Steamfest 2012 In 39 Frames

April is traditionally a good month for enthusiasts in NSW, as it is the month when everyone stops and converges on The Hunter Valley for the annual Maitland Steamfest celebrations. April 2012 would be no different, with Steamfest falling on the last weekend of the month. Typically the empty cars are worked north by a pair or trio of vintage diesel locomotives from Thirlmere (4001, 4306 and 4490 did the honours this year), with the steam locomotives running north hauling their water gins and the staff accommodation (sleeping and dining carriages, as well as a power van to run them).

With 3801, 3830 and 5917 still out of service for overhauls, 3237 occupied operating North Coast shuttle trips and the two SMR 10 Class (10 and 18) out of service with mechanical problems, it all fell on the shoulders of 3265 (owned by the Powerhouse Museum), 3526 and 3642 to carry the flag, and carry it they did! This is the story of my Steamfest 2012. The full gallery can be found here, for those who just want to see the pictures.

Friday, April 27 (Day Zero)

Every good story needs a prologue to set the scene. I was lucky enough to find myself rostered off on both the Saturday and the Sunday, and with no early start on the following Monday, it was time to make some last minute plans to make what is now an annual pilgrimage north. Obviously accommodation in Maitland would be at a premium, so no attempt was made to negotiate the variety of hotels, motels and pubs in that general area. Instead, accommodation was found in the Newcastle Travelodge Hotel (located in Wickham, only a five minute walk from the railway station). This was especially suitable, as a group of friends were staying in the nearby Hotel Ibis.

With a bed sorted, the only thing left to do was to figure out how to get up there. After perusing some timetables and crunching some numbers, I found that I could catch the Casino-bound XPT service to Broadmeadow, and change for a CityRail train to Wickham. With a ticket booked from Hornsby at 0751, the only challenge left was getting to Hornsby in time. Checking the CityRail website, it was to my dismay that I found out there would be trackwork on the North Shore Line, with buses replacing trains. Fearful that a late arrival at Hornsby would mean missing the XPT, I instead set the alarm stupidly early (for a Saturday) and resolved to allow plenty of time.

Saturday, April 28

I awoke to a blaring alarm, finding I had just enough time to throw a few things into the bag, grab the camera, and race out the door while chomping on a slice of peanut butter. The taxi dropped me on the Pacific Highway at Roseville, where I made a frantic sprint to the trackwork bus, making it by the skin of my teeth (with trackwork buses, you just never know when the next one will turn up…). Thankfully, I arrived at Hornsby at 0710, plenty of time to grab a paper and a coffee before boarding my train.

I spent approximately fifteen minutes on Hornsby station prior to the XPT arriving, watching a steady stream of clucking passengers self-importantly clutching their CountryLink tickets and strutting around to find out where their carriage would pull up. I even watched one couple importantly counting along the platform through the various carriages: “Well, the engine will come in, then there’s Car A, then Car B, and we’re in Car C”. Turns out they were off by about half a car, a pretty good effort, I thought! The XPT’s arrival was recorded on the trusty iPhone, as it saved the hassle of adding “loose camera gear” to the two bags I was carrying onto the train.

The train ride itself was quite pleasant, aside from the initial ticket check, there was nothing to disturb me as I reclined the seat and gazed at the countryside whipping past the train. A handful of freight and passenger trains were passed on the way north, although I paid them no mind as I dozed. All too soon, we were passing familiar stations – Cardiff, Kotara and Adamstown. “Good morning passengers, our next stop will be Broadmeadow…”. Time to grab the bags and exit the train.

Now that I was on the platform, the XPT faded into a gentle warble in the distance. I re-checked the timetable I had investigated the night before, to find that a CityRail interurban service to Newcastle departed Hornsby five minutes after the XPT, and this would be the next (and only) train to Wickham for some time. With no local Newcastle trains operating on a weekend timetable, the V-Set “Intercity” services from Sydney also double as a local commuter service for Newcastle passengers.

