Railways in my blood


As this book is about my interest in public transport vehicles, I will keep my family history, etc, to a minimum.

I was born in January 1952. I was the first of three children, my sister Miriam, came along in November, the next year. It was 1961, before my brother Chris, was born. We lived in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

When I was, perhaps four years of age, I recall asking my father what the "frame" on the roof of the suburban train, that we were about to travel on, was. A "pantograph", was his answer. He followed up with a brief description of the function of a pantograph, which was enough to satisfy me. Dad wasn’t a rail enthusiast by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, he was, and remains, a "motor car", man. Therefore, he had drawn on his extensive "general knowledge" to answer my rail related question. Another of my earliest transport memories was the sight of a double deck bus in Swanson St, Melbourne. I also recall peeping through the venetian blinds in the lounge room at a family friend’s house, whenever suburban trains ran by, in Ringwood, a Melbourne suburb.

These brief encounters with trains and buses, along with a tram trip, once in a while, didn’t really start me towards taking a serious interest in public transport vehicles. My interest in railways began when I joined the Victorian Railways in 1967. Starting work on the VR was good fortune, as the decision to enter the large bluestone administration building in Spencer St Melbourne, was very much a "spur of the moment" thing. At the tender age of 14 years and ten months, I had just had a job interview with the Post Office, for a position as a telegram delivery boy. I was told that one must be 15 years old, before even filling out an application form for employment at the post office! My mother and I were walking along Spencer St, when she glanced across the street, at the VR building. She said, why don’t you ask the railway’s if they will employ you?

Within an hour or of asking about work, I had concluded a medical examination, maths and English test, and was asked to sign a series of documents, and told to report to Jolimont Railway Workshops on a certain date, in February 1967. The interview had taken place in December 1966.

As would be expected, I was excited at the prospect of earning a wage, and the job meant that I would have a taste of life in the "real world", as a railway man! I say railwayman as I soon matured from a "wet behind the ears" boy, into a young man, simply by working with, men! I was treated in an equal manner, by fellow workmates, many of whom were thirty or forty years older than me.

My job description was "lad trainee", which by today’s standards is a quaint title! A tradesman’s assistant, would be the best way to describe the work that I was doing.

During the 1960’s, the railway’s trained a large number of apprentices in an extensive range of trades. Some of the trades that people spent years leaning are no longer required these day’s. Indeed, with the extent of "contracting out" done by all railway systems in Australia, apprenticeships are few and far between in the railways. As for job’s such as a "lad trainee", such positions no longer exist! In what I would call the "good old day’s", from 1967 to the late 1970’s, rail systems throughout Australia were greatly overstaffed. But, the fact that the railway’s created positions such as a "lad trainee", meant that I, with my limited skills, could at least get a job! Further, I enjoyed the work a great deal.

I will discuss the changes carried out on the transport scene in another chapter. Suffice to say, at the time that I worked for the New South Wales Government Railway’s, at the Sydney Parcels office, close to 400 people were employed at that depot. Today, the place is rotting under tonnes of dust, without a single employee to be found on the site!

Shortly after starting work, I was "introduced" to the railway hobby by Alec Barrett, who repaired seat covers on suburban train sets. Alec loaned me entire volumes of "Railway Transportation" magazine. He also told me that I was entitled to travel throughout Victoria for quarter the regular rail fare, whenever I was off duty. I was quite amazed at the low cost of travel, and even more amazed at the many rail trips that were available to me. Through Alec, I was granted "cab" rides on diesel and electric loco’s. These trips were almost always from the Jolimont yard to Flinders Street Railway Station.

I became well and truly "hooked" on railways!

As I was still quite young, my parents were only prepared to permit me to do day trips for about my first 12 months on the VR. Once I was able to demonstrate that I could indeed be trusted to travel on longer journey’s than simple day trips, I began to study the train timetable, to find longer excursions. At that stage I still didn’t have the funds to spend a night in a hotel. But, hey, wait a minute, what was to stop me from taking an overnight train to far off places, such as Mildura, stay the day, and return overnight to Melbourne? Well, nothing really!

So, Melbourne to Mildura, with my sister Miriam, was to be my first overnight train trip. With very little money to spare and a long day to fill in, we did a lot of walking around the town. Lunch under some huge gum trees and an afternoon "snooze" in the shade seemed to be an ideal option to while away a few hours. Oh yeah? We both fell asleep, only to awake, some time later, badly sunburnt! Needless to say, we had an uncomfortable and sleepless night on our way home!

Despite the pain of my first long rail journey, I was eager to travel to Sydney, Adelaide, and beyond, if possible. Both the Sydney and Adelaide trips could be done by using my, "overnight train in both directions, and one day in the city" approach. A concept that best suited my financial situation, in those days.

