The International Steam Pages
“Billy” and his siblings – Victoria’s narrow-gauge lines
Robert Hall writes about some of the lesser known corners of the Victorian railway system. For those who are not familiar with Victoria there is a mpa of the railways in 1930 here on which the locations of the lines are shown - http://www.vrhistory.com/VRMaps/Vic1930.pdf. For a map of each line use the links on this page - http://www.members.optusnet.com.au/narrow.gauge/index01.htm.
Australia’s “Puffing Billy” line must be among the world’s half-dozen best-known and best-loved narrow gauge railways. There seems to be agreement among most railway enthusiasts, even those not particularly passionate about narrow gauge steam, that this line is an engaging thing. PB is in fact the last survivor of – in this author’s view – any substance, from several local lines all of 762mm (2ft 6in) gauge, belonging to the railway undertaking of the Australian State of Victoria; all, essentially, with stock and equipment of the same standard types. In a serious commercial transport role, their collective life-span “bracketed” and slightly exceeded, the first half of the twentieth century. This piece, musing on these to my mind delectable railways, owes a great debt to the comprehensive and lavishly illustrated book on the subject, “The Narrow Gauge – Whitfield / Gembrook / Crowes / Walhalla” by Nick Anchen, published 2012, http://www.sierraaustralia.com/the-narrow-gauge.html - link dead by 26th April 2014. Thanks also to Roderick Smith, for additional information.
Many of those who like narrow gauge, find the “two-and-a-half-foot” gauge a particularly appealing one; whether in its Continental Northern European 750mm or Austro-Hungarian 760 mm persona or the 762mm one which basically obtains in the rest of the world. I would speculate that the “two-foot”, while fascinating in its own right, is so narrow as to be threatened at times, with taking on an outright “miniature” aspect. As my favourite railway author of all time puts it, “you can make a metre, and almost a 750/760/762mm line look like a standard one, but below about 2ft 6in you have to cut your coat to your cloth”. Two-and-a-half-feet is pretty well as charmingly narrow-gauge as one can get, without fear of teetering on the edge of Heywood / Greenly / Howey country, where by no means all enthusiasts wish to go. Railways of this gauge featured in various parts of the British Empire, but were not super-abundant there save in India / Pakistan. In a public-railways context, Victoria’s narrow-gauge lines were the only instance of the gauge, in Australia. Tasmania and Queensland had a few public railways of 610mm (2 feet) gauge; elsewhere in Australia, anything “public” was 1067mm (3ft 6in) or wider.
Victoria had four of these lines, narrow-gauge single terminal branches geographically separated from each other. Or perhaps “four and a quarter” – the “quarter” being the Port Welshpool Tramway, 762mm gauge but horse-worked, which from 1905 to 1941 linked the Victorian Railways broad-gauge line at Welshpool, 150km south-east of Melbourne, to the sea 5km away at Port Welshpool. Its role, to quote Anchen, was to convey “fishing produce from the Port Weshpool jetty...along with general goods and passengers, carried on basic wooden trolleys”. The rise of road transport finally caused the end of this always-obscure line.
The other, and “normal”, four in the Victorian Railways 762mm family – in each case, main-line junction mentioned first -- were “Puffing Billy” just east of Melbourne, maximum extent Upper Ferntree Gully – Gembrook; Wangaratta – Whitfield, in the north-east of the state not far from the Melbourne – Sydney main line’s state-border-crossing point; Colac – Beech Forest -- Crowes, in remote country some 125km south-west of Melbourne; and Moe – Walhalla, about 100km east from Melbourne. The lines’ kilometrages varied between 29 (the Gembrook line) and 70 (Colac – Beech Forest --Crowes). With the Australian love of diminutives -- the lines going to Whitfield, and to Beech Forest, were often fondly referred to as respectively the Whitty, and the Beechy. There is some suggestion that the Gembrook line may have likewise been called the Gemmy. As for the last of the foursome: it is understood that Walhalla, Victoria, is pronounced “Woll-halla” – regardless of what the Norsemen of old may have said. Seemingly the narrow-gauge line serving this town, did not get the nickname of “the Wally”. Concerning one of the others: thoughts of a notorious British gent who did his stuff in the 1960s, prompt the feeling that “the Beechy” has an ill-omened sound as a nickname for a rural local line.
