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Steam, coalsmoke and clickety-clack: my Great Railway Journeys

Updated: Dec 3, 2023



“The Trans” Commonwealth Railways train, crossing the Nullarbor, probably in the 1940s


I have always loved trains. I can travel on them, read about them, watch them and listen to them. It has always seemed to me that there is no finer way to travel. I also love railway engineering and architecture – the glittering rails and geometrically placed sleepers, curving through a hilly woodland, cuttings and embankments, railway bridges, tunnels, viaducts … even the ornamentation on 19th century railway stations.


As a boy I caught the tail-end of the steam age. I travelled on suburban trains with my mother on many occasions, puffing out of the Claremont railway station to go into Perth or Fremantle, and when I was at high school in the 1950s, we used to catch the train, still at that time pulled by a steam locomotive, out to Guildford to play football. In bed at night, I used to listen to the distant trains thumping up the Karrakatta bank on the Perth-Fremantle line; the sound of their steam whistles was particularly melancholy at 2 AM on a sleepless night. I can also remember train trips to country destinations. These were ripping adventures, with great locomotives up front, rather than the little tank engines used on suburban routes. Occasionally these days I have been on an excursion on a “vintage train” like the Leschenault Lady. It instantly brings back the atmosphere of those schoolboy trips: the acrid coal smoke, the hissing and panting of the engine as it waits at the station, the cry of the steam whistle, the clank and clatter of iron wheels, the ding-dong of the warning bells at level crossings, and grit and cinders in the eyes.


As a lad I avidly read those boy’s adventure stories in which the hero became involved in railways in some way, usually preventing a ghastly accident, or the accounts of dangerous wartime undertakings, such as those by T.E. Lawrence or Peter Fleming. Most recently I have devoured Paul Theroux’s books on his railway adventures, and the series of books on Great Railway Journeys, which were also made into television documentaries.


And I have made two great railway journeys of my own.


But first, I need to turn back the clock to my student days in the USA and to the one time in which my interaction with trains was not wholly pleasurable. It was 1966, and my brand-new bride Ellen and I spent most of our spare time exploring the Pacific Northwest. There was a lot to see. In and around Seattle where we lived, there were numberless lakes, parks, botanical gardens and urban forests. There was Puget Sound, dotted with wooded islands, and beyond to the west was the Olympic Peninsular with its range of cloud-cap’d mountains, ocean beaches and wonderful forests of Douglas-fir and Sitka spruce. Best of all were the Cascade Mountains to the east, about a two-hour drive from our apartment near the University.


To Western Australians like us, unused to mountains, any “proper” mountain range is enthralling. But the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific North-west are especially interesting and beautiful. Along the spine of the main range there are several old volcanic peaks which soar above the tree line, are permanently snow covered and have living glaciers upon their flanks. One of them, Mt Rainier, is visible from just about anywhere in Seattle. I could never take my eyes off it.



Mt Ranier, the ever-present backdrop to life in Seattle


The forests of the Pacific Northwest were also a revelation. Unlike the sunlit Australian forests I knew, where shade is at a premium even in the virgin forest, the evergreen conifer forests of western Washington and Oregon are darkly shadowed and in winter almost gloomy. They are often shrouded in fog and drizzle for days at a time. Snow is common, and above a few thousand feet altitude, it lies around for months through winter and early spring. The trees are breathtaking – towering Douglas-fir, western red cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock. Twice a year the dark green of the foliage and the black shadows of the forest glades are briefly lit with colour; firstly, in the autumn when the vine maple and red alder understorey blazes with yellows and reds, and then in early summer when the alpine meadows are bright with daisies and berries. There is water everywhere, with trickling streams in every gully, marshy mosquito-rich swamplands, crystal-clear glimmering lakes and great icy torrents of snow-melt pouring down through rocky gorges.



Snowy peaks, fir trees and autumn colours in the Cascade Mountains


Ellen and I lived up in this country for a few months during the summer vacation. I was helping to teach undergraduates on their summer camp and doing a research project at the University’s Experimental Forest in the foothills of the Cascades. We lived in a little cabin, clad with red cedar “shakes” (which we called shingles) in amongst the Douglas-fir. Most evenings we would go walking in the woods, and on the weekends would move out further afield to clamber to the tops of minor peaks or wend our way on day-long hikes on the network of mountain trails which criss-cross the Cascades from one end to the other.



