NSW Rail Museum at Thirlmere
by Udaya Peeligama
The semi-rural town of Thirlmere is located approximately 90 kms south west of Sydney in the Wollondilly Shire. Well known for the Thirlmere Lakes, the town is no stranger to railway activity. The opening of the Great Southern Railway in the 1860s provided the Thirlmere Lakes the opportunity of supplying water to the steam locomotives, and the numerous timber mills in the area the chance of delivering sleepers for the rail tracks. The town boomed during the construction of the Railway with the hundreds of rail workers who flocked to the area. Thirlmere is also home to Australia’s leading railway museum and one of the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
To trace the history of the Thirlmere Rail Museum it is necessary to look into the history of rail preservation and restoration in New South Wales. With the impending demise of the steam locomotive on the horizon and the withdrawal of older items of rolling stock such as wooden bodied and end platform carriages, there was great impetus in the early 1960s for the conservation of rail vehicles for posterity. Thus the NSW Rail Transport Museum was formed in 1962 and the steam locomotive depot at Enfield was designated for housing the selected heritage motive power and rolling stock and other equipment considered significant in the evolution of the railways in NSW. However due to Enfield continuing to be an active steam depot, it was not until October 1972 that the museum came to be officially established there, with temporary arrangements being carried out at Petersham till then.
When plans were announced in 1973 for the construction of a new container terminal on the site of the Enfield steam depot, alternative sites in regional NSW had to be explored for relocating the rail museum. Finally, Thirlmere was chosen for the purpose due to its convenient location on the Picton to Mittagong Loop Line and the availability of land of nearly five hectares in extent for erection of facilities for the exhibits. The NSW Rail Transport Museum at Thirlmere was officially opened on 1st. June, 1976.
The complex at Thirlmere consists of a renovated station platform and related buildings, station master’s house, shop containing railway books and memorabilia, café and theatrette, a seven track hanger type building, the “Great Train Hall” for storage and display of rolling stock, plus a roundhouse for their maintenance, served by a turntable. Being a State government initiative, the museum at Thirlmere comes under the jurisdiction of Transport Heritage NSW.
The museum houses a collection of locomotives and rolling stock numbering over a hundred and related rail equipment and items associated with the history of NSW railways. It is not the intent here to describe in detail all items of rolling stock and equipment; rather the emphasis is on brief discussion of some of the key exhibits on display.
The entrance foyer and reception area provides access to the main exhibition building where an array of rolling stock and equipment, many dating back to the nineteenth century, is displayed. Amongst the locomotives is a Z17 Class 4-4-0 Number 1709 (see Fig:1) built bythe Vulcan Foundry of UK in 1886. Twelve of the class were constructed with tractive efforts of 16,920 lbf and boiler pressure of 140 psi, for a locomotive only weight of 43 tons. Originally intended for the Blue Mountains and Sydney to Newcastle runs, they proved to be unpopular, with locomotive crews and track maintenance staff equally, for their rough riding, propensity for slipping and high axle loads, and were soon relegated to branch line work. The Class was withdrawn from service in 1957.
Also in the main exhibition building is Dubs of Glasgow built 0-4-0 crane tank locomotive Number 1034 (see Fig: 2). This diminutive machine manufactured in 1886 had a tractive effort of 6,050 lbf and a lifting capacity of 4 tons at a boiler pressure of 140 psi. It had spent most of its life at the Eveleigh Workshops prior to being taken out of service in 1969.
Originally supplied without a cab, it appears that a number of improvised cabs had been tried out over theyears. Interestingly, the only form of brake on the engine had been a hand brake, operating wooden braking blocks on the drivers.
In the same building is the oldest locomotive on display in the Museum, an E17 Class 0-6-0 Number 18 (see Fig: 3) constructed by that pioneering locomotive builders Robert Stephenson & Co in
1866, when the company was initially based at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England. This “long boilered” design achieved significant increases in efficiency and haulage capacity developing a tractive effort of 15,600 lbf. The Class was used for hauling
freight on the newly opened and heavily graded main lines to the south and west of Sydney, the Great Western Railway, Lithgow Zig Zag and the Great Southern Railway through Picton and Thirlmere to Goulburn. Number 18 had been withdrawn from operations and sold to the Southern Coal Co in 1897 and thence to the Port Kembla Steelworks before being donated to the NSW Rail Transport Museum in 1964 duringits formative years.
