Recording The Days Of Steam Trains South From Sydney

The Trigger For This Post

When I read the most recent episode of “Soul Of A Railway”, written by Les Pivnic about Braamfontein depot which supplied steam to Johannesburg South Africa, it triggered something in me I really hadn’t considered before.

south afric steam trains
15F’s were used on local passengers out of Johannesburg until 1960. This one I believe is near Germiston, just a few kms away. Taken in 1975

In the 1970s and 80s I travelled much of the world in search of steam, and with for the most part none of it was in major Cities. An exception was Paraguay, where the international train to Buenos Aires was steam hauled to the border. This was virtually the only train in that country, and the place was rather run down, so I guess it is not typical. There was steam operating out of East Berlin, but that was in the DDR. Certainly steam out of Johannesburg on regular passenger trains stopped in 1960 according to Les.

The Ferrocaril Carlos Antonio López ran from Ascuncion the capital of Paraguay to the Argentinian border at the pirana river. Seen here at Ypaparaj, there were no train brakes, and the dining car had live chickens in cages underneath ensuring that we ate fresh food!

Early Memories Of Steam Trains

I live in NSW, and grew up in Sydney, Australia, attending high school in the 1960s. The switch from steam started in the early 1950s, and by the time I joined the school railway club in 1964, many main lines were using electric or diesel power.

Steam disappeared from the North Coast line around 1960, north of Musswellbrook and west of Lithgow around 1967, south to Nowra in 1965 and south of Goulburn in 1964. From that point on there were a few remote branch lines, many of which closed in the following years.

Steam Out Of Sydney

By 1969, the year I completed my education, there wasn’t a whole lot left. So looking back I find it intriguing that one line with a high percentage of steam operations was the line south from Sydney to Goulburn. On top of that the main Sydney goods yard at Darling Harbour had one 41 class diesel and other than that was mostly steam operated, and Sydney station itself featured a majority of steam shunters.

3130 sydney terminal shunting steam trains
3130 shunting cars on number 1 platform at central station at midday on a cold, wet afternoon. C30ts were considered the best shunting locos until near the end of steam.

The “short” south from Sydney to Goulburn, as it turns out, was one of the last lines in NSW to have steam. One reason was electrification to Gosford and Bowenfels, resulting in the use of EMUs (Electric Multiple Unit railcars) on the electrified lines, and through diesel workings on long distance passengers. It is ironic that now, electric locos have disappeared, replaced by through working diesels.

I don’t think any of us realised how lucky we were at that time to still have mighty 38s leaving Sydney terminal daily with south bound passengers. For it to last until October 1969 is remarkable. In fact, until July that year, no 18 south, the express from Canberra to Sydney on a Sunday night (this was operated by a railcar on weekdays) was hauled at Riverina Express times from Goulburn to Sydney with a load well over 300 tons including 12 wheel cars.

3813 49 moss vale train 1969 sydney terminal
3813 heads out of Sydney on the very last steam run of 49 south to Moss Vale in brilliant sunshine. Note the steam from the steam heating in the cars, even though it was early October, 1969

From 1965 on, through trains which ventured further south than Goulburn (except 18) were diesel hauled. There was a rail car on no 13 Goulburn day train, and everything else from Sydney to Goulburn was steam.

Railways Of Australia

For those of you who aren’t aware of the development of Australian railways, the situation until the 1960s was that there was standard gage (4′ 8 1/2 “) in NSW, at the Queensland border it changed to 3′ 6″, this also happened at the South Australian border, and at the Victorian border, the gage switched to 5′ 3”. This was because each state of Australia was managed from Britain. When they started building railways, they each independently worked out what they thought was the best rail gage, probably never thinking that the country would be joined one day.

By 1969, only Sydney and Perth had any steam hauled rail services, and in the case of Western Australia it was a few locals on the midland line. Sydney stood alone in having country steam hauled passenger trains, a major loco depot at Enfield, and express passenger steam locos in regular operation.

A Special Situation

Looking back to that time, some 45 years ago (ouch) we were actually very lucky to be able to ride such trains as the steam heated Moss Vale train, the Southern Highlands Express and 18 south deep into 1969. At the time, I believe we had no idea how lucky we were.

southern highlands express 3811 goulburn steam train
The Southern Highlands Express was very popular amongst steam rail fans. Here 3811 climbing out of North Goulburn early one morning with a consist including 3 additional cars.

When “Northern Exposures” the book that is fast becoming the premier colour rendition and information history of end of days steam operations north of Sydney was published, we had a record of those times many of us lived through when the fires were finally extinguished of regular steam engine operations. Certainly, those last few years after chime whistles no longer rang out on the South were very special, and some even managed to photograph steam into the far northern reaches. But what of the south…..

A New Book Emerges

It didn’t take too long for it to dawn on the publication committee for NE that there was scope to do the same type of publication for the South. The word went out to the celebrated photographers and experts on railway operations and together we started researching material and searching far and wide for superior quality colour photos from those days.

While the new book will not be with us for a while, I can tell you it is well in process, and we have dug up some previously unpublished material that will raise a few eyebrows. It is going to be a ripper, and a record of the last days of steam in and around Sydney, as well as lines heading south.

By now you will understand the special place steam out of Sydney has in railway history, and before long there will be a permanent reminder befitting of this amazing city.

1945 steam engine darling harbour
1945 shunts Darling Harbour in 1970 with a 6 wheel tender. Built in the 1890s, they survived longer than many locos built much later.

Leave a comment on places you remember steam operated to large cities after country lines had gone diesel or electric.

John Gaydon



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