Monday, October 24, 2022

Green Light Mystery: the 1952 Kaukapakapa Rail Accident


A 1966 view of Kaukapkapa Railway Station and surrounds, showing 1. the West Coast Road (SH 16) level crossing; 2. the site of the impact of No. 76 and No. 77 trains; 3. the main Kaukapakapa station building. This site all now cleared. Via Retrolens.

Train No. 76 from Maungaturoto reached Kaipara Flats around 10 pm on the evening of 5 December 1952. It was a goods train, hauling cattle trucks bound for Auckland. At Kaipara Flats, a crew change meant that acting fireman Charles Harold Riley (from 1652 Great North Road in Avondale), guard Robert Arthur, and driver Charles Henry Coggins (also from Avondale) climbed aboard. At around 10.15 pm, the train proceeded cityward from Kaipara Flats, shunting onto a siding when it reached Tahekaroa. While there, and picking up the tablet for the next section of the line, the crew were told that there was a crossing at Kaukapakapa. This meant that, while the train had the main line between Tahekaroa and Kaukapakapa, at the latter place there had to be another shunt to one of the three sidings and off the main line, in order to allow a passenger train bound for Northland to pass. Riley put the tablet in a cane sling, for the hand-to-hand exchange at the sidings at Kaukapakapa, and No. 76 left Tahekaroa around 11.06 pm.

As the train approached Kaukapakapa however, the lights to a semaphore-style signal seemed to contradict the earlier instructions. The lower signal light was seen by the crew as red, while the upper showed green. This indicated that No.76 had the main line and didn’t need to use a siding, which seemed odd; the crew expected a “stop” signal, in order for the tracks to be switched so that they’d proceed to one of the waiting loops. Still, Riley took the tablet out of the cane sling, and inserted it into the iron one for the automatic exchange at the station platform on the main line.
Unfortunately, train No. 77, an Auckland to Opua combined passenger and goods train was at Kaukapakapa Station, and on the main line, waiting for No. 76 to divert to the sidings so that it could proceed. At around 11.30 pm, No. 76 collided with No. 77, just north of the Kaukapakapa station building.

Just before the imminent collision, Riley leapt out the driver’s side of the cab, and Coggins leapt out to the left. Unfortunately, one of the cattle wagons telescoped and tipped over toward the left, crushing Coggins where he lay on the ground. His spine fractured in multiple places, he was killed instantly. He was the only human fatality, although the fireman for No. 77, Terry George Stanaway, was injured with a severe cut to the neck. He was taken to Auckland Hospital. Twenty head of cattle died immediately, while another ten were humanely shot by a local farmer.

The accident would kick off investigations, questions and legal action that only came to a conclusion two and a half years later.

Charles Coggins was a third-generation railway man. His grandfather George Coggins immigrated here in 1874 as a farm worker, but took up work as a ganger on the railways, spending around 24 years in the Rukuhia Swamp between Frankton and Ohaupo. When he retired on railway superannuation in July 1903, George Coggins was fêted by his fellow gangers. In all, he worked 40 years as a railway ganger. He died in 1920.

George’s son William left home in 1881 at the age of 19, and became a railway platelayer. William’s first wife died in 1899, leaving him a widower with five children. He remarried in 1900, to Emma Edith Wilcox, and in 1905 Charles Henry Coggins was born, probably in Parnell. By 1908, William’s family were in Te Kuiti where he still worked as a railways platelayer. He retired in August 1928 and was presented with a “well-filled wallet” at his own presentation at Te Awamutu.

The house at 21 Glendon Ave, Avondale, former home of the Coggins family. From Google Streetview, 2022

William’s son Charles started out as a cleaner with the Railways department at Te Kuiti in the 1920s, and married Gladys Millicent Foster in 1932. Around that time, Charles and his bride came to live at 21 Glendon Avenue in Avondale, renting the property from hairdresser Peter Luke Currie and his wife Annie. By the late 1940s, Charles had progressed in his career in the department to becoming an engine driver, earning £880 per annum by 1952. His father and mother, William and Emma, purchased a property at what is known today as 30 Mead Street in 1928, so those in that branch of the Coggins clan lived close to one another. William died in 1948, but Emma had the Mead Street title in her name through to her own death in 1961.

