Uc Class Steam Locomotives
The Uc of 4-6-0 locomotives were ordered in 1900 from Great Britain, the builder being Sharp, Stewart & Company and delivered to New Zealand in 1901. There were ten built, numbers 361 to 370, and was the final development of the U class series of locomotives, being preceded by the New Zealand built U and the Ua also form Sharp, Stewart & Company. The Uc was built with a redesigned modern cylinder block of piston valve type, the same that was fitted to the B class loco 4-8-0 that was designed by NZR chief draughtsman, G.A.Pearson who fitted with his own arrangement of the Walscharts valve gear, built a year earlier by the same manufacturers. This meant the Uc had a 2" longer stroke than the U and Ua class though the diameter of 16" was common to all three.
Early working life
Our two locomotives, the last two built (No's 369 & 370) entered service in October 21 & 24 1901 respectively, Uc369 at a cost of £ 3,369 ($574,069 2011 Dollars) and Uc370 at £ 3,504 ($597,073 2011 Dollars). New they were allocated to Dunedin and Invercargill but for a while all ended up in Invercargill. Two latter came back to Dunedin to work the Otago Central Line, although one or two did come to Canterbury from about 1910 when displaced by the American built Ub class. However after opening of the Otira Tunnel in 1923 these locomotives were progressively transferred to the West Coast between 1923-25.
All were built with saturated boilers but seven of the ten were fitted with the new "U" class superheated type of boiler in the late 1920's and the remaining three locos were gradually written off from 1934 to 1936. As built the Uc had a slighter lighter driving axle weight than the U & Ua Class and with bigger cylinders was prone to wheel slip. A mistake was made when reboilered with the smaller U type superheated boiler as this reduced the grate area and firebox heating surface which then along with the larger cylinders made them hard to steam, particularly on long runs. Both boilers had a working pressure of 200lb/sq in.
The seven survived until 1955 when between then and 1959 they were gradually written off. Uc 369 and 370 both in January 1957. Right up to the end there loco's could be seen hauling the Hokitika Express to Greymouth to connect with the Greymouth to Christchurch Express and also hauling and banking fully loaded coal trains from Reefton up over the well know Reefton Saddle and through the tunnel and down to Tawhai until the "A" class locos from the late 1950's. They were not a popular engine with the loco crews of the day due to the short comings mentioned above, making them hard to fire and keep the steam pressure up, being referred to as Utterly cantankerous (in polite company).
Disposal and Recovery
Between 1957 and 1961 several of the remaining locomotives were dumped on the the river embankment at Omoto on the Grey river, some 2 kilometres up stream of the Greymouth Railway station, for bank stabilisation/erosion protection. Uc 330, 331, Uc 361, 362, 365, 369 and 370 joined the already dumped F5, F277, La312 and P135. The locomotives sat on/in the bank until a large storm in 1997 washed Uc369, Uc370 and La312 into the river channel. In 2000 Whitebus Family Productions produced a documentary on the locomotive dump at Omoto, and in 2004 approached The Midland Rail Heritage Trust with regards to recovering the locomotives for restoration. At the time there was some concern that the river bank and associated railway embankment were so unstable that any significant flooding event on the river could collapse the bank and bury the locomotives forever. In March 2005 the locomotives were floated with air-bags from their watery grave and retrieved from the river.