The night before, we had set a reasonable alarm for 0630, and although it was quite easy to wake up when the alarm sounded, it was another matter entirely to actually remove oneself from the bed! Chris and I finally emerged from our hotel room a little before 0700 to meet Simon outside, already ready to go.
Chris had been telling me the day prior that the NSWRTM’s Heritage Express used to run a tour train to Tamworth for the Country Music Festival, chartered by private interests. Had those interests not fallen through, we could have had a heritage train to add into the mix of traffic we expected to encounter. How fitting then, that the first train of the day would be a surprise visit from 621/721, an ex Newcastle suburban railmotor as restored and operated by The Railmotor Society from “nearby” Paterson. I say “nearby”, because it seems everything in rural NSW is “just down the road” or “only a hop, skip and jump away”.
Having shot the railmotors from the top of Ardglen Tunnel, we were returning to the cars to continue the chase in to Werris Creek when we noticed a PN coal train snaking along the line through Murrurundi, headed our way. We decided it was worth the risk, and relocated to the bridge at Ardglen to record TT103, TT102 and TT111 dropping down the grade towards Werris Creek, bound for Gunnedah.
Back on the highway, we split up – Chris and I continued on to Werris Creek, convinced we could catch the railmotors, while Simon opted to try his luck with the TT’s. The overall plan was the same – we would follow the TT’s to Gunnedah, and have an explore around the town upon arrival. Chris and I made it into Werris Creek in time to see the two railmotors stopped on the mainline platform, with the name board on the front of 621 proudly stating that it was a Rotary tour to Tamworth. While photographing the pair, an X Class could be seen pottering around in the yard, attaching to a rake of ex Freight Australia hoppers that had arrived in the early hours of the morning as train 1535 (empty Westons from Enfield). Entertaining notions that the train was going out to load to return to Sydney, we put that to the back of our minds and grabbed a quick couple of shots of the railmotors prior to departure. As the railmotors were departing, the triple TT’s rolled through the branch line platform and departed for Gunnedah, bringing with them Simon – the chase was on!
Despite being stuck behind a seemingly endless procession of caravans, Chris and I made it to Breeza with barely a minute to get across the road (thankfully devoid of traffic at this hour on a Saturday morning) and get a shot of the TT’s crossing the bridge. The railway line follows a far more direct route between Gap and Breeza, and when the TT’s beat us to Gap, we had figured our next shot might have to be the one at Gunnedah! Simon wasn’t so lucky, pulling up at the same time as the train did! Chris and I quickly got back on the road, while Simon decided to catch us up later, pausing for a smoko break.
As we passed through the town of Curlewis, we noticed that the signals were showing the TT’s going into the loop. Figuring that a cross was on the cards, we kept an eye on the line (thankfully, the road parallels the line from Breeza to Gunnedah), and were rewarded by triple 82 class hauling a loaded coal train towards Werris Creek. We pulled over to the side of the road and grabbed a quick shot across the field – turning out to be one of the better shots of the weekend given the sharp contrast between the flat plains in the foreground and the impressive mountains in the background!
With the knowledge that the TT’s would be tied up for a few minutes at Curlewis, our next job was to secure breakfast and locate the photostop on Pensioners Hill, a Rotary Club lookout overlooking the town of Gunnedah. The thought that we might run into the divine Miranda Kerr, another local export (perhaps better known to the Australian public than the economy driving coal and grain that comes from this area) did cross our minds, but we were not hopeful. As we entered town, we passed a colourful little shop called “Pot Bellied Pies”. Figuring a pie to be a heck of a lot faster than a bacon and egg roll, we wandered in to find some of the best looking pies I have ever encountered! We quickly stocked up on lamb pies (and apple pies for a snack later), and headed for the lookout.
Assuming we had heaps of time, we pulled in to the carpark, grabbing our breakfast as we began looking for somewhere reasonably scenic to sit and eat. A distant horn signalling the arrival of the TT’s into town somewhat shattered that idea (as it no doubt shattered the sleep of residents closer to the offending level crossing), and required some brief morning cardio to get us, our breakfast, and our assorted camera gear up to the crest of the hill. Chris did even better than I, as his equipment included a tripod! The view did not disappoint, giving us a clear shot at the three TT’s as they rolled through the slow pointwork either side of the platform, and a clear view down to a red car stuck at a level crossing… Simon? (Thankfully not).
