Pothana Lane in Monochrome (Pictorial)

Below are a few scenes from a recent visit to Pothana Lane in the NSW Hunter Valley (near Branxton).

9017 leads two classmates downgrade with a loaded coal train bound for Port Waratah for export, whilst the crew of heritage steam locomotive 5917 pour coal into the firebox as she stomps upgrade with a charter train to Singleton.

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Hunter Valley High Rollers

Editors Note: I’m putting this up early for two reasons – firsty, I might not have a chance to update closer to the weekend, and secondly, this is to the benefit (hopefully) of those attending Steamfest. Not much good if it goes up the day before!

It is of course, that time of year again! Of course, I do not refer to Christmas, although it may as well be for those who will make the annual pilgrimage to Maitland for this year’s Hunter Valley Steamfest.

Of course, any self respecting railfan (I’m sure they exist somewhere) will know all about the various steam-related activities going on in “The Valley” over the weekend (although, if you don’t, take a quick look here), although for infrequent visitors, it might be difficult to pick out some of the other companies that operate in the Hunter Valley. Here’s  a brief rundown on some of the companies and their locomotives that should play a part in any plans to attend festivities.

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Getting There is Half The Fun

I’m quite willing to admit that I get into a comfort zone when enjoying my hobby. Despite the interesting trains that are found in the far west and north-west of the state, it is always all too easy to settle on a trip to the south, where the trains are plentiful, the locations are well known, and the motels are tried and tested. Still, after getting a taste of the scenery the north-west of the state had to offer in June of last year, I’ve always been hankering for another crack at this rather unique area.

I would be given this opportunity when Chris, a mate of mine, suggested an evening photo shoot in either the Cullerin or Liverpool ranges. Despite the former being significantly closer to Sydney than the latter, we settled on the Liverpool Range just because we’d never done it in anything approaching darkness.

As I was working morning shift (0344 sign on) on the day that Chris was driving up, I arranged to catch the CountryLink Grafton XPT service to Maitland, where we would meet up and head for the north-west. Invitations were also extended to Simon and Fred to make the trip to see what we could find. With barely a scrap of local knowledge amongst the four of us, it would truly be a case of the blind leading the blind!

While on the train up to Maitland, a number of freight and passenger trains were passed in a blur, the most interesting of which was when we overtook BL30 and BL27 on an empty ore train at Waratah, and later when we overtook a pair of 5020 class on an empty QRNational coal train near Maitland. Meeting Chris on the platform just as the rain started, I was greeted with “what have you done, you’ve brought the rain up from Sydney I suppose?”. I also made contact with Simon, to find that he was making his way up from the Woy Woy area where he had spent the morning looking for freight traffic.

Arranging a rough meeting in the Singleton area, we set off in pursuit of the 5020 class, which followed the Xplorer out of the station. Our cause was not helped by a stop at Rutherford McDonalds for a late lunch. We beat the 5020’s to the bridge at Minimbah by the skin of our teeth, and then settled in to wait for the ore train that would no doubt not be far behind. We were not disappointed, with BL30 and BL27 rounding the curve at 1517. Given that all of our focus was on the ore train, we didn’t notice the pair of 82’s (and the pair of G Class remaining in Hunter Coal service) climbing the grade behind us. It was only when we turned to get a shot of the BL’s snaking their way down the hill that we noticed the coal train. Thankfully there was an absence of traffic on the Golden Highway at that point in time, so it was an easy task to cross the road and photograph this unexpected bonus train.

Despite the difficulties of chasing a train through Singleton, we decided to try and find a spot for the BL Class overlooking Lake Liddell, and the nearby power stations. We succeeded in locating a suitable location, although I managed to fudge the shot up, so that location has been added to a list of locations that we will revisit in the future. When we tried to leave the location to head into Muswellbrook, we noticed what looked like a loaded coal train preparing to depart Antiene for port, so we quickly turned around and raced up to what looked to be an excellent hillside view over the line (missing triple TT Class on the down with an empty coal train in the process). We waited, and waited. Finally, triple WH Class locomotives on a loaded Gunnedah Basin coal train snaked their way into view. At this point, happy with what we had, and ever wary of the expected rail traffic in the Werris Creek area versus the slowly retreating sun, we moved on.

Due to the delay in the Lake Liddell area (and my inexcusable inability to give cohesive directions to Simon on how to get to Ardglen over the phone), we ended up playing catch up to Simon, finally meeting him at the motel in Murrurundi. After dumping our bags in the motel room, we set off towards Werris Creek with a slight detour into Willow Tree to photograph triple TT Class departing with a loaded coal train. Willow Tree is where the bank engines are attached for the run up to Ardglen, and on this occasion they were all 82 Class (25, 44 and 20).

