NSW steam trains travelled to Merriwa from 1917 until the early 1970s. Regrettably the line was closed in 1988, at least the section from Sandy Hollow to Merriwa.
The Merriwa Railway Line
This line stretches from Muswellbrook in the upper hunter valley west through the wine growing region of Denman and progressed through good old Australian bush country to Sandy Hollow, now home to a major Horse Breeding operation. From there to Merriwa the line crosses more bush and farmland, with a final climb over the great divide, to reach the wheat belt. Situated on the Western slopes, Merriwa is 875′ above sea level. The main cargo from Merriwa back in the days was wheat.
Curve and Gradient Diagrams Of The Merriwa Line
Extension From Sandy Hollow To Gulgong
The Sandy Hollow to Maryvale rail line is one that has always been of interest to me. The western line from Sydney crosses the Blue Mountains, and the rail line climbs and winds its way slowly over this natural obstacle. When NSW was formed as a colony, there seem no way to cross this formidable range and for years no one knew what lay to the West of the great divide. A relative of mine, John Blaxland, led the first successful crossing and the railway line eventually followed with the completion of the Zig Zag deviation near Lithgow in 1869.
The Zig Zag Railway, of which I am a founding member, now operates a 3’6″ line using Queensland locos and carriages from Queensland, NSW and South Australia. Regrettably at the time of writing steam operations are on hold due to paperwork to satisfy government regulators that the operation is safe. We are hoping trains will resume in the near future as it is the only regular steam operation in NSW. Those of you in the UK and other countries will realise this is a national disgrace! The state of steam here has really deteriorated in the last few years.
The route from Newcastle through to Muswellbrook on the other hand, is relatively flat and straight. In the 1860s, a line was surveyed from Sandy Hollow through to Gulgong to join up with the rail line to Maryvale. Muswellbrook station was opened in 1869, the same year as the Zig Zag. It is rather incredible to understand the forethought of people back in those days. Despite many years of lobbying and planning High Speed Rail is still not happening in Australia. Were it the 1860’s it would have happened years ago! This was a way to bring wheat to the port of Newcastle in a much easier and faster way than crossing the Blue Mountains. Work commenced in 1937 and continued until 1951. At this stage it was over 90% completed. I actually drove over the rail bed which included driving through one of the tunnels.
In the 1980s, following construction of a huge coal mine at Ulan, the rail line was finished as far as Gulgong and is now a busy coal line. Regrettably the somewhat spectacular line was only finished well after NSW steam trains had ceased operations.
Gulgong itself is a fascinating town. It features on the original Australian $10 note and is one of the old Gold Rush towns, formed in 1870. One of the distinguishing features is the “Prince Of Wales” Opera House which amongst other things is the centre for the annual folk festival which we have performed at. It is a really charming place and a great heritage town.
Back to Merriwa Steam Trains
We left school on Friday afternoon, and headed north to Broadmeadow on 31 Newcastle Flyer. From there, we headed straight for the dispatch office to work out movements north. We managed to find a double 44 which was going north towards Werris Creek and hopped aboard the cab for the ride to Muswellbrook. This was a full load and I distinctly remember the driver applying the brakes on a hill near Allandale. It seemed to take an eternity for the instructions to activate the triple valves in the 122 ton load, and eventually we saw the train slowing. Unless you have seen this, it is hard to understand just how difficult it is to stop a long train. Drivers have to anticipate speed restrictions well before they encounter them.
By early morning we reached Muswellbrook and said goodbye to our freight. Now we waited around for the Merriwa train to be assembled. The line heads out across the plains to Denman. It is open country flanked by vineyards. For this section we had a consist of ‘S’ wagons plus the guard’s van. At Denman we stopped to shunt and drop off a few wagons. We picked up a 4 wheel ‘K’ as well. Up until the 1970’s four wheel wagons were very common. Now they simply don’t exist, being replaced by large container flat tops and high speed bogie cars. The crew agreed to allow us to ride in the guard’s van, something that is missing these days and was absent on our fast freight too! In due course, 3075 headed west towards Merriwa.
Our first stop was Denman, where the above photo is taken. These days it is an important wine growing area and part of the upper hunter. We dropped a few wagons for the climb towards Sandy Hollow. Leaving Denman, the line starts a 1 in 50 climb, the steepest on the line and passes through bushland with large sandstone rocks overhead. This is real Aussie bush, and the area where some famous bushrangers such as Happy Jack (John Gilbert) and Captain Thunderbolt, while Martin Cash, the only man credited as having escaped from Port Arthur, lived in the district too. This was clearly the wild west and the many bush caves made ideal hideouts.
The train passes some of the bush where caves and sandstone escarpments made a great hideout for the many bushrangers in the area
By Sandy Hollow the country again opens up for the run home to Merriwa with one final climb over a 1 in 50 grade before a steep descent into the final stop. The photos we obtained on the trip were courtesy of the crew who obligingly stopped along the way, let us out and then reversed the train to do a run for our cameras. This is the way the Australian country folk were back in days that were much more relaxed and without so many strict rules.
It was exciting riding in the van as we neared our destination. This was not an express by any means. The entire trip was 50 miles or 80 kilometres and took 6 ½ hours! For me it was a great experience as at the time there were very few remaining steam branch lines.
The final destination of Merriwa was reached in due course. The engine was turned on the turntable, and watered for the return trip in the evening.
3075 arrives at Merriwa
The return trip to Muswellbrook happened in the evening. It was a bit faster with less shunts to perform. On arrival, I spent some time in the signal box. They had a brand new CTC control system which replaced the staff and ticket system from Singleton north. We watched station workers throw and catch large parcels clearly marked “Fragile” from the platform, and wondered how much breakage was done.
We managed to hitch a ride back to Broadmeadow on a passing freight and then a rail car to Gosford and electric EMU interurban home. I had absolutely no sleep on this trip and from memory arrived exhausted after being awake for over 40 hours. I slept the rest of Sunday. Such is the dedication of railfans and the extremes we go to in order to get the shots! Merriwa was no exception.
Brilliant Colour Photos Of The Merriwa Line
By far the best full colour photos I have seen on the Merriwa line and another story of a friend’s trip to the area, is in “Northern Exposures”. This is a collaboration of colour photos and anecdotes from the most accomplished and published steam train photographers. Go to htttp://northernexposres.com.au for details and to purchase this book due out in August, 2014.