When Steam Trains Were Abundant In Western Australia

Good Times And Strange Customs

It is a long time since steam locomotives operated in regular service in Australia. In the 1960’s numbers declined rapidly, as governments were persuaded by General Motors and other diesel manufacturing companies to ditch their mighty steam fleets in favour of soulless diesels. Having grown up in that era, there was a mad scramble to photograph and record steam before they were confined to specials. While I was very busy photographing remaining steam operations in my home state, NSW, by 1970 only one other Australian area had extensive steam power, the south west of Western Australia, as far away as you could get while still remaining in the country.

As in other parts of the world, steam locomotives quickly disappeared from service in Western Australia. At the end of 1970 it was known that there were only a few months left, and Robert Kingsford Smith, a friend of mine, suggested we make the trip across the Nullarbor to record the unusual steam locomotives available in that part of the world.

At that time, a large stretch of the Nullarbor road across the great desert was still unpaved, frequented by massive trucks, and a few hardy travellers such as ourselves. The dirt started near Ceduna and finished at the Western Australian border, where the asphalt recommenced with a very clean straight line separating the two states.

I had recently obtained my driver’s license and purchased my first car, and FC Holden. It cost me $360, and I managed to wreck it within a year. As my interest was steam trains, I used this vehicle to get as many shots as I could of remaining steam locomotives in Australia, which all finished in a little over 2 years. Now it seems hard to believe that an era which lasted over 100 years, came to its demise so fast. So quick was this change around the world, that few have a decent coverage anywhere.

This road has to be seen to be believed. It was relatively plain sailing to Ceduna, but the trip across the desert tested my vehicle to the limit. Apart from the large areas of bulldust which were said to be able to swallow a car whole at times, they were that deep, the limestone base of the road had broken into large lumps that continuously battered the tyres to the point that we ended up with grass in the front tyres to keep going be the time we reached the end of the dirt. In fact when we returned to the SA border, the car was looking rather different due to damage from a Kangaroo we had a fight with in the middle of the night.

Rags, as he is affectionately known, Phil Smith and myself managed to get through the journey and some 3 days after leaving Sydney arrived at the South West. Now those of you who live in Western Australia must bear with me as I describe life in that part of the world in the early 1970s. We arrived on a weekend and there was no fuel available. A hamburger consisted of a lump of meat, a slice of tomato and a slice of canned beetroot on a sandwich. The best food were the spearmint milkshakes, at that time not available in NSW!

It was very much a small country area, with lots of distance and very friendly locals. The South West was predominantly logging country, with grain to the East. These were the two areas where steam operated. Around midday, temperatures soared to well over 40 degrees centigrade, and we retreated to local swimming pools most days. IN any case the sun was so hot you could cook an egg on the bonnet and the lighting so harsh, that photographs were not that great around mid-day. The picture of a “V” class, the largest locomotives we saw, below, demonstrates the midday lighting issue.

V 1217 heads a freight between Bunbury and Collie

The town of Yarloop has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in 2016. A bushfire destroyed much of the timber town. When we were there the timber mill was in full operation with a G class shunting.

WAGR G class 71 at Millar’s Bros Timber Mill at Yarloop 20/1/1971

As for mainline service, the Perth to Bunbury route was diesel, and our shot of the Australind Carriages has a W class 4-8-2 shunting in Bunbury one afternoon.

W942 shunting the Australind in Bunbury

The real steam action started a Bunbury, including the line to Busselton and south to timber country.

We followed 942 to Busselton on a freight. It was slightly timber country.

W942 with 37 Bunbury – Busselton goods at Boyanup 21/1/71

We took turns in riding in the cab of this train, until disaster struck. I was driving down the road at around 60 mph while my friend was in the cab when I heard a huge bang and the car shuddered. I looked back to see a large pipe hurtling down the road behind us. At that point, I noticed there was no power to the wheels, so we stopped to inspect and discovered we no longer had a tail shaft! With thoughts this could be the end of our trip, we called for assistance.

We were towed to a local mechanic who managed to replace the tail shaft, complete with gearbox, and for $30 odd dollars, we were on our way that afternoon. Imagine that happening today.

We managed some great shots on this stretch of line.