Arriving into Werris Creek, it was plain to see that the yard was well filled with various trains. At least two grain rakes were parked in the yard, as well as 8201 standing at the head of a loaded coal train from the nearby Werris Creek mine (the loader for which is located on the original Werris Creek – Gap alignment). We spent a brief moment recording the five Engenco owned 80 Class stored at the Sydney end of the yard, before our eyes spied movement to the north of town – 1437 and 1434 wheeling around the curve into the platform with 5166N container freight from Narrabri. We quickly forgot the stored 80 class and raced out of town to get a shot of them shortly after sunset. Arriving back into town, we saw 8205 and 8237 attach to 8201 for the run to Newcastle. Due to the dead-end line out to the coal loader, trains must be worked in push-pull configuration. While watching the 82 Class rejoin the front of their train, we noticed BL26 being turned on the turntable in the background.

We stuck around at Werris Creek, as there were at least two trains following the IRA freight, a loaded coal train from the Gunnedah area and a loaded P&O Trans Australia containerised grain train (being operated for Mountain Industries at Kooragang). While waiting on the platform for the coal train, the three 82 Class departed for Newcastle, only to be replaced by another three 82 Class from Gunnedah a little before 9pm. Shortly after the arrival of the coal train, we noticed a bright light approaching the Outer Home signal – this would prove to be 5414N loaded containerised grain. At this point, we could have been forgiven for giving up!

Eventually, the southbound coal train departed and we assumed that 5414 would move into the yard, although we were right about that, it wouldn’t happen for another thirty minutes. In the meantime, an empty grain arrived from Newcastle behind 8137 and 48163. The train was a curious mix of ex Freight Australia VHAF hoppers mixed in with the more traditional NGPF and NGXH types. A number of former Freight Australia hoppers previously stored on the Ararat Line in Victoria are being reactivated and sent to NSW to assist in the movement of grain across the state.

Finally, a little after 10pm, RL306 and 1101 moved into the platform at the station for a crew change. Despite the more modern 1100 class facing forward, it was relegated to trailing unit status, so we settled for photographing the RL which was well lit by the station and yard lighting. After a few minutes on the platform, the signal changed and they were off, the pair screaming out of the station with their load of all-new SQDY wagons with new 20ft covered containers.

So distracted were we by the P&OTA freight, we had missed the departure of BL26 and an 81 Class on a grain train ahead of them. Due to the PN train requiring banking up the grade into Ardglen, the P&O train overtook the PN grain around Willow Tree, and we arrived into Ardglen to listen to the pair clambering up the grades. At this point, the wind had picked up, and so it was all but impossible to use tripods to get the headlight shot, so we were content to watch and listen. With their departure, it was finally time to get back to the motel and go to bed. Finally turning in at midnight, having been up for twenty two and a half hours felt good, but it was all worth it. Especially as tomorrow was another day!

First and Last

When it came to the last photographs of 2011 and the first photographs of 2012, there was remarkable similarity. Both outings were aimed at capturing the Centennial Coal/SSR coal train running between Newstan/Clarence and Kooragang Island, although at very different locations.

December 30th, 2011

Having received a tip off that unit 81, CA02 loaded coal from Clarence to Kooragang Island would be departing the loop at Flemington in the late afternoon, an old favourite shot at Meadowbank beckoned. I’d not used the location since 2007, when I’d photographed a handful of trains from the northern side of the Parramatta River in October ’07. At the time, I’d only recently purchased my first “real” camera (a Canon 400D DSLR), and was still getting to grips with settings, composition, lenses and so forth. Fast forward to the end of 2011, I’ve been using my Canon 5D MkII for two years now, and I’m very comfortable with it – I’m so comfortable, that were a suitable replacement to be released tomorrow, I’d certainly think twice before upgrading. It’s been exceptionally reliable, and a lot of the results I share with everyone are due, in part, to the excellent quality of the equipment.

I had arrived by the river a little after three in the afternoon, content to take photos of the various CityRail and CountryLink trains until the “main event”. With four suburban trains an hour, at least two interurban trains an hour and three CountryLink services expected, there was plenty to practice on. The variety of trains varied from the veteran S and K sets, to the ultra-modern OSCar trains, which are still being delivered into 2012.