Having checked the timetable, I knew I had about twenty minutes to wait for my train, so I found a bench to set my bags down. No sooner had I done so, a bright yellow locomotive front was seen rounding the bend through Islington Junction – this turned out to be 6BA6, a Pacific National Brisbane to Adelaide (via Sydney and Melbourne) superfreighter, behind three NR Class locomotives. Rather than bother to unpack all of the camera gear, I simply produced the iPhone again for a quick shot.

Figuring I wouldn’t fluke two freight trains in such a short window, I returned my phone to my pocket and looked southwards towards Broadmeadow yard, to see if any locomotives would catch my eye. None did, but this was possibly because I was distracted by the shriek of a local passenger announcing her arrival on the platform to her friends (from this I deduced that the mere act of catching public transport was an achievement worth celebrating in this part of Newcastle). I soon found myself thankful for her behaviour, when I looked past her to see another yellow locomotive negotiating Islington Junction – this locomotive wearing the eye-catching yellow and black livery of SSR.

Sure enough, G511 headed up an empty Newstan coal train through the platform a minute or so later, followed by an unlikely conscript in the form of GM10 (that’s the oldest commercially owned and operated locomotive in the country), 48s35 (on hire from Greentrains, a division of Engenco), G514 and G513. The GM and the 48 were replacing C503, which was at Cardiff having a service.

With the train from Sydney now pulling in alongside P2,I opted for the rear-most car (as this would place me the maximum distance away from certain screaming teenagers), I boarded a train with internal graffiti, passengers with their feet on the seats, rubbish on seats and floors and an odour oddly reminiscent of walking into the aftermath of a Saturday night party. It was at this point that I congratulated myself on catching the XPT this far – despite arriving at Wickham at the same time, the journey would have seemed so very much longer on this train.

It was with great relief that I alighted two stations later at Wickham, and began the walk to the hotel room. The staff at reception were very friendly, and thankfully allowed me to stow the worst of my luggage, leaving me with only the camera equipment to carry around for the rest of the day (although, as I left reception, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that the camera bag and tripod were twice as heavy as my overnight bag…).

Back to the station to check the timetable – I was to meet up with everyone at Maitland in a little over an hour. As CityRail advertised a half-hourly service to Maitland to help ferry passengers to and from Steamfest, I felt that getting from Newcastle to Maitland shouldn’t pose much of an issue. That is, until I checked the timetable, and found that the extra trains were timetabled ten minutes before the regular trains. Thus, instead of a fifty minute wait on the platform, I had only a forty minute wait. Nobody could say that people in Newcastle don’t use public transport though, as the train that arrived (a two-car Hunter Railcar) was already one third full. By the time the train reached Maitland, the train was full to capacity, with a notable shortage of standing room! No wonder they put additional services on!

One regret I have had with previous Steamfest visits was all of the racing around to get “everything” meant that I had never had the chance to just go for a train ride. Thankfully, Kaine had organised tickets on a Railmotor Society trip to Paterson and back to Maitland for me, handing them to me on my arrival at Maitland. He then explained that everyone was going to go on a steam train ride to Newcastle and back after the Railmotor trip, if I was interested. Needless to say, it didn’t take much consideration!

While a designated pair (Charlotte and Dave drew the short straws) waited in line to buy tickets for a steam trip later that afternoon, Dean, Kaine and I compared notes. “The Plan” was to spend the Saturday riding around on trains and just generally having fun, while Sunday would be the day to race around to get as many photos as possible. I explained that I had only a handful of simple goals – get at least one photo of each “exhibit” (at least one of which in Newcastle, as who knows what the future holds for that often-vilified railway line), with a possible visit to Richmond Vale Railway, an oft forgotten part of Steamfest, which is a shame, given the strong impact coal mining has had on the areas development, and the role that the railways played in getting that coal to port.