Our cabin at the University’s Experimental Forest


But there was another and very different environment on our exploration agenda. Across the mountains into eastern Washington, the country changed dramatically. Rainfall dropped off, and the forests changed from fir and cedar to ponderosa and lodgepole pine, and then beyond the eastern foothills the landscape opened up into a great agricultural heartland between the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains. Through this area flowed the mighty Columbia River, and on either side of the river lay vast orchards of apples, peaches, apricots, cherries and pears. The upland pine forests were very attractive. They were open and sunny, with needles and grass underfoot and smelling of pine resin and juniper. A weekend camping and walking “East of the Mountains” was definitely on our agenda.


So, one Friday afternoon after work we set off from Seattle and drove up and over the Snoqualmie Pass on the main east-west interstate highway. High in the mountains it became cold and dark, and we decided to pull off to make camp for the night. I found an obscure track leading into the forest off the highway and we bumped along this for a km or so until it seemed to peter out, where we pulled up, and made camp. It was a pitch-black night.


An hour or two later, snug in our swag, we were awakened by an ominous noise and a shaking of the earth. There was a deep rhythmic beat and a snarl of mighty engines … whatever it was, was bearing down on us! Suddenly we were bathed in the beam of a mighty searchlight, and before we knew what was going on, a gigantic train rounded a curve, hurtled up and swept past us, the engines and wind-horns howling, only about two metres from where we had been lying. Without knowing it, in the dark, we had bedded down right on the very edge of the track of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and a freight train pulled by two massive mountain locomotives had just gone through. Later we laughed about it, but at the time, thinking that we were miles from civilisation in a mountain wilderness area, and then having a bellowing demon fall upon us seemingly from no-where, it had been a terrifying moment.


It was the only time I have had an interaction with a railway train that I haven’t enjoyed.


Back to the first of my Great Railway Journeys: crossing Australia in 1961.


The first of my Great Railway Journeys was the trip across almost the breadth of Australia from Perth to Canberra where I was to take up my studies at the Australian Forestry School.


It was March 1961, and I can still easily recall the small knot of forestry students and their farewelling families on the platform of the Perth Railway Station, about to depart for distant Canberra. Two of this group, Frank Batini and Jack Bradshaw were to become my lifelong friends and a third was George Matthiessen, a restless and sometimes eccentric genius. George later came to an untimely end but in the meantime never ceased to entertain and amaze us. We forestry students had completed our two years at the University of WA and were already good mates, having shared the travails of academic life, some fun and games, and working together in forestry gangs during university vacations. But we were innocents abroad, and none of us really knew what to expect, either at the Forestry School, or more to the point, did we appreciate the rigours of the coming railway journey.


There were two problems ahead of us. The first was that we were travelling Second Class. This was because the government was paying for the tickets, and they were inherently mean. Second Class meant sitting up all the way, including during the hours of sleep. The second problem was that 1961 was before the unification of the Australian railway system, and a farcical situation existed in which the States all had different railway gauges. We had learnt about this in primary school geography classes, but had no conception of what it actually meant, at least not in terms of impact on the long-distance traveller crossing from one railway jurisdiction to another over and again as the journey progressed. The odyssey ahead was simply unimaginable. 


We left Perth (amid tears, I have to say) on one of the premier trains of the Western Australian Government Railways. It was hauled by a mighty steam locomotive, glimpses of which we had seen up ahead on the station before departure, and then on curves in the line as we climbed up from the coastal plain. We travelled all night (sitting up) and arrived at Kalgoorlie in the eastern Goldfields the following morning. There we transferred to the Commonwealth of Australia Railways – the “Trans Australia”, hauled by a diesel – which departed later that morning and took two days to reach Port Augusta in South Australia.



The Trans, ‘resting’ on the Nullarbor Plain – at about the time we travelled on it, steam on this line having given away to diesel in the 1950s


At Port Augusta we walked across the platform and entered one of the superb trains of the South Australian Government Railways. This was one of the finest railways I ever knew, steam-hauled and on a wide track, very swift and comfortable. It took us on a smooth ride down to Adelaide. There we transhipped immediately to another train (on the Victorian gauge) which took us to Melbourne, again an overnight ride, again sitting up. At Spencer Street Station in Melbourne, we boarded a Victorian Railways train which took us to Albury on the NSW border, where we crossed over the platform and boarded a New South Wales Government Railways train (also steam hauled), which took us to the station at Goulburn, there being no direct railway line to Canberra. At Goulburn we walked across the rails to board yet another train and eventually this disgorged us at what appeared to be a tiny country siding, but which turned out to be Canberra. The journey had taken five days and involved changing trains six times. Amazingly, and to the eternal credit of the Australian railwayman, our luggage arrived at the same place as we did, and at the same time.