W942 on 38 Busselton – Bunbury goods near Wonerup 21/1/71

Even though these were the last days of steam in the West, there were still a couple of Pacifics running. Now resigned to hauling freight trains, they were a welcome addition to the motive power, and I think quite attractive.

Pacific Pmr 730 on 38 Busselton – Bunbury goods on Capel River trestle 26/1/71

You may have already noticed a lack of smoke in the pictures. There is a reason for this. WA steam burned coal mined at Collie. In contrast to the wonderful black stuff from Newcastle in NSW, this coal simply didn’t burn that well, hence no smoke. Coupled to that it was really hot, with days hitting well over 40 degrees C.

Further south, the railway headed into the forest. The weather became rather overcast as well. After all it takes a lot of rain to grow trees to over 200 feet in height. The forest was Jarrah, a wood prized for furniture making. Forests were thick and the weather mostly overcast in contrast to the heat elsewhere.

W 940 class hauling a freight south of Pemberton travels through the Jarrah Forest

We followed this train south. From my photos, I believe it was the only time we really ventured deep into the forest, due to the inclement weather.

W940 heads south. This line is no longer in existence. It was closed long ago.

While Busselton had some great variety, with the last remaining PMr pacific in service, There was more action to the east. Countryside changed as we headed to Collie, and the weather with it. The more East we ventured, the hotter it became. I recall temperatures of over 120o F in the middle of the day. It was so hot we headed to the local pools which was overcrowded with others escaping the heat.

Collie was the center of the coal industry in WA at that time, and an important rail hub, with lines radiating out to Bunbury, Wagin and Narrogine, the latter two part of the wheat belt. Collie Coal wasn’t that good, hence not much black smoke in that part of the world. The extreme heat didn’t help either. That was heat outside, not in the firebox!

Well, Collie was the main loco depot in the area, and it was here we witnessed the reality of steam in Western Australia. Rows of engines were lined up awaiting their fate. Most would face the blow torch in the near future.

WAGR Steam Locomotives Set Aside In Collie January 1971

There are very few images of WAGR steam action on Google. Perhaps there weren’t too many rail enthusiasts in that part of the world, perhaps they took it for granted until the sudden demise of steam, or perhaps the pictures simply didn’t make it on line. I prefer to have mine available for others than to keep them to myself, where they may never again be seen.

The Bunbury to Collie line was different in that it had hills! For the most part the areas we visited were rather flat with open fields and the occasional grade.

V 1217 heading to Collie from Bunbury in the heat of the day. We only saw trains on this section when the lighting was rather harsh.

The V class were rather larger than the other WA locomotives. In fact only the Australian Standard Garratt proved to be heavier on 3′ 6″ gauge in Australia. A 2-8-2 in wheel configuration, V1217 did not survive the scrap torch. Built in 1955, they were quite new, being only 15 years old. Another example of how rapid the change to diesel happened. This loco, along with the other of her class, were withdrawn from service in June 1971. It was quite an impressive locomotive, with a combination of European and US features, rendering it very much a WAGR design.

In Part 2 of this story, we explore the lines from Collie to Narrogin and Wagin, with beautiful early morning lighting and golden wheat fields.




World’s Most Powerful Operating Steam Locomotive

Clue it is not in the USA!


When it comes to size, “it’s bigger in America”! While Texas cows may be huge, certainly the steaks are, when it comes to operational steam locomotives, is the US still leading the way?

Determining the most powerful steam locomotive is not easy, with many ways to measure this including size, length, wheel arrangement and tractive effort.

What is not in dispute is that the USA, with its super large loading gauge, has (or had) the most powerful steam locomotives ever built. Depending on where you look, quite q few claim to be the largest, for this discussion, we are looking at the most powerful still in operation.

USA Giants

The Norfolk and Western Y6a comes in at a credible 166,000 flb tractive effort making it a serious contender. One is still on display at the Virginia Museum Of Transportation.

N & W Y6a

An engine which didn’t really work that well was rated at 170,000 flbs. The Virginia Tripplex had an interesting history. This was a ridiculous 2-8-8-8-4 loco and suffered from simply using so much steam, the boiler couldn’t produce enough. Only one was ever built, and this was eventually split into two separate locos.

