Fassifern Steam Train Action

I trust you enjoy reading this story about workings at Fassifern in the 1970s. This story was inspired by “Northern Exposures” a brand new book celebrating steam I the north of NSW in the 1960s and 1970s in brilliant colour. This book includes many never before published photos of a wide variety of steam operations from Gosford north to the Queensland border.

As of writing this post, the books are in Australia awaiting customs clearance. I have arranged a special until the end of August to encourage early orders. Order below.

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My Fassifern Story

I remember my first trip to photograph steam trains at Fassifern, a place with a 1 in 40 climbing directly out of the station. It was, I think, school holidays 1966, at the age of 14. Regrettably it didn’t go that well!

There were three of us, now Professor Robert Lee, a guy whose name escapes me who I am told now runs a large company, and myself.

We Set Up Camp On Fassifern Bank

We caught a railcar to Fassifern and the driver let us off half way up the 1 in 40 grade in less than perfect weather. That afternoon we pitched our canvas tent on the grass, ready for a few days photography. Well, it was not to be. The heavens opened up and it rained cats and dogs all night. The tent was soaked, our clothes were soaked, we were soaked. Being the May school holidays, it was cold as well. Next morning in a hopeless position, totally defeated, we packed up our soaked, very heavy tent, and headed back down to the station to catch a train home.

3827 accelerates out of Fassifern towards the 1 in 40 grade on 71 mid-day Newcastle Flyer in 1967

School Holidays In Newcastle

After my parents separated, my Dad moved to Belmont. This meant I could stay with him on holidays and catch the bus to Newcastle from which point I photographed and rode on the various trains in the area. As in Sydney, there was a 10c excursion ticket which took me as far as Singleton and Wyee, so I made good use of it.

One of my favourite shots, one published in the 35 and 34 class book by the RTM, was of class leader 3501 taking water at Matiland in late afternoon sun on its way to Singleton.

3501 singleton passenger maitland steam train
3501 taking water at Maitland on 737 Singleton Passenger January 1968

Naturally, Fassifern was one of the places I visited. At that time there were C30Tanks on the Toronto Line using the old “Cowboy Cars” left over after Sydney was electrified. The tanks worked hard to climb that 1 in 40. These trains were exactly what used to run all around Sydney back in the 1920s. In fact in latter days these tank engines performed most of the shunting duties at Sydney Terminal and worked the Richmond line during peak periods.

30 tank reaches the top of Fassifern bank. Now it is an easy run down to Teralba

The addition of the C30’s and Newstan coal trains made this a great spot for photography. When coupled with the steepest grade on the short north, it is no wonder so many of us went there. Fassifern was not exactly a main destination, but a small village with a road to Toronto and Booragul, requiring a huge detour from the railway line. Coming from the south we used to cross a causeway which at times was impassable. Looking at the Google map I can no longer see the road that followed the tracks up the hill, or the causeway.


We were treated with regular steam runs on this branch line. While it was rather flat, the sight of a 30 class coming into Fassifern on the morning commuter train was one of those typical railway scenes of yesteryear. The Toronto line meandered across the bush via Blackall’s Park to end on the shores of Lake Macquarie.

toronto fassifern 3138 c30 steam train engine
3138 arrives at Fassifern from Toronto in the morning rush hour. Life was more leisurely back in those days

The Wangi Wangi Branch

Fassifern represented a particular bottleneck for the short north. First there was Newstan colliery, which recently closed. Trains from there ran to Wangi Wangi power station, and north to Newcastle. Mostly these were hauled by Garratts, and I well remember a Garratt blasting through the bush on the Wangi branch while at Hawkmount, the other favourite train spotting location.

6009 AD60 wangi wangi steam train
6009 hauls a load of coal towards Wangi Wangi. These were often headed by a 59 plus 60

Newstan Coal Trains

Newstan posed a peculiar problem. The branch left the mainline just north of Fassifern station, heading north. This meant that north bound trains would back into the station and the 1 in 80 grade rising from the other side, and then take a run at the hill. There is nothing more spectacular than this sight, and I was fortunate enough to photograph the last, and one of the most spectacular climbs on sunset in December 1972. In later years, an additional loop was added so trains could leave Newstan and head straight for Newcastle. This was well after steam had finished.

This was the last time double Garratts blasted up Fassifern bank. 6037 + 6042 head up the hill near sunset with a full load of coal bound for Port Waratah

You can see from the above photo that dragging a fully laden coal train up the bank was something special. This explains why sometimes they would get a good head start.

6029 ad60 garratt fassifern nsw steam loco
6029, now the only working 60 class, leads another Garratt with a fully laden coal train.

