Home' Greymouth Star : October 17th 2015 Contents Saturday Afternoon
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Track gangs Brian Menzies
gang of men and whenever they went off to work
in the old green bus they made sure they were
well equipped with tools, flasks a billy, crib —
and always with a pack of cards close by, just in
case it rained.
Maurice (Mo) Bowes worked in the bridge
gang from 1972, at a time when a large number
of gangs were spread out and around the West
“Keith Richardson was my boss at the time.
There were quite a few gangs, six men in each.
Greymouth had four to six gangs, Reefton,
Westport and Hokitika all basically maintaining
the rail bridges.
“My gang spent most of the time working on
the Ross bridge and Jacksons, but once I went up
to Otira to work for a couple of weeks and came
back 11 months later. I worked with the Otira
bridge gang and a good crew — Bill Downing,
Michael Christopher, Ron Murdoch, Peter
Mo says he made full use of the living away
from home allowance by roughing it while
stationed in Otira.
“You would get the allowance to cover expenses
for basically living at the pub, but I ended living
up Goat Creek and still got paid the allowance.
“As far as gangs go, the Hokitika was the top
gang — Hup Tainui was the boss. They had a
lot of experience — Digger Herring, Jimmy
Vroblfski,Tony Shaleski, Micky Pullen and Karl
Utiger were all in the Hoki gang. When they
were working on the Hokitika bridge it was that
long Hup would bike across it back and forward
because it was so long.
“All the bridge gangs were getting around in the
green double-cab Bedfords and it was a pretty
“There were a lot of fellows working in the
gangs — Kiwi Mahauariki, Clarrie Tiplady,
Brian Kokshoorn, Don Ross, John Winter,
Graeme De Freata, Ken Moore, Brian Menzies,
Mo says the bridge inspectors would check the
bridges and for any repairs required the bridge
gang would spring into action.
“For some of the piles and beams on the bridges,
like the Cobden bridge, to bore a hole through
the concrete and steel we would use a thermic
lancer — old but effective. It would be a 3/4-
inch pipe filled with welding rods and we’d blow
gas through to bore the hole.”
Necessity was the mother of invention when
working for the railways and when mother nature
called the bridge and track gangs were always
“When we were working by Bridge 1 near
Stillwater, Kelly Grey built a makeshift toilet,
which hung over the bank in the bush. A couple
of planks and a couple of nail boxes on each side
and we’d sit there when it was time to go,” Mo
“We all used it because we couldn’t just go on
the track, so over the side it went. It went a hell
of a long way down, and when a good flood came
everything below was washed away, so to speak.
The only trouble, though, was the two boards
we sat on were a bit slippery and frosty in the
Brian Menzies started working for the Railways
in 1973, going straight to ‘base camp’ in Elmer
“Elmer Lane was where most of the bridge
gangs set up, as well as the carpenters and
plumbers. We had our huts down there, with
a potbelly to keep us warm in winter and for
“When I started work my bridge gang was
Fred Goodall, who was the leading hand, Barney
McEnaney, Bruce Tones, Peter Botica and Jack
Stewart. We used to get around in a Bedford
double-cab — the track gangs normally had the
“During winter we would work in Totara Flat
but in summer most of the time was spent on the
old Cobden bridge replacing beams, all kinds,
what was rotten at the time, the top cords and
struts. The trains would drop the timber off to us
if trucks couldn’t get access.”
Brian says they became used to working out
above the Grey River.
“Back then there was a different version of
health and safety to what they have today, but
we always had health and safety in mind. At one
point we used to have a net under the Cobden
bridge, but I can’t recall anyone falling off.
Wherever we worked, the Benghazi billy would
come with us and we’d boil up all the time for our
“I enjoyed working on the bridge gang, it was a
good job, enjoyed the people — it was just one
big happy family down at Elmer Lane,” Brian
Doug Cox was also on the bridge gangs.
“I started in 1978 and went straight into the
bridge gang. Initially we travelled around in the
big green bus. The bus had a partition through the
middle of it, there were seats in the front section
and in the back there were all the tools. We would
hop on to the old bus and travel to Ross every day
repairing the old Totara bridge, replacing a lot of
the beams and timber, replacing sections of the
structure that was rotten. We were down at Ross
for three years probably, and then they closed the
“Another job was stripping all the sap off the
piles as they were worried about catching fire, but
basically our job was maintenance on the bridges.”
After a stint in the green bus, his gang used the
double-cabs for transport, and often where there’s
smoke there’s fire.
“ We had a good crew — Mo Bowes, Phil
McVicar, Kevin Wright and Keith Richardson,
who was the leading hand. We were heading
down to Ross and Mo (Bowes) was smoking and
flicked his cigarette butt out the window. We
wondered why motorists were flashing lights at us
but Mo just kept driving.
“When we got to Ross theback of the truck was
on fire, it burned a large hole through the deck!
Mo’s butt had landed on some rope and it caught
fire, the deck went up (but) ... it could have been
worse,” Doug chuckles.
The late Ernie Crisp spent nearly 40 years
working for the Railways.
