As a teenager, I used to travel regularly to Gosford, and occasionally stay with my dad, who resided in Belmont at the time. I saw this as an excellent opportunity to travel on and record the trains in the Newcastle area. One of the more unique of these was the Singleton Passenger, a train with quite a history.
In researching the family tree, we discovered that my partner and I both descended from people who lived in the Hunter Valley back in the 1820s. For me it was the Blaxland brothers, John and Gregory. In addition to being credited as one of Australia’s most famous explorers with the first official crossing of the Blue Mountains in May 1813, Gregory was the first to export wine from Australia. This is now a major industry. Brother John had major vineyards in the area too, and was credited with construction of the road to Wollombi from Sydney. Many were not too happy about this as it finally gave convicts a way to escape from the Newcastle area. Previously this was the only way to reach this part of the world.
John Earle And Benjamin Singleton
One of My ancestor’s neighbours was one John Earle, who happened to be married to Anne Mounsey who had 3 children, one of whom is a direct descendant of my partner. John Blaxland and John Earle were involved in a court case against some of their workers who claimed they were unfairly treated. You have to remember Newcastle was the final frontier in those days and was like the wild west of the USA.
John Earle came out from England and was granted land for sheep farming just to the south of Singleton. Benjamin Singleton, the local constable after whom the town was eventually named, was not happy at this interloper taking land off the locals as he and his friends were grazing cattle in the area, just like in the wild west of the USA! John Earle’s reaction was to write to the Colonial Secretary and organise to replace Singleton as constable!
The Rail Line Reaches Singleton
The railway line reached this growing town in 1860. At that time the main centre of population was Maitland, located on the Hunter River. The railway extended to Newcastle in 1858, and then from Maitland to Singleton. The station at Singleton was designed by John Whitton, the same man who designed the Lithgow Zig Zag.
I am a founding member of the Zig Zag railway that today operates a 3′ 6″ railway over the old Zig Zag road. More reasons to be interested in the Singleton Passenger.
The Last Domain Of The “Nanny”
Of course, back in 1967, when I made my first trip on the Singleton passenger, I had no idea of all this. In those days the 35 class were the motive power. These were larger and younger than the 32 class. There were 35 “Nannies” built around 1915. These were larger engines and took over express running from the 32’s. The 35s worked the Brisbane Express and Gen Innes mail trains right up until 1966. In many parts of the state, the 36’s took over their runs just a few years later. In the 1960s the 35 class all ended up at Broadmeadow, working the short north, the Singleton Passenger, and Newcastle suburban lines. Perhaps the most famous train scheduled with a 35 was the “Caves Express” which was painted blue and travelled from Sydney to Mt Victoria with a coach connection to Jenolan Caves.
My Trip On The Singleton Passenger
I was fortunate enough to make the journey to Singleton on 737 singleton passenger, stopping all stations from Maitland before the demise of the 35 class in late 1968, with 3501 the last to go in October of that year. Only one of the class remains, 3526 which is still occasionally used on special trains.
The challenge for those of us interested in trains, at least from my era was youth. I was only 15 when I started venturing beyond Newcastle – on my own! This would be unheard of for most families these days. I was on limited pocket money, so I couldn’t afford the fares plus film for the camera.
How I Managed To Travel Widely With No Money
Those who know me understand I have a way of getting things done, and mere obstacles like lack of cash aren’t really a problem! Newcastle and Sydney at the time both offered school excursion tickets. For 10c during school holidays, you could travel as far north as Cowan from Sydney, and to Wyee from Newcastle. You could also travel to Singleton in the north from Newcastle. Basically, between these points, we would fare evade and hope we wouldn’t get caught by the ticket inspectors.
After a while, we knew their movements. Often they would get on the train at Woy Woy on the way to Sydney. They would get in the last car, so we travelled up front. At Hawkesbury River, we would get off the train and head for the other end passing around the other side of the station building, thus avoiding detection.
When we did get caught, we would tell them we got on at an unattended platform, avoiding a fine. Niagara Park was a good one to choose. In addition, you could purchase platform tickets to see someone off on a train. This gave us access to the platform. We simply hopped on the train and off we went. At least the trip on the Singleton Passenger was covered by the excursion ticket.
As for film, I bulk purchased black and white negative film, cut it into rolls, and developed the film in a darkroom in my mum’s laundry. She wasn’t too impressed, but I got away with it. If not for this, I wouldn’t have the collection I now have. As for colour, it was a rare treat, hence not too many slides from those days. Regrettably, I wasted much of the colour film on tours.
The Singleton Passenger was a commuter train. It boasted open end platform cars. These were originally used on the Sydney Suburban runs prior to electrification. They were great to ride on as on the platform you got your full quota of soot and steam.
Leaving Newcastle, the line headed due west into the sunset all the way to Maitland. It was a pretty straight run along there as can be seen from the following shot taken out of the cab of a 35 on the Singleton Passenger.
The line is double track as far as Hanbury Junction, where it joins the coal lines from Port Waratah. The Port has its own loco depot, and it was one of the most photogenic I have seen.
From there to East Greta Junction, just past Maitland there were 4 tracks, two for the main line and 2 for coal trains. In its heyday, this was one of the busiest lines in NSW, transporting massive amounts of coal to the port of Newcastle for export. Even today, Newcastle is the largest coal exporting port in Australia. Incidentally, Hunter Valley coal is considered the very best for firing steam engines and NSW was blessed to have it right in Newcastle!