Virginia 2-8-8-8-4 Number 700 Source Wikimedia


A surviving locomotive thought to be the largest ever built was the Allegheney 2-6-6-6of the Virginian Railway, built in the 1940s. It was rated at 110,000 flb tractve effort. Two survive and are on plinths in museums. One is at the Henry Ford Museum near Dearborn Michigan, and the other at the B & O Railroad museum in Baltimore.

Allegheney number 902

Big Boy not the largest!

Coming down in size, we have the Union Pacific Big Boy (135,375 flb), thought by many to be the largest steam locomotive of all time. This 4-8-8-4 together with the UP Challenger 2-6-6-2 (97,352 flb) are still around in the UP workshops in Cheyenne Wyoming. 3985 (Challenger) and 4014 (Big Boy) are still classified as operating locomotives for UP. Feedback I have received is that with the current management, we will be lucky to see either of these two in steam again and 3985 hasn’t operated since 2007. Fact is that these two giants are not working at the moment. Nine years is a long time between drinks!

Big Boy in better days

There was one other massive engine in size between the two UP giants. That was the Virginia Railway Triplex. This was a ridiculous 2-8-8-8-4 loco and suffered from simply using so much steam, the boiler couldn’t produce enough. Only one was ever built, and this was eventually split into two separate locos.

Virginia 2-8-8-8-4 Number 700 Source Wikimedia


Other powerful steam locos include the 59 class Garratts of the East African Railway in Kenya, weighing in at 83,350 lbf and the South African GL class at 78,650 lbf.

East African Railways 59 Class on a freight between Nairobi and Mombassa Kenya 1974, Photo John Gaydon

Kenya is now regauging its track, meaning their steam fleet will no longer be able to operate, and the remaining GL is stored at the Outeniqua Transport Museum on George South Africa.

Europe Doesn’t Rate

When it comes to Europe, there weren’t that many articulated locos used there. Nothing really rates a mention when it comes to tractive effort.


Who would have guessed. When it was restored last year, the world’s most powerful operating locomotive at 63,490 flb tractive effort was the NSW AD60 class Garratt. 6029 now regularly runs excursions.

6029 with another 60 class on a coal train starting on a 1 in 40 grade at Fassifern NSW. Photo John Gaydon

Australia Wins!

This means that Australia and my home state now have the honour of having the world’s most powerful locomotive currently in operation!

Now, I know that this engine is nothing compared to some of the US monsters, but none of them are hauling trains right now.

Watch the video at the end of this post to see 6029 in action this weekend.

The Future

The next cab off the rank might be 1309, scheduled to run on the West Maryland Scenic Railroad this summer. This engine has a tractive effort of 98,700 flb.

1309 leads a double header back in regular steam days. Source Unknown

For now, NSW Australia has the honour. Stay tuned for news on 1309 and the UP giants. Who knows when the mantle will be handed back to the USA for the most powerful locomotive currently in operation.

The following list was taken from steamlocomotive.com website.

Most Pulling Force (Articulated)



Wheel Arrangement

Tractive Effort


Jawn Henry






166,300 (compound) 199,560 (simple)




147,200 (compound) 176,600 (simple)




170,000 (simple expansion mode, with booster)
















159,330 (145,930 + 13,400 booster)








152,206 (simple expansion mode, before mid-1950 modifications)




151,000 (with Franklin trailing truck booster) 137,000 (without booster)



























The Night Train South

Tales Of A Bygone Era

In today’s world, where passenger trains are rarely loco hauled, and electronics delivers the news instantly, it may be difficult for people to comprehend the way it was back in the 1960s, when steam ruled the rails, and rail passenger transport was still vitally important to getting people around.

Quite apart from the fact that air fares were far higher than train costs back then, there simply wasn’t as much car ownership, and roads were such that it was often more convenient to take a leisurely train journey than drive to country locations.

How Mail And Newspapers Were Delivered

Mail trains headed out across the state from Sydney leaving late at night, complete with the mail, and passengers in the comfort of sleeping cars. Their departures were left as late as possible so that mail could be sorted in time and the early editions of the daily newspaper included for delivery to newsagents in the wee small hours.

Being rather young at the time, only 14 in 1966 when this all started to disappear, I had limited exposure to the late night trains. I did, however manage a few trips, especially to Goulburn, where my first long distance ride was on number 31 mixed to Goulburn, a trip which always included the morning papers.

