After David and I got married we felt that rather than just travelling on steam tours we’d like to give something back so we became volunteer carriage cleaners. David didn’t last long. He worked for the railways and after a while he said that spending his weekends at the rail yards after being there all week was a bit much. However, I stayed for several years and although it was often hard and dirty work I enjoyed it and ultimately it did lead to me getting paid work.
At first the carriages were stored on unused track in the Adelaide rail yards. Sometimes the cleaners who were on duty would come over to see what we were doing. They were bemused by group of young people who would clean railway carriages for fun but as they all knew David they were always helpful if we needed hot water or cleaning rags.
Later we moved out to a new site at Dry Creek where the engines and carriages were stored together. The carriage cleaners job was simply to prepare each consist for a trip and to clean it when it came back again. We had toilets and ashtrays to clean which wasn’t pleasant and the soot on the cream coloured paintwork of our Centenary Cars was very hard to shift. It had to be scrubbed off with detergent and then we would polish the paintwork with car polish. We cleaned the windows and polished the brass handrails, we mopped floors and vaccuumed carpets. We even climbed onto the roof to fill the water tanks. Quite a feat for me as I was and still am scared of falling and find it hard to climb ladders. Our friend Robert decided to cure me, he would climb up to put the hose in the tank and then when it was full yell at me to go up and turn it off. If I didn’t there would be water everywhere. I did it. I wish I could do it now. I can’t get more than two steps up a ladder these days without getting frightened.
While I was a volunteer I helped to prepare a train consist to be used in the film “Gallipolli” directed by Peter Weir and starring Mark Lee and a very young Mel Gibson. We were allowed to go and watch the day’s filming at the Adelaide Station which was fascinating. The scene, our heroes disembarking from the train in Perth WA, probably took less than a minute on screen but it took half a day to film and I was impressed to hear Peter Weir directing the cast of extras who played the passengers as if theirs was the most important scene in the movie. Incidentally, another scene from the movie was also filmed at the railway station. Marble Hall, where David and I had our wedding photos taken, was transformed into the ballroom at the Nile Hotel in Cairo. Marble Hall is now the foyer of the Adelaide Casino.
I didn’t only clean though, sometimes I would help out in the refreshment car, especially on school holiday trips. For one trip we took the Dining Car Adelaide to the Kernewek Lowender and while the passengers enjoyed Devonshire Tea in the morning and a seafood lunch we volunteers worked in the kitchen area plating and serving the food and doing the washing up. For most trips refreshments and souvenirs were sold in a converted baggage car and a brisk trade was done in chocolates, cold drinks and tea and coffee. Even if we were not rostered on as volunteers on a long trip the regulars would always lend a hand if the Bar Car got busy. I also occasionally helped with fund raising, walking through the train selling raffle or Bingo tickets. They were wonderful times for me. I gained a lot of confidence from my years with SteamRanger Tours.
My Railway Career
In August 1987 I joined the railways myself and spent the next twelve years working as a railcar cleaner just a few hundred metres from where I had started off as a volunteer. I enjoyed most of that time and took pride in doing as good a job as I could to keep the city’s fleet of rail cars clean. I arrived as the first 3000 class rail cars were going into service and the first of the old Redhen rail cars were being phased out. I was very happy that smoking was outlawed on trains soon after I arrived. No more dirty ashtrays!
The Redhens were horrible to clean in the yard. In summer they would be like ovens as they had no air-conditioning. The drivers and shunters would sometimes forget to close the doors before taking them through the train wash and they would get flooded or there would be a dust storm and all the seats would be covered in red dust and would have to be washed. We all hated that job so much. The air-conditioned 2000 and 3000 class cars were better, they had sealed windows so the dust didn’t get in as much but if they had been stabled in the yard all day with the motors off they were just as hot and stuffy in summer. On the night shift you had to go out and clean cars in the yard no matter how cold or wet the weather was. I can recall getting soaked on more than one occasion as I struggled to open a battery box or shut down a motor that didn’t want to shut down.
Big events like New Year’s Eve, the Royal Show or Skyshow meant extra work for us. There were more trains and more mess. We had a railcar cleaner working at the station at night and that person could expect to spend most of his or her shift with a mop, a shovel and a bucket of sawdust! Graffiti was a big problem too. Hardly a night went by when we didn’t clean some off the insides or outsides of the rail cars. Sometimes they would come back from traffic covered in huge murals. The hours of scrubbing and the nasty chemicals we had to inhale means that I will never see this sort of thing as art!
Despite how physically hard the work could be I found the Railcar Depot and the station good places to work until the last couple of years.My sister worked there with me for a few years and we found ways to entertain ourselves with guessing games and quizzes if we were doing something monotonous like scrubbing dirty seats. The majority of the people who worked at the Adelaide Depot were men, fitters, electricians, drivers and shunters as well as cleaners and many of the older ones had come from Europe in the 1950s and 60s. On night shift we would often encourage them to talk about their younger days and how they came to Australia. It was fascinating to hear their stories. Of course we talked about many other things too in the quiet times late at night between trains. At least one of our workmates would get a bee in his bonnet over certain subjects and my sister and I took care not to mention Americans, Unions or the State Bank unless one of us was in a mischievous mood!
Eventually I decided to leave because I could see it was a matter of time before the whole cleaning department was outsourced. The depot which had once had about 200 staff had about 50 people left. At night the place was almost deserted. I was a Leading Hand by this time and found the job more stressful than fun. I decided not to wait for the end.
The last time I was in Adelaide we stayed at a hotel not far from where the Railcar Depot was on the corner of North and West Terraces. It isn’t there now. It was demolished to make way for a new hospital and the rail cars were all moved to Dry Creek, not far from the old SteamRanger Depot I believe. SteamRanger have moved too, they are based at Victor Harbour now and only run trains on the branch line from Mount Barker to Victor Harbour. The closure of most of the country lines and the standardisation of others has made it impossible to run trips like the ones we enjoyed so much and Public Liability insurance has become so expensive that Steamranger probably wouldn’t do it even if they could. That makes me sad but I think I was very lucky to do what I did when it was still possible.
In Part Three I’ll talk about holidays on rails.