When Regular Steam Trains Ran 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.

Here is a video of a WAGR V Class in action.

ex Western Australia and Tasmania Steam Locomotives Double Head on the BPR from reidgck on Vimeo.


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