He seemed uncomfortable as he stood in the cab gangway. Sometimes he absently watched my mate, Jack Regan, handling the controls of the locomotive. But mostly he stared thoughtfully at the edge of the permanent-way running swiftly beside our train; hoping, perhaps, that the rhythmic clicking of the rails or even the crispness of the engine exhaust beat would unravel some mystery for him.
All that Jack and I knew about him was that he was relieving old Fred Hasler, the regular travelling foreman, who was on sick leave. Beyond showing his duty pass he had not introduced himself; yet we felt his presence was more than a routine trip.
With Cooney’s Cutting now in sight, I began building a good bank of coal in the fire-box back corners. Here was a place that Jack didn’t mind his fireman making a bit of black smoke; for the cutting ahead was a preliminary hump, followed by a sharp down-grade, before the long steep haul up the Great Divide. So the foundation of a good fire built up progressively from here on made the long continuous firing ahead less burdensome.
But now my normal firing rhythm was upset. I could scarcely take my eyes from the young grey-coated foreman and I felt the uneasiness that goes with the thought of an intruder close by.
With feet firmly spaced for balance against the independent motion of engine and tender, a fireman’s movements swing in tempo from the hips in a ‘follow through’ smoothness. Only the ball of the foremost foot lifts slightly on the bunker stroke, then presses a floor treadle valve as the shovel nears the fire-hole doors—which open mechanically to receive the coal and snap shut as the foot lifts of the treadle valve.
Twice now I had slammed the shovel against closed fire-hole doors. Coal lay scattered on the footplate, and I felt a jarring pain in my wrists. I knew the foreman was watching me.
Then for the first time he spoke.
— Black smoke is wasted fuel, he said quietly. You should watch your funnel and keep to grey smoke.
I looked appealingly at my mate; but his eyes seemed to say, ‘Let it go for the time being, son’.
Nevertheless I felt hurt. I had ten years’ firing experience which included three years on the express roster. The only reason I was back on the ‘fast goods’ was to get practical tuition in engine management, from Jack, for the forthcoming driver’s examination. I reckoned I knew my job.
I was lucky to get Jack as a tutor. He was regarded as the top practical driver in the depot and even old Fred Hasler had often profited from Jack’s cooperation.
And what a difference there was in old Fred’s approach as a foreman. Hasler always threw his cards down immediately he boarded the engine. He would say:
— Jack, the ‘nuts’ want to try out an extra ten ton on the ‘big hill’. Here, Jack could be relied on to make a fair test. Sometimes, though, a test would affect a Union matter. Then Jack would grin and shake his head.
— Fair enough.
Old Fred would grin back through a curtain dropped between officer and employee.
While Jack could not expect similar relations with the new foreman, I could see he was rather perplexed at the behaviour of the younger man.
Yet there seemed to be no malice in the foreman’s remarks. They seemed to be expected of him and, having done that, he was content to lose interest in me. But his manner was becoming increasingly furtive with every mile we travelled, and I took some care to avoid further criticism.
I made a close survey of my side of the cab as I hosed down the footplate to lay the dust. The tool kit was neatly stowed, the fire-irons were secure and generally the cab looked tidy. There was a full head of steam and three parts of a glass in the water-gauge. I made a special point of letting him see me look back along the train for anything irregular.
Jack, too, was making sure to leave no opening. He was checking his gauges, and an adjustment he made to a lubricator sight feed valve was clearly unnecessary. But Jack was far from being rattled. He was simply closing up his defences.
Such was the atmosphere — uninspired by a foreman’s trust and friendly cooperation. But within it Jack and I were united. The foreman stood alone, and I deliberately watched him becoming a victim of the suspicion he had created.
Cooney’s Cutting came nearer and he was now agitatedly studying his watch. There was a tenseness about him. It was obvious he had been checking the speed of the train by comparing the second hand of his watch against the half-mile posts alongside the track.
Jack followed his usual practice for this part of the line. Despite the up-grade in the cutting, he left the setting of the cut-off lever unaltered and let the train make a slower pace.
As the train lost speed, the foreman suddenly shouted excitedly:
— Keep her moving driver. We’re losing time! In a flash I knew now what it was all about. But Jack kept cool.
