14 October 2012

A brave experiment

The last blog entry covered the early period of operation of diesel rail cars on the Coonamble branch line, from 1934.  This post will cover the latter period of rail car operation, from 1957 to the demise of rail passenger services on the line in 1975.

The modernisation of NSW rail operations in the 1950s resulted in the Railway Commissioners determining that air-conditioned express passenger trains were needed for branch line operations.  Mr Peter Neve’s article in the October 2012 Australian Railway History referred to in my previous blog post gives an authoritative explanation of the planning for, construction and introduction of the 900 class diesel rail cars – otherwise known as DEB sets.  Included in this article is a good description of their early operation on the Coonamble line; well worth a read. 

As is made clear in the Australian Railway History article, it was a courageous decision of the Commissioners to build a fleet of new air-conditioned express rail cars, replete with onboard buffet service, for branch line service in the face of falling passenger patronage and competing demands for scarce capital resources. 

One could conceive of the traditionally conservative railway administration investing in rail cars of this type for mainline services, but instead they were introduced on the (then) quiet north coast line, the Canberra-Cooma branch and in the west of the State.  It was only in the 1960s, when the competition against road and air passenger transport had been well and truly lost, that these rail cars then saw extensive mainline service on NSW trunk routes.

Nonetheless, in December 1957 the Far West Express service commenced on the Coonamble line using 900 class DEB rail cars.  Initially, the Far West Express ran to Coonamble only on Tuesdays, as it ran to Cobar on Thursdays, and Bourke on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays  By 1965, the Far West Express ran twice weekly to Coonamble – on Tuesdays and Saturdays.  On Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, a 600/700 diesel car set operated an un-named service. 

Three TP parcels vans were specially constructed for use on the Far West Express service, using materials similar to those used for the construction of the rail cars.  However, unlike the rest of the train these parcels vans would commence their journey from Central attached to the Coonamble Mail.  At Dubbo the Mail would terminate, and the TP van would then be attached to the rear of the DEB set. 

While not unique to use on the Far West Express, the inclusion of a TBR trailer carriage meant that passengers on the service could access onboard buffet facilities throughout the journey.

A typical consist of the Far West Express in the 1950s and 1960s involved a PF economy class car (conveying a maximum of 39 passengers), a TBR first class/buffet car (with seating for 36), a second PF car and a TP trailer.  Thus a total of 114 seats were available for passengers on each service.

Depending upon the anticipated passenger loading, the Far West Express would operate as either a three or four car set, plus the trailer van.  When a fourth passenger carriage was required, a specially-constructed TC composite carriage would be inserted into the DEB set.  As noted in the Australian Railway History article, this carriage had a capacity to seat up to 24 passengers in first class and 31 passengers in second class. This fourth carriage increased the total passenger loading to 169 passengers – a 48 per cent increase over a three car set.

The following photograph shows a ‘three car’ Express leaving Eumungerie in the morning for the run to Coonamble.  While I am truly appreciative of the photographer making the effort to get out of bed to take this shot, I do wish they had arisen 5 minutes earlier so as to position themselves on the eastern side of the track!

Another photograph of the morning service was taken several years later, and this time the photographer (believed to be the same individual) did rise in time to get to the sunny side of the track… or perhaps the Express was five minutes late that day?

The third photograph of this series dates from the late 1960s and was likely taken during school holidays as it shows a  four car DEB set (plus TP van) in the service. 

There are two further things to note about this photograph; first, its in black and white so please do not adjust your monitor.  Second, the odd telegraphic and signal pole appears between the train and the camera.  When questioned about a similar photographic composition years ago, the photographer involved indicated that he was actually photographing the poles and the train was simply in the background. 

There was one significant change to the composition of the Far West Express during this time. As explained in the Australian Railway History article in detail, the original TP trailer cars did not handle the boisterous shunting techniques practiced by the shunters at Sydney Steam Terminal station during the 1950s. 

In order to provide a more robust parcels van which could withstand the rigours of big town shunting, the Railways converted three existing EHO passenger guards vans into ETP trailer cars from 1958 onwards.  The next (deteriorating slide) photograph shows a three car Far West Express on a down service in the 1960s, replete with an ETP trailer.

The Far West Express operated until the cessation of passenger services on the line, alongside the less illustrious 600 class cousins.  Thus, for a greater part of the post-war period, a combination of rail car services operated the majority of passenger services to Eumungerie and beyond. 

