As you know I was in Melbourne last week visiting my friend Gillian and her husband Bruce. It was Gillian’s 60th birthday and as we live in different states and don’t see each other often we try to get together for the milestone birthdays and do something special. Five years ago they came to Tasmania and we all went to the West Coast to visit the West Coast Wilderness Railway and the do the Gordon River Cruise. This time it was my turn to travel and we decided on a visit to the Puffing Billy Railway in Belgrave in the Dandenong Ranges about 40 kms east of Melbourne.
Puffing Billy is one of Australia’s oldest and most well known preserved railways. I’ve visited there at least three times in the past with David, with Naomi and once with Mum when I took her to Melbourne for a weekend. Gillian thought that she might have been there when she was younger but Bruce who is a born and bred Victorian said that he could not remember ever having been there at all. We certainly had to fix that!
As it was a special occasion Gillian booked us on to “The Commissioners Train”. This train is run once or twice a year and allows passengers access to the railway’s museum and workshops which the normal excursion passengers don’t get to see. It also included morning tea and lunch.
The three of us, plus Gillian’s assistance dog Dusty, arrived at Belgrave at around 8 am on Saturday morning and the station was already humming with activity as the consists for the days trains were marshalled onto the platform and several locomotives were being prepared for the day. As well as our train there were three other scheduled departures.
Bruce went up to look at the workshop, I wandered around on the platform taking photos of the buildings and carriages. I came across a set of old carriages with familiar names and went to ask the volunteer platform staff
“Are these Tasmanian carriages?”
They were, they came from what is now the West Coast Wilderness Railway, acquired by Puffing Billy years ago after the railway had closed for normal traffic and decades before it became a tourist attraction itself.
“And no, you can’t have them back.” they told me.
I will include a link at the end of this post to the Puffing Billy website but for those of you not familiar with this little narrow gauge railways here is a bit of background.
The Puffing Billy railway was one of four low-cost 2’6″ (762mm) gauge lines constructed in Victoria in the early 1900’s to open up remote areas.
The present line between Belgrave and Gembrook, through the forests, fern gullies and farmlands of the magnificent Dandenong Ranges, is the major part of the line which opened on 18 December 1900 and operated over 18.2 miles (29km) between Upper Ferntree Gully and Gembrook until 1953. In 1953, a landslide blocked the track and, because of operating losses, the line was closed the following year.
Public interest resulted in the formation of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society, whose volunteers, with the blessings of the Victorian State Government and the assistance of the Citizens’ Military Forces, by-passed the landslide and reopened the line to Menzies Creek in 1962, Emerald in 1965, Lakeside in 1975 and finally to Gembrook in October 1998.
The last time I traveled on the railway was prior the reopening of the Lakeside to Gembrook section so I was very excited to finally get to go to the end of the line. The whole trip is very scenic and I’d never get tired of it.
Many, if not all of the people who work on the railway are volunteers. They are drivers, firemen, guards, station masters and platform staff and many others who work to keep the trains running behind the scenes. Puffing Billy maintains a timetable of four trains a day, seven days a week plus various special trains like ours. They have themed trains that run in the evening where you can dine and be entertained with jazz or R&B at one of the stations and even a Murder Mystery evening.
It was a chilly morning so rather than ride in the open carriages we opted for a vintage carriage where we were able to have a compartment to ourselves. It was Dusty’s first time on a steam train although he’s travelled with Gillian on Melbourne’s electric trains several times since she got him a couple of months ago. He was not too sure what was going on at first but soon decided that it was fine and settled down on his mat on the floor. Bruce decided to be brave and ride in one of the open carriages for a while so he could take some photographs and he also elected to jump off for the photo run later on. As I did not get off for the run past myself he has kindly agreed that I can use some of his photos of that portion of the journey.
Another treat for the Commissioner’s Train passengers was our first engine of the day, the wood burning, Climax locomotive. The Climax is a “foreigner” to the line having been built for the Victorian Forests Commission and used on the now defunct Tyers Valley Tramway. I had never seen this locomotive before as apparently it is only used for special trains as it runs on what I heard the volunteers jokingly call “Climax Time”. It looks like something out of the American west although it was built in 1928.
The day reminded me a lot of the old times when we used to go on steam train trips in Adelaide. The special train had attracted a lot of the die-hard rail fans who like to record steam sounds and will follow the train for the entire journey by car to get photos or film. The ones travelling on the train rode in the open carriages and especially enjoyed the photo run.
We enjoyed morning tea prepared by the volunteers at Menzies Creek and later another treat when one of PBR’s fleet of NA class locomotives coupled on to our train. The NA class were used on the railway when it was in service and PBR still have several of them. We were to have a double-header!
We travelled on to Emerald where we had another break to look at the carriage workshop while the Climax was uncoupled from our train. The two locomotives posed for a photo-op and we waited for the scheduled train to Lakeside to pass us before going on to Lakeside ourselves. This was a great opportunity to photograph three locomotives together.
After a brief stop at Lakeside we went on to Gembrook for lunch in the old station building. There were trips to another workshop for those that wanted to go but I preferred to stay around the station area and take more photos. Another locomotive arrived. NA 8A was to join our train so we had double-headed locomotives for the whole return journey.
One last picture I’d like to share is to show you the traditional way of riding in the open carriages.I first saw this many years ago and I had thought that OH&S might have put a stop to the practice. Passengers in the open cars may sit on the window sill with their legs dangling down outside the carriage. As it was getting on for four thirty by the time we reached Belgrave it must have been a chilly ride.
I hope you have enjoyed this much longer than usual post about a great little railway. I know I will be back there again someday.
This is a great old film made in 1967 and shows what a long way they have come since then. When it was shown at the Australian Railway Historical Society meetings we used to attend everyone laughed at the man with the screwed up tape in his machine no doubt because many of them had experienced that same feeling with a tape recorder or movie camera.
I will really have to go for a ride on Puffing Billy one day. It’s been years since I have been there.
You had not been to Gembrook either had you?