Despite everything, the trip had many highlights, and we enjoyed ourselves enormously. None of us had travelled out of Western Australia before, apart from the brief trip I had made to Hobart for the Intervarsity Football Carnival in 1960. The ever-changing landscape was unendingly fascinating and very beautiful, especially the vastness of the Nullarbor and glimpses of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. On the first night out of Perth we had also had a grandstand view of the big bushfires burning in the Darling Ranges. In those days the train climbed up the scarp through John Forrest National Park and then ran east through Mahogany Creek, Mundaring, Chidlows, Bakers Hill and Spencer’s Brook. As we cut through the northern jarrah forest, way to the north the whole country was on fire, and we stood for a while on the little platform at the rear of the Guard’s Van to watch it.  I found out later that this became known as the Gidgegannup Fire and was the subject of a Royal Commission.


By the time we left Albury for the penultimate leg to Yass we were feeling grubby and tired. At this stage, George performed one of his small acts of genius. Using a tea-spoon he had purloined from the dining car, he picked the lock on the doors of an empty First-class carriage, and we moved in. But just as we were settling back to enjoy the glorious luxury of a hot shower and a bed, the conductor arrived and began making deeply threatening noises. It appeared for a while that we would be leaving the train and going straight to gaol at the next station. But then in mid-harangue, he paused. “Of course, I’ll let you stay here if you give me ten shillings,” he said. This was a great deal of money to us in those days, but we coughed up, genuinely believing that he was going to cut off our forestry careers before they had really commenced, if we failed to pay.


I remembered this crook many years later when my family and I were taking the train from Heathrow to Oxford on the day of our arrival in England. Rushing onto the platform with three little kids and a mountain of luggage, we spotted an empty carriage, and piled in. Sure enough it turned out to be First Class and we had Second Class tickets, and soon enough an official came along and found us there. Luckily, Ellen has an outstanding way of handling these situations. First there is a fierce little flash of warning at me from her dark eyes, or perhaps a well-aimed kick under the table. This is to remind me to keep my mouth shut and that she will handle it. Then she is charming and apologetic without being obsequious. It is a successful strategy and again on this occasion it won the day. The official was a nice bloke, with a brother in Sydney (“perhaps you know him?”), and he said with a twinkle in his eye that we could stay if we behaved ourselves. My impression of British railwaymen skyrocketed.


The other good thing about that 5-day railway journey from Perth to Canberra is that I can always think back to it when I am feeling grumpy over the two-hour delay of a four-hour flight over the same distance.


The second Great Railway Journey: circumnavigating the USA


When I had finished my studies at the University of Washington and it was time to return to Australia, Ellen and I took a brief holiday and we came home the long way, circling the globe west to east. The first leg was travelling by train from Seattle to New York. This was a magnificent journey, as we went around almost the entire perimeter of the USA, rather than crossing the continent in a straight shot directly west-east.


The train left Seattle early one winter afternoon and headed south down through Washington, Oregon and California to Los Angeles. This was a beautiful trip, especially the section through the Sierra Mountains in northern California, where it snowed lightly for hours, and the views flying by our train window were of misty peaks, snowy meadows and dripping redwood forests.




Ellen – photographed on the train, the day we left Seattle on our Great Railway Journey in the USA



At Los Angeles we changed to the South Pacific Railroad and headed southeast under blue skies through southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. This was a landscape familiar to people of my generation through years of watching westerns at the cinema, but the movies had not prepared us for the majesty or vastness of the scene. Especially remarkable were the towering buttes and mesas, and the rocky canyons with broad rivers flowing through them.


At the little town of El Paso on the US/Mexican border, our train stopped for a couple of hours, and we went for a walk. It was here that I made a serious error of judgement. Stopping at a cantina for lunch I noticed they had chilli beans on the menu and, remembering that this had been a major part of the diet of the cowboy heroes of my youth, I ordered a serve. It was my first, and last experience of Mexican hot chilli, and the only time I ever submerged my head in a fire bucket in a restaurant. I still cannot believe that people would eat anything so damaging to the soft tissue of the lips and mouth. A cup of molten bronze would have been more palatable.


The Southern Pacific Railroad train on which we crossed the USA from Los Angeles to New Orleans


Beyond Texas we crossed into Louisiana and entered the Deep South. We stayed a few days in New Orleans, where I discovered bourbon (but still prefer scotch) and rediscovered Dixieland jazz (which I still regard as the happiest of music). We had been “sitting up” on the whole journey so far, having found that the cost of a sleeper in First Class was prohibitive, so a break at New Orleans, staying in a hotel in the romantic old French Quarter, was especially welcome.