In the mid-1970s the NSW railway administration made another radical decision, which was to just give up the fight against road and air passenger transport.  This decision was taken in a global sense only, as there was no effective road or air competition to the rail cars trundling along the Coonamble branch line.   

That is, there was no fleet of Greyhound buses plying the Newell Highway and no DC3s humming overhead in the clouds above Coonamble, Gulargambone,  Gilgandra or Eumungerie in direct competition to Far West Express.  In short, the abandonment of rail passenger services on the Coonamble branch line was a simple abandonment of a necessary public service for any person who did not have access to a private motor vehicle. 

In every sense it was a failure of government, and no amount of Countrylink-branded coaches (which ignore the intermediate villages in any event) can make up for the rash decision in the mid-1970s not to attack the problem of rising service costs in a more constructive way - to compete on more than just price.  The cost of this failure of failure can be seen to this day – Gilgandra, Gulargambone and Coonamble are shadows of their former townships and several intermediate villages have been obliterated.

The very point of the quality facilities in the DEB set was to provide an affordable option to road travel on the pioneer lines.  Instead of just withdrawing to compete on several large trunk routes, the Far West Express took competition to the extremities of the rail system.  SO perhaps more than perhaps any other decision since 1945, the removal of rail passenger services in the mid-1970s from these sorts of lines sealed the fate of rail passenger transport in this State.  But enough of this soap-boxing, time for another photograph or two.

And this time our photographer turned around!  So, our final shot is of the much-missed Far West Express heading north to Coonamble.  Enjoy!

08 October 2012

Eumungerie's 'worms'

The October 2012 edition of Australian Railway History carries an excellent article gloriously entitled Worms to the Bush by one of the doyens of railway writing – Mr Peter Neve.  It covers the introduction of the 900 class DEB sets into service on the NSW railways.  Reading this article has prompted me to once more veer away from the history of grain transportation on the Coonamble line to cover this possibly more attractive aspect of operations.

The history of rail car operations on the Coonamble line is very much a history of post war passenger transport on this branch, so this mini-series of blogs will be followed at some stage with a ‘prequel’ (borrowing Hollywood parlance) to cover the eclectic range of locomotive-hauled passenger services.  In this blog posting I intend just covering the early period of rail car services on the line – the 23 years from 1934 to the introduction of the 900 class DEB sets in late 1957.

There is a fair argument that the Railway Commissioners treated the passengers using the Coonamble line rather favourably during the rail car era, by using this branch as an ‘early adopter’ of rail cars and air-conditioned rail travel, and (in the post war period) the introduction of an onboard buffet service. 

This favourable treatment resulted in the Coonamble branch being somewhat atypical of NSW branch lines.  That is, diesel rail cars provided the bulk of regular passenger services on the Coonamble line from 1934, until the cessation of such services during 1975.  Unlike most NSW branch lines until well into the 1950s, locomotive-hauled services were generally used only when rail cars were either not available or were anticipated to be insufficient to meet expected passenger loadings.  The Coonamble line achieved this status two decades earlier.

The reasons for the early introduction of rail cars on the Coonamble branch were multiple.  The Commissioners’ various annual reports noted the relief provided to passengers of faster services, along with the relief from the heat of western summers. Though not stated, the superior heating systems contained on the rail cars would have provided comfort during the quite bitter winters which could be experienced in those parts of the State.

Three other good reasons existed for the use of rail cars on the Coonamble line.  The first was the speed of the services.  This enabled freight traffic operations to be better planned during the busy wheat seasons when passenger services were, quite frankly, a distraction from the main purpose of the branch line.

The second unstated reason was the growing significance of Dubbo as a regional centre.  Being a hub of five branch lines positioned Dubbo as an ideal place to base a significant rail car servicing operation, and the Commissioners did just that.  Over time Dubbo’s rail car services provided modern, reliable and eventually even air-conditioned services with buffet facilities to Coonamble, Bourke, Parkes and Cobar.

Finally, the Commissioners were prompted by cost. It was simply less expensive to operate lightweight internal combustion engines, driven by a single crew member.  It was thus no surprise that rail cars first made their appearance on the Coonamble line at the time that NSW struggled to climb out of the 1930s economic depression.

