C32 class loco, flat truck and guard's van

Welcome to the Locofonic Steam Lovers Festival.

Let me share with you my love of trains; trains hauled by steam locomotives that is. This page looks at steam with an adult perspective before we regress back to being a wide-eyed 7 yr old going for a holiday on a steam-train.



I think it's funny how people, who love the smooth sleek look of a modern diesel or electric gliding by, think that steam locomotives are just noisy, ugly, smelly things that pollute the sky. Whereas we, who adore them, think they are just about the best machine ever invented.

Never. Just beautiful music to our ears. And anyway, the low frequency rumble of diesels travels much further than the high frequency hiss of steam escaping. (The crack of a lightning flash quickly turns to the rumble of thunder the further away it rolls.) The trains leaving Bathurst for Sydney face a grade of 1 in 40. It was normal practice in the last days of steam to provide a pusher engine to help the train diesel up the grade. While I was recording a D59 class Steam-loco waiting to start a push, the diesel driver (in his late forties) was walking along the adjacent line and chided the steam-loco driver (in his early forties) as he passed. "Are you up to the job son?" "At least I don't have to wear earplugs." was the reply. Manually fired Steam locos were much quiter in the cabs than diesels were.

Not so. There is nothing like seeing large beautifully machined metal parts operating in unison to produce a required outcome. In this case to propel a 350ton train along the line at 70mph using an idea so simple that a 5yr old child can understand it.

Yes and what a perfume. The sweet smelling steam, caused by the water softener brickettes in the tender, contrasted with the tang of the coal smoke, once experienced, will never leave you. If, at any time in the future you smell just a hint of coal smoke, it will instantly transport you back to the time of your first whiff and the circumstances surrounding it.

We call them Steam Engines. Some people reckon they should be called Smoke Engines. Sometimes they do smoke but that is under control of the crew. If a diesel pollutes, the crew can do nothing about it other than put in a fault report at the end of the trip. Whereas if a steam locomotive pollutes it's due to the crew not being careful enough because, unlike the diesel crew, they do have some control over it. Ever noticed how there is a lot more smoke during a photostop than in normal running.

A long time ago it seems now, I was lucky enough to ride in the cab of a 60 class Garratt from Newcastle to Gosford and back. Gosford is about 50 miles north of Sydney and Newcastle is about 52 miles north of that. The load to Gosford was about 850tons give or take a 100tons. The load back was about 600tons give or take a 100tons.

The crew on the up journey to Gosford ("up" is the name given to the journey towards a capital city and "down" away from it) consisted of an elderly driver and a fireman in his late twenties. The driver spent most of the trip watching the "road" (the line ahead) adjusting the throttle and cutoff as the loco went up and down the various grades so as to not waste any of the steam generated by the efforts of the fireman. The Garratt never slipped once, not even climbing up the 1in75 grade to the "tickhole" tunnel just south of Newcastle (the rails are usually moist down in the approach cutting and in the tunnel entrances in the early hours of the morning).

The young fireman spent most of the trip watching the exhaust coming out of the chimney and continuously adjusting the steam-powered mechanical stoker, coalspreader and firebox door to minimise any excess smoke. (White exhaust is just condensed steam or water vapour same as the clouds in the sky. Black exhaust is condensed steam mixed with unburnt coal particles. The steam itself is actually clear before it condenses. By adjusting the controls carefully the fireman can maximise the combustion of the coal and minimise the amount of unburnt coaldust thrown into the sky. A well fired engine has a light grey exhaust and a well fired 38 class loco has an almost invisible exhaust so clear you can see through it.) The fireman also added water to the boiler only when it was appropiate so as not to reduce its steaming capacity at an inopportune time (going uphill). The crew were so pleased with this particular Garratt that they congratulated it. The fireman saying it was a good steamer and the driver saying it was a good puller. They probably didn't realise that it was their working together as a well oiled team that brought out the best in the loco.

A few hours later on the down journey you wouldn't have thought it was the same engine. A different crew, both middle aged, (nice people as they didn't kick me off the engine and leave me at Gosford) who operated differently and had no end of trouble. Not enough steam, masses of smoke and it barely made it up the grades. How come?

The fireman turned the steam-powered stoker full on and left it that way. He then settled down for a rest and the driver kept an eye on the water level and gave him a kick (the coalspreader makes so much noise it's pointless trying to talk) when it got low. Maybe the fireman had had a heavy night but the Garratt didn't like it or forgive it. The full-on powered stoker was over-stoking the fire pumping out thick black smoke. The firebed was getting too thick from all the excess coal and not burning well for lack of air and subsequently the boiler was not steaming well. The pressure started to drop. The driver, probably worrying about stopping on a grade, forgot to kick the fireman and the water,by now, had dropped to the bottom mounting nut of the glass waterlevel tube. (This is the level where any further drop would leave the top of the firebox with no water over it instantly melting fusible plugs allowing steam to extinguish the fire. Oddly though this was actually helping the poor burning fire, as less water in the boiler needs less heat to boil it) I wondered whether I should jump off the train (we were almost stopped as it was) and walk back to Newcastle. However the drop in speed had reduced the rocking motion of the engine and this change must have soaked into the dozing fireman, for he raised one eyelid, saw the water level disappearing into the bottom nut and suddenly flew out of his seat, turned on the injectors, dumping cool water into an already struggling boiler. The steam pressure died and these "clowns" finally brought the mighty Garratt to its knees and it slowed and stopped. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so serious. We were in the middle of nowhere. Goodness knows what the guard (yes they still had guards in guardsvans in those days) thought was happening.

The refreshed fireman was now working like a demon. Probably spurred along by the thought of being carpeted for incompetance (the only room to have carpet in those days was the boss's office), he stopped the powered stoker, turned the blower full on, grabbed the grate rocking lever, and in concert with the driver, rocked that grate for all he was worth, which at this point in time wasn't much. Finally getting the air it desperately needed, the firebox started to function again and a satisfying bright glow appeared in the fire. Shutting off the injectors, the water level now being back above the nut (the less water above the nut the quicker the pressure would rise), the fireman, doing what he should have in the first place, adjusted the steam-powered stoker while watching the exhaust. The steam pressure rose and we were finally underway again. An unsheduled 7 or 8 minute stop. I suppose the Garratt got the blame. After all weren't they old and clapped out?    Hmm! I think not!

  I guess by now you'll be ready to turn back the clock to when you were a wide-eyed 7 yr old, to a time when you thought you were all grown-up. After all couldn't you read, tie your shoe laces and comb your hair. Come with me as we prepare to go on holidays in the country on a steam-train.

  A word or two about the story you are going to read. These trips occurred once a year, from 1944 to 1950, mostly in January with a few in April. I was quite young at the time. A couple more occured when I was a teenager in the late 1950s. The story is a composite of all these trips with some memories coming from each. Maybe every thing I've written happened each trip. Maybe only on some trips. Don't be too pedantic about the details. It was a long time ago and, while having a reasonably good memory, I might be wrong about something or other. I was just a little kid at the time.

  Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. I know it brought tears to my eyes just remembering it. Sorry I've gotta go. The Station Master has just got his green lantern out so . . . . . . Got your shoes on the right feet? Great! Let's start our trip and on with the story.

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  ©  Gary Yates   Locofonic Recordings Australia  
This page first written 18-8-1999 last updated 30-9-2001.