The theatrette area of the main building displays a 20 ton 0-4-0 saddle tank Number 1021 “Cardiff”, originally imported by the NSW Public Works Department in 1916 from Manning Wardle of UK. It had worked at a number of locations in the State before being withdrawn in 1970 and assigned to the Rail Transport Museum.
Amongst the carriages and wagons on display in the main exhibition building is the Governor General’s Carriage (see Fig: 4), built by the NSW Government Railway Eveleigh Carriage Workshops in 1900. Finished to the luxurious standards of the Pullman designs this 42 ton, 75 foot long carriage has three state rooms with attached bath and toilet facilities and an end observation deck. Intended exclusively for the Governor General’s use, the carriage was also used by visiting British royalty, until withdrawal in 1970.
Other rolling stock in the area includes a Prison Van and a composite mail/guard’s brake van from the 1890s. Many small items are also displayed such as an interlocking signal lever frame, upper quadrant semaphore distant signal and a booking office ticket desk.
At the end of the main exhibition building is the “Workers Walk” leading to the “Great Train Hall”. Undoubtedly, the star attraction of the Museum is here, the 260 ton AD 60 Class 4-8-4+4-8-4 Garratt, Number 6040 (see Fig: 5). Built by Beyer Peacock of Manchester, England, who had an almost monopolistic control over Garratt building, the 60 Class imported over the years 1953 to 1956 numbered forty two in total. They were the largest Garratts ever built with tractive efforts ranging from 59,560 lbf to 63,490 lbf. Despite their 108 foot length they were capable of negotiating 6 chain curves due to their articulation. The Garratt concept of articulation, invented by Herbert William Garratt, an inspector on the NSW Railways in the early 1900s, found wide use on the tight curves and lightly laid tracks of the colonial railways of the far flung British Empire. Fitted with mechanical stokers and Hadfield power reversers and with 200 psi boiler pressure, the 60 Class carried 18 tons of coal and 9,350 gallons of water. These locomotives were used extensively on heavy ore concentrate trains from Broken Hill on the steeply graded line between Molong and Orange and also on wheat and coal trains before being withdrawn in 1967, with diesels having taken over almost all the work. Another of the Class Number 6029 has been restored to full working order.
In stark contrast to the gargantuan Garratt is the locomotive next to it, 40 ton F Class 2-4-0 tank Number 1033, another Beyer Peacock product, of 1885, with a boiler pressure of 140 psi and tractive effort of 9,089 lbf. Unlike the Garratts, it had a long career, both with the State Railways and NSW Public Works Department until withdrawal in the 1960s.
Towards the end of the “Workers Walk” is stabled Class 43 diesel-electric Number 4306 (see Fig: 6), a streamliner built by Goninan of Broadmeadow in 1956. Australia has a long and proud history of indigenous locomotive construction, the diesels being mainly licensed products of US builders. The Class 43 of Co-Co wheel arrangement, totalling six in number were powered by ALCO (American Locomotive Company) 244, 12 cylinder engines giving out 1,750 bhp and had GE (General Electric) electrical gear, a legacy of the once established ALCO-GE partnership in the States. With a weight of 105 tons they developed a starting tractive effort of 42,900 lbf. Used initially on the Western Main Line to Orange and later to the Queensland border operating from Gosford, they were not too popular with the crew. The hastily designed ALCO 244 engine proved troublesome, although water cooling of the turbocharger in place of the original air cooling, somewhat alleviated things. Number 4306 was withdrawn from regular service in 1979. Used till recently as one of the operational locomotives of the Museum, it is at the time of writing, unserviceable with faulty traction motors.
Behind Number 4306 stands another classic ALCO, Class 40, Number 4001 (see Fig: 7), a MLW (Montreal Locomotive Works) of Canada product. The A1A-A1A type Class 40, with ALCO 12-244 diesel engines of 1,750 bhp and GE electrical gear were imported in 1951/52, weighed 111 tons and had starting tractive efforts of 46,000 lbf. They were a modified version of the famed RS-3 road switchers of North America. They hauled freights to Broadmeadow and then to Brisbane prior to withdrawal in 1968. Numbers 4001 and 4002 had been painted blue to haul the Royal Train in 1954 while the rest of the Class sported red livery. Number 4001, after extensive overhaul over a number of years, commenced heritage operations at the Museum in 2010.
