It’s the second day of my 2021 annual leave and insomnia has left me adrift in a sea of wakefulness at 1am. I went for a two-hour walk, had a cup of tea and some early breakfast and put the washing machine on. Since the Sydney Covid-19 outbreak has all but scuppered any plans to go enjoy my hobby (even locally within the bounds of my own city), why not instead use the time productively? It’s time to dig through the archives and dust off some fond memories that perhaps I’ve neglected. Remember the good trips of the past whilst looking forward to a brighter future.
Over the June long weekend in 2008, Lachlan Valley Railway took heritage locomotives 3237, 5917, 4701 and 4716 to Cootamundra from their then base at Cowra in Western NSW for a series of local shuttles over the June long weekend.
Anticipating some cheeky action on the Main South line ahead of the main event, an intrepid trio of intending photographers set off from Sydney on the afternoon of June 6th. A two-hour stopover in the Moss Vale area yielded four trains of note – an empty limestone train, a pair of southbound Pacific National steel and intermodal freights and right on dusk a short Interail freight to Melbourne.
Our accommodation over the weekend would be in a caravan park in Harden, easily within shouting distance of the station and associated yard. Amusingly we arrived after reception had closed, so we had some fun figuring out which key opened our cabin, followed by more fun trying to access the shared toilet and shower block in the centre of the park. Spoiler alert – we couldn’t, necessitating a few freezing walks to a nearby park to avail ourselves of the public facilities there (don’t worry, reception sorted us out the following morning so we could shower – turns out you needed to jiggle the key just right)!
It might have been the winter chill, or the excitement of what was my first overnight trip in pursuit of railway photography or (more likely) the unholy crashing and banging noises drifting up from the mainline… Whatever the reason might be, I found myself awake long before dawn listening to something shunting down at the station. Resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to get any more sleep that night, I quietly slipped into my jeans and winter clothes before slipping out the front door as quiet as a mouse. Luckily for me, I didn’t neglect to grab my camera or tripod as I made my escape.
I walked down the road to the station, conscious of the biting cold of the pre-dawn air, but more focused on the distinct blatt of an Alco branch liner enthusiastically shunting grain wagons around. The darkness conspired against me as the asphalt under my feet gave way to dirt and then ballast. I looked away from the shunting train to see gleaming ribbons of steel snaking away into the night. I’d somehow inadvertently wandered straight through an open gate and into the yard without realising it! Conscious of the location of the down main line, I set my camera and tripod up and started grabbing what photos I could. Most of them would later turn out to be out of focus and relegated to the recycle bin on the home PC, but at the time I was in my element. I’d forgotten entirely about how little sleep I’d had, or the fact that I could no longer feel my fingers or toes. Because there in front of me, disturbing the peace was a total of four 48 Class branch liners merrily dividing up their grain train into two smaller rakes.
The quad (48’s 116, 132, 124 and 148 for those playing from home) had brought their train of 40 empty hoppers up from Cootamundra overnight. Once they’d arrived at Harden, the train was split with two of the 48’s taking 20 hoppers and a shunters wagon (a modified NOFF open wagon) a short distance up the line towards Sydney to load at the dead-end silo road at Cunningar. With no ability to run around, the shunters wagon would provide a safe place for a crew member to pilot the train back to Harden, at which point the two rakes would be swapped and the process repeated.
As dawn finally broke at 6am and a lazy fog encircled the yard, I noticed one of my companions materialise next to me. “I noticed you were not in your bed when I woke up, and your camera was missing. So I came down to the yard to see what you were shooting,” he admitted before setting up his own tripod and getting to work.
Throughout this whole experience, the Lachlan Valley Railway crew were busy at the other end of the yard waking up their steeds for the day. You see, the whole consist had arrived into Harden the previous night putting them in an excellent position for a morning run to Cootamundra to begin the weekends work.
Shortly before 8am, it was time to go. With whistles triumphant and valves hissing, a giant white cloud enveloped the station surrounds. A black shape emerged through the steam as a light breeze scattered the distinctive smell of coal smoke across the town. 5917 was leading the charge, with 3237 immediately behind. With two 47 class, crew accommodations, a power and a compliment of sitting cars the two locomotives immediately set to work with their burden, charging forwards for a determined assault on the steep climb up to Demondrille (the junction between the Main South and the branch line to Cowra).
With barely time to savour the slowly dissipating steam, we were back in the car and on the chase. We settled on a dramatic backlit shot at Wallendbeen (I say this, but as we had no idea where we were going, we had little choice) and not much else!