As regards the scenes traversed: the Whitfield line ran through pleasant but unexciting pastoral country. The other three lines included, in different ways, impressively hilly and scenic stretches. Generally reckoned best for scenery was Moe – Walhalla, a switchback route running in its 41km length, from 70m above sea level at the former, via a 407m summit en route, to 316m at the latter. In the parts toward Walhalla terminus, this line performed acrobatics which have prompted comparisons to the Welsh Highland, and even to the 914mm gauge in the Colorado Rockies.
VR’s 762mm gauge has been, throughout, overwhelmingly steam-worked. The principal loco type involved, is the class NA 2-6-2T. These attractive, tall-chimneyed locos are familiar, probably, to most enthusiasts, from numerous pictures / films of them at work on Puffing Billy. They are perhaps likely to strike a particular chord with British railfans, thanks to a certain semblance in them of a rugged, “colonial” variant of the assorted 2-6-2T and 2-6-4T types which have run on many of the narrow-gauge lines of Great Britain and Ireland. A total of seventeen NA were built, between 1898 and 1916; the first two by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in the USA, the rest at VR’s Newport works. Much swapping-and-switching of NA was done over the decades, between different narrow-gauge sections. Six NA remain in existence at the present day, five of them active, all stationed on the Puffing Billy line.
The only other VR 762mm steam type, was the class G 2-6-0 + 0-6-2 Garratt. There were two of these, numbers G41 and G42, built by Beyer Peacock; they entered service in 1926. The Colac – Crowes and Moe – Walhalla lines were reckoned “Garratt-worthy”, by reason of steeply-graded and demanding routes and / or high traffic volume. G41 was allocated to the former line, G42 to the latter. The two articulateds gave good service, helped out as necessary by class NA. On closure of the Moe line in 1954, G42 was overhauled at Newport, and then transferred to join G41 at Colac. The Garratts shared work on this line up to 1960, when worn-out G41 was taken out of service and cannibalised to keep her sister running, until the line’s closure in June 1962. After this sad event, G41 was scrapped -- G42 survived, to come into the hands of Puffing Billy’s preservation society; who restored the loco over many years, so that she is now on PB’s active roster.
It is interesting that public railways in Australia of all the gauges which have been in public use there, have employed Garratt locos – even if in some cases, in very small numbers – save only on the 1600mm (5ft 3in) gauge which has been “standard” in the south-east of Australia; and narrow-gauge G41 and G42 can be seen as having, however minimally, flown the Garratt flag in that part of the continent. These locos were designed to be convertible to the 1435mm or 1600mm gauges, although that was never in fact done.
Coaching stock on the VR 762mm gauge was of a fairly standardised pattern of clerestoried bogie vehicles: initially offering first- and second-class accommodation -- this distinction phased out on the narrow gauge circa 1920. Special semi-open coaches were devised for the Gembrook line, with its big excursion traffic. Introduced from about 1910 on, were bogie brake vans with windows only in the centre doors, and including rather Spartan seating for a few passengers. These brake vans were convenient when the decline of passenger use on most lines, prompted the withdrawal of specific passenger facilities; there being offered henceforth, only “freight trains with passenger accommodation”.
The VR 762mm gauge ventured into the internal-combustion-railmotor field, to a very small extent. All lines except for that to Gembrook employed at one time or another, small motor trolleys used to convey mail, and parcels and packages, on days when no loco-hauled trains ran. The Whitfield line went a little further in this area – this to be described when this section dealt with more fully, below.
