Sunday, September 28, 2008

Stop! Look out for the engine!

Level crossings, where road crosses rail, have always been areas of potential hazard and danger for road users. In Avondale, we know of problems arising from the crossings at St Judes Street, Chalmers Street and St Georges Road – but before 1914, there was a fourth crossing, just to the east of the railway station, between the ends of Trent and Tait Street. These small stub streets actually started out as the detour connecting Station Road, leading from Great North Road, and Manukau Road (today’s Blockhouse Bay Road). The overbridge didn’t exist then; people and carts had to head down the side streets, carefully cross over the tracks, then head back up the other side. The rule was that the rail line had to be crossed as walking pace, so that drivers could watch for trains coming. At that point originally, however, the line curved considerably; trains coming in from Mt Albert were out of view until almost at the level crossing. In 1908, this almost proved fatal.

Henry Farrar was a young man operating a waggonette service at the time. This was an uncovered wagon with seats extending along the sides, designed in some cases to hold up to eight people plus the driver. It was summer, 13 January, and good weather to convey his two passengers to Onehunga from Avondale Station: Thomas Horton, a nurseryman from Pahiatua, and his friend William Shepherd, from New South Wales. The waggonette must have come down Trent Street, and started to cross over the railway line – when the train rounded the bend.

The engine driver, Frank Skillen, had sounded the usual crossing whistle, then saw the waggonette and applied the brakes. Farrar had almost completely driven over the line when one of the passengers panicked and reached for the reins, pulling the horses up. At that point, the rear of the waggonette was still on the line, and the engine smashed into it. Sheppard was the most seriously injured. He had been propelled from the smashed vehicle, and ended up “in a sitting position” on one of the pipes connected with the engine’s Westinghouse braking apparatus. He suffered internal injuries. Farrar had a dislocated shoulder; while Horton had a scalp wound (it may indeed have been Horton who panicked). The injured were carried by train to Mt Eden Station, and then on to Auckland Hospital.

A month later, Farrar appeared in court with one arm in a sling, on charges of failing to “Stop! And look out for the engine”, and driving over the crossing at more than a walking pace. As it was seen that he already suffered considerably due to the accident, he was let off simply with a conviction and costs. The Avondale Road Board campaigned for years to have that crossing replaced by an overhead bridge – and when the railway station was altered in 1914 to that of the island-type configuration we still see today, the bridge was completed as well and the crossing dispensed with.

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