A recent News.com article gave a fresh voice to the public alarm when so many rail lines get closed at weekends and even surprisingly in peak hour time slots for track maintenance.
The article cites complaints from various Sydney politicians where so many complaints have come into their offices regarding closed lines for maintenance andf then see no maintenance crews.
These would be rail passengers then find themselves directed to very slow buses from one railway station to somewhere further along the track and end up being very late to where they were intending to be as per the rail network timetable.
Of course the rail authorities have ready answers for everything, there must be a book hidden somewhere in all rail office buildings, for ready answers for annoyed railway passengers. The grievance is immaterial. Pull out the book. Find the page. Give the stock standard answer.
The Footplate Padre worked for 10 years on the footplate and he vouches there are many different reasons for track repairs and delays.
He recalls one occasion when a heavy high speed freighter pulled out of Goulburn heading towards Sydney and within 20 minutes Goulburn signal box got a call from the driver of this train, that at a certain mileage, the left hand side track was broken.
The crew noticed this particular track was up off the perway, although in line with the aforementioned track. When the heavy diesel went over it, the track simply went back into place. A perway crew went out to the mileage and sure enough, the driver of the freighter was correct, and put a speed restriction of 10 mph over that section of track until a repair gang could repair it that same afternoon.
The footplate padre recalls many an occasion travelling down the NSW south coast line and finding speed restriction after speed restriction on various rail lines and over the many bridges along that section of track. There were just not enough perway crews and hours in a day to get them all.
There are many photos available in railway museums, railway books and on-line showing what devastation floods have done to rail tracks and the need to lay fresh embankment, then perway, then the sleepers followed by the tracks. This is not an overnight job. Sometimes days and weeks. Even the Ghan train in this day and age gets held up for weeks when those huge rivers tear asunder the perway.
Even with all the new machinery which automates some of these tasks, if the embankment needs additional fill material, that takes time and an engineering task that could have woeful results if not done properly.
The footplate padre recalls one occasion when hauling a passenger train from Hurtsville towards Sydney on the down hill run, usually at crack speed, which in the 1970's was 60pmh (100ks) through those suburban platforms.
On this day there was a 25mph speed restriction on the track leading towards Bexley Station, and the driver slowed right down, one could hear the clickedy clack of the heavy wheels of the locomotive going over the impaired track. The problem was that it was peak hour, and everyone on the suburban platform got up, thinking this was their train, and were so disappointed to see this intercity express hauled by a huge diesel, not stop but gently roll through the platform.
A significant change to perway occurred when the timber sleepers began to be replaced by concrete sleepers. Two things happened. First concrete reacts differently to timber on perway (blue metal) as timber has "give or torque" whereas concrete needs to be set in place correctly the first time.
Big automated machinery tends to do this and the process occurs without too much drama. The hammering of the spikes is also dine automatically.
Another change that took place with concrete sleepers was a lesser requirement to be constantly checking the tracks. Timber sleepers, by their very nature, required the line to be double checked every morning, so the Fettlers on their rail trikes (usually powered but some still in the 70's push pull as in the 1950's black and white movies) needed to out there, hail, rain or shine and inspect the perway.
This was critical as there were changes in the metal with heat and cold, expansion and tracks reducing in the bitter cold weather. This meant that there were times when rail tracks bucked either through the heat and cold, but worse, serious gaps appeared between joins.
Today these are less likely for several reasons. One is that very long lengths of rail head are now laid. The connections are much fewer. Another is the make up of the rail track coming from the steel mills with definitive compounds which reduce the fracturing of the rail head. Another is the automated nature of the laying (securing) of the concrete sleepers onto the perway.
The fact that so many trains run of the rail perway without incident is the greatest of all miracles. Some of those heavy express freighters hurtle along and the kinetic energy is astonishing.
The perway is like life
The Footplate Padres says of this that for many of us, this is life. We go along without too much hassle. We attended school, then university, start a career, find a partner in life, having children, see them develop, high school then university graduation, ultimately grand children and so on.
But for others, life is not so straight forward. There are all sorts of medical, professional, social, religious, family and whatever else issues that close in upon us and life is anything but routine.
It is how we handle with all this becomes the question. For the follower of Jesus, all those things are just as difficult, are just as heartbreaking, but there is someone walking along side, the person of the Holy Spirit. There is much comfort in this.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html