As intimated earlier: in the role of commercial carriers (as opposed to preserved-and-pleasure lines) the Victorian narrow-gauge railways’ life-span ran from first line’s opening in 1899, to last line’s closure in 1962. The same scenario here, one feels, as for the majority of the globe: these lines were well-used and deeply appreciated, until road motor transport truly took off – after that, in respect particularly of passenger traffic, the “everyday” customers mostly deserted them.
Although in their day the lines got plenty of use, services on them were always greatly on the meagre side --except with the Gembrook route, which was on the edge of the Melbourne metropolitan area. This line had in its prosperous first three-decades-odd, quite a generous service of passenger and mixed trains; it may be that in its earlier days, it had at its inward end a certain amount of commuter use to / from the capital. In earlier times, the line also carried copious freight; chiefly timber, especially from the route’s upper reaches, and potatoes. The Gembrook line was also very popular from the first, as an excursion venue for Melbourne city dwellers to make trips into the beautiful wooded hills just east of the city: special excursion trains, very well patronised, ran regularly at weekends and holidays.
From the early 1930s, the Gembrook line’s fortunes declined sharply. Even in its busy heyday, it had made heavy financial losses; with road motor transport in the ascendant, traffic and receipts lessened drastically. As soon as plentiful and efficient bus services became available, most local people deserted the painfully slow narrow-gauge passenger workings; the amount of freight conveyed by the line, nose-dived too. Only the weekend-and-holiday excursion business continued to flourish. From the 1930s on, the Victorian Railways periodically considered abandoning this stretch of the system. However, the line struggled on through and beyond World War II -- reduced finally, to a return mixed train three days a week, plus excursion workings. By this stage, motive power, rolling stock and track were in poor physical shape. The agony was brought to an end by a substantial landslide in August 1953, which obliterated a stretch of track about a third of the way up the line. After a few half-hearted endeavours to rectify the damage, all services on the line were suspended, and it was officially closed in April 1954. How the railway in fact lived happily in further times (“ever after” being beyond anyone’s foreseeing abilities), will be covered later.
The Whitfield and Walhalla lines’ services were always sparse, compared with those to Gembrook. The 50-km-long “Whitty” never ran more than one return mixed per day; originally Mon – Sat, pared down over the decades, to just two days a week by 1930. In that year, the designated “mixed” service ceased: there was thenceforth one return freight per week over the whole line, plus a return freight on another day of the week, between Wangaratta and Moyhu, about halfway along the route – any passengers were welcome to travel in the brake van, on payment of appropriate fare. With loco-hauled passenger accommodation having largely “bowed out” so far back in the line’s history, railmotors of a kind were resorted to in a supplementary capacity, from early on. From the World War I period, motor trolleys were brought in to run a return working on non-train days, carrying mail, newspapers, parcels, and sometimes (uncomfortably) a few passengers. Over the years, as the number of “train days” lessened, the number of “trolley days” increased correspondingly. This situation was, in a bucolic sort of way, modernised and rationalised in 1937. A kind of four-wheel “micro-railbus” – with roof and sides – was built. Pictures depict it as having a highly home-made look – but it may well in fact have been constructed at VR’s Newport works. The unit had an accompanying four-wheel trailer for light goods; the powered vehicle was able to accommodate several passengers. From 1937 until the line closed in 1953, this ensemble made a return trip on the line every weekday save for the one day on which the steam-hauled freight ran Wangaratta – Whitfield throughout. The powered unit was painted in a cheerful red-below, grey-above, livery – photographs show the whole set-up as having a wonderfully gimmicky “Colonel Stephens” aspect.
The end came for the Whitfield line in 1953. From early 1952, freight workings had been cut back to Moyhu, owing to severe bushfires causing damage beyond there; it was possible for the railmotor to continue to run beyond Moyhu, and it duly maintained a daily service. VR abandoned the line w.e.f 10th October 1953. The last designated steam-freight day, was four days earlier. The railmotor’s last working – with due burlesque ceremonial and funeral obsequies conducted by a fair crowd of local folk – took place on the 10th; and the line was subsequently lifted.