As we had plenty of time to kill before railmotors departure, our group wandered over to the food stalls for a quick “second breakfast” before hitting the rally ground. With a variety of interesting “steam powered” exhibits on display (everything from steam powered taps and showers to large traction engines and steamrollers), there was plenty to keep us interested! It was at this point that we also added Mark, Paula and their family to our group. While walking around the rally ground, a variety of trains passed on the mainline with most of the drivers offering a friendly whistle and wave to the crowd, which was often met with steam whistles chiming in with enthusiasm. All too soon it was time to make our way back to the platform, where our train awaited.

I mentioned above that Richmond Vale was often overlooked for their Steamfest contribution – another unsung hero is The Railmotor Society (TRMS). Based in Paterson, for the last couple of years they have provided their own shuttle trains between Maitland and Paterson and/or Branxton using a restored 620 Class railmotor. As these gutsy little units were once the mainstay of Hunter Valley passenger service, it is only fitting that they still have a part to play, even in retirement. It is always especially amusing to see peoples photos from Maitland, with Hunter and Endeavour railcars lurking in some photos behind the 620 Class – to think that these units stood side by side in “active” service only a few years ago is a testament to the restoration work that TRMS has done, because 621/721 look nothing like they did in their final years of CityRail service, resplendent in their NSWGR maroon colours.

The run out to Paterson was uneventful but pleasant, and it was interesting to draw a comparison between this train and the XPT I had rode that morning. I enjoyed a nice chat with the bloke in the seat opposite me, who had family up in Tenterfield at one time, and he fondly recalled travelling on all kinds of trains to get there from Sydney. Today, of course, one cannot get a train to Tenterfield, with a bus the only option. When we arrived at Paterson, TRMS volunteers informed us that we would have plenty of time to go for a walk, as long as we returned to the train, ready for an on-time departure. While some wandered down into town, and others opted to remain on the platform, our group decided to wander to a nearby footbridge to record the passage of NT36 (CountryLink Grafton to Sydney XPT). With the XPT taking to the loop to pass our train, it is interesting to think, once again, that only a few years ago, this would have been the normal scene – that of an XPT passing a 620 railcar.

After the XPT had passed, the railmotor was to shunt to the loop to allow CityRail’s northbound Dungog service to access the platform at Paterson. As luck would have it, we arrived on the platform just in time to watch the railmotor tootle down the loop and around the bend… out of sight. Can’t win them all, I suppose, and we made do by shooting the Hunter railcar that arrived instead.

When the time came to reboard our vintage railmotor, the question was asked – how long do we have at Maitland between this train and the steam train to Newcastle? The reply was less than thrilling – ten minutes! Especially as we left Paterson five minutes late (thanks to the late running for the aforementioned Dungog service). As luck would have it, we were put into the loop at Mindaribba to facilitate the passage of NT35 (the Sydney to Grafton XPT) as well as 3642 steaming one section behind with her own tour to Paterson. As we left Mindaribba having lost no additional time, we thought we might be able to chance it… That is, until we were stopped at a red signal outside Maitland to allow a CityRail service to arrive and depart Maitland. Feeling nervous, we finally arrived into Maitland fifteen minutes down on the ‘table… to the welcome beat of the 32’s exhaust. Thankfully the steam train was late departing for Newcastle, allowing us to scurry across the platform and onto our carriage. Within seconds, the whistles echoed around the lands, and we were off – with the 35 and 32 at either end, tender first into Newcastle -a nice slow lead up to a spirited run back to Maitland.

As we slowly rolled along the up main line, a casual look out the window revealed that we had picked up a shadow. It was not from the setting sun, rather it was a CityRail Hunter railcar running alongside us, on the up coal road. This was one of the special “parallel run” trains that CityRail had provided for the benefit of photographers. The driver of the railcar would speed up or slow down to ensure all of his passengers got a good look at the two locomotives at either end of our train, with passengers on both trains smiling and waving at their counterparts on the other train.

While passing through Victoria Street, Dean noticed that we were situated in the buffet car, so I wandered down to check out their selection, and have a quick chat to, another friend of mine who was working behind the buffet. Returning to my seat, I offered a toast to our counterparts on our very persistent shadow. We thought we’d lost them near Sandgate, when we overtook a loaded coal train standing on the up coal road, only to see the Hunter car whipping along behind the hoppers (taking advantage of a bi-directional section of track to get ahead of the train). Sure enough, after we passed the locos of the coal train, our shadow was back, much to our amusement.

