This is a short tale from the time the South African National Railway and Steam Museum (SANRASM) still held Open Days at their South Site on the Harmony Gold Mine system in Randfontein, near Millsite.
I was 16 years old and had just started college. Upon arriving home one day, my mother said that she had some good news for me. Jack Dovey (remember me mentioning him in the Railway Experience posts?) had called to find out if I’d like to start officially training to be a Fireman (Stoker) and Guard (Conductor). As you can imagine I was over the moon and the rest is history as they say.
But let’s fast forward to the incident of which this post is about, it happened in the years before the Railway Safety Regulator even existed:
On open days we would depart from the site, entering a loop on mine tracks. We would maintain radio contact with the Control Tower at Cooke Plant and receive permission to enter the ‘Mainline’ and run for 13km up to the next passing siding*, where the loco would run around our train, couple up and run tender-first back to the other loop, run around again and push us into the site.
We were returning to the site after one of these trips and they were still observing me giving the various coupling signals. I loosened the couplers, the loco proceeded to run around the train and I walked to the other end of the train – only 3 coaches long. I opened the coach’s coupler and I indicated to the Driver to stop so that I could close the loco’s coupler. I then showed him the coupling signal and he coupled. Now, before coupling the vacuum hoses, you ask the Driver to pull away from the train and do a stretch test, the gentleman training me said to leave it as the loco was pushing the train back into the site, not pulling the train. Though not happy with this, I obliged, coupled the vacuum hoses and proceeded to release the handbrakes. Once in the rear Guards van, I radioed the Driver to say he could propel us backwards and displayed a Green Flag.
What I didn’t tell you earlier is that it’s a down gradient into the site. The Driver would normally nudge the train and then let the coaches pull the loco with them down into the site. Everything was going fine, the coaches reached the down gradient and started pulling down and the next thing – BANG! – we stopped dead and I got thrown against the edge of the doorway and then a second bang and I hit my head again. The automatic brakes applied meaning either the driver destroyed the vacuum or a pipe came loose or broke apart. Poor James, who was riding along that day, got such a fright, he scrambled down and decided to walk back to the site and nit get back on the rest of the day.
A few of the passengers were slightly injured as they hit the sides of the windows and upon going back to the loco where the Driver and Fireman were both observing near the couplers. The couplers became loose – they were not properly coupled (if we did the stretch test, this would have been apparent). We coupled again – performed the stretch test this time and propelled back into the site. Luckily the passengers were in a relaxed holiday mood and, besides a few bumps and scratches and one gentleman loosing his glasses in the long grass, the passengers were quite ok with it.
This incident could have been worse and had quite an impact on my life and the way I do things on the rails.
Go well, until next time!
I leave you with this: A mistake can kill you, respect the machine.
*There is a level crossing just before this siding where Continental Tyres filmed the advert where the car gets stuck on the tracks, a train rides through the car and all that’s left are the tyres – 14R# 1909 and two coaches were used.
In the picture, a mine train is passing us at the passing siding.