— Acceleration doesn’t pay here, Jack said courteously. Far better to top this rise at low speed. Then she’ll make her own pace to maximum speed at the bottom of the dip. Otherwise, by ‘topping’ at maximum, we’ll have to apply the brakes and try getting them off again in too close a margin. We’ll not only risk losing momentum but there’s also the problem of controlling coupling slack in such a short distance.
Jack paused, then added earnestly:
— I’m only telling you this because I know you’re new to this district. This is a tricky part of the section and drivers have worked it out from experience.
— But you’ll lose running time over the section, the foreman stammered heatedly.
— We pick up that lost time in another section ahead to balance up the overall trip running time. Jack explained.
— The sectional running time has to be maintained, the foreman asserted, as though he had braced himself to say it. Jack immediately left the driver’s seat.
— All right. But as my foreman you’d better show me how to do it. The foreman hesitated, looked blankly at the empty driver’s seat, then took over without a word.
I had to be extra alert now. Firing for a new driver has its complications at any time; it is rare for two drivers to have the same call on steam and water. I spread a heavier fire.
Then I had an intriguing thought. The foreman now depended on the amount of steam and water I had available. I’d gathered a few firing tricks over the years, and here was a chance to strike a blow for my mate and avenge that crack at my firing ability.
Perhaps my thoughts had been transmitted into a sort of grin on my face, because as I glanced over at Jack he was looking at me sternly. ‘Play it straight’, his reproving eyes told me. So I resisted the temptation by giving my best on the shovel.
The foreman wound out the cut-off lever, as I anticipated, and the engine exhaust beat sharpened as the train took the brow of the cutting at maximum speed.
Jack watched the speed recorder. It showed the 40 m.p.h. goods limit, and the needle flicked ready to show an increase as gravitation quickly added momentum to the train on the mile of down-grade before the mount. The real hazard lay in the first rise of the mount; a momentum bank which required a minimum of 25 m.p.h. to negotiate it.
The young foreman now had to close the throttle. He was biting his lip as he watched the speed recorder. The needle rose. The train was half-way down the slope before he applied the air brake. As soon as the speed was checked he quickly turned the brake valve to ‘release’.
I saw Jack gripping the handrail to steady himself as the foreman opened the throttle again.
I followed Jack’s precaution, but also I swung open the fire-hole doors with the manual handle.
Then we felt the sudden ‘run in’ of buffers and couplings slamming into the engine. The engine surged forward and took the weight of the train again. But it was dead weight deprived of momentum, and all the elements of developed horsepower were instantly thrown out of proportion — including the vital one of rail adhesion. There was a terrific wheel slip as the big driving wheels spun uselessly.
It all registered on the speed recorder — now showing only 10 m.p.h. at the bottom of the momentum bank. The train stalled and the young foreman sat helpless and dejected on the driver’s seat.
However, I had a worry of my own as I turned towards the fire-box. But my fears were soon allayed and I was thankful for leaving the fire-hole doors open in anticipation of the wheel slip. My fire had held against the consequent violence of a forced draught that could have turned it over and over until only ash remained.
The foreman was plainly the only loser, and with a shrug of resignation he let Jack take control again.
— Go back and tell the guard we won’t divide the train. Jack told me. I’ll try setting back.
Walking back to the guard’s van I enjoyed a feeling of being on the winning side. It served the foreman right for interfering with an old established practice.
Only once before had the method been challenged. And that was not so long ago. Some pencil pusher at head office had accidentally noticed the lost sectional time on running sheets and the cumbersome course of departmental files began.
The Union asked that the time usually made up in the section ahead be deducted and added to this one to make the normal practice official. Old Fred Hasler backed up the Union.
Then officialdom asserted that if there was any time made up, it should be a reduction in the overall running time for the trip. Here, though, the depot foreman came in on the side of both Fred and the Union. He pointed out that the present time-table had been worked out in the days of locomotives which could only haul about twenty vehicles up this grade. Present trains were up to seventy vehicles and the control of coupling slack had become more complex.
After that the argument simply fizzled out.
