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.