Farewell to Steam in Queensland

The year 1969 saw most steam locomotives in Queensland drop their fires for the last time. These machines had been a part of life in Queensland for over a hundred years. Harnessing the elemental forces of fire and water they had carried foreign armies on their backs, fed entire cities and made countless awestruck children late for school. But by the end of that year, most Queensland steam locomotives stood cold and silent. Booming voices issued from brass vocal chords no more and steel once burning to the touch contracted and went cold. Lines of locomotives sat at the Ipswich Workshops waiting to be dissected and rendered like the carcasses of whales.  Their metal sinews sent across oceans and fed to foreign factories, perhaps returning to Queensland as shiny new consumer goods. Could the ghost of a 137-ton Beyer Garratt haunt the body of a transistor radio? Wouldn’t it be just a little uncomfortable in such a small space?

Blog Image 1Locomotives sit idle and unwanted at Ipswich in the mid-1960s
(Image courtesy of QR/TWRM)

This is a story about progress, farewells, and maybe even a little heartbreak for those that really cared. It’s the story of steam’s final curtain call, the end, and what came after.

The Queensland Railways had emerged from the Second World War bruised but triumphant. The population of Brisbane had doubled overnight with the arrival of American troops, ambulance and munitions trains crossed the state and workshops juggled war work with keeping the trains rolling. By the wars end the railways were worn out and a new transport landscape was emerging. Air and road travel was beginning to muscle in on territory traditionally dominated by railways. To remain competitive and mend a railway wounded by the pressures of wartime, QR made the decision to modernise their ailing systems. Inevitably this would mean farewelling steam locomotives in favour of more efficient forms of traction.

Initially, it seemed steam might continue to play a dominant role for decades to come. In fact, some of Queensland’s most iconic steam locomotives were commissioned in the immediate post-war era. The Ipswich Workshops built their last steam locomotives in the late 1940s. Designed to haul Brisbane commuter trains and constructed using modern techniques these bulky tank engines were painted in a cheerful blue hue and became known as Blue Babies. The Beyer Garratt’s – the largest steam engines to ever run in Queensland – arrived in the early 1950s from Britain and France. Painted crimson and measuring 27.4 meters long they found work on all sorts of trains but were banned from the Toowoomba range due to the excessive heat they generated in the tunnels on that line. Despite their modern features, these shiny new steam locos would struggle to compete with what arrived next.

Blog Image 2Beyer Garratt No. 1001 being tested in Manchester, England, before being partially disassembled and shipped to Queensland (Image courtesy of QR/TWRM)

The age of the Diesel Electric Locomotive was ushered in with the unloading of 10 new locomotives from a ship in October 1952. Built in Pennsylvania U.S.A, the engines went to work immediately hauling wheat from the Darling Downs into Brisbane. Over the summer of 1952/53, they reduced the number of trains needed to haul freight between Toowoomba and Brisbane by 106 trips. They were stronger and more efficient than their steam-driven peers. They also offered far greater comfort to their crews, with cabs fitted with fans, padded seats, and even cooking facilities. It became clear that the future of QR was with a fleet of these impressive new machines.

Blog Image 3One of Queensland’s first Diesel Electric locomotives, a 1300 Class, is unloaded off
a ship in 1952 (image Courtesy of Keith McDonald)

Steam was increasingly displaced by diesels as the 1950s rolled into the 1960s. Each diesel could effectively do the work of 2 to 3 steam locomotives. In the west of the state where water supplies were poor a diesel locomotive could venture without concern. They placed less stress on the tracks than steam engines and weighed less. This allowed them to haul longer trains over lightly laid tracks where the strongest steam locomotives were too heavy to travel. As a new decade beckoned steam had almost been completely eliminated from Queensland’s Railways.

Blog Image 4Diesels quickly replaced steam on the railways more prestigious passenger services. Locomotive 1302 is seen hauling the Inlander at Gailes (image Courtesy of Keith McDonald)

Many locomotive crew members were pleased to see the decline of steam and with it the uncomfortable and dirty working conditions of a steam locomotive cab. Others were sad to see them go. It seems that to some the shift in technology also signified a change in the social dynamics of their work. Some men didn’t feel the same comradery with their colleagues working diesel as they did with steam. Others shunned the relative comfort of diesel power in favour of the ‘honest’ hard work associated with steam. For all crews, regardless of their personal opinions, the end of steam bought to a conclusion a way of life practiced in Queensland for generations.

Blog Image 5The comparatively clean and modern conditions of a Diesel Electric Locomotive cab,
seen here in 1967 (Image courtesy of QR/TWRM)

Whilst there were varied opinions about steams passing amongst railway personnel, Queensland’s railway enthusiast community was dismayed by steam’s looming extinction. This passionate group contributed much to our archives on steam’s twilight years. Notes were taken, photographs snapped and even sound recordings made of locomotives hauling trains. The Queensland Division of the Australian Railway Historical Society (established 1957) had even grander ambitions to document and preserve. Working closely with the railways the society successfully lobbied for the establishment of a museum that would display retired steam locomotives out the front of the Redbank Railway Workshops. The society also began running railway tours in the mid-1950s, with special trains hired from QR. The society continues this tradition today.

