Heritage Carriages Won’t Operate Forever

This week there has been a bit of a media furore over the proposed disposal of wooden heritage carriages owned by Dunedin Railways. Amongst the larger group of rolling stock which included a DE class locomotive, a stripped shell of an old DJ class engine and some old 56 foot steel car bodies, are six of the former 47’6″ wooden carriages dating back to 1912. These were once part of a larger fleet of similar carriages, but over recent years Dunedin Railways have sold off XPC453, XPC547, XPC412, XPC398, XPC521 wooden vehicles plus several others without TMS numbers. So in fact DRL have already been disposing of other older wooden rolling stock in earlier years, and these cars represent an older generation of rolling stock in New Zealand in general. The fact these disappeared from the main line of NZR operations many decades ago is due to their well known safety risks. The cars have lightly constructed wooden framed and clad bodies, and consequently they have much less resistance to accidents and collisions than modern vehicles.

Although wooden clad cars have not been part of mainline passenger services for a very long time, they were displaced by later generations of steel-clad but still wooden framed carriages, the main safety advancements being enclosed rather than open platform ends, restricted opening windows and anti-collision ends. 50 foot steel cars, which became common in suburban service and were first introduced in 1930, were followed by 56 footers from the 1940s, which became the mainstay of the long distance passenger services. These survived through many overhauls and upgrades including the large-windowed ASO “scenic” carriages of the late 1980s at a time when long distance services were retargeted at tourist rather than domestic markets. Meanwhile, the old wooden cars disappeared completely from NZR but then got a new lease of life in privately owned carriage fleets based in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin – the latter operated by OETT, the forerunner of Dunedin Railways.

But on 25 August 1993 a rather big spanner got thrown in the works when a serious level crossing accident occurred at Rolleston to the Southerner passenger train, which was heading south from Christchurch which it had departed 22 minutes previously. A concrete mixer truck collided with the train due to a hazardous road design, and three of the train’s passengers were killed and another seven seriously injured. Two cars of the four carriage train were substantially damaged when they collided with the mixer bowl on the truck. Both cars had hardwood uprights bolted to steel brackets connected to wooden rails at the top and steel underframe at the bottom. Additional timber framing between uprights and around windows incorporated some steel bracing. Anti collision framing was fitted to the ends of the cars. The wooden framing in both cars failed sufficiently badly to allow the mixer bowl to intrude into the carriages where the three deaths and most serious injuries occurred.

Although TAIC highlighted that it was unclear if steel framed cars would have been more effective in protecting passengers from impacts of this type, it is not coincidental that operating restrictions were put onto heritage carriages operating on the main line within a few years, these being the privately owned fleets based around the country with several operators. NZR, later Tranz Rail, Ontrack and Kiwirail, began looking at replacing the remaining wooden framed cars in their fleet and this began from 1996 when the first British Rail Mk2 carriages, which are steel framed, were imported, and subsequently replaced all of the 56 footers by 2007 except on the the Coastal Pacific, Northern Explorer and Tranz Alpine long distance trains, which got newly built AK cars in the early 2010s.

But even although Kiwirail was compelled to replace all of its wooden framed carriages by regulatory pressure and has done so, the wooden framed and wooden clad cars are still allowed to be used on by heritage operators on the main line – and although there remain some operational restrictions, there has not been a general move to phase them out in recent times. Hence there was quite a furore over Dunedin Railways’ rolling stock request for proposals, announced 18 January and withdrawn a week later. DRL cited expert advice that these carriages did not meet modern standards and were therefore considered not suitable for further use on Dunedin Railways services. This is quite accurate in fact – because the carriages fail in several areas. Both the bodywork and the underframes are lightly constructed and therefore too weak to meet modern expectations of accident and collision protection, the side windows can be opened sufficiently far for people to lean out of them which risks colliding with trackside objects, and the original type drop toilets create significant pollution of the track bed when flushed. The Dunedin Railways cars, incidentally, were all modified by OETT in the 1970s and 80s with chemical toilets with underframe-mounted holding tanks which allowed the carriages to double as staff accommodation on multi-day long distance excursions, and these carriages also have many interior design changes that have eliminated much of their purported heritage character. Dunedin Railways also has in its fleet a number of steel framed carriages, including three built new on existing wagon underframes by OETT in the 1980s and overhauled former 56 foot wooden framed cars which have had new steel framing installed. So the process has been going on over many years of replacing the old wooden cars with more modern and safer carriages.

Apart from DR the other two carriage fleets mentioned above continue to operate wooden heritage cars on the main line under exemptions received but still with some level of operating restrictions. But it is certain that this state of affairs will only exist for as long as there are no serious accidents involving these cars on the main line and that is really just by chance. Or it may well be the case that due to some set of unrelated or distantly related circumstances that the crashworthiness of these vehicles is finally used as an excuse to get rid of them from all main lines except with much more significant constraints than is currently the case, and once this is done, logically, restrictions for wooden framed 50 foot and 56 foot cars will not be far behind. This week a number of heritage enthusiasts have continually highlighted the fact that these carriages can be mainline operated (albeit with the restrictions) as evidence that the DR carriages should remain in use. But as noted the process of replacing these cars with more modern improved rolling stock has been underway at DR for many years. These cars have in fact been stored for quite some time. It is alleged these cars require retention due to their historical design and features such as open platforms, however observation cars serve the same purpose without the risk to passengers that the open platforms pose in event of a collision or drawgear failure. The fact that the external appearance is supposedly significant is unlikely to matter to more than a single digit percentage of passengers, and if it was relevant, there is nothing to prevent wooden cladding being fitted over steel framing, which has never been done anywhere in NZ, which strongly suggests that the appearance of most carriages operated by heritage groups is insignificant. It is not discounted that heritage vehicles do have a place in heritage railways, but where there is a clear need for modern rolling stock for reasons such as public safety, the purported advantages or benefits of heritage rolling stock are not sufficient to override the other considerations.

Given that rail safety standards and requirements continue to increase year by year, and the age of these heritage vehicles, it is therefore by no means unreasonable to conclude they do not have a long term future and do not either justify retention or maintenance expenditure in any of the main line fleets in which they have previously been operated. Dunedin Railways’ assessment that these carriages are unsuitable for future DRL passenger operations is an appropriate and sensible one. Dunedin Railways’ forward looking policies of rolling stock upgrading and maintenance with steel framed cars in particular is noted as important for a railway that primarily operates mainline passenger services as Dunedin Railways does, and is inline with all other commercial passenger services in NZ, heritage carriage operations now being confined to voluntary charitable groups.

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