This railmotor and the service it rendered, seem to have been regarded by its clientele with much humorous affection. They gave it the unofficial title of the “Spirit of Salts” – a wry homage to the “Melbourne – Sydney” express the “Spirit of Progress”, in those days hauled by an impressive streamlined Pacific, which ran through Wangaratta. The S of P’s prestige-train status was somewhat marred by Australia’s notorious weirdness about gauges; until this business was sorted out in the early 1960s, passengers between Melbourne and Sydney unavoidably had to change trains at Albury on the State boundary, between Victoria’s 1600mm gauge and New South Wales’s 1435mm. Long-suffering travellers cherished an “urban myth” to the effect that the railway administrations of the two states conspired evilly together, to make sure that this train-changing ritual at Albury always happened in the middle of the night...
The Moe – Walhalla line opened in 1910, significantly later than most of the rest of Victoria’s 762mm gauge; this line bears a little of a “white elephant” aura, in that its outer terminus the gold-mining town of Walhalla, came to the end of possibility for profitable gold production, a very short while after the railway’s arrival. The railway did more to assist in the dismantling of the town and the carrying away of its assets and contents, than to serve any prospering mining enterprise. The line did have considerable other traffic sources, involving locations further-in from Walhalla.
Be Walhalla’s vicissitudes as they may have; the line functioned on a basis of one return mixed train on a given day (basically ex Walhalla, or other terminus in latter years, in the early morning, connecting at Moe with the morning broad-gauge train to Melbourne; return run arriving back at the top end, mid-afternoon), from opening until a few years before closure. The mixeds ran, over the decades, on a varying number of days per week; depending on traffic levels. From about the First, to the Second, World War, a motor mail-trolley filled in on non-train days. The easternmost and most spectacular quarter of the route, faded into abandonment between 1944 and 1952; mixed trains on the truncated line ceased to run in 1951, with what few passengers there may have been, taking to the freight train’s brake van for the last few years. The “last rites”, with the final freight working over the remaining 32km from Moe to Erica, took place in June 1954; as recounted above, Garratt G42 was sent off for overhaul, and then to Colac to share the workload there with classmate G41. Interestingly -- the end came as regards genuine commercial service, to three of Victoria’s 762mm gauge lines within the space of a year: August 1953 to June 1954.
Out of the VR narrow gauge’s lines – all of them attractive in their ways -- it would seem fair to see Puffing Billy and the Colac line as the bigger players on the scene, with the Whitfield and Walhalla lines in supporting roles. Seeking for a British parallel, it could be suggested that “PB” was Victoria’s Snowdon Mountain Railway; and Colac, its Festiniog – the Colac line having been the one of the group, always busiest with freight: to the extent of its outlasting the other three, in a context of “real” service, for most of a decade. Also, by a significant margin, the n/g family’s longest line. Connected with the VR broad gauge at Colac, on the Melbourne – Warrnambool route; ran southward thence, into the Otway mountain range – picturesque, but described as the wettest and least climatically welcoming part of Victoria. Opened in 1902 over the 46km from Colac to Beech Forest, subsequently the line’s “Crewe”, and the at the time designated development centre for this remote region.
The line was extended south-westward from BF – opening in 1911 – for 24km through the mountains to the lonely location of Crowes: the southernmost railway station ever on mainland Australia, just 8km from the Southern Ocean – which could be seen from various points on the extension. The Crowes line was accessed via a reversal at BF; a balloon loop was laid down, to facilitate direction-changing.
As on Puffing Billy, principal freight commodities conveyed on the “Beechy” were timber products, and potatoes; though both offered in greater volume on the Colac line, than on that near the metropolis. Information about the Colac line’s passenger services seems a little confusing, but indicating essentially, in the halcyon years up to about 1930, at best a daily mixed train over each section. After this, fewer mixed trains ran per week, but that “deal” basically continued until just after WW II. Subsequently, end of designated “mixed” service; thenceforth, freight trains only, intending passengers could pay their fare and travel in the brake van. As at a few years after WW II, scheduled service on the line was down to one return freight train per week, with additional special workings if required – this situation obtained until closure. In the mid-1950s, the freight service was withdrawn over the final 15-odd kilometres between Weeaproinah and Crowes.