This train would leave at 1.10 am from Sydney, usually with a 38 in charge, and my first trip was late in 1966. I remember it for two reasons. I had negotiated with my mum to turn the pages at her pipe organ concert that night, in return for being dropped off at Central. My mum, being the nice person she is, went up to the loco and asked the driver if I could ride in the cab for part of the way! She was worried about me travelling alone in the early hours. Of course, I was just excited to be making the journey.

3811 was the loco that day, and I returned to the passenger car at the rear of the train, beyond the freight wagons and just in front of the mail van. We set off on time with plenty of smoke wallowing down the train and covering me with snoot. As we moved through the suburbs, I was determined to stay awake all night as I didn’t want to miss my cab ride later in the morning. At this stage I had never ridden in a mighty 38 Pacific.

The arrangement was to ride in the cab after Moss Vale as that was the last place we were likely to see any loco inspectors. It was illegal to ride in the engine then and now, although I managed quite a few rides over the years, including a mighty 25 class in South Africa. Added to that, I had broken my arm earlier that year, and had a very white coloured arm, the plaster having been removed only 2 weeks earlier.

Firing A 38

So after I climbed onto the footplate, I was handed a present. A shovel! You can earn your keep, he said, and I proceeded to learn how to lay a fire. Now a 38 is quite a large hand fired coal guzzling machine, and there was a fair grade out of Moss Vale heading south including a steep 1 in 66. My left arm was weak as it hadn’t been used for months, and I have to say, the effort near killed me! Not that I was going to let on, as it was the experience of a lifetime for a 14 year old. For those of you not familiar with NSW steam, the coal used here was from Newcastle. There were quite large chunks and it is relatively light, utilising a rather wide shovel.

As you can see in the picture, this fireman is using the butterfly doors as a means to retain heat in the firebox. You step on a plate on the floor and the firebox door opens as you swing the shovel full of coal towards it. It requires a bit of coordination as if the door is closed you can damage the shovel and it makes a bit of a mess.

I learned that coal needs to be distributed throughout the firebox grate, covering the near and far ends. I would simply drop coal into the back of the firebox, and propel it to the front corners, until there was nice, even heat. There is some assistance with jets to help smooth out the fire, but mostly it is the fireman’s skill that determines how well the engine steams.

Of course, there is more to firing than just the shovel, so they gave me some instruction on maintaining the steam level as well. As you all know the tender contains a considerable quantity of water, which is used to create steam. A 38 operates at 245 psi, the highest pressure of any loco in Australia. That means you needed a decent fire to get up steam, and it consumed plenty of water. Water is forced into the boiler by means of an injector. This device uses steam from the boiler to force fresh water into it. Too much cold water will reduce pressure, and too little results in wastage of steam or damage to the boiler. The trick is to keep pressure up just under blow off, when the maximum is exceeded, while making sure there is ample water in the boiler. A glass gauge is used to measure water levels in the boiler and there is a pressure gauge in the cab as well.

The 38s and other NSW steam locomotives, were not equipped with speedos. Nowadays it is a requirement, and preserved locos have a range of extra equipment, that wasn’t there in regular service. That means that they could go rather fast at times, undetected by the authorities. In all the time I recorded steam trains I never clocked one much above 80 mph, only slightly above the permitted 70 mph, which demonstrated how well crews could judge the speed.

The timing of use of injectors made a huge difference to performance of the loco. When approaching a grade, we filled the boiler about 5 minutes before, then built a fire to get steam near full pressure as we started the climb. If all went well, there was enough water in the boiler to produce steam to propel the train over the grade. If not, the injectors had to be turned on so the boiler wouldn’t be damaged, lowering pressure and in some cases allowing water to emit, or in extreme cases, the engine stalls. In the modern era, with many crews not full experienced, we see more and more stalling on grades. Perhaps that is why there is often a helper diesel included in the consist.

The other main time for adding water is approaching a stop. Steam pressure builds up while the train is stationery, so lowering the temperature with more water prevents “blowing off”, protecting the boiler and releasing steam when the pressure gets too high. This is simply a waste of energy. You will often hear the scrape of the shovel and hiss of injectors while in a station as steam is built up for departure.