Looking back, I regret that I didn’t have the cash to travel extensively, during the day that I had in either Sydney or Adelaide. However, at least I did get to see some interesting trains in those cities. My typical routine was to bring some food along, plus a roll of film for my inexpensive camera. Which, at that time, was a Kodak instamatic. I still treasure my first railway photo, which was of a VR "E" class electric locomotive in Jolimont yard. I also managed to capture on film, the tank engines that shunted the Newport railway workshops. Some of my early photographic efforts were not all that good, but at least I have a record of loco’s and passenger cars that are scraped or in museums, now.

In mid-1969 I set out for my first trip to Brisbane. Once again, I had "slim pickings", when it came to money. Thus, I travelled from Melbourne to Sydney in an economy class seat, on the "Spirit of Progress". I enjoyed the almost mandatory ferry trip from Circular Quay to Manly. Plus a trip in a wooden bodied "Bradfield" suburban car. Steam was still to be seen. I was delighted to watch "30" class tank loco’s shunting end platform suburban cars around Sydney yard. I travelled on the Brisbane Express, via Wallangarra. I was so impressed by what I had seen in Sydney, that I was determined to move there to live!

I had enjoyed a wonderful four years on the Victorian Railways, but it was time to move on! I had worked with many good people. Unforgettable characters, including an elderly "Cockney" gentleman, Albert Laurence. I worked with "Alby" for 18 months. Our job was changing the advertising signs in suburban train cars. Without doubt, that job was the most enjoyable 18 months of my working life! There was never a word said in anger, between Albert and I. He treated me as if I was his own son. Years after I left the railways in Victoria, I heard that Albert had retuned to his beloved London, to die. Which he did, peacefully, in his sleep. May God bless him!

Family and friends were stunned to learn of my plans to move north. However, it would be 1971 before I resigned from the VR, and booked a seat on the "Spirit of Progress" to Sydney. The "Spirit", had began life in 1936 as a broad gauge train, hauled by the world famous streamlined "S" class steam loco’s, from Melbourne to Albury. The train had a 48-seat dining car and a round end lounge-observation car. The train ran non-stop from Melbourne to Albury, where it made an "across the platform" connection with the "Sydney Express". When the standard gauge line was extended from Albury to Melbourne in 1962, the "Spirit" became an overnight Sydney-Melbourne service. The train was downgraded, due to having the dining car replaced by a counter buffet car. The round end "obs" was also taken off. So, among rail fans, the train was nick- named the "Slops". The "Southern Aurora" was introduced at the same time as the standard gauge was opened. The "Aurora" was my all time favourite train! With ten sleeping cars, a 48 seat dining car, a lounge car, and a power car, the "Southern Aurora" was a world class train.


In December 1970 I travelled from Melbourne to Sydney on holiday. Whilst there, I simply walked into the NSWGR head office, at 509 Pitt St Sydney, and applied for a job! I was asked, when do you want to start? I looked at a calendar and picked a date in March 1971. No worries, was the reply. Just report to Sydney Parcels, across the street from here, at 9:00am on that day. Ask for Mr Tom Dickinson.

I returned to work in the advertising branch, on the VR, after my holiday in Sydney, and handed in my resignation, much to the shock of all concerned!

The move to Sydney was the start of a great adventure, for me. Upon reflection, there was nothing to it, really! After arrival at Sydney Terminal station, I looked up a boarding house in the phone book. Yes, the place at 68 Charlotte St Ashfield, was within walking distance of the railway station, and yes, they provided two meals a day, for the 13 dollars a week rent. However, listening to two other people snoring through the night, wasn’t a lot of fun!

I met Mike Soccio, who worked in the insured parcels office. We discussed my lodging situation, and he expressed alarm at the rent that I was paying. As it turned out, Mike was the "landlord" of a boarding house in Summer Hill. He said, you could have a room at my boarding house for $7.00 a week. Wow, seven bucks a week for a room to myself! I soon moved in. Due to a shared sense of humour, Mike and I developed a firm friendship. We have remained mates, ever since. Some years later, I purchased a house from Mike, in Leichhardt.

I began to travel throughout NSW, by train. In those days, there was a vast choice of trains and places to visit. As I have said many times, when the population of NSW is taken into account, the extent of the rail system was large, even by world standards. That can be said today, when discussing the Sydney suburban railway system. But, during the 1970’s, one could travel on air-conditioned "Daylight" express trains from Sydney to a wide range of country towns. The destinations of those trains included, Grafton, Cooma, Albury, Griffith, Cowra, Dubbo, Moree and Tenterfield. Overnight "Mail" trains operated to the above towns, plus various branch line connections were made, along each main line. In some cases, "Through" cars were provided on the mail trains. A good example would be the "South Mail", which operated from Sydney to Albury. A through car was detached from the train, at Harden, for the line to Young.