Back on the train we then journeyed north through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Two things were different here to anything we had experienced back in the Pacific North-west: the landscape, which was dominated by marshland or pine woods, and the prevalence of black Americans. In 1966, the south was still deeply segregated, and because we were (as usual) travelling Second Class, we found we were basically the only white people on that section of the train. This didn’t matter, however, as we enjoyed the company of the black Americans enormously, and they ours. The little children with their pigtails and wide grins were especially charming. We each found the accents of the other fascinating, and fellow travellers kept asking us to “say something” at which they would shriek with laughter and amazement. The young women took to Ellen immediately and she was addressed on all sides as “Honey Chile”, while I was more respectfully addressed, especially by the children, as “Sir”. We saw some ugly aspects of the segregation policy during that part of the journey, however, and I am glad that it is now all in the past.


Eventually we made our way up the Atlantic coast to New York, passing through the huge cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore, their suburbs and industrial areas stretching away on either side of the railroad track to the horizon. Our journey terminated at the vast and echoing Grand Central Station in New York City. There was one final train to catch – the subway, which took us to our hotel in Manhattan. That 5-minute ride was the only truly scary part of our 6000-mile journey. I spent most of it with my teeth bared, repulsing violent-looking men with serious mental or alcohol problems, while standing in discarded litter, newspapers and other nameless garbage up to my ankles. I’d do the whole journey again apart from that last five minutes.


An aside: a Not-great (but nevertheless thrilling) Railway Journey


Perhaps the most memorable train journey I ever took lasted only a couple of hours, and the trip covered less than 100 km, but I include it here as a counterpoint to the substantial voyages recounted above. This was the occasion in October 1978 when Ellen and I and our three kids travelled on one of the famous, superbly-restored Welsh mountain railways. We left from Porthmadog, where a beautiful little engine was waiting for us at the platform, steaming quietly:



Porthmadog station

I quote from my diary, written at the time:

… in the afternoon we took a journey on one of the Welsh Mountain ultra-narrow-gauge railways, the Ffestiniog.  A tiny green steam engine, Blanche, and six coaches. It was a 2 ½ hour return trip up the mountain to the old slate quarries. Very cold, misty and a constant drizzle mixed with ice, wreathed with coal smoke and steam. The grade was steep, and we thundered along at a lovely, steady beat, but at not much more than walking pace, with the rock cuttings only inches from the windows on one side, and steep gorges on the other. There were tunnels, forests and waterfalls. On the way back it was all downhill, and we seemed to be coasting. Locomotive Blanche was up front, but gravity was doing all the work.

Locomotive Blanche, pictured in 2023 and still going strong (picture thanks to Roger Dimmick of the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways)


OK, it was only a “Minor Railway Journey” in the greater scheme of things, but it was unforgetable.  The Vale of Ffestiniog, through which we chugged, must be one of the loveliest places I have ever seen, and it was made more beautiful and interesting by being transected by this wonderful little railway.


These days


My current involvement with railways is minor. Mostly it consists of watching the trains snarl by on the Great Southern Railway which adjoins our farm at Gwambygine. These are long freight trains with wagons of grain or fertiliser, pulled by powerful, but grubby diesel engines. (Why is it, I sometimes wonder, that locomotive drivers stopped taking a pride in the appearance of their engines when steam was phased out? A feature of the steam locos I remember as a youth was their polished brass and immaculate paintwork – look at that picture of Blanche above. Now that is how a locomotive should look!).


But one lovely spring day we pricked up our ears at the sound of a distant steam whistle, and shortly afterwards the Hotham Valley vintage steam train beat through on its way to Albany, “shovelling white steam over her shoulder”, as Auden put it in his poem Night Mail.   The locomotive was done up in its finest livery and, as it headed south, left behind a long streamer of smoke and steam hanging in the valley; a whiff of coal-smoke drifted across the paddock.



The beautifully restored loco and train of WA’s Hotham Valley Railway


Modern freight trains lack the romance of the railways of the past, but I still love to hear them rumbling through in the dead of night, especially in winter. If it is frosty and still, or if the wind is in the west, it sounds as if the train is coming right down our driveway, to hurtle by our very bed … a reminder of that night in the Cascade Mountains all those years ago.


Are there any Great Railway Journeys ahead, as well as behind us? I have in mind a trip across Australia on the Indian Pacific, maybe an excursion to Alice Springs and Darwin on “The Ghan” or through the Tasmanian rainforest on the Emu Bay Railway. There are also some unattainable fantasies, like the West Highland line from Fort William to Mallaig in Scotland, the run from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express or crossing the Rockies and prairies on the Canadian Pacific railroad. These, I fancy, are Great Railway Journeys to be taken in another lifetime.


Nevertheless, as the poet Millay put it, I still believe “there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it’s going” … excepting perhaps the New York subway, although there is a good chance they may have cleaned up their act during the last 60 years or so.






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