside the big diesels that thunder through the region today, but in their time they were the latest in high tech, low-geared and slow, but nuggety and with tons of grunt. They eventually handled tonnages far in excess of what they were designed for.

Officially they were the E class and later the Eo's, but to the locals they were always the "trams". They slogged back and forth day and night for 45 years, and when they retired in 1968, it was the opinion of many that, given the tonnage they moved and the gradient they worked on, these locomotives were, for their horsepower, the hardest worked of any in the world.

As traffic through the tunnel got heavier, it was clear that even these doughty machines could not cope forever, and by the 1960s it was obvious that decisions regarding their future would have to be made soon. To scrap the electrification and let the diesels that had now almost ousted steam locomotives from the railway system haul the trains right through, or buy new electrics? That was the question.

In the event, five new locomotives were built for Otira by Toshiba in Japan and the old ones - except No. 3 now preserved in full running order at Ferrymead Historic Park - were cut up for scrap.

The new "trams" turned out to be very reliable and rode, as one driver put it, like Rolls-Royces. They were to give the electrification a further 29 years of life. The proud record of the electrics was not  without blemish. The steep gradient of the Otira Tunnel and its western approaches presented
problems. Runaways were not unknown.

One embarrassing incident happened just before the Royal tour in 1954. The Royal train was to take Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh from Greymouth to Christchurch, but days before, three electric locomotives, newly overhauled and painted for the occasion, got away on the downhill run to Otira and finished up in a heap at the end of a runaway siding at the foot of the grade.

The worst incident recorded on the section was the result of a washout on the track when three of the Japanese electrics, climbing out of Otira in
torrential rain in the early hours of May 21, 1980, plunged into the swollen Otira River. The driver, Owen Fitzgerald, unable to escape, drowned in the cab but his mate, Ian Dixon, managed to struggle out through the broken front window. It is an incident that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

In the 1970s as the coal trade with Japan grew, a pair of "Dx" diesels which could manage 4200 kW were used to haul the big coal trains through the tunnel, with the electrics being hooked on in front to provide assistance. Traffic continued to grow, and their ability to assist even in this capacity was reaching its limits. An extra pair of Dx's for the tunnel run was much more tempting. The stumbling block was that in the confines of the tunnel, diesels put out nasty fumes and, if too many are used together, tend to overheat and even to shut down. The engineers worked out an ingenious ventilation system comprising a sliding door at the western portal of the tunnel and a pair of large extractor fans. The idea was that the door would close while a train was in the tunnel, preventing the fumes moving with the train and building up around it, and the extractor fans would suck the fumes out. A design was worked out, and the fate of the electrics was sealed.

They made their final scheduled run on July 16, last year, and the dismantlers moved in to start chopping down the precious copper overhead wire and removing the supports. On November 1, Tranz Rail ran a special train from Christchurch to Otira for enthusiasts and people who had been associated with the electrified section. Two of the electrics met the train at Arthurs Pass, hauled it through the tunnel to Otira and back again to the Pass. It was the last occasion on which an electric locomotive would move under its own power on the Otira Tunnel section.

Source: The Press, Friday, August 14, 1998.

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