The South Mail also dropped cars at Cootamundra for Tumut. There were also through cars for the Junee-Griffith line. I should point out that the "through car" system often only operated on certain day’s of the week. On other day’s, a rail motor or "mixed" freight/passenger train connected to and from the "mail" at junction stations. There were periods when certain branch lines had through cars, whilst at other times, the railway’s decided that a connecting service was a less costly option than running a quite long train, all the way from Sydney to junction stations, like Cootamundra. Then, for example, having one or two cars run from Cootamundra to Tumut. As patronage began to fall, the "mail" trains were made up of the minimum possible rolling stock. Indeed, the travelling post office car and parcel vans were withdrawn, in later years. That action caused the financial losses incurred in running mail trains, to sore out of control! I will comment on the removal of passenger train services, in another chapter.

Junee, like Werris Creek, is a town that was "created" by the railways. Junee has a motel style building, known as a barracks. Railway staff, including train drivers, and guards, spend their "book off" time in Barracks. Or, more to the point, staff spent at least some time there. Air Conditioned facilities such as bedrooms, dining room, etc, are provided. There was also a nice refreshment room at the Junee railway station. Once trains 9 & 10, the "South Mail" were withdrawn, there was little need for a refreshment room at Junee station. Unknown to many train passengers, Junee also had a limited number of clean, inexpensive hotel style rooms, for rent. The main reason that accommodation was provided at the railway stations in Junee and Werris Ck, was for the convenience of travelling salesmen. It is difficult to envision this, these days, but during the early part of this century, it was common for salesmen to travel throughout NSW, by train. A large suitcase containing samples of the goods that could be ordered, was taken to country towns on the overnight mail trains. Very often, a good connection could be made between trains at the junction stations. Sometimes, though, a long wait would be required. At such times, the accommodation provided at the railway station, would be more suitable than a hotel. In particular, during inclement weather!

When I first began working as a "baggage porter"{an assistant guard}, the standard of the facilities in the barracks in some locations was not good. In Werris Creek and Junee, the barracks were old wooden buildings. They were stinking hot in summer and freezing cold, in winter! When the modern brick building was built to replace the old Junee barracks, it soon became known as the Junee Hilton!

Despite the improvements to accommodation standards that were carried out, many staff spent as little time as possible in the barracks. The pubs and club’s, were a "home away from home" for certain people. Often, the guard would drop his bag into a bedroom at the barracks, write his name on the blackboard, as was required, and then "bolt" for the RSL Club! I was looked upon as being "anti-social" for not going with the guard, to his favourite pub or club.

Instead, I made my way to the local cafe for some good old-fashioned country style cooking. It could be said that I was something of a "loner", in a social sense. However, I got along well with almost all of the guards that I worked with, as well as fellow baggage porters. The only exception was Ray Atkinson. Ray "taught me the road", which meant that it was he who took me on my first trip as a baggage porter. At that time, we struck up a good friendship. Two years later, we had a major argument, which resulted in us becoming enemies, so to speak! The problem was caused by my " off the cuff" remark, that I found another baggage porter no problem to work with. Ray was violently against Rushdie Dewar, for reasons that are unknown to me, even to this day! The other baggage porters were a good bunch of blokes. The four years that I spent as a baggage porter, remains a highlight of my railway career.

A description of the duties of a baggage porter and a "hypothetical" trip that a baggage porter might do is in order, here.

The role that is played by a baggage porter can best be described as an assistant to the guard on an overnight mail train. The guard’s responsibilities, as most readers will know, include the "safe working" of the train. Historically, the guard, and not the train driver, is "in charge" of a train. On the NSWGR, this went as far as a guard telling the driver, what time the train had reached Sydney, for example! I alway’s found that situation odd. On mail trains, the guard would shine a green light in response to a similar signal, from a signalman, as the train travelled past a signal box. He would also give the "right of way" at stations. The baggage porter might have been permitted to carry out such duties, if the guard considered that he was a reliable sort of fellow. While the guard took care of his "safeworking" duties, the baggage porter would sort waybills, etc. At busy stations, the baggage porter would help load and unload parcels, mail, and luggage. For the few minutes that the train remained in towns such as Yass Junction, Harden, or Cootamundra, things were often very hectic! Time was of the essence, so we all had to work quickly to unload ton’s of parcels, etc, to be transferred to connecting trains.

The railway post office car was also a busy place. Huge amounts of mail were moved by rail, during the 1970’s and into the 1980’s. Mail is now transported by truck and by air.

Thinking of "airmail", the railways carried thousands of blue "airmail" bag’s, on overnight trains! In recent years, media reports revealed that large amounts of cargo that people had paid to have sent by air, in fact, travelled by road! The more things change, the more they stay the same!