The “Great Train Hall”, with seven adjacent tracks, contains the bulk of the exhibits, consisting of dozens of carriages, wagons and locomotives and other rail equipment. A few of the significant items of rolling stock are discussed below.
Standing side by side are 55 Class locomotive Number 5595 and 59 Class 5910 (see Fig: 8). The mixed traffic bar framed 2-8-2 59 Class formed a total of twenty ordered from the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia in the US in 1953 to relieve a motive power shortage. They were a lighter version of the standard U.S War Department “Mikado” design and weighed 91 tons (excluding tender). The tenders had been shortened to enable the locomotives to be turned on the standard 60 foot turntables. Unfortunately, the total weight of the locomotives prevented even this manoeuvre from being carried out due to balancing issues. They had 200 psi boilers and boasted tractive efforts of 34,986 lbf. Initially used to Broadmeadow, they were later employed on freights on the Main Western and Southern Lines. The Class originally arrived as oil burners thus limiting their usage. Many were converted to coal firing in 1961. The last of the Class was taken out of service in 1972. Number 5910 was one of the conversions to coal burning.
The 55 Class built over the years 1918 to 1925 by Clyde Engineering of Granville, totalled one hundred and twenty and was intended for freight haulage. Weighing 75 tons (excluding tender) and developing 33,557 lbf of tractive effort with 160 psi boiler pressure, these interesting 2-8-0 machines were fitted with Southern Valve Gear as directed by that illustrious mechanical engineer Edward Lucy. This type of valve gear was briefly popular in the US in the early part of the 1900s and combined elements of the Walschaerts and Baker types. They hauled mainly goods on the Illawarra and Main Southern Lines. Following a coal shortage experienced after the War, seventy in the Class were converted to oil burning. When the coal crisis passed, some were re-converted to coal firing as it was cheaper. The last of the Class was withdrawn in 1967.
The locomotive Number 3820 shown at Fig: 9 belongs arguably, to Australia’s most well-known class of express passenger steam locomotives, the legendary 38 Class, constructed over the years 1943 to 1949. Five were built by Clyde Engineering of Granville with streamlined boiler casing and another twenty five by the NSW Railways Eveleigh and Cardiff Workshops without the casing. These 4-6-2 “Pacifics” had a total weight of 201 tons and developed tractive efforts of 36,273 lbf with 245 psi boiler pressure. They
handled the crack expresses of the day such as the “Melbourne Express” and the “Newcastle Flyer”. The green painted partially streamlined design gave the first five locomotives a quite distinctive, though somewhat American appearance. The non-streamlined design was more economical to construct and maintain. The inevitable dieselisation of the ‘50s and ‘60s sadly spelt the death knell for these once proud and magnificent machines, the last being removed from service in 1970. Number 3801 is the only preserved engine of the Class in working order and is currently undergoing major overhaul.
Fig: 10 shows locomotive Number 4201, of the renowned 42 Class, on the Thirlmere turntable after recent overhaul. Built by Clyde Engineering of Granville in 1955, this formed part of the six in the Class and was based on the legendary EMD (Electro Motive Division) F7, the classic bulldog nosed streamliners of which over seven thousand were produced in the US. Weighing 120 tons and with Co-Co wheel arrangement, the units were powered by that ageless prime mover EMD 16-567C, developing 1,750 bhp with a continuous tractive effort of 61,250 lbf. With no rear cab in common with its American counterparts, the locomotives had a top speed of 71 mph (115 km/h approx:) and set the benchmark for locomotive reliability in NSW for over twenty five years as befitted the EMD moniker. They initially worked passenger services such as the Brisbane Limited, Intercapital Daylight and later the Southern Aurora and Spirit of Progress. With newer locomotives being introduced, they were consigned to freight working before withdrawal in 1983. 4201, the only one operational of the few preserved, has been used extensively across the state on charters.
Double deck suburban power car Number C-3804 built by Tullochs of Rhodes in 1968 and withdrawn in 1984 is seen in Fig: 11. This car was one of four experimental double deck power cars designed for 120 passenger capacity on Sydney’s 1,500 V DC electrified suburban system dating back to 1923. They were the first of such cars anywhere in the world. However they proved unreliable in service and some were converted to trailer cars.