As we slowed to navigate the points of Islington Junction, we bid a temporary farewell to our shadow, and a quick shot out the window made for an unexpected bonus – RL310 and RL304 sitting on the triangle with 1443N freight from Sydney to Mountain Industries, Kooragang Island.

Arrival into Newcastle provided an opportunity to stretch the legs (Maitland to Newcastle doesn’t seem to take as long when racing along on a modern day railcar, but cruising along at a stately 40km/h behind vintage steam allows time to get away from you), and visit both the platform kiosk, and the steam locomotives at either end of the train. With 3526 at the eastern end of the platform, it was attracting the most attention, both from train passengers and from bystanders drawn by the spectacle. Additionally, the 35 was having a drink from a well placed fire-hose. Not wanting to get in the way, I moved to the other end of the train, collecting Kaine on the way and convincing him he wanted to go for a walk. We would not be disappointed – with everyone busy admiring the larger engine at (what was now) the rear of the train, the 32 Class was almost completely ignored. While the train crew showed eager youngsters what the inside of the cab looked like, we grabbed the opportunity to grab a few shots. Shortly before we left, I pulled out the iPhone again for a “grab shot” to send to the folks at home – this turned out to be the best shot of the lot of them, and is the photo seen below.

As we walked down alongside the train back to our carriage, we noticed that the platform was suddenly devoid of passengers. Quickly aiming for the nearest door, we jumped back on board, and within a few minutes, we were off again – engine first this time for a nice fast run back to Maitland. The steady beat of the P Class on the front of our train could easily be heard, as the sun slowly slid behind the horizon and the temperature fell just as quickly. Once again, we found we had a shadow for the run back to Maitland – the same Hunter railcar, only this time with a meagre handful of passengers.

When our train arrived at Maitland, we all flooded onto the platform and raced up to the footbridge to watch the suns final rays punching through the low cloud cover. Mesmerised by this magical sunset, we watched as a variety of trains passed through Maitland, with the coal traffic back into full swing now that the interloping passenger trains had gotten out of the way. A quick pause in the conversation to record the departure of 3265 back into the yard was followed by a familiar looking yellow-fronted locomotive in the distance catching my eye.

It turned out that my suspicions were correct – it was Freightliner liveried GL112 heading up Freightliner 1581N freight from Port Botany to Wee Waa. While the GE on the front was brightly coloured, it was the two attention seeking GM’s barking behind it that were the source of my interest, manifesting in the form of HL203 and 42305. With the sun well and truly gone for the day, it was a case of point, pan, shoot and hope for the best. The result can be seen below – it’s never going to be a roster shot, but it’s certainly a lot better than no shot at all, the eye-catching livery really helping the loco pop out of the scene.

With the group exhausted to the point of illness (“Oi, who’s got some Panadol”), we decided that we’d had enough, and it was time to go back to the hotel. We bid farewell to our friends who were staying in Maitland, and boarded the now hourly service back to Newcastle with a group of jovial Transit Officers. We were quick to laugh at the teenagers that alighted the train as soon as the Transit Officers boarded, then laughed even harder when the train departed and one of the Transit Officers remarked “if only they knew we were not checking tickets”.

Arriving back at my hotel, I dropped the camera gear to return to the Hotel Ibis nearby. Although Dean retired to bed early, the rest of us stayed to eat pizza, drink and be merry while playing Monopoly. Although there was not clear “winner” as such, I was branded a loser because I “only owned four properties” (nobody wanted to acknowledge my immense riches, of course…).

Back at the Travelodge, no alarm was set, and I quickly slipped into the grips of a restful sleep.