One of the more interesting aspects of Fassifern is that Garratts could be in any combination. Double Garratts were relatively rare south of here, as double headers were more often in the early days double smalls, and in later years a small and Garratt.

59 60 fassifern steam train
Double headers were common and almost always involved a garratt. Her a 50 + garratt haul a general goods up near the top of the grade

Booragul Curve

Moving north towards Booragul, the only way was to walk beside the tracks, as the road went back to the main Toronto road and then eventually caught up with the rail line near the end of the Booragul curve. I remember the 38s on the Flyer used to maintain 50 mph up the grade going south. There was nothing like the sound of a 38 working hard at speed.

booragul fassifern 3820 newcastle flyer
3820 on 72 Newcastle Flyer climbs up Fassifern bank from Booragul in November, 1972

Variety is the spice of life and at Fasifern there was plenty. In addition to the coal trains, main line expresses and branch line traffic you would get 269 daily pick up seen here with 5906 in charge.

5906 269 pickup steam train fassifern
5906 on 269 pick up shunts “s” trucks at Fassifern Brake vans are rare these days

Note the semaphore “home” signal for the branch line in the foreground. Fassifern was a manual signal box, worked by hand. Away from the station there was an automatic colour light system. I really loved this place because it was a throw back to the old days. From my early days I dreamed of modelling this station as it had everything. I know George Bambery built a huge shed to model the Fassifern area. Regrettably George passed away before I could see it. I am, however starting my model railway collection for the second time with a small portion of George’s collection. Looks like I will get a “mini” Fassifern after all. Space is simply not enough to faithfully replicate all of the infrastructure in the area.

3067 toronto fassifern steam train loco cowboy cars
3067 at Fassifern on a Newcastle bound commuter train from Toronto1968

One of my fondest memories of Fassifern was at night. I had set up on the up just south of the station for the North West Mail in freezing conditions with tape recorder in hand. I remember then 30 accelerate out of the station with a piercing chime whistle and a few wheel slips as she gained traction on the greasy rails. It is one of those memories I shall cherish forever.

Occasionally we would get a surprise on the bank, such as a 38 on a string of 4 wheel “S” trucks. 38s normally worked the Newcastle Flyer or double headed with Garratts, so a lone 38 was quite unusual.

3822 s truck steam train locomotive fassifern
3822 heads a string of 4 wheel “S” trucks over the top of the grade. These are relegated to history now

I have one more special recollection of Fassifern. During Pope’s week in December, 1970, I was fortunate enough to catch a ride in the cab of class leader 3801. This was a real privilege, as this engine was withdrawn from regular service in 1965, making it nearly impossible to get a cab ride. The reason I managed to was that Bob Salter, who was one of the drivers I had formed a friendship with, was in charge that day and he invited me up.

We were so sophisticated that we would check out the charge sheets at Gosford loco and find out who was driving the train. From memory my favourite drivers were jack Jones, Arthur Giligan and Bob Salter, plus Sid Kemp from Everleigh. A Sydney driver would take 21 morning Flyer north from Sydney to Newcastle, coming back on 32 evening flyer. The rest were operated by a Newcastle crew from Gosford.

Anyway, on this day, I was the fireman on 3801. After setting the fire for the bank on the way from Awaba, I had time to rush across the tracks and get a picture in the station. Fortunately for me the platform cars were much lighter than the air conditioned HUB cars on the Flyer.

3801 fassifern 37x cowboy cars
During Pop’s week in December 1970 steam trains replace some railcar services. Here 3801 stops to take on passengers before the climb up the 1 in 40 with yours truly setting the fire

I managed to get another shot of 3801 hauling 71 midday Newcstle Flyer on the straight from Awaba to Fassifern. The Flyer would often speed up to 70 mph on this 3 mile section of track, before slowing down for the curve through the station making sure you always had to work on the bank.

3801 fassifern awaba newcastle flyer steam train locomotive
3801 speeds out of Awaba along the straight to Fassifern. The Flyer often reached speeds of 70 mph on this stretch of track before slowing for the curve into the station

No article on Fassifern would be complete without a picture of Newstan. As it turned out on the day I was there 6029 was around. This of course is the Garratt that was just returned to working order by the ARHS in Canberra. That day she was side by side with 6042, the last of the Garratts, and the last steam loco built for operation in NSW.

6029 6042 newstan colliery coal train steam loco garratt fassifern
6029 and 6042 at Newstan preparing trains for the trip to Port Waratah

I trust you enjoyed my reminisces of Fassifern back in the 60s and 70s. Perhaps you can see why I fell in love with this small railway station and surrounds. I conclude with a slide show of some of my shots.

View more shots of Fassifern and other areas north of Gosford in our new book, “Northern Exposures”. Order by clicking on the button below.

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Fassifern steam tains




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