The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - Steam in Australia
VR steam, going out with a whimper or a bang?

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

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In 1972 I joined the volunteer locomotive cleaners who gave tour locomotives a shine at the Newport Workshops. This was once the place where much of the steam fleet and rolling stock had been built. Security was tight and a special pass enabled the group access and a chance to look at what was happening here.

J 515 is ready to be lit up for shunting duties on 29th July 1973. A couple of tour locomotives are stored under cover.

J 515 was retained at Newport as a standby for 2 diesel shunters that had not been a success and spent most of their lives as workshop shunters. If I saw the J was going to be used the following week I would try and visit to see it on the head shunt, desperate days for those who wanted some steam action! Both Ballarat and Bendigo also retained steam shunters, at the latter location they remained in use to the mid-70s, but it was a sad way to see working steam finish.

On 4th May 1974. 515 was not booked for work and was in open store alongside a R class Hudson, one of the tour locomotives. In the background are dumped locomotives and withdrawn electric suburban stock.

On 14th August 1973, J 550, an oil burner, shunts Bendigo Workshops, note the variety of 4 wheel wagons still being overhauled.

It's July 1992 and at first glance it seems Hudson R 766 is setting out from Melbourne on another tour train.

In fact the air conditoned VLine rolling stock indicates this is a regular service train to Geelong. 

By 1990 crews qualified to work steam were in short supply, Bob Evans manager of Melbourne Dynon Depot convinced the railway hierachy to qualify more steam crews. The stunning part of his proposal was that crew training would be conducted on regular timetabled services and include freight workings!

The tightly timetabled 09.55 Melbourne to Geelong was selected and its return working departing Geelong at 13.26. The trains were scheduled for one week during a school holiday period and the response from the public was such that the trains had to be strengthened from the regular 3 coaches to 9. That was a real challenge for the crews as they were instructed to maintain or better the diesel timings. In service days the R class were restricted to 60 mph, now they were working to the line speed of 70 mph to maintain the schedule.

By this stage I was using video in preference to still shots. I was invited by one of the drivers to film at Geelong depot. The crew serviced and turned the locomotive and grabbed a quick lunch as they were working to diesel timings. They told me they had exceeded 70mph. on the way to Geelong, but now Bob Evans who was mentoring the footplate crews was telling the crew to “really thrash the locomotive” on the return working. The R class were known to respond well to hard work. Both drivers and firemen were being assessed, whilst the R class were fitted with auto stokers the crews were also assessed hand firing the locomotives. At the time we had 3 different R class in service and they all were given a go on these trains.

On 24th September 1991, R 707 had been restored to service by a group of railwaymen, it is seen at speed returning to Melbourne.

707 departs Tallarook working upgrade to Seymour on 5th July 1994.

In July 1994 the program was changed to include an early morning working to Seymour that included some tough grades especially re-starting from stations. Tallarook station on a winter morning was magic as the big locomotives were pushed hard by their crews to maintain the schedule. There was no chance of a break at Seymour as the locomotive had to go on the depot, be serviced and turned ready for a quick turn around.

There was also a freight working that in 1994 saw a Melbourne (Tottenham yard) to Geelong working on a cement train. At this time there was little freight work other than inter-state container trains. There was a chance to combine this with an outer urban working that saw a K class 2-8-0 work a light passenger train to Baccus Marsh which passed by Tottenham. 

On the 6th July 1994 after spending the morning observing 766 on the Seymour train I drove to Geelong and picked up K 190 working unassisted on the cement train. This was a time period when a number of unauthentic liveries were in vogue, which did not affect the performance of the locomotive! This crew were working their small light lines freight locomotive to perfection. After keeping clear of following trains on the mainline the locomotive travelled on a freight only line to Tottenham yard. The work was not over for the crew as it was a real slog upgrade for several kilometres and I watched from a distance as the smoke produced was showing the fireman was hard at work. The exhaust from the locomotive bounced off nearby factories, which brought some of the workers out to see what was causing the noise. 1994 was both the highlight and curtain closure of several years of mainline steam on regular workings.

A day after seeing 707 on the Seymour train I was back to watch 766 in a new livery showing what her crew could do.

On the same day, the fireman has spotted the photographer and a couple of rounds provide some smoke as the cement train returns to Melbourne.

On 4th July 1999, R 711 heads out of Footscray on a West Coast Railway excursion. 

In Victoria, the railways and tramways (together with other government utilities) were early targets for privatisation. Most were leased to large overseas companies. However a consortium headed by rail enthusiasts bid successfully to run passenger services from Melbourne to Warrnambool (via Geelong). They formed the West Coast Railway (WCR), besides a fleet of elderly diesels they also employed 2 R class locomotives. R 711 had been used as a spare parts bank and was a major restoration project. W.C.R. had it converted to oil firing and both locomotives received modified front ends based on the work by David Wardale in South Africa. The most obvious change was the two separate chimneys, similar to the arrangement on the “Red Devil”.

The locomotives were also fitted to work in multiple with a diesel unit, controlled from the steam locomotive. This was the regular motive power for their Saturday service to and from Warrnambool, 160 miles from Melbourne. The operation came to an end in 2002 when 711 failed with a damaged superheater element. Following the premature death of one of the main instigators West Coast Railway was wound up and passed back into state ownership. This was the end of steam on regular service trains in Victoria, thankfully it had gone out in a way we could remember with the satisfaction of seeing steam performance at its best.

Rob Dickinson