Steam Trains At Christmas Time

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 ride 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.

3810 at Moss Vale Boxing Day 1968 after a thrilling fast run from Goulburn

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.

3820 newcaslte flyer steam train
On A Wet Afternoon 3820 Preparing To Leave Newcastle With The Last Steam Express Passenger Train In Australia 29th Dec 1970

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.

Rheine Norddeich steam train 012 pacific
Three Cylinder Pacific 012 055 heads a D-Zug high speed express between Rheine and Norddeich in 1974. I spent a week just before Christmas riding these trains at speed.

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.

25NC steam locomotive kimberley de aar south africa
Christmas 1975 the Drakensburg arrives in De Aar South Africa with a 25NC 4-8-4 in charge

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.

19C south africa steam train locomotive
Boxing Day 1975 We Chased Double 19C Poppit Valve 4-8-2’s from Cape Town to Bitterfontein

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.

guilin china steam train FD
Christmas 1984 at Guilin Loco Depot in China. This was the last line to feature the Russian FD class. The hotel had bicycles to lend which we used to get the photos around town

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.

Here is a video of steam at Christmas on the Bluebell Railway in the UK


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