Nevertheless, we were not discouraged. We had three days to shoot these two wonderfully restored beasts (this was 5917s second outing following a return to service earlier that year) so there would be plenty of opportunities. We ducked into Cootamundra to watch the accommodation portion of the train safely stowed in the dock platform with the sitting cars on the platform to collect the first eager ticket holders for the weekend. You could see the excitement on their faces coupled with a smug satisfaction that they were about to embark on a wonderful adventure, whilst the rest of us could only stand and watch.
Imagine our surprise when the first shuttle appeared with 4701 assisting 3237 and 5917. It was obvious at both locations we stopped that 4701 was helping to pull the train with 3237 as 5917 was notably lagging. Regrettably, something had gone wrong and 5917 was shunted off the train at Cootamundra upon its return and placed onto a siding to be assessed by the fitters.
The show was destined to go on however, and 4701 was resplendent in a faux “Red Terror” scheme on the Sydney end of the train, with 3237 on the country end. At the time, 4701 was midway through a repaint into the former State Rail “Candy” livery, complete with masking tape numbers on the cabside!
Things were no different on Sunday morning we found out, with the only exception being that 4716 had joined 4701 on the Sydney end of the train (which made perfect sense, given 4716 was the only one of the pair with the cab facing towards Sydney).
Following the days shuttles to Harden, the 32 was removed from the train allowing for a diesel hauled dusk run out to Stockinbingal – the junction for lines to Parkes and Temora. Our group was fortunate enough to secure tickets on this particular run and the lack of steam did little to dampen our enthusiasm. Even as the sun slid behind the horizon and the temperature dropped, there’s something special about viewing the passing countryside through open windows, making sure to wave at every photographer and lineside property owner who came out to see our passage.
Once the cars were safely stowed away in the siding for the night and the diesels shut down, our group was invited to join the volunteers in the dining car for a few drinks and a lot of merriment as the group celebrated a mostly successful weekend. Discussions were held as to the 59’s readiness to make the trip back to Harden, with soot streaked fitters nodding enthusiastically that she would be up for the trip.
The public holiday on Monday would be a particularly good day to be in the area. As well as the return of the LVR train to Cowra from Cootamundra, they were sharing the Main South with two other heritage trains – one from ARHS ACT and another from the NSW Rail Transport Museum.
We got to Wallendbeen immediately after breakfast to enjoy the passage of the (then) normal ARG/Manildra Group #9381 empty flour train to Narrandera behind a pair of 22 Class and a 31 Class. Despite seeing these distinctive orange locos fairly often around Sydney, it was always a treat to see a bit of variety from the usual Pacific National traffic.
Barely thirty minutes after the last flour hopper had vanished from sight, solo 4821 powered around the sweeping curve near the former station site with a short consist of sleeping and lounge cars with the ARHS ACT special from Temora to Canberra.
The next heritage train to depart Cootamundra would be 3237 and 5917 returning to Cowra. Our group staked out our spots at the popular bridge at Jindalee nice and early and we were rewarded as a seemingly endless number of cars kept arriving, jostling for limited parking and even more precious photo spots! It seemed that everyone we’d met trackside was there, along with others we’d only seen lineside as we raced past on the main road. There was a good vibe amongst everyone good naturedly jostling for the best position before a hush fell over the crowd at a distant whistle.
“That’d be them,” opined one particularly savvy individual who was rewarded for his observation with a resounding shushing from those standing by their video cameras. This sparked a few nervous giggles as the final checks of camera gear were made.
As the train rounded the curve, the crew of 5917 wanted to show that their steed was far from down and out, despite having been scratched from the weekend’s festivities. With 3237 casually leading the charge, a large plume of smoke erupted from the larger engine as the pair dug in for the assault on Morrisons Hill. Certainly, the two 47 Class swinging from the rear of the train were doing little to interfere with their steam counterpart’s dominance of the grades.
The majority of the assembled throng immediately piled into their cars, waving and tooting their goodbyes to friends as they sped off down the dirt road in pursuit. Not us though. Half an hour later, the daily CountryLink service from Sydney rolled effortlessly down the hill and around towards Cootamundra. Still, we waited.
Finally, almost an hour to the minute after the passage of the LVR train, a trio of Indian Red Alcos roared around the distant curve. 4520, 4803 and 4490 attacked the grades with similar enthusiasm with their Southern Aurora special from Temora to Sydney. Our group gave chase to Wallendbeen for a second shot, but empty tummies saw us bid the train farewell there, opting instead for a pie at Harden before beginning our own trip home.