Towards the end of the hangar can be found Class 86 Co-Co electric locomotive Number 8646 (see Fig: 12). Constructed by Commonwealth Engineering of Granville over the period 1983 to 1985, the Class numbering fifty had a continuous rating of 2,700 kW on the 1,500 V DC catenary system of NSW and a continuous tractive effort of 49,908 lbf, with a one hour rating of 2,880 kW. They were considered the most powerful locomotives in the country at the time. These 117 ton locomotives were used to haul passenger and heavy freight services to Lithgow and Wyong and later to Newcastle and Port Kembla. All were withdrawn in 2002 following their somewhat short careers.
Various other locomotives, carriages and wagons are on display in the cavernous hanger, far too numerous to be detailed out here. Amongst the locomotives are; a 30 Class 4-6-0 Number 3001, rebuilt from a Beyer Peacock 4-6-4 tank of 1903 vintage, a 30 Class 4-6-4 tank Number 3137, an Eveleigh Workshop product of 1916 for suburban working, a chunky 0-6-0 saddle tank “Bronzewing”, Clyde built in 1937 for the Port Kembla Steelworks, a 1911 Eveleigh Workshop built 20 Class 2-6-4 tank, a US built GE 380 hp diesel switcher and one of the iconic 36 Class 4-6-0s, Clyde built in 1927,Number 3616 in derelict condition (not on public display), one of the few fitted with a Giesl ejector.
Of the remaining diesel rolling stock displayed an undoubted attraction is the “Silver City Comet”, a DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) powered by twin Detroit Diesels each of 250 hp, which when introduced in 1937 represented the epitome of speed and comfort of the day. Another Detroit Diesel powered (165 hp) vehicle is the 1926 Rail Motor (or Rail Bus) CPH18, an Eveleigh Workshop creation.
The collection of freight stock includes several open wagons, wheat wagons, covered vans, tank wagons, horse boxes, hopper wagons, a formidable bogie slag ladle wagon from the Port Kembla Steelworks, a bogie goods brake van, track maintenance vehicles (operational) and a manual 10 ton breakdown crane constructed by Cowans Sheldon of UK in 1884.
The passenger stock runs into dozens, sleeping cars, buffett cars, dining cars, suburban and express passenger carriages, luggage and brake vans, the whole gamut of such vehicles in fact, many dating back to the late nineteenth century. Some are in showpiece condition, such as the ornately and luxuriously finished Pullman type car once used by the State Governor and Premier and the “Instruction Car”, formerly a US made clerestory roofed sleeper of 1883 vintage, later fitted out with equipment for training of train crew. The flat side panels, clerestory roofs, six wheeled bogies, open end decks and wedge shaped roof ends of many cars reveal their American heritage or the American influence that is so evident in the design of NSW passenger stock.
At the rear end of the Great Train Hall, served by the 105 foot turntable once installed at the old Enfield Depot, is the Roundhouse. Here all manner of heavy overhaul and restoration as well as running maintenance of locomotives both steam and diesel, and other rolling stock is carried out. Here too are stabled, either within or in the yard beyond, the operational locomotives, such as steam numbers 2705, 3526, 3642 and 6029 (the restored Garratt) and diesels numbers D1 (the yard shunter), 4306, 4520, 4490, 44211, 4803, 4916 and 7006.
No narrative on the Thirlmere Museum is ever complete without mention of the dedicated and passionate band of volunteers (additional to some paid regular staff), several of them ex-railwaymen, who toil tirelessly in keeping the rolling stock, both operational and on static display, refurbished and spruced up. The volunteers also assist in the operation of special and heritage trains over weekends and on holidays for the train loving public. Many have to drive miles to get there, expending their time and resources, some despite their ageing years and sometimes failing health, just to be with and care for their beloved iron horses.
The Museum showcases manifestly the rich heritage and once grandeur of the NSW railways, the first railways in the country and the first State railway to adopt the now almost universal Stephenson standard gauge. It certainly should rank amongst the finest of its kind in the world. A visit here is indeed a must not just for train lovers, but for all those interested in historical and heritage aspects of society and transport in general.
Material from the NSW Rail Museum, Thirlmere
“Museum Display at Thirlmere”, John Layton, April 2011
Locomotives of Australia, Leon Oberg, Rosenberg Publishing, Sept 2010
Photographs: Figs 1 – 4 & 9 courtesy of John Layton
Figs 5 – 8 & 10 – 12 Author’s own