Anyway, my first lesson as a trainee fireman was a marvellous experience. I could hardly use my left arm afterwards, and while I remember this trip vividly, I have no idea which train I caught home!

We have included cab riding experiences on the Melbourne Limited, and other great tales in “Lenses South“, a new book being released in May. Take a look at the information, it will be a must for every lover of NSW steam action, and revive many memories.

A Steamy Christmas

As I reflect on yet another Christmas, it reminds me of all those years ago, when I was straining at the leash to get out and rid steam trains during the holidays. I have spent Christmas photographing trains in Australia, South Africa, China and Europe. Here are a couple of stories to celebrate this important time of the year.

Christmas 1968

After a day with the family, I headed south on the 1.10 am mixed to Goulburn. This trains stopped everywhere and took around 7 hours to reach its destination, shunting various sidings along the way. Armed with the Special Train Notice for the school holidays, my mission was to catch the empty cars for 14A relief Goulburn Day train from Goulburn. It then took passengers from Moss Vale to Sydney. The consist that day was a CUB set, a very light load for a mighty 38.

For some reason the driver was in a hurry that day, and sped along the stretch of track reaching 80 mph near Exeter, before facing signal checks near Bundanoon. A 60mph average from a standing start was achieved just before Bundanoon. When you consider the hills and curves of NSW railways, this was quite a feat, one I never again managed.

At Moss Vale we took water, and then continued on a leisurely stroll stopping all stations to Campbelltown and on to Sydney.


Christmas 1970

The end of 1970 was a very sad time for those of us addicted to 38 class Pacifics. On December 29, just a few days after Christmas, I was privileged to ride on number 32 Flyer from Newcastle to Sydney with 3820 up front. This was the last run of a 38 in regular service.

Because of the special occasion and the fact that we just had a 7 car HUB set of 310 tons, we were given the all clear to go unassisted up Cowan bank. I definitely recall a time of 17 minutes from Hawkesbury River to Cowan, which given the fact we didn’t have to stop at Gosford, meant we maintained the 46 class schedule from Gosford to Sydney.

It was a very wet afternoon in Newcastle, as the faithful “Flyer” fans boarded this train. Departure was on time. I rode in the front guards compartment and managed to tape record the climb up Cowan bank. She slipped and slid up the hill with ex Chief Mechanical Engineer Con Cardew as part of the crew.

They tell me the Flyer that day presented a spectacular site as it sped across the Hawkesbury River Bridge in late afternoon lighting. The sun finally emerged from behind the clouds for that scene.

Yet another fading memory from steam days.


1974 West Germany

Following the demise of the 39s, our thoughts turned to some other speed machines operating between Rheine and Norrdeich in the north of West Germany. At the time, the country was split in two, with the majority of steam on the East side. Unfortunately travel there was very expensive due to a compulsory tax attached to gaining a VISA. While on the Berlin to Dresden line there was a speed limit of 140 kph, The Rheine line still had a respectable limit of 120 kph for its D-Zug express trains.

I went there with a few mates in September of that year, with one memorable ride clocked at 100 mph. This train just took off and kept accelerating. Every other train we rode behind stuck to the limits imposed by the on board speedometer, something the 38s never had.

I went back to Rheine from London in December that year. I stayed at a guest house which charged 5 marks for a bath. Now I knew why Europeans seldom bathed! It was too costly. Over the next week I rode up and down the line at speeds up to 120 kph including 60 mph plus runs between Leer and Rheine on the morning Express.

These engines had a distinctive 3 cylinder beat with a fast staccato sound at speed. Very impressive machines powered by 6′ 6″ driving wheels.

After a great week, I headed back to London for Christmas. On the boat trip back were a bunch of drunken soldiers with one young lady doing a Scottish sword dance of the tables. Everyone was rolled off the boat in the morning in various states of inebriation. Yet another great Christmas


Christmas 1975

On this occasion a bunch of Aussies shared a 7 course meal on the Drakensburg, the second most prestigious train in South Africa, and one that utilized the superb original Blue Train carriages. Dinner was timed to be behind a 25NC at speed. These travelled up to 120 kph on the narrow “Cape” gauge between Kimberley and De Aaar.


