Cathie Skelton developed a passion for steam trains when she was only three. Growing up in South Australia, her railway enthusiast father would “drag” her mum and the kids on his train trips. Now she helps to run train trips that other people get dragged on.
“I started out volunteering in the buffet,” Cathie recalls. “But I wanted to play with the engines and the men were hogging it. So when I was in my early thirties I decided I better do something about it, so I enrolled in a fireman’s class. I should have done it much earlier.”
Today Cathie is one of a team of volunteers from Steamrail Victoria, dedicated to the restoration and operation of vintage locomotives and carriages. Steamrail conducts regular day trips from Melbourne travelling to areas across regional Victoria. Weekend trips with heritage sleeper cars take place around twice per year.
This weekend I’ve joined a group of 60 passengers and 20 volunteer crew members bound for a two-night tour to the Goldfields towns of Castlemaine and Maldon. The train is hauled by a steam locomotive built in 1940; one of only four still in working order. Our mobile hotel is an eclectic group of vintage carriages that operated on Victoria’s railways from the early to mid-twentieth century; the oldest dating back to the early 1900s. Each has been carefully restored by Steamrail at its Newport headquarters. Some carriages served on famous Victorian trains such as the Southern Aurora, the Spirit of Progress and the Overland.
My accommodation is a 1950s-era single berth sleeper compartment in a car originally used on the Vinelander between Melbourne and Mildura. The compartment maintains its fifties-era décor although the toilet and wash basin no longer work. It is very snug (I can almost reach both sides of the compartments with outstretched arms), but I have all I need with an armchair, storage space and large window to watch the scenery go by as we pull out of Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station.
As the train gathers speed it feels like riding something that’s alive. The engine breathes, hisses and whistles, exhaling smoke from its coal-fuelled fire. Every now and then the scent of coal smoke creeps into my compartment and a thin haze fills the narrow corridor of the carriage. Engines sometimes don’t behave.
According to Andrew Reynolds, a board member at Steamrail and volunteer train driver on the Victorian Goldfields Railway and Puffing Billy, “Engines are just like people, they have good days and bad days. You really have to coax it sometimes.” Our 75-year-old engine is having a good evening so far as we rapidly leave Melbourne’s suburbs behind.
After reading for a while I begin to wonder how I will turn my chair into a bed. Just as I think I might have to call for help, I spot a silver handle on the wall above the chair. When I pull it, a foldaway bed, already made up with linen, a pillow and blanket, folds down on top of the chair, converting the compartment into a tiny bedroom.
My bed proves surprisingly comfortable. I raise the window shade and watch the dark countryside pass by from my pillow. With the slight swaying of the train and the clickety clack of its wheels, I’m soon lulled to sleep.
The train rests part of the night in Castlemaine. I’m jolted awake early next morning when it begins to move again towards Maldon. On its arrival the day begins with a breakfast of bacon and eggs prepared by our volunteers on the platform of Maldon station. Throughout the weekend they turn their hands to every chore from frying eggs to shovelling coal.
Cathie has had an early start preparing to work as fireman on the day’s services between Maldon and Castlemaine operated by the Victorian Goldfields Railway (VGR), a tourist steam railway linking the two historic Goldfields towns. I spot her from the platform, looking hot, her face smeared with soot, as she helps to get the VGR engine ready for its day’s work.
The day presents a range of options for Steamrail’s guests including joining Cathie to ride the VGR or spending the day exploring Maldon. I opt for a coach tour taking in a historic gold mine and three regional wineries.
After a long day exploring sites, I join a special dinner train service operated for Steamrail’s guests by the VGR. A touch of luxury follows in the “Macedon” club car. The American-built 1928 Pullman car was left derelict after serving on the Overland between Melbourne and Adelaide. It was totally rebuilt at Steamrail’s Newport workshop and converted into a club car reminiscent of 1930s America. It is, says Andrew Reynolds who helped to restore it “unashamedly art deco” in its character.
“We’ve been able to restore this car to be a faithful representation of its era and we’re very proud of that.”
The uniformed barman and 1930s-era music add extra charm to our journey as we kick back in the leather tub chairs on our way to dinner at Castlemaine’s aptly named Railway Hotel.
On our return leg, most of the passengers and crew pile out of the train into the forest near Muckleford to take part in a ‘listening stop’. The train backs up about a kilometre and then makes its slow run through the forest back to where we wait like excited children.
The engine’s slow rhythmic chugging echoes off the trees, getting louder as it approaches. Someone near me in the dark whispers “It’s like The Little Engine That Could saying ‘I think I can. I think I can.’” Light from engine’s huge headlamp cuts through the mist and then a long blast from the engine’s whistle reverberates through the forest to the delight of its waiting passengers. The whistle of a steam train; at once melancholy and soothing, is one of my favourite sounds. When I hear it whatever worries I might have dissolve and I feel happy. It makes a lot of other people happy too.
Standing in a forest in the dark late on a cold winter’s night to listen to a train may seem a silly thing to do but Andrew Reynolds later explains why many people are mesmerised by the sounds of a steam train, particularly its whistle.
“Musically whistles are very carefully designed,” Andrew says. “This gives them that sound that’s haunting and enchanting at the same time. This VGR engine’s whistle plays a diminished note that gives it a slight tone of urgency that is still pleasant. I think the whistle on the VGR engine is one of the best in the world.”
It is beautiful and a charming way to conclude our Goldfields visit.
Steamrail runs trips approximately twice per month. Ticket prices vary from trip to trip. Visit www.steamrail.com.au or follow Steamrail on Facebook to get details of upcoming trips.
The Victorian Goldfields Railway operates between Maldon and Castlemaine on weekends and Wednesdays. A standard class adult ticket is $30 one way or $45 return. If you’d like to ride first-class in the Macedon club car, adult tickets are $45 one way and $65 return. Visit www.vgr.com.au for more information.
Louise travelled on Steamrail’s Maldon weekender in July 2015.
An edited version of this story was published in RACV’s Royal Auto magazine in February 2016.