However sparse action on the Colac section may have become in its final decade, the line lasted long enough for railway enthusiasts in its “catchment area” to have become relatively numerous. Wednesday was train day in the last years, with the freight leaving Colac early in the morning, working to Beech Forest and, with decent luck for the gricer, on to Weeaproinah; getting back to Colac “some time p.m.” With brake-van passenger accommodation offered, the Wednesday freight usually played host in the van to at least a couple of railfans, at times a whole bunch (and very occasionally, a local “real person” travelling to where they needed to go). Sometimes, when there was a biggish crowd of enthusiasts, a second brake van was attached to the train, to furnish more room for the “fans” and/or to give the guard a bit of peace. Haulage was usually Garratt – G42, or G41 until she expired in 1960 – the line’s decrepit NA 2-6-2Ts deputising if no Garratt was available. Photographs taken at this latter end of the line’s life depict impressively long and heavily-loaded trains; this being however, partly a function of a whole week’s traffic being saved up for the once-weekly working. By the late 1950s, the “Beechy” was in fact in a bad way, with traffic lessening, and the track in poor shape and the locomotives wearing out.
A shortlived brightening-up occurred for the line in its last few years. Local enterprise, co-operating with railway enthusiast groups, ran between 1959 and 1962 a fair number of pleasure excursions from Colac to end-of-line at Weeaproinah and return. Coaching stock was borrowed for the purpose, from the temporarily dormant Gembrook (“Puffing Billy”) line. These specials proved very popular, giving rise to thoughts of the 762mm gauge here possibly having some future as a tourist line. Such hopes were not realised; plus, in mid-1962 the coaches had to go back to “PB”, which was about to reopen under preservation aegis.
In his articles in Britain’s “Railway Magazine” reporting on his visit to mainland Australia and Tasmania in late 1960, the much-travelled enthusiast Peter Allen touches on the Victorian 762mm gauge. He mentions enquiring after “Puffing Billy”, and discovering the “hiatus” situation (described below) with broad-gauge electrification being through to Belgrave, and the preservation society striving to reinstate things east from there. And he recounts a day-trip to Colac (not on a Wednesday), which turned out to be a melancholy experience. Quoting the article, “...the wind and the rain rose until, when we reached Colac, it was blowing a gale from the South Pole, with rain in continuous horizontal sheets. I don’t ever remember a day when my hobby was so hard to enjoy. Slopping across the yard, richly covered with soaking grass, it was as much as one could do to raise the eyes to look at and perfunctorily photograph 2-6-2 tank No. 14A and Garratt No. G41 with a tar-paper hat over its funnel.” (The poor thing would either have just been, or was about to be, withdrawn.) “The other 2-6-0 + 0-6-2, No. G42, was in its stall and sizzling a little but without enough steam to be moved, or so it seemed, but the weather made it hardly worth while to ask.” (You wimp, Allen. You may well then have been in your sixties, but that’s no excuse...) He goes on to mention the “Puffing Billy” coaches present on the scene, and the opportunities for hiring them for excursion traffic. He concludes, though, “But over all, alas, there hangs the air of the sick room of a man with a fatal illness. ‘Poor fellow,’ you say to yourself as you drive away, ‘he can’t last long’.” Although Allen’s visit was decidedly on a bad day, and in the event, the patient lingered on for another year and a half; it must be conceded that here, he had the rights of it.
The Colac narrow gauge was abandoned as at the end of June 1962. The very last working was on the final day of that month, an enthusiasts’ special using improvised stock. In Australia’s mid-winter, 30 / 6 / 62 was a cold, gloomy day in this cold corner of the country – appropriate for the sad occasion.