From 1934 to 1943, a relatively experimental rail car (CPH 38, known widely as Creamy Kate) was based at Dubbo for, amongst other things, Coonamble line services.  A typical pre-war consist from Dubbo to Coonamble would include Creamy Kate, hauling CT 81 (a trailer built on the underframe of the former passenger carriage, BX 1048) and HT 76 (formerly CPH 9).  All were painted silver, with blue trim, during this period.  The commencement of this composition required the lengthening of Dubbo’s platform by 300 feet, as this service likely commenced from the eastern dock siding.

Amongst my family’s photographs is one fairly tattered, well-worn, much-revered and apparently colourised photograph of this service arriving at Eumungerie in the late afternoon.  I am fairly certain that this photograph dates from the late 1930s, though it could be as late as 1940.  The yellow-green tinge in the trees suggests that what appears to be green trim on the rail cars was actually blue trim. Any contributions from readers on this point would be much appreciated.

On 11 August 1938, a more modern version of rail car – the 400 class – was introduced to passengers along the Coonamble branch line.  The class leader, HPC 401, commenced those workings and was joined in this undertaking by HPC 404 on 21 October 1938.  Again, both were painted silver, with blue trim.  HPC 401 was transferred to Narrandera during 1940, and HPC 404 left Dubbo on 18 August 1943 for the same location.  Sadly, the family’s photographic repository holds no photograph of either of these rail cars working the line – perhaps wartime exigencies played a role in this absence.

The short period of operation of the more modern 400 class rail cars may not have been the success envisaged.  With wartime passenger loadings higher than the 1930s, it is quite likely that even if the 400 class rail cars were hauling their 500 class trailer cars, the service capacity was still probably insufficient to accommodate demand for seats.  The transfer of both rail cars to Narrandera mid-war to work the sparser branch lines in the south west of NSW suggests this may have been the motive for the transfer. 

I also presume that 12 class locos resumed a loco-hauled service after the departure of the 400 class rail cars in 1943.  While no photographs exist within the family collection to support this presumption several were retained at Dubbo depot for such workings.

Rail cars of a new type returned to the branch line shortly after the cessation of the Second World War.  On 25 January 1949, a new 600 class rail car – the two car pairing of 601 power car and 701 trailer car to be precise - was transferred to Dubbo for Coonamble line workings.  It was painted in the new tuscan livery.  This rail car provided the No. 45a Rail Car connection off the Coonamble Mail on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  A loco-hauled Mail ran on all other days, except Sundays. 

It is notable that while both services left Dubbo at 8:00am, the rail car service arrived at Coonamble 35 minutes earlier than the loco-hauled service.  While three additional minutes were timetabled for the steam locomotive at Gilgandra for the taking of water, the loco-hauled service was 10 per cent slower than the rail car.  This improved speed is in evidence by the scheduled arrival of the rail car at Eumungerie at 8:47am, while the steam loco service was to arrive eight minutes later.

Two very indistinct photographs are in my possession of these workings.  Both are suspected to be from around the time of introduction of this service in 1949.  The first shows a blurred rail car standing at the station alongside a fairly impressive goods train waiting to head to Dubbo.

The second photograph shows a back-lit rail car set leaving Eumungerie to head north.  While both photographs were probably taken with equipment almost guaranteed to produce a poor long range shot and both have not stood the test of time well, I am truly grateful to have both photographs and they are reproduced here to complete the record.

While I created an artificial division earlier in this blog entry to suggest that a new era of rail cars commenced in 1957 with the introduction of the DEB rail cars, in reality the 600 class type rail cars continued working throughout until the demise of passenger services in 1975.  Indeed, such was the apparent success of this type of rail car, by the 1970s it was only deemed necessary to replace the aging 600 class rail cars with its slightly less elderly cousin, the 620 class rail car.

As late as the April 1971 Western Working Timetable, there was little perceptible change from the 1957 timetable.  With the allocation of 636/736 to Dubbo in July 1972, 620/720 diesel car sets operated along the branch – though workings of this type of rail car set may have commenced prior to this point in time (as suggested in the April 1971 Working Timetable).

And here ends the conclusion of part 1 of the rail car blog.  As will be explained in an upcoming post, from 1957 onwards a vastly different type of rail car (the 900 class DEB set) provided the premier passenger service on the branch line.  However, regardless of whether it was a 900 class or 600 class type rail car, the odds were that a specially constructed parcels van would be at the rear of the service.  In this concluding photograph dating from the late 1960s, a 600 class diesel set heads north towing one of these ETP parcels vans to Coonamble.