NSW Steam Loco Drama At High Speed

When Enginemen Used To Thrash 38 Class Steam Locomotives To The limits

The last 38 was taken out of regular service in December 1970. After 27 years hauling many prestigious trains, often at faster schedules than the diesels that replaced them.


During steam days, there were a couple of record attempts. The most famous, the SPER trip with 3801 to Newcastle that just failed to do the journey under 2 hours. The other speed trip I recall was with 3818 to Goulburn, which fell short of the 3 hours. In both cases it was due to checks in running, not the capability of the loco.

3818 on the Southern Highlands Express 1967

In 1971, with quite a few 38s still serviceable, the idea occurred to see how far a 38 could go in a day. The result was trips to Cootamundra and to Werris Creek and return in a single day.

3827 looks magnificent on the Cootamundra Tour 1971

The Southern line presented something special for steam. Once you passed the hills between Sydney and Goulburn, the countryside opened up, providing the possibility of long high speed running. 3827 hauled the first trip to Cootamundra, and I was on board. Inspector Stewart Bates boarded at Goulburn and the fun began.

Across the flat and straight Bredalbane Plains, we clocked 80 mph, at this stage one of the fastest steam runs for me. Then after flying through Jerrawa and up the hill, we started the descent into Yass Junction. The driver opened the throttle and we hurtled down the grade reaching 90 mph for about a mile. I had heard that 38s could go this fast, but only witnessed it briefly on a special with 3616 and 3801 thrashing through Illabo at 90 mph on a tour.

012216_1546_NSWSteamLoc4.jpgWith such a successful trip, the RTM decided to run another a few weeks later, this time with 3820. The load was slightly lighter, and again, after a considerable caning by the crew, 3820 nudged 90 mph into Yass Junction. Another attempt was made north of Cootamundra with disasterous consequences. Looking out the window as the train rounded a wide curve at just under 80 mph and accelerating, I saw a flame coming from the valve gear. The big end bearing had caught on fire. We rapidly slowed a limped into Cootamundra.


While lunch was taken a crowd of fitters and others manufactured a new bearing, and we eventually left under steam power, although rather behind schedule. By now it was late afternoon, enabling a great sunset shot of the train.

3820 cootamundra
3820 Near Cootamundra In Late Afternoon Light 1971

Soon after, 3820 failed and we were hauled home by a 44 class diesel. Not a great end, but a very entertaining and interesting day out.

A third trip to Cootamundra used 3813, the other 38 which hauled flyers until the end. This one I didn’t ride on, but was far more sedate. By this time the enginemen just wanted to get back home!

There was a day trip to Werris Creek as well in 1969. This featured 3827 between Gosford and Broadmeadow and 3813 for the rest of the journey. On the way back, Bob Salter, a Broadmeadow Driver I knew well, opened the throttle between Wyee and Wyong, and we notched up 78 mph, with an over 70 mph average between Warnervale and Wyong.

3813 Werris Creek Day Tour 1969

Regrettably, steam is restricted these days. Last time a 38 ran it had the boiler pressure reduced and was restricted to 100 kph or 60 mph. Locos now have speedos and speed recorders fitted, so there is little likelihood that these feats of speed will ever be repeated. Makes you yearn for the good old days!

Lenses South” is a new book due out in May that captures many images from those days. There are several shots of the Riverina Express south of Goulburn, but my favourites are those between Campbelltown and Goulburn with soft winter lighting, massive steam trails, and beautiful scenery.

192 pages of beautiful colour photos. A must for any collection. http://lensessouth.com


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