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Issue #1493      16 March 2011

Trainworks: History on the rails

It’s pretty unusual for publications like The Guardian to review a museum. And that’s a shame, because museums have a crucial role to play in explaining both natural and human history.

A really interesting museum is Trainworks, at Thirlmere, south-west of Sydney. The museum is run by Trainworks Limited, a not-for-profit company established by NSW Rail Corp, the state-owned corporation that maintains NSW rail facilities. The collection now on display at Trainworks grew out of the activities of the volunteer-operated NSW Rail Transport Museum (RTM), the accredited rail operator and maintainer for Railworks.

Rail was crucial in Australia’s development. In NSW the last steam engines were withdrawn from use in 1968. RTM volunteers ran special steam engine tours and maintained redundant state-owned rolling stock, engines and artifacts at Sydney’s Enfield rail depot until 1977 when they were relocated to a disused section of the former Great Southern Railway track at Thirlmere.

With assistance from Sydney’s Power House Museum, RTM subsequently built a train hall to house the exhibits. A new turntable, workshop and exhibition building were recently constructed, as part of an upgrading of the exhibition site, now known as the Rail Heritage Centre.

A mighty industry

Rail transport was the nation’s first heavy industry, and as Trainworks management has pointed out rail is the biggest single industry in Australia.

Rail systems have made possible the transport of both passengers and freight over long distances. The first rail line was used for industrial purposes in Melbourne in the early 1850s. In 1855 several locomotives were shipped to Sydney from Britain, to be used in the new passenger line. One of the exhibits at Railworks is the 1872 No. 78 locomotive, whose design was based on the 1855 model.

The growth of trade and the population growth that followed the discovery of gold stimulated the demand for efficient transport. The 1870s saw a rapid development of the NSW railway network, which involved the introduction of 30 passenger engines and 50 goods engines.

No. 1905 loco, on display at Railworks, was the first of these engines in service, and was also the first to cross Sydney Harbour Bridge at its opening in 1932. It was also, presumably, one of the locos that were used to test the strength of the bridge, by massing them on temporary tracks right across the bridge and from one end to the other. The bridge sagged a few inches but sprang back after they were removed!

The goods locos were amazingly durable. They provided invaluable service during World War II, hauling thousand of tons of coal, timber, crops and other vital supplies. Like many of its comrades, No 1905 operated until the end of the steam era in 1968. It had worked doggedly and faithfully for 91 years.


No. 1905 loco, on display at Railworks, at Thirlmere.

A focus of politics and militancy

The NSW rail system has mirrored political divisions throughout its history. The first passenger lines were privately operated, but fell into bankruptcy, and the NSW government was eventually forced to take them over. Among the Trainworks “curiosities” is prison van No BKD711, built in 1915. Sydney was founded as a convict colony, but ironically, the new rail system was immediately used to transport convicted criminals out of the city to distant sites such as Berrima Jail.

Australian railways were plagued by the stupidities of colonial rivalry, as illustrated by the use of different gauge rail lines in different states. Passengers travelling from Melbourne to Sydney used to have to change trains at Albury until well after the Second World War.

The passenger carriages were divided into price-differentiated classes. (You even had to pay to use the station toilets!) Henry Lawson wrote:

“Another rainy night on Petersham platform. I don’t remember what I was doing there unless I had been out late to see about a job. The sickly gas lamps again, the wet shiny asphalt, the posters on the mean brick walls close at hand, the light glistening on the enamelled iron notice saying “Second Class Wait Here”, and I alone and tired as usual and cold with a shoddy overcoat coarse as sacking and warm as a refrigerator. But it was here I struck the keynote or the keyline of ‘Faces In The Street’ ”.

As a complete contrast to the second class carriages, the 1911 State Governor’s car, also on exhibition, utilised the finest craftsmanship. It had three bedrooms and two bathrooms for the governor and his guests, as well as dining and observation areas. Nothing’s too good for the workers!

Rail contributed to the growth of trade unionism and working class politics. For example, before WW2 Sydney’s Eveleigh railway yards were a centre for labour militancy. In 1931 this was acknowledged in the front page of the rabidly anti-communist Sydney Sun, which showed a sketch of injured men and wreckage alongside trains at Sydney’s Central Station, under the screaming headline “If revolution came to Sydney”! In 1937 Eveleigh workers held mass meetings to protest against a visit by the pro-fascist German emissary Count von Luckner, and in 1957 the Eveleigh Loco Shop committee campaigned for rights for Aboriginal people.

A source of innovation

The NSW rail system has provided employment and training for hundreds of thousands of workers. It also prompted technical innovation. For example the very powerful Garratt locomotives of the 1940s, such as Trainworks’ 6040, were designed with double engines for maximum speed for passenger services. They were the last passenger steam engines in NSW.

The first double-decker trains in the world were introduced in Sydney in 1968. Built by adapting the old “red rattler” carriages, they seated 89 percent more passengers than the old carriages. Carriage C3804, on exhibition at Trainworks, was one of the first four carriages introduced.

Rail transport has always been the target of corruption from vested interests. In the 1950s US auto lobby groups convinced state governments that rail transport was outdated, and railways and tramways in Los Angeles and other cities were dumped. The NSW government stupidly followed suit, ripping up and discarding Sydney’s 200-mile long tram system, the biggest in the world and superbly adapted to the city’s very irregular street pattern. Victoria knew better, and Melbourne benefited immensely – at least until Premier Kennett sold off the rail and tram networks.

Several years ago the NSW Iemma Labor government argued unsuccessfully that Sydney’s entire double-deck rail system should be progressively replaced with a new below-ground, privately-operated single deck metro rail system, even though double-deckers were being introduced in many European cities. Iemma’s policy would have allowed all Sydney’s railway land to be sold off. Privatisation and real estate deals on a truly stupendous scale – now that’s what I call a real double-decker! Luckily, the idea got dumped by the feds.

Climate change is forcing a re-think on the relative priorities of road and rail transport. It is clear that electric rail is the way forward for public transport, and public ownership is the way to do it.

The Trainworks museum offers a wonderful insight into the technical development of the NSW rail system from its inception until the late 20th century, as well as the social and working conditions associated with it. That is why the museum is well worth a visit.  

Next article – NSW state elections March 26 – Vote left and progressive alternative

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