This lunch had silver service and was akin to the colonial days, when rail travel was splendid. Starting with a Sorbet, we worked our way through the menu accompanied by bottles of wine.

After arriving in Cape Town, we hired a car and photographed 19C poppet valve 4-8-2s on the spectacular Bitterfontein branch before returning to Johannesburg.


Christmas 1984

My last Christmas with regular steam was in Guilin, China. We headed into the Bamboo curtain on newly acquired individual visas just before Christmas. Of course China did not celebrate the festive season, and it was very cold and at times gloomy. Here they had restrictions on which towns you could visit and what sort of hotel you could stay at. Ours had bicycles for hire – perfect!

I managed to cycle up and down the track for a day or two getting some great pics. Regrettably the sun never fully shone.


So there you have it. A few reminisces of Christmas with steam Locomotives. Apart from excursions, it is unlikely to ever happen again. I do miss those days.

Exclusive Steam Train Books

Over the years, there have been many books celebrating the might steam locomotive. Some are better than others, while most are from a single author.

We have been fortunate to have exclusive rights to market some very special books on line. They were compiled mainly by Australian base enthusiasts, who is some cases travelled the world in search of steam from the early 1970s. These guys were my pals as I grew up, and we have spent many good time together in various parts of the world. It is amazing how you meet people you know in places as diverse as northern Germany and South Africa.

Some of these books have high artistic merit, while others offer superb colour pictorials with the best of the best in terms of coverage. We hope you will enjoy them. For now, here is a list of current offerings. Please click on the title for more details or to purchase.

Northern Exposures” This book was produced in 2014, combining the skills of a wide range of Australia’s best Railway Photographers. Colour photos ranged from the Central NSW town of Gosford to the Queensland Border. Regrettably we underestimated its popularity and there are no more copies available.



Lenses South” is a new publication due mid 2016. I have just reviewed the proofs and it is simply stunning. Extensive investigation has uncovered some amazing colour photos dating back as far as the 1050s featuring steam operations around Sydney and south to the Victorian border. At a massive 192 pages of full colour, we expect copies to move fast. Get your name on the mailing list if you would like to be notified nearer publication and receive the pre-publication discount offer.

112115_1320_PortraitsOf1.jpgRailway Portraits” 1,2 & 3 were produced by Robert and Bruce Wheatley. These are in black and white, and offer a wide range of photos all over NSW, where they travelled as teenagers. The beauty of these two is that the focused on Railway operations back in steam days. There are great images of the train staff, enginemen servicing locos, staff exchanging, and business that grew up around the railway. These books are the best memoirs I have seen capturing the look a feel of what it was like to work on the railway. In addition, they are each a work of art.

Famous Last Lines” 1,2 & 3
When the first of these books was produced, it was snapped up. the famous Last Lines series is a combination of coverage by several well-travelled railway photographers, who have selected their favourite places and showcased them in more detail than your typical pictorial. You will learn about each system, how it operated, and see stunning images, all in full colour. Regrettably Famous Last Lines version 1 is no longer in print, but you can get books 2 & 3.


Fading Steam” Malcolm Holdsworth is the creative genius behind the Famous Last Lines series. Malcolm produced his first Railway book, “Focus On Steam” back in 1973 to raise funds for the rebuilding of the Zig Zag Railway west of Sydney. Malcolm’s most recent publication is “Northern Exposures” and he reckons there is only one more book in him! During many wanderings to far flung locations on the planet, Malcolm amassed a ton of superb colour photos. In “Fading Steam” you can share in his memories of times gone by. The coverage of China and Latin America alone is worth the price tag. It has an incredible 176 pages of full cover and makes a great coffee table book.

Heavy Metal” was to be the showcase of photographers George Bambury, Robert Kingsford-Smith and Malcolm Holdsworth. Deciding to select their best shots and showcase them, they came up with this 160 page full colour pictorial. While this book is light on text, it has great captions (as do all the books listed here) and plenty of full colour photos. When I look at the cover, I am eternally reminded of a photo I took of a 141R in Spain in superb lighting that has vanished from my collection. The cover of “Heavy Metal, features the shot taken by Malcolm Holdsworth who was standing next to me at the time. As can be seen above this book was the start of great things!

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