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!

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