Shortly after 5:30pm, the distinctive sound of EMD and ALCo locomotives under load could be heard echoing across from the Rhodes side of the river, as they departed the down relief line onto the down main. Ever since arriving, a side goal had been to photograph a train on the bridge, while a ferry went under the bridge. Sure enough, with C502 on the bridge, “Fantasea Spirit” could be seen poking her nose out from the shadows. A couple of clicks and a wave from the crew, and we were done for the day, happy to retire to Darling Harbour for dinner and drinks.

January 2nd, 2012

After a successful New Years Eve fireworks display, it was time to track down the other Centennial Coal/SSR coal train, unit 80 from Newstan to Kooragang. This train requires bank engines to get up Fassifern Bank to Broadmeadow, and a planned shot at Cardiff was on the cards…

…until we missed them! When we arrived in the Newcastle area around 11am, we were informed that the train was at Newstan loading. Not wanting to fight the midday sun (and with no other trains expected on the Short North all day), we figured we would head to East Maitland for a bite to eat, before moving back to Cardiff for an early afternoon shot. We didn’t count on passing 4847N empty South Spur ore train in Broadmeadow Yard, headed up by 44208 and 603.

Having finished lunch, we got word that the train had departed the mine and was Newcastle bound. Giving up on the planned shot at Cardiff, we instead headed for Warabrook on the hourly railcar service from Telarah. With a sinking feeling that we might not make it, we instead jumped off the train at Sandgate to photograph a nice parade of loaded coal trains passed en-route.

Amongst the trains photographed while at Sandgate was EL56 and EL52 on a loaded Pelton coal, triple XRN Class on an empty coal from Port Waratah, the earlier mentioned 4847N ore train and a pair of 81’s on a loaded grain train over the flyover.

After what was considered a productive hour at Sandgate, we caught the next railcar to Warabrook to await the departure of unit 80 from Kooragang. 5007 and 5031 (seen shortly before departure from Sandgate) was photographed again at Warabrook. With no sign of unit 80, we settled with a shot of C502, G513, 44206 and 44204 arriving with CA04 loaded coal from Clarence, before heading home.

Where’s the Coal gone?

With one of my sources* telling me that South Spur Rail Services (henceforth known as SSRS) were going to be running their first official train out to Pelton and back, along the South Maitland Railway (SMR), I thought I would be clever and jump up to The Hunter Valley and get some photos of one of the first operations of said train. Two T Class in CFCLA colours would be hauling containerised coal up the SMR, a nice addition to the regular service hauled by Pacific Nationals 48/PL Class locomotives.

Lucky for my, my friend Anthony (better known as 42209, perhaps?) was able to come along. I caught the morning Casino XPT up to Maitland, with a ticket in my hand for a return to Sydney that night on the Brisbane XPT. That gave me nine hours (about 7.5 hours of sunlight) to photograph, and still be in bed before midnight.

For those of you unfamiliar with Hunter Valley coal operations, one usually chooses a spot where the lighting is good, and you can see a coal train go past every ten minutes or so (at worst, you see something every thirty minutes or so). Those of you familiar with Hunter Valley operations may then find the following sighting list a bit of a surprise.

Maitland (10:15am until 11:30am):

  • 10:45am (PN) PL3/48xx7/48129/PL7 down mt coal
  • 11:03am (PN) 9022/9032/9014 down mt coal

East Maitland (11:50am until 12:45pm):


At this stage, Anthony had arrived from Sydney (he was originally going to get the train, so we could have a couple of beers at the pub right by the side of the rails at East Maitland**, but drove instead). We were eagerly awaiting the arrival of 3MB7, which we had been told by another enthusiast*** would have G516/G534 on the front. Apparently the train had arrived into Broadmeadow on time with G516/X/G534, but that they were taking the X off for a return to Sydney (either on the next days 4BM7, on on 4152 to Yennora that night), so the train would be continuing through to Acacia Ridge with the two G’s up front. Suited us fine. Of course, that was until we were standing in the parking lot at the pub, and we heard a deep throaty rumbling noise. Of course, we stood there and watched 3MB7 roar by behind G516 and G534. No doubt about it, we jumped into the car and after getting lost in Maitland, we soon found ourselves headed along the open road at good speed, miles ahead of the train (except for one moment when we found ourselves behind a farmer on his tractor who was going all of 20km/h).

Anthony and I arrived at Paterson to see a northbound Hunter set crossing NT36 (Sydney bound XPT from Grafton). As the XPT would have the road right to Maitland, we knew it would probably cross 3MB7 somewhere south of us, and we would have plenty of time to find a good photospot. There are a number of good photospots, all within walking distance of the station (the station itself, a footbridge to the south, a level crossing and a railway bridge to the north). Sure enough, at 2:21pm, G516 and G534 raced around the S bend to the south of the station and pounded through on their way north. Fantastic.