By 1969 steam had retreated almost entirely. Plans for the new museum at Redbank were well advanced and candidates nominated for display. One of these engines was A10 No. 6. This diminutive locomotive – built in Glasgow in 1865 – had been only the 8th locomotive to operate in Queensland. The Glaswegian was sold out of QR ownership in 1896 and found a new life hauling sugar cane in Bundaberg. Miraculously it remained in use with the mill until 1965, when the mill owner offered it back to QR as a 100th birthday present. It then became something of a goodwill ambassador, being used on a variety of special tours. The ARHS Queensland Division scheduled a final farewell trip for the engine in July 1969. Entrants in that year’s Ipswich Colour City Queen competition formed a guard of honour for the engine as it left Ipswich Station. Hauling six coaches, and accompanied by a Beyer Garratt on another train A10 No. 6 headed to Shorncliffe. The elderly engine needed assistance from a diesel to climb Albion hill on the outward journey, but a further indignity was to come. Just like Don Bradman was out for a Duck on his last test, old No.6 failed at Northgate on the way home, and the Garratt had to haul both trains combined back to Ipswich. The eldest of their number had fallen, for the rest of Queensland’s steam fleet, there were less than 6 months to go.

Blog Image 6A10 No. 6 seen gallantly hauling its 6 coach train near Nudgee on its final run
(Image courtesy of Brian Martin) 

Blog Image 7A10 No. 6 retired to display at the Redbank Locomotive Museum
(Image courtesy of Keith McDonald)

Ipswich – where generations of families had thrived with the presence of steam – set the stage for the final steam-hauled service in South East Queensland. Railway enthusiast Ron Thirkill – at that stage just a young lad- was amongst those to take one last trip by steam. It was the 28th of November 1969, and C17 No. 917 hauled a mixed train from Ipswich to Yarraman, where it would meet up with sister locomotive No. 997 and double head back to Ipswich. On the outward trip a number of passengers, including Ron, decided to leave the comfort and safety of their coach and ride an empty log wagon up the Blackbutt Range. Fellow passenger Stan Moore snapped a photo of these daredevil passengers. Sitting in the front row was a future curator of The Workshops Rail Museum. The train returned in darkness and the sun set on steam in the city which had been its cradle. The last steam revenue service for the entire state would take place in Mackay a few days shy of Christmas 1969.

Blog Image 8Enthusiasts ditch the comfort of passenger accommodation to ride South East Queensland’s last steam-hauled train in the open air! (Image courtesy of Stan Moore) 

Blog Image 9The final steam-hauled train in South East Queensland pauses at Esk as the locomotives take on water (Image courtesy of Stan Moore) 

With the stroke of a pen, the Queensland Railways went from having 178 steam locomotive on the books in 1969 to just 15 in 1970. Most of these remaining engines were residents of the Redbank Locomotive Museum. 3 were kept at the Ipswich Workshops and maintained in operational condition to run at special events and haul charter trains. Through this initiative, vital skills were preserved and passed down. Eventually, the Queensland Rail Heritage Fleet would be formally established working out of the Ipswich Workshops in the early 1990s. The Redbank Locomotive Museum was closed and its residents returned to Ipswich, where several were rebuilt to operational condition. The Heritage Fleet is a remarkable legacy of those final days of steam. Maintained and restored by a dedicated team of Queensland Rail employees it represents one of Australia’s best collections of heritage locomotives, railmotors, and carriages.

Blog Image 10AC16 No. 221A undergoing overhaul work in the Ipswich Erecting Shop in July 2019  (Image courtesy of David Hampton) 

Even old No.6, the elderly Glaswegian that didn’t quite make its final curtain call in 1969 got a second chance. Rebuilt to operational condition in 1991 No. 6 has toured the state, participated in Queensland Rails 150th birthday and hauled Santa from Ipswich Workshops to the Riverlink shopping mall at Christmas. Since 2002 No.6 has been proudly displayed on behalf of Queensland Rail at The Workshops Rail Museum as the oldest operating steam locomotive in the Southern Hemisphere.

Blog Image 11A10 No.6 seen crossing the Stoney Creek Bridge on the Kuranda line north of Cairns after rebuilding.  (Image Courtesy of Keith McDonald)

Whilst the age of steam is long gone, it lives on in the hearts and minds of people from all walks of life. From those who vividly remember daily commutes hauled by some smoke breathing behemoth, to those born well after its demise but still drawn to steam’s unique charm. In Ipswich, if you listen carefully, you might still hear an otherworldly song rise up from the workshops as a locomotive heads out on a charter, or catch the smell of coal smoke on the breeze. A comfort no doubt, to those who couldn’t bear to think those times forgotten.

David Hampton
Curator
The Workshops Rail Museum

 

 

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