To the piercing hiss of super-heated steam from valves, pipes and pistons, vintage locomotive, 3801, pulled away from Central with 400 passengers including 14 camera-toting members of NCP on Sunday, 26th March.
Her arrival at platform one in reverse and recently re-painted in her original, WWII (1943) drab grey, the big streamliner, flag-ship of her 30-strong class and probably of the whole NSWGR fleet, sent photographers scurrying for vantage points. Susan played it smart and stood on platform 2, Chris went to see the engine re-coupled at the “Melbourne end” while Peter conned his way onto the footplate to record some action with the fireman shovelling coal into the furnace from hell. (Amazing what favours you can pull with a big SLR!).
The 205 tonne behemoth, the only Australian locomotive to have visited all States and Territories in Australia, is more familiarly seen in green. In her 63-year lifetime, she has been, in order, grey, green with yellow stripes, black with red stripes, back to green and, now, for the first time since 1943, back to grey. Gospel, according to members of 3801 Limited, is that this is as much a political stand as anything else. Her future is uncertain and it would be a tragedy if the reversion to grey were to portend the end to her working days. Perhaps the gentleman who owns the private carriage coupled up for this trip, might be in a position to resolve the issue?
We settled into our seats in the carriages, which appear to have seen service as the Newcastle “Flyer” and the “Melbourne Limited”. Flying past almost empty suburban stations gave a sense of importance, the urgency of 3801’s syncopatic beat adding to the aura. Only the old “clicketty-clack, clicketty- clack”, as the carriage wheels rode over the rail joints, was missing. Welded rails have a lot to answer for. Nostalgia “Ain’t what it used to be”.
The subject of conversations varied as NCP members mixed with others sharing their compartment spaces. The voluntary train staff members- James was our man- were most accommodating with information as well as assistance. New member Sue, with Gaye and me, had the pleasure of the company of Barbara for what amounted to a private coaching forum. Thank you Barbara.
The rolling hills beyond Campbelltown challenged the power of steam. Steam’s 31,767 lb/ft (141,300 Newtons) tractive effort won, albeit at a reduced pace. Picton was reached and it was time for a 20 minute stop to re-water the tender’s supply. We were allowed to disembark to the platform and the overbridge. If we had not been permitted, then there would have been a mass revolt. Try to stop us from making our respective ways to a hissing steam engine!
Thirty-five minutes late (due to having to allow the normal main-line traffic free passage at Campbelltown) the crew set about making up time. Black coal smoke belched from the truncated funnel while condensed steam and cinders flew backwards right into the eyes of anyone bold enough to poke a head outside. Bliss. The engine said, alternatively: “I think I can, I think I can”, while pulling hard then “Dunnit, dunnit” at the top. We heard all the words.
After the top of the ascent up Catherine Hill at Braemar to Mittagong, we rattled down the long incline to Bowral, nudging the magic 105 kilometres per hour (60 MPH). The euphoria of the dowager engine could be sensed as she pounded along on a light throttle under the tender care of Ken, her driver, and his team. Bowral station went by in a blur. A shutter speed of 1 1/25th second on a 28mm lens ensured an image that showed the carriage sharp while the passing scenery gave the impression of speed.
The junction north of Moss Vale required careful negotiation and we made our way past rural homes, seemingly right in their backyards. This line serves to carry coal from the remaining mines in the highlands to the coast for export. It was only due to the relatively recent upgrade of this track that 3801 can now haul her human cargo to the Illawarra escarpment and beyond. So, too, has similar track work allowed 3801 trips to Young on the Harden-Blayney line and other rural areas. A side benefit of progress, thank you very much.
With little fanfare we sidled into Robertson. The town undoubtedly gains great support for its tourism endeavours with regular visits by historic trains and we were made very welcome. Even the singer at the Bowling Club was happy to continue to perform right through the meal. Different if nothing else.
NCP members explored the many retail and photographic possibilities afforded by this most attractive highland town. The bracing, cool air gave teasing promise of the Autumnal weather which Sydney will, hopefully, soon enjoy as a respite from the oppressive heat and humidity of an over-long summer. The train crew was most obliging and allowed photographers onto the permanent way ahead of the loco for “photo-opportunities”. One elderly chap, not with NCP, was seen to stumble towards the other track just as the Diesel loco-hauled coal train approached.
One of the passengers in our compartment, Paddy, now in his vintage years, recalled having serviced 3801 in the loco shops in Newcastle. The trip was a wonderful chance for his daughter, Kate, to help her Dad enjoy his own reminiscences.
Back on board, right on 3.00 pm, the steam whistle sang its strident farewell and we chuffed up the rise to Ranleigh House and on to the top of the escarpment. Glorious views of the coastline below Wollongong came into view. One young lass, armed with the de-rigueur digital point and shoot camera, jiggled with delight as she shot images of the lovely scene. I signed her up on the spot as a junior member!
With the brakes on firmly and a steady hand on the controls, Ken negotiated the 1 in 30 grades down the winding escarpment track until, again, we travelled past suburban homes on the approaches to Unanderra.
Re-joining the main line near Wollongong, it was important to keep to schedule even with some planned stops at several stations. Commuters had to be restrained at times from embarking the vintage carriages by our alert guards.
Expansive views of the blue Pacific Ocean could be seen near Stanwell Park and a few tunnels allowed us to sample more coal smoke. Good for the lungs, Not!
And on to Sutherland then Hurstville, the characteristic "blue note" trill of the steam loco’s definitive whistle stirring the hearts of the most urbane train traveller. Even the rails sang as the old wheels sped urgently on towards home at Central.