The effect of 47-year-old Charles Coggins’ death on his immediate family that December night in 1952 was profound for his widow and his son. Charles’ funeral costs came to £50 and five shillings. Gladys Coggins was 40 years old, and had gone from receiving £12 per week from Charles for maintaining the household, to a railway superannuation of £20 10 shillings per month. Their son Charles Barrie Coggins was 16 and still at school when his father died. He left school and became apprenticed in March 1953 to an engineering firm. By 1955 he was earning £4 10 shillings a week and studying for a Marine Engineer’s Examination, but after paying weekly transport and other necessities, he couldn’t afford to pay his mother any board. Along with this, Peter Currie had sold the Glendon Ave property to the State Advances Corporation in 1950, so Gladys was paying £1 seven shillings rent per week. Their daughter Edith Marion Coggins was 19 at the time of the accident, just shy of her 20th birthday the following January, but was already employed, earning £7 per week, in December 1952. She paid her mother £2 per week board. She was not financially affected by the accident.

The Railways Department, however, refused to accept any liability, and therefore any idea of paying compensation to Gladys Coggins and her son Charles. The department instead claimed that Charles Coggins senior had been in breach of his duty; first, by driving the train past red danger signals, colliding with the stationary train at the Kaukapakapa station, and by jumping from the engine and thus being struck by the overturning wagons.

In terms of the claimed breach regarding the signals, the department maintained that the signals at Kaukapakapa that night were with both boards up, showing two red lights indicating danger, and that Coggins should not have proceeded along the main line. The official conclusion reached was that Coggins had mistaken a mercury vapour streetlight at the road which crossed the rail line just north of the station (then known as the West Coast Road, today part of State Highway 16) for the green light of the railway signal. Mercury vapour lights in the 1950s were often used, and shone with a blue-green light. This particular one was situated just to the right of the railway signal, the latter sighted by No. 76’s crew as their train started the long straight approach into Kaukapakapa Station, the signal near the road crossing just before their destination.

Coggins, according to Riley, saw the distance signal, the first one passed, at read, and the home signal, the one nearest the station at green. This meant they had permission to proceed along the main line into the station after all without a stop, then diversion to a siding. Coggins, though, did think it was odd. They’d been told earlier that the other train, No. 77, would be there at the station. He had wondered if he’d perhaps mistaken the street light for the signal, but as he talked about it with Riley he came to the conclusion that, no. It was definitely the signal, not the streetlight. Riley as well was sure that the green light was the railway signal.

However, nearer the road crossing, Coggins spotted the local station agent waving a red signal light in his hand where he stood beside the No. 77 train. He gave “three sharp blasts of the whistle” and put on emergency brakes. Just past the crossing Coggins dived out of the cab past Riley’s position, yelling for Riley to jump as well.

The guard in the rear van, Robert Arthur, testified that while he didn’t see the signal indication at the start of that straight run into Kaukapakapa that night, “On looking out of the van window I observed a green light on the Main Home signal, the indication on the signal post was green over red. It was a complete green. I was pretty close to the Home signal post when I observed these indications and was looking up when I observed the light. This struck me as odd.” Arthur was aware of the instructions and advice given at Tahekaroa, and a “caution” signal made no sense at all in that situation. The train “drifted” towards the station, at a slow speed, before braking, and then the collision.

Arthur later checked the signal an hour and a half after the accident. It was then showing red-red.
Matthew Pettigrew Scott, the station agent at Kaukapakapa, testified at the inquest that “both outer signals on the northern approach” had been set to “danger” – two red lights, semaphore boards up. “Until I had changed the points to allow No. 76 into the loop [the siding] the signals could not be operated otherwise.” Scott maintained that from where he had stood, the signals showed white from his vantage point beside No. 77, which meant they would have been both red for Coggins. He maintained that “It has been my experience that these signals are foolproof. I have had 15 years’ experience on the Railways.”

Scott was working as a porter at Kaukapakapa Station in 1949, so had been at the station for around three years at least, probably still in that capacity at the time of the accident. But, he’d also travelled around and worked at a number of various stations in his career. He hadn’t had all his 15 years’ railways experience with the Kaukapakapa signals.

Nevertheless, Rees Elllis, an “automatic signal maintainer” with the department, also stated at the inquest that he had examined the Kaukapakapa signals the day before the accident, and found them to be in perfect working order.

Constable Robert Alexander Archibald who arrived at the scene at twenty past midnight, said that he made a survey of the scene (and drew a map that was included with the coroner’s report) and saw that the top semaphore board of the railway signal was pointing down – but concluded that this could have been the result of the signal system wires which had become fouled by the derailed wagons. Coggin’s body was entangled in these wires.

