Hero loco driver returns to his roots

Published: June 10, 2008 | 7130th good news item since 2003

The longest-serving Toll train driver in New Zealand is finishing his career the way he started, with a nostalgic last shift driving a steam train.

Fred Hamer, 69, made headlines 13 years ago when he had the presence of mind to switch off the engine of a diesel passenger train carrying 400 people to a Martinborough Fair when it burst into flames as the train sped through the eight-kilometre Rimutaka Tunnel.

Mr Hamer kept the motor running till the train nearly reached the high point on the track.

“When I saw the flames encircle the engine I thought, `Bloody hell, this fire will be coming into the cabin’.

“As luck would have it, I managed to get hold of the guard on the RT and asked him to move everyone from the two front carriages further back. I knew if I stopped people would suffocate from the fumes.”

After gliding to the top of the hill, he shut the engine down and the train free-wheeled to Featherston.

The fire chief at the time said the tunnel could have become an inferno and nothing could have been done to save the passengers or train because no tunnel-clearing equipment was available.

The incident prompted authorities to put contingency emergency procedures in place.

Mr Hamer’s final shift, on Saturday, will be driving steam locomotive Ja1271 – which was built one year after he joined the railways in 1955 – on a nostalgic Woodville to Paekakariki trip.

Starting his rail career in Dunedin, he moved to Wellington and rose the ranks through a wide range of positions, including cleaner, fireman, locomotive assistant, locomotive engineer (driver) and instructor.

“There is a wonderful thing peculiar to rail – despite the bantering, there is a special bond. I have made golden friendships with people from Whangarei to the Bluff.

“I will miss the chats.”

Published in Heroes
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