A train driver, guard, or other members of the train crew, were in effect, "married" to their job’s! One certainly spent more time either working or travelling to or from our job, than the time we had off duty. In my case, I worked a 12-day fortnight. So, what would I do during that time at work? In another chapter I will provide the actual timetables for some of my rostered services, but here is a brief outline of a "typical " trip.

Sunday evening: I lived alone, in Leichhardt, an inner western suburb of Sydney. Being a hopeless cook, I would often travel by bus, into town, for dinner before starting work. The bus would drop me at Railway Square, Broadway. Which is across George St, from Sydney Parcels. I would head directly for the insured parcels office to see my mate, Mike Soccio.

Mike and I would engage in discussion on subjects ranging from the well being of our families, to politics, rumours and goings on at work, right through to the meaning of life! Lighthearted banter was a part of our relationship. Funny comedy "routines" would develop, some of which would have been more at home on Vaudeville or in an episode of the "Goon" show! Although it is hard to translate such routines, they might run like this:

Well, Mike, what is going on here? I don’t know, John, what is going on here? Well, Mickey, you have been here all afternoon, shouldn’t you know what is going on here? No no no, Jack, you have been out all afternoon, you should have heard what is going on, so that you can tell me. Then, we would both know what is going on around here!

At some stage, I would leave Mike’s company and head for the "Food Lounge" for dinner.

Later in the evening, I would enter the Guards Foreman’s office, which was located near the entrance of platform 15. The first thing that I would do, would be to check my "company" mail. The brown "Pigeon Hole" was where supervisors, workmates, and friends could leave a message for me. It was also where one may receive a "bung" for an alleged wrongdoing. Such memos required a written response. Often, that would be the end of the matter. But, sometimes, there would be a further note, stating that one is required to see the Guard’s Foreman.

Having dealt with my "corro", I had my time sheet signed by the roster "jerk", sorry, clerk. I then picked up my bag, and walked towards my train. The "South Mail" would be placed at platform three. The loco would already be on the train, and passengers would be boarding. I would leave my overnight bag in the guard’s van that would be my "home" for the night, and I would see who the baggage porter was. I would start work, sorting out correspondence, parcels waybills, and so on.

A blast of the loco’s horn, followed by a pall of heavy exhaust from the diesel, would herald the 10:30pm departure of the train.

Stops would be made in Strathfield and Campbelltown to pick up passengers. Once the train had left the Suburban area, we would all settle into our regular work routine. Mail bags to be picked up in Picton and Moss Vale, followed by arrival in Goulburn.

Monday morning: With daylight approaching, and the bulk of our work completed, a "snooze", whilst sitting in our seat, was in order!

A hearty breakfast in the refreshment rooms in Junee, followed by sleep at the barracks, was my reward, after a long night’s work.

Monday afternoon: Lunch in the cafe and a walk around town. I would spend some time at the RSL club, catching up with the guard. That is, if we were good "mates", which was often the case. If not, I wouldn’t bother going to the club. The fact that I didn’t drink and that I am adverse to tobacco smoke, meant that my visit to the club, would often be brief. To be honest, the visit to the club, was really a demonstration to the guard, that I wasn’t a total snob! And, yes, I could enjoy a glass of lemon squash, and "feed" the pokies.

Monday night: The "Mail" would leave Junee a roar like thunder! Our short consist would soon move to the speed limit. The Alco or EMD diesel up front, would be in "run eight", as we headed for Cootamundra and Sydney. We would pick up another baggage porter in Coota, along with the van that had been dropped there, on the southbound trip.

Tuesday morning: By 6:30am, we would arrive in Sydney. After signing off, I would catch a bus, home. After breakfast, the blinds would be closed in my bedroom, and I would fall into a deep sleep.

Tuesday afternoon: Awake at the "crack of noon", as the joke goes. Time would be spent with visiting friends or doing something of interest to me. In the early evening, it would be time to travel to my second "home", Central Station, Sydney. Where to, tonight? Perhaps to Werris Creek and home, "pass" on the Northern Tablelands Express? Or, perhaps, to Portland on the "Mudgee Mail".

I also did some "relief" work as a sleeping car conductor. Or, sometimes, a sitting car attendant. Another aspect of my job, was to give the "right of way" on interurban trains, on the Blue Mountains line. Sometimes that duty was enjoyable. In winter, though, staying at the barracks in Mt Victoria, could be hell on earth! Darkness, muddy ground, freezing wind, and snow were "features" of life at Mount Victoria!

As a rail fan, being paid to travel by train, was nice! As were the many free train trips, taken on annual leave. The "free" or greatly discounted rail trips are something that I miss, these days. It is fair to say, the high cost of regular train fares, are the reason that I haven’t travelled much by train, since I left the railways in 1988.

If you're interested in reading rest "Railways in My Blood" the CD is available for the price of $19.95. The CD contains many illustrations including timetable extracts and tickets.