Although the Upper Ferntree Gully – Gembrook line’s career as a true commercial carrier had effectively finished in August 1953, after which the section lay out of use for well over a year; this proved in fact to be not at all the end of its life. An assortment in and around Melbourne, of well-wishers of the railway – including a local newspaper, the Melbourne “Sun” (cynics might suspect, perhaps more intent on publicising itself, than truly passionate about the narrow gauge) – plus an embryonic preservation society for the line; lobbied strongly for VR to take some action to revive the line in an excursion-train context, on no matter how modest a scale. This much-desired outcome came about at the very end of 1954, with passenger specials (the first ones, specifically for children) running over just the initial 5km between Upper Ferntree Gully and Belgrave. (The track-blocking landslip of 1953, was on the next section of the line east of Belgrave.) It proved possible, with co-operation between VR – who provided the actual operating staff – and the rapidly-growing preservation society, to continue with the trains running at weekends and public holidays on this short stretch, throughout the next few years. This service was at times, physically difficult to maintain; the available small handful of elderly NA 2-6-2Ts were not in good shape, and needed much nursing-along by their crews.
The general understanding is that the loved and universal name of “Puffing Billy” for this section of the VR narrow gauge, originated with the 1953 / 54 campaign for the saving of the line – whence the appellation and its use, speedily grew. This author finds such a name, a little off-puttingly twee as an official title for a railway, and considers that something geographical, would feel more dignified. However, “it is what it is”: and the preserved undertaking’s founding fathers did not see fit to consult me as to what they should call their railway (I being at the time, a little lad on the opposite side of the world).
The several years’ “Belgrave era” ended with the coming to fruition of a long-contemplated scheme. The 1600mm gauge Melbourne suburban line running into Upper Ferntree Gully had been electric since the 1920s, and extending the electric broad gauge up to Belgrave, for the convenience of commuters, had been under consideration for decades. This was at last implemented by VR in the late 1950s: the final Belgrave narrow-gauge excursion trains ran in February 1958, after which the 762mm gauge from UFG to Belgrave was wiped off the map with great speed, and the electric 1600mm pushed through to Belgrave. The preservation society was faced with the daunting tasks of establishing a completely new station and headquarters at Belgrave, and getting past the landslip a few kilometres further up the line. There were fears for a time, that all this would be beyond achieving – and some local spoilsports were actively opposed to the preservationists’ plans, and campaigned instead for VR to extend the electric broad gauge yet more, onward up the 762mm gauge route east from Belgrave.
Happily, the preservation society – with support from some well-disposed influential folk in VR – was able, with Herculean efforts, to accomplish what was necessary; including creating a deviation, with an extremely tight curve, around the landslip. At the end of July 1962 (a month after the “requiem” at Colac), Puffing Billy reopened, with full ceremony, from Belgrave (“New Station”), the 6km-odd eastward to Menzies Creek. Reopening further east continued in stages over the succeeding three-and-a-half decades, with trains at last returning to Gembrook in 1998. Until 1977, train crews still had to be provided by VR, with “preservationists” in ancillary roles; in that year, it was at last possible for the undertaking to be transferred totally into preservation-society hands. Through much of the 1960s, problems continued regarding the class NA locos, few in number (the brunt of things fell on nos. 6A and 7A) and in horrible mechanical condition, having to be somehow kept going. From the later ‘60s, further members of the class were acquired – in some cases, after spells of static preservation -- thus easing the situation.