Yet the revival now by a young inexperienced foreman seemed an anti-climax. It did not amount to much, but I would not like to be in his shoes after my mate had reported the incident — already indelibly marked on the speed recorder chart. A foreman stalling a train during an instruction. Phew!
I got a very sour reception from old ‘Tracker’ Benn, the guard. He had no doubt suffered from the irregular coupling action. His van could be likened to the lash-end of a long whip getting the delayed action of the handle (our engine). And what makes it worse is that he can’t anticipate the jerks and pulls and he always suffers after the event. So he is ever ready to lecture on the ineptitude of engine crews. He gave me no chance to explain that Jack was not at fault. I shouted out Jack’s message and left him still raving.
When I got back to the engine. Jack had made a billy of tea and was handing a pannikin to the foreman. They were now at the conversing stage, and I felt certain that whatever Jack had said during my absence it was not in the ‘I told you so’ style. In fact he was doing his best to help the younger man recover himself.
This set me thinking.
Jack’s handling of the train was masterly. He set back as far as possible up Cooney’s Cutting then made a run. He had pre-sanded the rails while setting back, which enabled him to give full attention to the throttle and cut-off lever.
All I could do was to keep the safety valves howling with full pressure when the ‘run’ became the slow foot-by-foot struggle to surmount the bank.
When we finally made it. Jack was big enough to admit that he could not guarantee the same feat again. There were two hours of solid work for me now. I took off my woollen jacket and tied the sleeves around my waist to protect the lower part of my perspiring back from the cool mountain wind now coming through the cab.
Some time later the foreman came over to me.
— Have a spell. I’ll give you a blow.
For a moment I was a little suspicious about his motive. His gesture, however, seemed genuine so I gratefully sat down and rolled a smoke.
The way he fired the engine soon told me that he was far from incompetent. There is a true saying that ‘good drivers only come from good firemen’, and it became increasingly evident to me that his driving performance at Cooney’s Cutting was no real indication of his ability.
His whole manner changed also. Gone was that furtive isolation and in its place there seemed to be a great feeling of relief that the Cooney’s incident was over. He began to chat to me on general job topics as we took turn about, fire for fire, up the Divide.
But something else began to dawn on me as the foreman revealed his natural self. He wasn’t the sort of man to rush impetuously into such a delicate controversy as Cooney’s.
Several other things were beginning to add up too. First, as a Union delegate, I had gained an insight into the official mind when the original trouble on Cooney’s flared up. It struck me then that we had a unique victory, indecisive as it was, and I recalled gloating to myself over having departmental guns firing for our side. Yet I also remembered the presiding railway official taking it all in bad grace and adjourning the meeting rather than admitting the facts . . . a childish procedure but as the Union achieved its purpose the matter was not pursued.
And how clearly did this present incident become a logical conclusion of that very childishness. Someone in head office seizing upon old Fred Hasler’s absence on sick leave to use a young inexperienced foreman as a stepping stone. I could imagine the briefing of the innocent: the promise of advancement should the coup come off and, certainly, a distortion or two of the facts to inculcate the idea of a crusade.
However, I had no cause to congratulate myself for any astuteness in piecing the affair together. I saw that Jack had done so long ago, and I knew also that the Cooney’s debacle would never be disclosed: leaving the young foreman unfettered by ignominy in settling his score with the official who had exploited him.
It was only nature, I suppose, in my enlightenment to feel that the foreman was trying to ingratiate himself with me. Perhaps he was, for he badly needed my cooperation. But I was in sympathy with him because both of us now had much in common. We were both pupils; learning a separate experience but tutored nonetheless by one of the finest men I’ve known.
Jack’s report was exactly as I expected. It told a story exasperatingly familiar, yet irrefutable, to official circles: Fictitious livestock had wandered on to the line. Train braked to avoid collision. Momentum lost, etc., etc., etc. It only required my endorsement.
A momentary sense of power possessed me . . . the pencil in my hand could be the instrument of a superior’s downfall. The moment passed, the pencil then became a symbol of something far greater — the confidence of my mate.
I scribbled a single sentence: ‘I have nothing to add to Driver Regan’s report’.
Paul Carroll, of Victoria, is a locomotive engine-driver. His stories have been published in several Australian periodicals and broadcast over the A.B.C.