The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4 (July 2, 1934.)
The “F” Class Engines
The broad gauge engines in Canterbury “ploughed a lone furrow” for nearly ten years; then companions came “not in spies, but in battalions.”
The second gallant gesture in New Zealand railway history was made in 1870, when Julius Vogel enunciated his bold development policy. Vogel was a sound and cautious financier, and his policy was not one of reckless borrowing, as is so generally thought to-day. He proposed that the loans should be hedged in with many restrictions, and repaid through ample sinking fund provisions. He also suggested that the proceeds of the land sales and of the increased revenue that would follow his development policy, should be allocated to the reduction or repayment of loans. The people, however, although they accepted his borrowing policy with acclamation, rejected his repayment provisions with silent enthusiasm. Vogel created, in fact, a Frankenstein monster that overwhelmed its creator, and when he emerged, breathless, amazed and shaken from the riot, he retired philosophically to the bath chair that his gout necessitated, and suggested nothing more ever after. The unkindest cut of all was surely the beautiful jeu d'esprit of Mantell, a political opponent. When Vogel, on his return from London with the first instalment of the #10,000,000 was greeted in Wellington with a torchlight procession, Mantell scornfully discounted the enthusiasm with the double-barrelled pun Le jeu ne vant pas la chandelle.
It was indeed a gallant gesture of Vogel. In 1870 the population had certainly increased, and had reached 250,000; but the communities were still sparsely scattered through the fertile lowlands, separated by great distances (reckoned in journey time), by racial characteristics, and, more disruptive still, by provincial jealousies. Vogel (for the first time) visioned the colonists as a united people, and discerned the truth that a debt of #40 per head of population would, if wisely spent and sternly redeemed, prove not a wild speculation, but a wise movement. His vision was only in part fulfilled. His policy did make for unity—for the first time in our history, every province, town and hamlet was united—everybody was firmly linked by three ideas, the first to borrow all the money possible, the second to spend as much of this as possible on railways in his own district, the third to have nothing to do with sinking funds or repayment schemes.
I have already hinted at the riot of railway construction that followed. In retrospect it seems more fantastic than a nightmare, and only a diligent historian could disentangle the maze. In every province lines were projected, and their construction feverishly pushed on. Brogden's babies (so the burly navvy immigrants were called, after one of the leading contractors) scarred the plains, bridged the rivers, and blasted the hills in every direction. In three years (1873–1875) over 450 miles of railways were constructed, and out of the welter emerged virtually the New Zealand Railways system as functioning to-day. Railways were built by the Central Government, by the Provincial Governments, by private companies and even by volunteers, and were put into operation as quickly as built. The Public Works Department did exercise a general but limited supervision over the various projects, whether national, provincial or private. In some càses, however, the sectionally built lines did not meet exactly, and a vexatious reverse curve spanned the gap; in others, the hasty survey ended in the final joining section being needlessly difficult and expensive to construct and operate. When the lines did join up and the disabilities of divided control were overcome or smoothed out, the various owners were coalesced and their interests merged, and after 1st July, 1875, the working railways were operated by the New Zealand Government Railways Department.
As I have said, the Public Works Department did exercise certain supervision over the various projects. page 22 page 23 A few small locomotives were employed in construction work by contractors, and it is known that the old “A” and “C” classes of engine originated from this source, probably also the “D” class, and from Oamaru an engine called “Robina” was used in the construction of the line south. The latter engine provided the only fatality caused by a boiler explosion on the New Zealand Railways. The engines mentioned bear only an historical interest, and are not noteworthy from the locomotive design or development aspect.
The engines later and still known as the “F” class are, however, in a different category. Sometime in 1872, Mr. John Carruthers, Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department, had to decide what type of engine was to be ordered for the many lines under construction. Various types, all very similar to the small “A” or “C” class already mentioned, had been suggested by various English firms of locomotive builders. In lucid and definite notes on the different files, Mr. Carruthers expressed disagreement with their views, and on the back of a foolscap service envelope made a hasty but accurate little sketch of the engine he suggested. The sketch, as I saw it some years ago, still leaps to the eye as the “F” class engine we know. Mr. Carruthers was a civil engineer with no previous experience in locomotive design, but I am speaking dispassionately and advisedly when I put on record my belief that this was one of the finest examples of locomotive design the world has ever seen.
The design was so admirably adapted to the conditions that even to-day it is difficult to suggest any improvements. The locomotive was intended for a pioneer railway track with light traffic, the sections were short and the coal poor. The design provided for an engine that could run at 30–4–5, and fulfilled their functions admirably. Even to-day about 30 are still in service as shunting engines in yards where the service is light, and are wonderfully reliable, smart and economical. The history of the “F” class engines is the history of the New Zealand Railways.
The first of the class in service was known as the “Ada” (called after the daughter of the contractor who built the line) and hauled the first passenger train out of the old Auckland station in December, 1873. Years later an illjudged experiment was tried of coupling together two “F” engines to give one unit of greater service. The “Ada” was one of the engines chosen to suffer this indignity. Later still, another ill-judged experiment was made of adding a rear bogie to the “F” engine, and the poor “Ada” was one of those converted to the “Fa” class, as the new design was classed. As “Fa” 243, the engine was still running in 1931, and was actually shunting in Auckland yard when the new station was opened. The pictures show these episodes in the engine's life, and illustrate the statement that the history of the “F” engines is the history of the New Zealand Railways.
The line illustration shows the original “F” engine as built with outside cylinders and saddle tanks. The proportions of the engine are well brought out in this picture. If a locomotive has any claims to be considered beautiful, they must be based upon simplicity of outline, symmetry and proportion of dimensions, adherence throughout to forms suitable for the service the locomotive is intended to perform, sensible utilisation of weight and mass, and general dignity of design. From all these standpoints the “F” engine has every claim to be considered a most beautiful engine. Its absolute suitability for the service for which it was intended, its reliability in service, its beauty of outline, its outstanding simplicity, and its wonderful utilisation of weight and mass to develop power, make its design one to command the respect and envy of all capable of appreciating these features.
“Ada” (1930) rebuilt as Fa 242 shunting main line coaches on practically the same spot as shewn in the head-piece.