With the Gembrook line having been, since its inception, very popular with day-trippers from the capital; its excursion trains, crowded with exuberant patrons, present a much-loved image, entrenched in folklore. Photographs from many decades ago show travellers on heavily-laden such workings clinging to the sides of the coaches, and riding in large numbers on the roofs, Indian-sub-continent style. It is gathered that antics of this kind are not countenanced by the railway’s current management; however, passengers in the semi-open coaches sitting sideways, with their legs hanging outside of the coach, are reckoned a time-honoured and perfectly acceptable part of the fun of Puffing Billy. In that connection: a certain major luminary (quite recently deceased) among British enthusiasts-for, and explorers-of, overseas railways and especially steam thereon; visited Australia -- I think for the only time -- in 1971. Totally “real” steam in that country, was then getting very scarce – his visiting Puffing Billy, was thus a “given”. This gentleman commands a lot of respect from me; but IMO, from time to time he got the odd strange bee in his bonnet. Writing of his visit to PB, he gives rather lukewarm approval to the undertaking, but then adds: “The whole affair is run mainly for the benefit and amusement of non-railfan kids, who sit with their feet dangling out of carriage windows, a practice as potentially dangerous as it is unphotogenic. Presumably a derailment and crop of mangled limbs will be necessary before the unfortunate habit is banned.”
I feel that the above-quoted can only be excused as a brief moment of insanity, afflicting one who was normally a shrewd and level-headed observer of the rail and steam scene. A sudden attack of what a gricing friend of mine calls “manic photter syndrome”. Some enthusiasts for whom artistic photography is the most important element in the railway hobby; appear at times anyway, to entertain the sentiment that in an ideal world, all steam trains should run completely empty – free of the annoyance of actual persons or goods to transport – so as to maximise the chances for rail-artistic-photographers to obtain master-shots. Will just say that that is the complete antithesis of what I feel railways to be all about; and that such a steam-rail scene would be for me, completely sterile and worthless.
“MPS” (newly-diagnosed mental disorder, as set out in full above) can radically change people’s normal priorities and perceptions. The late enthusiast who visited Victoria in ’71, usually came across as holding a generally robust and conservative world-view, scornful of modern society’s “namby-pamby” tendencies. Nonetheless, the traditionally beloved sight of a crowded PB train, legs hanging out – offensive to him because of its taking the aesthetic edge off his photting opportunity – converted him briefly, to health-and-safety zealotry. This railway hobby can be a very weird one...
In recent years, preservation activity has also taken place on another of Victoria’s one-time 762mm gauge lines: that between Moe and Walhalla. What has happened, has done so at the Walhalla (“top”) end of the route, with three and a half kilometres of 762mm gauge track being relaid, and various bridges rebuilt, along the very scenic stretch of line out of Walhalla. Paradoxically, this is part of the very first section of Victoria’s conventional narrow gauge to have been abandoned – in 1944. This Walhalla Goldfields Railway began operations on the abovementioned length of track in 2002, and has hopes in time, of extending further along the route – reopening all the way to Moe, is seemingly not on the agenda. Call me a miserable bigot, but what I see as preservation shenanigans of this kind, are very much not to my taste: for me, wonderful scenery or not, the whole line was abandoned and ripped up most of a lifetime ago – for pity’s sake, leave it alone -- don’t dig up the corpse / skeleton ! Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and for those whom the WGR may delight: good fortune wished, so long as my involvement is not required. At present, all the WGR’s own motive power is diesel – steam, belonging to other owners, has now and again briefly featured on the line.
Puffing Billy’s great success under preservation, has written a happier chapter to the story of Victoria’s narrow gauge, than one would feel that enthusiasts had any right to hope for. Lovely though these lines were, they were inaugurated at a time in history, re which it is felt that if their promoters had had the gift of prophecy concerning the soon-to-come burgeoning of road motor transport – they’d have said “forget it”, and Victoria’s 762mm sections would never have been.
Apart from the book mentioned above, pictures of the railways 'in their prime' seem not to be readily available, of course pictures of Puffing Billy post-preservation are another matter. Those below were all taken by Neil Smith, father of Roderick Smith who has sent them.
The first picture is shows a 'Young Sun' special at Upper Ferntree on 11th December 1954. These were for schoolchildren whose parents had collected tokens in the 'Melbourne Sun'. They were so successful that they were repeated shortly afterwards and then became a January season. This provided the impetus for the formation of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society. Roderick records that he (aged 5) and his brother (3) were aboard.
Neil Smith rode on an ARHS special hauled by G41 some time before closure of the Colac line: As can be seen there was still some timber traffic at the time.