“I started work in 1956 and did a couple of
weeks in Christchurch for basic training first. I
spent the majority of my time working in Otira -
the Railways employed a lot of workers in Otira
at the time.
“I was working in a track gang which was made
up of myself, Issy Griffin, Pat Riley, Ernie Power,
Youngman, and our job was to maintain the
section of the track that started at the straight
below Otira down to near where Colin Jackson
While there were trucks based in Otira, Ernie
said the main means of transport on the job for
his gang was making use of the track lines.
“ We had a motor trolley which was powered by
a Briggs and Stratton engine and we’d all climb
on board and off we would go down the track to
work. The fitters kept the trolley going and used
to maintain them, but we would use the track in
between the trains.
“ We had a couple of close calls with the
trains and railcar, but no real accidents for me
while I was working up there. I got a bump in
Christchurch with a train, but it was just one of
those things — it wrecked the trolley but I came
Ernie had railway house 149 while living in
Otira, and Railway staff always made use of the
“Plenty of men were in Otira in those days
because of the housing as it was just part of the
shifting around in the Railways. O ur main job
was replacing sleepers, levelling the lines and
making sure the gauge of the tracks was 3ft 6in.
The gauge only changed once in all the years I
was on the job.
“ To level the lines we used to lift the rails by
jacks, lift them a wee bit high and the weight
pushed down the level.
“Steam trains were a dime a dozen when I
was working on the line but in time the diesel
locomotives took over.”
Lots of characters worked in the Railways while
Ernie was at Otira, and there were a number of
memorable events as well.
“ We used to have night patrol with our track
gang, which involved two of the gang checking
at night and making sure there were no rocks
or flooding, that sort of stuff. Th e night patrol
would hop down to the Jacksons pub and have
a few beers. Ernie Power would take his truck
down and make a good night of it. The night shift
always worked in pairs.
“I was in Otira when the river came down the
middle of the town, and also when the railcar ran
backwards through the tunnel and ended upside
down by the road and we had to get a bulldozer
“I remember shovelling a lot of the bigger war-
time ballast out of the Otira Tunnel and dumping
it in the creek. Gosh, it was hard work, and
painful work at that.
“I lost all the skin off my hands after all my
large blisters burst.
“But I enjoyed my time in the Railways though
as it was an outside job and I enjoyed working
outside. I met a few hard cases along the way,
but I got out when the Railways started all that
restructuring,” Ernie said.
Ted Neame started work on the bridges after
spending time doing carpentry repairs and house
maintenance for the Railways.
“I actually did 42 years with the Railways,
starting in 1956. Initially I worked for nine years
maintaining buildings, then they wanted me out
on the bridges.
“I was based in Greymouth and the gang I
worked with was Terry Booth, Steve Gugum, Joe
Caldana and Johnny Walker.
“Later, I was working with Mo Bowes and his
crew and I enjoyed the work. We used to do all
the work the bridge inspector found, anything at
fault or missing.
“ We’d get the form with the work on it and we
would go and rectify it. In those days we did some
work in Otira and the Hokitika areas, and some
on sthe Westport line.
“At first, we had a set area to work but later we
were working all over the place.
“When at Otira we used to stay at the pub but a
few of the lads lived rough at Goat Creek — it
was basic conditions, a smoko place really, and
somewhere to keep out of the rain. We’d eat half
of our lunch at the pub and give the other half to
the boys up the creek.”
Ted says there were perks at times while
working out in the field.
“ We pulled a three-span wooden bridge out at
Poerua and replaced it with a steel girder one. We
brought the old bridge back on the rail wagon
and cut it up for firewood behind Arney Street
we all got a good load of wood.
“ We had a number of interesting jobs, one was
the old wooden Arahura road-rail bridge when
a logging truck smashed a section of it. The train
actually went over it prior to being fixed but we
worked under lights replacing the block section
where the steel rods go through, and pulled the
bottom beams up.
“They were interesting times working when the
steam trains were in use as you had to be well
aware of them on the tracks. You could hear them
miles away when they were coming uphill, but if
they were travelling downhill they never made a
“Our gang had to check the bridge just near
Ngahere after a train had derailed 15 wagons. The
wagons were all lying in the flax and the train had
stopped on the bend near Kamaka.
“But it was a good job working on the bridge
gang, and there were a lot of good jokers working
for the Railways.”
The big old green Bedford buses and double-cab trucks of the Railways track and bridge gangs
were a familiar sight on West Coast roads and byways years ago. These were the men in blue who
kept the network in tip-top shape for its heavy traffic, and they maintained every inch of the West
Coast railway network, from the railhead at Ross to the railhead at Ngakawau, inland to Otira, and
everything in between. PAUL McBRIDE listened to a few of the yarns of the old gangs.
Mo Bowes boring through bridge piles with the thermic lancer.
PICTURE: Kevin Wright
Bridge workers near the staircase, east of Arthur’s Pass.
A real long drop — the makeshift toilet used by the workers near the Stillwater No 1 bridge.
The Bedford bus used to move the workers, outside the goods shed at Greymouth.
A railway bridge gang near Otira.
Otira gang workers Bill Downing and Dave Ruki.
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