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Three Feet Six Inches (Slimline)

I have friends who live in Crofton Downs, the first station out of Wellington on the Johnsonville line; a line which is famed in story and song. Railway aficionados come from all over the world to travel upon it, attracted by the narrowness and quaintness of the rolling stock and the superabundance of its geography. These things are not unconnected.

Wellington and Johnsonville are only a short distance apart as the crow flies. You can drive between them in about ten minutes, for the road can go over and around any geography that it doesn’t like (and since New Zealand road engineers are paid by the corner, it does quite a bit of that). The railway doesn’t have that option. Unruly geography has either to be removed or gone straight through.

The area is oversupplied with some quite vicious terrain. Immensely dense mountains cluster close to each other for comfort. The engineers who built the line had to grind seven extremely long tunnels through the more recalcitrant outcrops. Five of these tunnels lie between Wellington and Crofton Downs - and that's only the first stop on the line! It probably has more tunnels per kilometre than any other railway in the world. The difficulty of this huge engineering feat, coupled with the sheer density of the stone meant that the tunnels had to be very thin and consequently the line has acquired what amounts to its own private rolling stock, for no other equipment owned by the railway will fit the tunnels. The people in charge have scoured the world to find replacement rolling stock, but it hasn’t been easy. Everything that runs on the Johnsonville line has been bought second hand from obscure railroad companies in obscure (generally Eastern European) countries and it is all somewhere between thirty five and fifty years old. Heaven knows exactly where and when and by whom the ragbag mixture of stuff was originally manufactured. I’m sure it was designed by people long since dead and built in workshops that long ago vanished from the Earth. So you can’t get spare parts any more. If anything breaks, you make a new one yourself or you do without.

The carriages are rusty; their upholstery is worn and torn. They rattle and they rock and they roll; they squeak and they squirm and sometimes they break. And so does the Johnsonville line itself…

I turned up at Wellington station and purchased a ticket to Crofton Downs. As I walked towards the platform an announcement informed me that the trains were running approximately fifteen minutes late because of engineering difficulties. I leaned against a convenient wall by a convenient light and read my book. Slowly the crowds built up as the Thursday evening commuters arrived, impatient to get home.

Eventually the train pulled wearily into the platform. A huge surge of people congregated around the slowly opening carriage doors. But one carriage remained stubbornly closed. A stentorian voice echoed down the platform:

"Excuse me everybody!" A lady dressed in a TransMetro uniform and wearing a vivid Day-Glo yellow jacket on top of it came striding down the platform. The lights reflecting off her jacket and her immaculately coiffured blonde hair made her look like a miniature mobile sunburst.

"We aren’t using that carriage today," she said. "I’m sorry – but can you all squeeze yourself into the remaining carriages. I know it will be a bit cosy, but I’m sure you’ll manage."

We all squeezed in. I was lucky – I got a seat. Not everyone was that fortunate. The train pulled slowly out of the station and rattled and wheezed its way along the tracks. Another great attraction of the Johnsonville line is the constant vibration that judders up and down your body; a strangely erotic experience that sometimes results in embarrassingly obvious consequences.

"Let me explain what’s happening." The brightly dressed lady was back again. "I’m sorry about the carriage, but every time we open and close the doors, huge great sparks fly out of them as the electric current short circuits through something. So we don’t think they are safe, and we decided not to use them."

There was much nodding in agreement at this. Nobody wanted to be turned into Kentucky Fried Commuter by free flowing electricity.

"But we’ve got another more serious problem," she said. "The points at Wadestown have broken, and so we have to operate them manually, and that’s causing long delays. So we’d like to ask you to be patient with us, and we’ll get you home just as soon as we can."

For most of the distance between Wellington and Johnsonville there is only one track. Again, this is a constraint forced upon it by the evil geography through which it winds. In one or two of the marginally less severely constricted areas a loop of track provides a passing place, and as long as the points are correctly set, a train can wait there while the train going in the opposite direction goes past, and then, with the points switched again, it can re-join the main line and continue its journey. Thus the line can be served by both an inward and an outward bound train at the same time, to the great convenience of all. Wadestown is one of these passing places.

We arrived at Wadestown and pulled on to the passing loop. Through the window I could see the train waiting to pass us in the other direction. Time passed, but the train didn’t. We waited and waited and waited some more…

The bright lady reappeared in our carriage. "I’m sorry about the delay," she said. "We’ve got some big, strong, competent men on the job now and they are moving the points by hand. They reckon it will take them about fifteen minutes."

She paused reflectively and then murmured, "Of course when I did it on the inbound journey it only took me two minutes. But I’m just a woman."

She got a round of applause and grinned at us. We continued to wait.

My phone rang. Ring, ring (I can’t abide the ones that play tunes).


"Hi, it’s Laurie here. Where are you?"

"I’m stuck in the train at the moment, but I should be arriving shortly. Where are you?"

"Oh, I’m still in town. I heard there was trouble on the line and so I thought I’d take a taxi. I was just ringing to see if you wanted to share it – but since you are already on the train I don’t suppose that’s really possible…"

"No, not really. Not unless you’ve got a winch to haul me up the embankment."

"Oh well – I’ll see you when you arrive. I’ll probably get there before you."

He chuckled a dirty chuckle and rang off.

We continued to wait for the big, strong competent men to shift the points. Eventually they must have managed it for with a hiss and a gurgle the other train moved off into the night. We waited a little longer while the points were adjusted again and then we lurched away. A few minutes later we pulled into Crofton Downs station and I disembarked. Ahead of me a dark, vaguely familiar shape walked purposefully up the street. I followed discreetly, wondering if I should dash up and tap it on the shoulder. I decided against it, being fearful of engendering righteous wrath should I be mistaken in the identity.

The figure turned into the driveway of the house I was heading for. Now I was sure. "Annette." I yelled. She turned around.

"Oh, hello. Where did you come from?"

"I was on the train. You must have been in a carriage ahead of me. Fun journey, wasn’t it?"

"Yes, great."

I explained about Laurie.

"Oh, let’s go and see if he’s in yet."

We went inside. No Laurie, and we began to glow with pleasure at having beaten him home. He’d been so sure that he’d get there before us. Just as we finished congratulating ourselves, he arrived.

"Hello," he said. "Been here long?"

We explained.

"I’d have been here sooner", he said, competitive to the last, "but it took the taxi driver quite a while to find his change. I’m sure I’d have beaten you otherwise."

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