The suburban line between Newcastle and Maitland was busy too. In 1968, when I visited there, I saw a procession of steam trains, including 35 class and standard goods on passenger trains.
As you can see, it was a great afternoon of lineside photography with great variety of motive power. Unfortunately in most parts of the world, what those who witnessed the last puffs of steam missed, was loco variety.
Even standard goods engines were required to haul the many local passengers in the days where people travelled by train rather than motor car.
All the above were taken in a single afternoon. It was a very busy line back in those days.
West Of Maitland
After East Greta, the track split with one line heading directly north via the coast to South Brisbane, while the mainline continued double track to Singleton. Unfortunately, I only managed limited shots of 35 class beyond Maitland due to the lack of a vehicle, or means of getting home at night! Even in 1968, the Singleton Passenger was the only steam hauled passenger beyond East Greta Junction.
The shot above is, for me, a rare colour picture in this part of the world. It was taken in May, 1968, not long before the last Nanny hauled this train.
Interestingly, the timetable for the Singleton Passenger was made specifically for the 35 class and perhaps was a last reminder of their glory days.
In January 1968, I rode on the Singleton Passenger all the way, and took the trouble to record times for the trip. I believe this is a rare timing, as not many did this beyond the Short North and Short South. It will be the subject of a separate article
The Demise Of The Nanny
After these were withdrawn from service, motive power switched to a 32 class. The main loco used in later years was 3246. By this time we had wheels, and were able to chase the train, along with many more railway photographers all the way from Singleton to Newcastle on a Saturday morning.
I do remember one occasion when I left home very early in the morning and drove all the way to Broadmeadow only to find 3246 sitting in the depot. Yes, it was a diesel passenger that day! On other days we had terrible weather, and then there was the fog!
Anyway, the train left Singleton very early in the morning. In the winter first light happened just past Whittingham, this was where the first photograph in this article was taken. This was the land owned by John Earle back in the early 1800s.
The train climbed out of Whittingham towards Belford on a 1 in 80 grade. With the cold morning air, you would often see a white plume of smoke over this section. After topping this grade, the “P” would drift into Belford station.
From there it was a fairly flat run to Branxton with a great opportunity as the train sped over a stone viaduct. Even though it stopped all stations and with a 32 in charge, we had to motor to keep up. By this time there were hoards of railfans following the train, darting here and there and grabbing the best photo spots.
Passengers board the train at Branxton. Note the clothing and hairstyles! Very different from nowadays. The second shot is the last train arriving at Newcastle.
There was a steady climb from the next station, Greta to Allandale, then the line drifts down to the flood plains of Maitland. For the most part, the tracks are a fair way from the main road, so we had to select a few spots on each trip.
You can see from the map how the line is well away from the New England Highway for most of the journey. The choice was to find a spot and wait, or catch a couple of locations and try to keep up with the train.
There was a lot of rain that year. 1971 was the year of a big flood in the Maitland area. For a while it rained and rained. Locals were quick to point out that this flood was nothing compared to the 1955 one and showed us the high watermarks of the two.
During the floods there were many challenges. First of all many roads were impassable, making it difficult to get there in the first place. Then it was a challenge to find a decent photo advantage point. As well many snakes had collected around the railway line, being the only dry place in town. This photo shows East Greta signal box during the floods. Nowadays, with diesels hauling all the trains, they can’t travel through flood waters. It was different in the steam days!
One particular spot of interest was Maitland Gaol. Situated at East Maitland, it was the longest running penitentiary in Australia, established in 1840 and not closing until 1998. There was a bridge just past the gaol, so we would race ahead, turn into East Maitland, pass under the railway bridge and turn right past the goal. One day we were in a good mood so we waived at the guards in the watchtowers. Big Mistake! A police car saw us and promptly pulled me over. They were very inquisitive as to why a bunch of young men from Sydney were driving around waving at the prison guards. In those days on a “P” plate, one conviction and you lost your right to drive for 3 months. One of my mates informs me that I reached into the glove box, and pulled out a sodden drivers license, at which stage the cop told us to get out of the place! Unfortunately, we missed the shot. I might add, a few years later in East Germany, the mate I was with on the former occasion was busy photographing an Express train on the Berlin Dresden line while I was conversing with a constable in an effort to maintain our freedom! We did get a photo near the gaol on another occasion.
From there, it was a straight, flat run all the way to Newcastle. There was a bit if a hill at Hanbury, where the coal line branched off to the Port, but apart from that was fairly uneventful.
Regretfully, all good things come to an end, and this great train ride was no exception. On July 24, 1971, 3246 had the honour of hauling the last scheduled steam hauled passenger in Australia, the singleton passenger from singleton to Newcastle. Although in the end it was a suburban run, it has a long history dating back to well before Sydney and Newcastle were connected by rail and will go down in history as being the last regular steam passenger in NSW with an 80 year old engine in charge! The 32 class was the oldest motive power built to haul passenger trains at the time! It had outlived its younger cousin, the 35 class by 3 years.
Those were the days!
For more information on the Singleton Passenger, see my article in the October 2013 edition of Australian Railway History, or for a more permanent record of steam in the north of NSW, our new full colour publication, “Northern Exposures” is the ultimate collection of photos from many of the very best railway photographers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Visit http://northernexposures.com.au to find out more.