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Seventy years on the railway payroll

By Mathew Dearnaley

Ron Jones remembers when rail was the main passenger service around the country. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Ron Jones remembers when rail was the main passenger service around the country. Photo / Sarah Ivey

After 70 years with the country's railways, octogenarian tradesman Ron Jones is nowhere near ready to hang up his overalls.

Aged 86, he hopes to see KiwiRail well past this year's 150th anniversary of passenger rail in New Zealand after surviving a succession of ownership changes and technological innovations.

"I've never woken up and not wanted to come to work," he said yesterday at the Westfield diesel depot, where he puts in 40 hours a week helping to keep Auckland's commuter trains up to scratch and was replacing a transmission part when the Herald called.

"But when I can't do what the others do or if I stand in the way of a youngster, I'll finish up."

That was his promise to the former NZ Railways management after he retired as a senior manager in 1983, only to be rehired two months later as a mechanical engineer at the Otahuhu workshops where he had begun work 40 years earlier as a 15-year-old apprentice fitter.

His supervisor, Kevin Hawkins, said he was an invaluable source of knowledge for younger workers but also remained a sprightly hands-on worker, always ready to help with challenging physical tasks such as changing wagon bogeys.

Mr Jones, whose father was a railways engineer and whose own three sons followed him into the industry, was relieved to get back into overalls after wearing a collar and tie for 20 years as the upper North Island's senior inspector of passenger cars and freight wagons.

He began work in 1943 when the railways were short-handed after the secondment of many workers to the war effort, running supplies to front-line troops across North Africa.

"At 16 you were expected to start work and I was 15 coming up to 16," he said.

"I don't owe railways anything, but they don't owe me either, it's a two-way deal.

"I brought up three children, they're well-educated, my wife was never short of money."

Mr Jones and his late wife, Valerie, were honeymooning in New Plymouth when word came through on Christmas Day 1953 that the Wellington-Auckland night express train had been swept by a volcanic lahar into the flooded Whangaehu River at Tangiwai the night before, killing 151 people.

They cut short their holiday, driving home to Auckland to leave room for grieving relatives scouring the central North Island for scarce accommodation.

"It was quite despairing - it devastated the country," he said.

• The first locomotive-hauled passenger train began service between Ferrymead and Christchurch on December 1, 1863. KiwiRail is celebrating the 150th anniversary of that event with a travelling exhibition of scenic carriages and themed carriages on display at the Strand station off Beach Rd in Auckland on Sunday. For more details, see www.150yearsrail.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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