Sunday, April 29

Thanks to a couple of Panadol before bed the night before, and the usual chirp of the alarm replaced by the sun slowly streaming in through the windows (I thought I closed those curtains last night…) made for a nice awakening. As per an agreement with Kaine and Dean, I sent the obligatory “I’m awake” text message and then started going through yesterdays take. Sorted some of the good shots from the not so good shots, categorising them in my mind (because you can never really delete a “bad” photo until you see it on the big screen). Soon enough, my phone squawked a reply, and I began getting ready and checking out.

Meeting up with Kaine and Dean at their hotel (regrettably, Charlotte and Dave had returned home earlier that morning for other commitments), we started to hatch a plan. First on the list of priorities was “breakfast”, followed by “a shot of the Great Train Race”. This quickly changed, with the possibility of a shot of 3526 bringing its train along the Newcastle branch becoming a reality… and then fading again when the loco went steaming past the hotel car park. Whoops!

An initiative started last year was the running of a single day length tour to and from Dungog (known as The Barrington Bullet) featuring 3642. Last year, this train departed Maitland well before “The Great Train Race” was due into Maitland, and this year was no different. Unlike 2011, this year’s train would carry the option of an extended trip from Dungog to Stroud Road and back, with the option also extended to people who might wish to board at Dungog and just travel to Stroud Road and back to Dungog. With our little group being pushed for time (my dragging everyone IN to McDonalds for a “real” coffee rather than the robot coffee you get in the Drive Thru notwithstanding), we decided to forego a shot of the 36 leaving Maitland, and just head straight for East Maitland to get our shot of the race.

One thing I must take the time to point out here, is that this year’s race was to be same as last years. The 32 and the 35 would be racing, with one on the main and the other on the coal roads. Last year, however, much to the disappointment of the assembled crowd at East Maitland, the train on the main line was ahead of the train on the coal road – thus, the 35’s train managed to block any chance of a side-by-side shot with the 32. This is why we didn’t want to take the risk of catching the 36’s departure, only to miss a decent shot of “the race”.

Arriving at East Maitland a little after ten, we noticed that there was already a large crowd massing. As we arrived, murmurs spread through the assembled crowd – we quickly realised that it was not because they were excited to see us, but that our arrival had coincided with the passage of three new General Electric CF Class locomotives heading up a loaded Pacific National coal train. While a variety of lenses and cameras turned to grab the approaching train, I considered hurriedly dropping the bag and getting my own camera out. Instead, without any large amount of fuss (or effort, something most enthusiasts are almost allergic to), I slid the iPhone out of the pocket, pointed, shot and continued walking.

Unlike most of those assembled on the Pitnacree Road bridge, I’ve always preferred to camp out under the bridge – it’s a lot cooler and quieter, and it does spare one the constant honking from passing cars combined with oh-so witty comments yelled out car windows that are lost to the wind (to these, I always smile and wave, as I assume they must mean to congratulate me on my choice of hobby and location). Thankfully, we were only sharing the underside of the bridge with two other enthusiasts, one still photographer and one videographer. I explained to the videographer that, shortly before the steam approach, I would cut across in front of him and set up well out of his way, which was received as well as can be when you make contact with another enthusiast regarding the prime real estate of photo locations (especially when something as exciting as steam is on the way).

While others busied themselves recording the passing coal traffic, I instead found entertainment in recording the recorders. They certainly make for a different subject when compared to the same coal trains that one can see on any visit to the Hunter Valley! Shortly before the race trains were due to arrive, a train that I dubbed “The Most Photographed Endeavour” rolled past with a service to Telarah (no doubt full of passengers puzzled by the flash-mob that had assembled on the nearby road bridge to photograph their train).