G516 leads G534 north with QRNationals 3MB7

Having checked our photos (seems we both got at least two good shots of the train as it came through), we decided to move around the town and see if there were any good photos. Just past the station towards Dungog, the railway line crosses a steel truss bridge, with great photo opportunities from legal locations (just take a look at the cover of March 2008 Railway Digest – that’s the view we had from the level crossing). While standing at the level crossing, the boom gates started to go down. Anthony was trapped on the other side of the road (the way the fence was set out, the only way he could get back to my side of the road was by crossing the tracks, then crossing the road, then crossing the tracks again), so he was running around like a headless chicken without his camera. I hesitated about crossing the road because there were cars coming (that is, until I realised that the cars were going to stop for the level crossing anyway). So, I strolled across the road, and we both craned our necks trying to see what would be coming over the bridge, going south… At the last minute, I turned to Anthony and said “hey, it could be 3MB4…” and was cut off by the sound of an NR horn. We both spun around and (blindly, as we had NO time to prepare anything) snapped NR32 roaring around the corner with NR21 in tow. After a quick laugh, we waited for the boom gates to go back up and we crossed the road back to where Anthony had parked. Cue a bit more sitting around talking rubbish (we “sighted” a number of empty cans of Bundy and Cola, and XXXX Gold, leading us to believe that a bunch of Cane Toad gunzels had been this way prior to us), before we decided to make tracks back to Maitland.

Upon arriving at Maitland, we initially struggled to find more coal trains (at the time, it seemed that The Hunter Valley had run out of coal, but things eventually picked up as the sun slid down the sky).

Maitland (3:45pm to 7:30pm):

Gunzel Bridge, Maitland

  • 3:45pm (PN) 8210/8215/8214 down mt coal
  • 3:55pm (PN) 8255/8242/8168/8227 down mt coal
  • 4:00pm (QRN) 5009/5008 down mt coal
  • 4:22pm (PN) NR19/NR117 down 2AB6 intermodal (NCL)
  • 4:23pm (PN) 8233/8250/8224/8212 down mt coal****
  • 4:51pm (PN) 9009/9012/9024 up coal
  • 5:06pm (PN) 8160/48xxx/48154/48113 down grain and canola oil tankers (MNL)
  • 5:06pm (PN) PL3/48xx7/48129/PL7 up coal
  • 5:15pm (PN) 8225/8136 up coal
  • 5:21pm (PN) NRxx/NR77 up steel
  • 5:29pm (PN) 8244/8181/8252/8217 down mt coal
  • 5:32pm (PN)9013/9033/9006 up coal
  • 5:52pm (QRN) 5004/5005 up coal
  • 6:24pm (PN)8226/8142 down mt coal
  • 6:39pm (PN) 8243/8183 down mt coal
  • 7:01pm (QRN) 5011/5006 down mt coal
  • 7:10pm (Countrylink) NT31 down Brisbane XPT
  • 7:10pm (QRN) 42306/42301 up light engine

    The Sydney-bound Brisbane XPT was running about 30 minutes behind, which got worse at Broadmeadow with police officers escorting a man off the train, however we had a good run back to Sydney and only arrived about 20 minutes late into Hornsby. At this point I detrained and changed to a suburban service for the run into Chatswood, where I got a taxi and was home by 11pm. Considering I left the house at 5:30am that morning, it was quite a big day, but worth every second.

    Thanks to Anthony for keeping me company and driving me around (also for the beer ;). Also, thanks to Brad for the heads up on the SSRS train (I’m sorry I couldn’t bring back a photo to share). Thanks to Countrylink for a very pleasant trip both ways. I would recommend anyone looking for a day trip to The Hunter Valley to travel via Countrylink, as it’s so much faster than going via Cityrail, and it’s quite comfortable. Just book your tickets a day in advance, and you’re sweet!



    * With many thanks to Brad for the heads up

    ** A great pub it was, too, right by the side of the rails, very nice interior, a great selection of reasonably priced pub food (perhaps a little steeper than one would expect, but it was less a pub and more a cafe/restaurant atmosphere) which tasted fantastic (the chips especially)

    ***This same chap also informed me that the SSRS train had already been through towards Port Waratah, so we’d missed it. Ahh well, there is always next time!

    **** This train was held at a red signal for almost thirty minutes to allow the 4:05pm Newcastle to Scone train to overtake.