The coroner, Carl Gustave Sandin, found simply that “Charles Henry Coggins was killed when he was crushed under a loaded railway wagon as a result of a train accident at Kaukapakapa.”

The Railways' own enquiry board considered that there was a possibility that the street light at the road had been mistaken by Coggins for the green signal light. The department successfully asked the Waitemata Electric Power Board to deal with the matter by putting a shield around the light, and the conflict between the street light and the signals seemed to have been resolved by March 1953.

However … despite Matthew Scott’s assertion at the inquest that the railway signals in service, installed at Kaukapakapa in 1921, were “foolproof” – they were not.

December 1947 – Down distant repeater signal showing “out of order.” A number of faults noted over some weeks. The controlling wires shown to be affected by varying temperatures. Fault put down to operator’s lack of knowledge of ways to compensate for this and use a wire adjusting apparatus.

December 1952 – Six days after the accident that claimed Coggins’ life. The home signal showing a faulty indication. Even after a number of goes with the controlling lever, the signal failed to return to “Danger” (red) but remained at “Clear” or halfway between. The Signal Adjuster from Helensville put it down to “too much tension on the wires.”

April 1953 – Up Main Line Points failure at Kaukapakapa Station. The Station agent failed to adjust the signal wire tension.

July 1953 – Signal wires were suspected of having frozen in place due to water leaking into a conduit under the roadway north of the station. After a severe frost, the signal jammed at “Clear.” The abnormality was fortunately spotted by train crew at the station. This, though, wouldn’t explain the December 1952 accident at the beginning of a North Auckland summer.

April 1954 – Fault in the siding points. Before the reason could be found, the fault corrected itself.

June 1954 – Another fault, northern siding points.

September 1954 – Eerily reminiscent of the December 1952 incident, the Home signal once again jammed in the “Clear” position, just after another No. 76 train, Maungaturoto to Auckland, had left Kaukapakapa. In this case, ballast and scoria were found to have accumulated in the conduit piping under the track where the wires crossed from one side of the track to the other. The District Engineer’s office found that “it can be assumed that under certain conditions the scoria ballast that had accumulated in the pipe would retard the free return of the wire to normal when the lever was restored to normal.” Constant, regular vibration from the rail transport operations directly overhead can’t have helped.

January 1955 – The signals were reported to be functioning only “intermittently.”

March 1955 – Another signals failure. This time attributed to a faulty plunger.

Before most of these mechanical faults had taken place, Gladys Coggins and her lawyers filed a claim for compensation in the Supreme Court in September 1953, seeking a total of £8000 for herself and her son. In January 1954, the department responded by saying that they believed Charles H Coggins’ death was his own fault. In May 1954 Robert Angus Hamilton Russell, Assistant District Engineer with the department, submitted his views on the case. He felt that the complexity of the issue meant that “only men qualified by training or occupation or otherwise to determine difficult questions in relation to technical matters will be capable of sufficiently understanding and appreciating the same.” In other words, best of luck finding a set of jurors with the capability of understanding all the technical details.
Gladys Coggins called a halt to proceedings at that point, but with the option of continuing later. Then, there came the September 1954 incident, and the discovery of the ballast in the conduit.

In May 1955, the Railways Department essentially reached an out-of-court compromise with Gladys Coggins, who agreed to a £5000 compensation settlement, £500 for her son Charles, £4500 for herself. Doubtless, this sum helped her purchase her home from the State Advances Corporation. She retained ownership of the Glendon Ave property through to 1998, and died in 2003, at the age of 90.

Charles Coggins isn’t completely forgotten, even today, 70 years after the accident and his death. His membership and associations with the Royal Antediluvian Order of the Buffaloes, serving as a Grand President in 1947 and 1948 on the New Zealand Sub-Council. He was one of the founders of the Point Lodge No 28 Lodge City in Point Chevalier in 1946. That Lodge had their own hall from the 1950s, but declining numbers meant a move to Mt Eden in 1984, and it has now been closed. But a Sir Charles Coggins Lodge was opened in Glen Eden on 13 June 1955, and still operates from the Avondale lodge building on Great North Road, Suburbs 40 Lodge Hall, not too far from the Coggins’ home in Glendon Ave.

Auckland Star, NZ Herald, The Press (Christchurch)
Archives NZ files: Coroner's inquest, Gladys' compensation claim file, files on the Kaukapakapa signals
Land records

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