Terror on the tracks

CATHIE BELL
Last updated 16:24 26/02/2014

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February 25, 1948, was a black day for many families, their friends and the New Zealand Railways. The express train travelling from Picton to Christchurch crashed, killing six and injuring 40, at Blind River near Seddon. Cathie Bell talks to one of the passengers on that train. --------------------

Fred Burton and his friend Norman Gillespie were both 22. They and had been on holiday in Nelson and were returning to Dunedin.

It was a fine Marlborough day, with the hills all burnt to a tan colour.

The young men had met two sisters while on holiday and the young women were also at the Blenheim railway station to catch the train, with one sister off to get married in Christchurch.

Mr Burton and Mr Gillespie helped them put their bags on the train.

"One of them had this great big blue portmanteau."

The women were in the first carriage, and Mr Burton and Mr Gillespie were in the fourth, so they went to their seats.

It was lunchtime when the train with 150 people on board left Blenheim. Shortly after, Mr Gillespie was keen to move up to talk with the women again, but Mr Burton wanted to read the Marlborough Express newspaper he had picked up at the station.

"I said to him, ‘I want to finish this. We've got tons of time, it's a long way to go yet'."

Mr Gillespie stayed where he was in the fourth carriage.

But at Blind River, south of Seddon, it all went wrong.

Mr Burton said there was no warning in his carriage of the pending accident.

"All of a sudden, the front of the carriage lifted up to 40 or 50 degrees and just stopped. In our carriage, it was a gradual slow down."

The steam engine locomotive had left the track and the passenger carriages behind it continued travelling along the track, opening up like a tin of sardines as they were forced past the derailed engine.

Six people were killed and about 40 injured.

General opinion has it that the death toll would have been higher had it been the Friday rather than the Wednesday express as the Friday express train would have been full of passengers returning to Christchurch for the weekend.

An official inquiry determined the crash was caused by faulty brakes on the tender of locomotive Ab696, coupled with too much train speed.

Mr Burton said while the side of his carriage was torn out, there were only slight injuries.

The carriages at the front fared worse. Their decision to read the paper instead of chatting to the sisters likely saved their lives.

"The carriages ahead, the front car was a wooden-sided one. It was just smashed up like matchwood."

That first carriage was where the women they had met were sitting, and both were killed. The police had trouble identifying them, and when they took Mr Burton to the shed where abandoned luggage was being stored, he found that big blue suitcase.

"I had a lucky escape. All I got was a ripped coat, and I used my shirt to make a tourniquet."

Mr Burton, who still lives in Dunedin, said all he remembered after getting out of the train was seeing all the wheels and couplings on the toppled engine and carriages still spinning, all heaped up.

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"It was a real mess . . . I can still see the train crew.

"How lucky they were, they were helped out of the cab, all covered in ashes."

It didn't take long for people to arrive to help, he said.

"It was quite good. Someone ran up to the road and stopped cars. A railwayman came along not long after on a jigger. Cars came right up and got cracking on the rescue.

"Trucks and cars and all sorts came out to help . . . lots of locals with their own vehicles to carry people."

Mr Burton said a nurse "carted" him back to Blenheim in her car, and he stayed in a hotel there, at the railways' expense, until two days' later, when he went home on the next express train.

"I wasn't afraid to get back on the train again. It was all cleared at the site, with the exception of the engine, which was clear of the tracks and still lying there.

"That was the most frightening and luckiest thing in my life, I'd say.

"It was one of those things - you look out the window at the accident and you're just stunned. Where am I hurt? I'm not hurt. How did that happen?"

- The Marlborough Express

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