By the time I became interested in steam trains, most of them were gone. The Riverina Express which used to take coal at Demondrille in order to cover Sydney to Albury without a loco change, the Brisbane Express north, and the Silver City Comet heading west were all diesel hauled.
At this time the mighty 38 class Pacifics were restricted to Sydney to Goulburn, Gosford to Newcastle, and Lithgow to Orange. As luck would have it, a few prestige trains still maintained steam haulage, those being the Central West Express, Newcastle Flyer, and the Canberra to Sydney Express on a Sunday night, albeit with diesel or electric haulage for part of the journey.
My interest in steam grew in 1964, culminating with an express ride between Moss Vale and Sydney with 3830 at the end of the first triple header over the mountains from Unanderra. I recall this train went FAST, although I have not been able to locate any record of the times. It whetted my appetite for more speed.
One of the joys of being around in those days was the ability to occasionally catch a cab ride. This could result in being thrown the shovel to earn your keep. Or if you were very lucky you could take charge of the powerful locomotive and see just how it works first hand. This didn’t happen much on express trains, but more on local passengers due to the tight timetables.
Central West Express
My first experience on one of these trains was at the age of 15. My mother had just purchased a car and I convinced the family to do a tour of the west during the school holidays. With some fast talking, I found myself on Bathurst station asking for a ride on the Central West Express to Orange. Amazingly, the crew agreed, giving me an unforgettable ride up Tumulla bank in the 1967 school holidays. As it turns out, 3811 was removed from the west a few months later, and from then on diesels hauled this train.
Tumulla is a steep 1 in 40 and posed a challenge to climb. It was long enough that momentum couldn’t take you over. Sometimes, when extra cars were added, the Express required a helper engine in the form of a 36, and goods trains were often pushed in the rear. With lots of coal and steam and considerable skill on the part of the crew, we hauled the air conditioned RUB set over the hill and on into Orange, where I alighted. I didn’t photograph this train, something I now regret, as it is a distant memory.
In 1969, rumours were spreading that steam was about to stop on the southern line to Goulburn. I would often catch 17 South with a 44 class diesel to Bowral, returning on 18 Canberra Express with a 38. Both of these were very fast trains, maintaining about the same schedule. I would sit in the carriage and time the train, to see how fast it would go. Train timing was a tradition championed by OK Knock and others in the UK, but only a few of us have these records in Australia.
On the final occasion I rode 18 to Sydney, my friend John Lacey was on board, timing the trip. Because of this, I decided to ask for a cab ride, which I received. 18 south ahd a heavy consist of up to 350 tons, featuring heavy 6 wheel bogies. This train went non-stop from Mittagong to Campbelltown, hitting up to 80 mph in spots. It was a windy downhill run through the Southern Highlands. On this occasion we were losing time, and the fireman was driving. I was 17 at the time and chatting to the fireman and asked if he would be prepared to oped the throttle on the grade down Spaniard’s Hill, heading into Menangle. After Menangle station, there was a check as the line crossed Australia’s oldest railway bridge still standing, so you had to slow down before the station.
At the top of the hill, the throttle opened and we started hurtling down the hill approaching 80 mph with rough riding 3810 bouncing severely down the track. The driver leapt over the cab, shut off the throttle and applied the brakes. He was scared we would derail on the facing points at Menangle. The rest of the trip was rather sedentary and we arrived late in Sydney, but I was so lucky to be on the last ever steam run of that famous train. It was July 20, 1969.
By the end of 1969, 39 class operations were restricted to the 54 miles between Gosford and Newcastle. For some reason the railways preferred to use electric power to Gosford and then a 38 to Newcastle on the “Flyer”, possibly the most famous express of all. In November 1969 I was in the process of completing my final High School exams. In between tests rather than study, I would ride the Flyer to Newcastle and back. Again, I would time the trains, and one Thursday night as I was about to hop on the Flyer at Gosford, I again spotted John Lacey with his stopwatch. Once again, that meant asking for a cab ride, which I was lucky enough to get. It was the only time I managed to ride in the engine on the Flyer and I only rode from Gosford to Morisset, a non-stop run of just over 26 miles.
Well, the train was running late that night, and my driver was determined to make up lost time. The flyer schedule is so tight, that even a 5 minute reduction on schedule required a huge effort. On this occasion we had 3827 up front, said to be one of the smoothest of the class. Leaving the 46 class electric behind we stormed out of the station, accelerating up the hill through the yard in the dark of night. By Ourimbah we were well over 60 mph, maintaining above 70 mph for most of the run until we slowed for the stop at Morisset. At one stage we had crossed the mile a minute barrier, something rarely achieved in Australia. With all that effort, we shaved 4 minutes off the schedule, but it was another ride to remember.
Well, 1970 saw the 38s out. Only 2 remain serviceable, including none of those above. Even though I managed to cab ride a might 25NC on the Bethlehem line in South Africa, and a RM Pacific out of Xi An in China, I am afraid they don’t compare to our own magnificent 38 class. Biased? Of Course.
If you pine for some great shots of these magnificent locomotives in regular service, you will want to get a copy of “Lenses South”, due out in May this year. With some magnificent colour photos of 38s working hard on passenger trains to Goulburn, plus a whole heap of colour coverage all the way to the Victorian border, this will be something to treasure. http://lensessouth.com to view a few sample pictures and order the book.
An example of the photos in “Lenses South”. That curve and those pines again. 3807 cruises around a curve near Penrose with No. 31 mixed. The KKG horse van immediately ahead of the heavy passenger car looks like it could be right off an 1880s wagon designer’s drawing board. – Laurier Williams, September 1968
We will never again witness those great days of steam, but at least we have the memories, and some amazing photos to remind us of what it was like.