The approaching race trains themselves were first signalled by the flyover of the Tiger Moth plane that participates in the race (and always wins…). This was followed by an almost eerie calm, broken only when a cloud dared to encroach on the sun. Grumbles of “gee, look what you’ve gone and done now Frank”, could be heard (our group knew better, Fred had only recently arrived  from Woy Woy, so it was obviously HIS fault). All eyes were quickly returned to the station platform though, as the chiming of steam whistles echoed from nearby Victoria Street. “They’re coming!” stated one bloke, his observation greeted by a chorus of shushing from those armed with video cameras. As the race trains came around the corner and into the platform, the train hauled by 3526 was forced to slow down for a temporary speed restriction near the platform. Kindly, the crew of 3265 slowed down to a similar speed to ensure the race was kept fair (someone tell that to the pilot of that Tiger Moth!). A cacophony of whistling drowned out the steady exhaust of the two locos as they thundered under the bridge, with no shortage of cameras recording them. I myself got greedy, capturing the moment both with the “real” camera as well as the iPhone, determined once again to prove that both media are equally applicable for railway photography.

After the passage of the race, everyone just seemed to linger without a word passed – everyone was, of course waiting for 4490, running light engine from Broadmeadow back to Maitland to re-attach to 3265’s train. The 44 had been used earlier that morning to pilot the 32 from Maitland to Broadmeadow, to prevent a need to run around, and it would now couple up to perform the same duty between Branxton and Maitland. While others decided to wait for the passage of 7MB7, Fred had dutifully reported that he had seen it already, and it was only hauled by a pair of LDP Class (no exciting bulldog-shaped GM’s today, it would seem), so we decided to start heading north to catch up to “The Barrington Bullet”.

While passing through Paterson, we were caught at a level crossing to permit the passage of 7BM7 (oh, so that’s where it had gotten to). Continuing in a theme of unusual photography, I simply opted for an iPhone shot from the backseat. Again, another pair of LDP’s, fairly unremarkable. We suspected they would have crossed 3642 at one of the many loops along the line, and that we must be getting close – not a chance! We wouldn’t catch up to the 36 until Stroud Road (although we lost a couple of minutes in Dungog, checking the station and saying farewell to Fred, who had to abandon the chase and go to work). I made sure to point out how high the floodwaters had been when I passed through the area in June the previous year, followed by an unrelated observation that “those clouds over there seem to have a lot of rain in them”. For some reason, nobody acknowledged my presence in the car for the rest of the trip to Stroud Road. Curious.

As we’d suspected in the car on the way up, the 36 would wait in the loop for the passage of 7MB7 (in hindsight, LDP or no, we probably should have just chased 7MB7 up to Stroud Road) before running around to wait for the Grafton XPT to head south. Resigned to getting photos of the loco moving off for the run-around, we were back on the road to Maitland in short order as the first drops of rain started to fall.

We paused on our return journey between Paterson and Mindaribba at a non-descript wooden bridge to record the passage of 621 and 721 with another Paterson to Maitland trip. After an observation of “that’s a funny sounding 620”, we also managed a shot of the up Grafton XPT running a few minutes ahead of the railmotors. A second shot was taken at Telarah, as well as a photo of the down Grafton bound XPT.

Finally arriving back into Maitland and looking for parking (no small feat), we headed into the market stalls for a quick lunch (sausage sizzle at the local public school), before we departed for Newcastle for a shot of 3526 running around. As we arrived too late for such a shot, we instead resolved to investigate Wickham, only to find out just how late we were – crossing the railway line at Hamilton, we could see the 35 running at full tilt towards us! A quick u-turn in a nearby side street, and the chase was on in earnest. We arrived at High Street (so, back where we started, more or less) to grab a shot with some very threatening clouds hanging over the background.

Back into Maitland to collect John, who had travelled up on the Grafton XPT earlier in the day (and then gone for a ride on the 620 Railmotor to Branxton and return) for a final couple of shots at East Maitland and dinner in the nearby Hunter River Hotel.

All too soon, we were back onto the F3 and pointed for home. At Hornsby, we bid farewell to Dean, with John and Kaine kindly giving me a lift home after yet another fun filled weekend at the Maitland Steamfest. We may not have achieved everything we set out to, but as the main goal was to have fun, we felt that we accomplished more than we could have ever have expected. Until next year, of course!

Thanks to all of those involved in Maitland Steamfest, as well as all of my friends who helped to make it such an enjoyable weekend. To others, I’m sorry we couldn’t catch up over the weekend, but there is always next year!

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