Gunnedah has quite an interesting set up, due mostly to the local Manildra Group flour mill. As Manildra Group need to use every available track to store wagons, the former mainline is now designated as the loop road. The former grain siding is now referred to as the “back road”. Both the loop road and the back road are used for the storage of hoppers, either feeder grain hoppers or the flour wagons that are used to transport flour to/from the Bomaderry plant. As shunting of the loading and unloading points requires access to the platform road, all shunting typically stops when main line traffic is due through. This arrangement means that through trains must negotiate the 25km/h points to get onto the platform road, and then back onto the mainline. When your coal train is 72 wagons long, that’s an inordinate amount of time!
With the TT’s well clear of the station, the road was reset for the Sydney bound Xplorer service. After pottering around looking for record photos of the two mill shunters (MM02, formerly 4913, and MM04, a former L80T steelworks shunter from BHP), we figured “where better to shoot a passenger train than at a passenger platform?”. The Xplorer from Moree to Werris Creek is a 2-car set, which combines at Werris Creek with the portion from Armidale (typically a 3-4 car set) to form the service to Sydney. The platform was very crowded upon our arrival, with easily half a carriage worth of people waiting to board the service. The Xplorer spent a couple of minutes on the platform while the passengers boarded the train and the staff attended to their luggage – the station is unattended on weekends, so there was nobody to tag and help with the loading of the luggage onto the train.
After the departure of the CountryLink service, we waited around to see what the two Manildra shunt locomotives would do. While waiting for someone to walk down to set the interlocking correctly, I wandered along the platform photographing the various examples of grain wagons on display. The sound of the 49 firing up caught my attention, only to watch it go backwards, much to the amusement of myself and the dismay of Simon, who was standing at the end of the platform in prime position for the loco to emerge into the platform road – instead, it got further away from us!
Noticing that the signal at the Werris Creek end of the platform had returned to green, we figured upon another train before the Manildra locomotives would be permitted to occupy the mainline, so we moved to a nearby level crossing. WH002, WH001 and WH003 rolled around the curve and into view approaching 1130, and were photographed in front of another mill before we turned tail and headed out of town (thankfully there was a railway overpass to avoid the need to wait at the crossing as the train negotiated those troubling 25km/h turnouts). It was at this point that we lost Simon again, as he chose to join the queue at the crossing while we headed out of town. Chris and I would photograph the WH Class again on the outskirts of town, before getting stuck at the level crossing at Curlewis.
With the shot over the bridge at Breeza risky, we pressed straight on for an expected shot at Gap (which is also the junction for the line to Binnaway). Considering how close the train was to us at Breeza, and how much more direct the line is between Breeza and Gap, we figured it was only rudeness on the part of the train that kept us waiting at Gap for longer than expected, with the train finally passing through shortly before 1pm.
Driving into Werris Creek, we met up with Simon again, and found Fred, who had driven across from the coast after visiting family the day before. The four of us formed a plan to head to Willow Tree and follow the WH’s up the hill to Ardglen, before thinking about heading home (the main motivation being yours truly having another fantastic early start the following day, with an 0307 sign on).
On the way south to Willow Tree, we encountered another trio of TT’s sitting in the loop at Braefield (actually the same three TT’s we had seen the previous evening at Willow Tree, giving some idea of the amount of time it takes to get to the port and unload), so we paused to record first the arrival of the WH’s, and then the departure of the TT’s. Then it was on to Willow Tree to watch them depart with the bankers on the rear of the train.
As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men… The fly in the ointment this time was the down Northern Tablelands Xplorer service, which ensured that the WH’s made it to Willow Tree and had the bank engines attached only to go no further. Simon staked out a spot near Kankool while Chris, Fred and I headed up the hill for a shot of the Xplorer at Ardglen. With the Xplorer in the bag (unusually running as a 5+2 car set, likely a combination of the end of the school holidays and the end of the Country Music Festival the following day), Chris and I decided to set off for Sydney, while Fred and Simon elected to stay for the WH’s.
Aside from one sighting of three 82 class hauling an empty coal train between Murrurundi and Scone, no other sightings were made. Alerting the other two to the empty coal train, they positioned themselves at Ardglen for the cross. Taking a shortcut through Cessnock, our final sighting and photograph for the weekend was a chance meeting with two EL Class on an empty rake headed for the Austar (Pelton) mine.
After that, it was dinner at Freemans Waterhole, and off down the F3 home!