Monday, July 28, 2014

Sawtell: The Railway Poster Town

Sawtell, as far as railway stations go, is nothing to look at. A bland, tiny strip of raised concrete platform with a small, modern waiting shed that could easily be mistaken for a bus stop, butted up against the North Coast Line, 600 km from Sydney. What Sawtell does have that makes this Mid-North Coast town a magnet for railway photographers, is nearby Boambee Creek.

I shot this pic of the trailing end of a Sydney-bound XPT crossing Boambee Creek as it enters Sawtell, NSW, from the top of Boambee Head lookout in July 2014.

Situated only 10 km south of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell is a seaside town that boasts sun and surf all year round. Sawtell is also regarded as one of New South Wales' most desirable locations to live. However, the real reason this town of a little over 3,000 is regarded as the 'poster town' by railway photographers, lies at the mouth of Boambee Creek. The railway bridge to the north of town has been the backdrop for many brochures, posters and video advertising since the days of the New South Wales Railways. It is one of the few places on the North Coast Line where passengers actually get to see the Pacific Ocean in all its glory from the comfort of their seat.

My $2 photo, taken from Boambee Creek Reserve looking in the direction of the ocean. I shot this photo in April 2007.

Most photographs that you would likely have seen used by Countrylink at this location were taken from west side of the railway bridge, looking back towards Boambee Head with the Pacific Ocean as its backdrop. However, there are three things to consider before heading to Boambee Creek with your camera. One, the frequency of trains on the North Coast Line during daylight hours can be few and far between. Two, unless you're good at climbing trees you won't be able to get the height necessary to match the photos used in past railway posters. They must have used a cherry-picker to shoot the ocean over the height of the train and railway bridge. And three, be aware that there is a $2 visitor charge for vehicles accessing Boambee Creek Reserve. Its a steep descent down the narrow road and there is nowhere to turn around once you reach the automated boom-gate half-way down. It was pure luck that one of my kids had a $2 coin on them or I would have been asking the car behind me to reverse all the way back up the hill. If you're a bit budget savvy like me, my suggestion is to take the free option and drive up to Boambee Head lookout. There is a well paved path that follows the headland and only a short distance from the car park you will find a large red star painted on the concrete. If you stand here and face north, you'll easily pick out the railway line through the scrub, and with a good telephoto lens be able to get and extra photo of a south bound train before it crosses the bridge.

Sawtell Railway Station, as photographed in April 2007.

But back to the railway station. It's not much to photograph, but after hours of trawling the net to compare this with the original railway station that opened in 1925, I couldn't find any old photos of Sawtell Railway Station. Perhaps it too, was an unnoticeable building tucked away in the back streets of town that nobody thought was worthy of photographing. So what if one day in the future, passenger trains stop calling at this seaside hamlet? I hardly think that Sawtell Railway Station, as it stands today, would be worthy of heritage listing. I suppose then it too would disappear from our railway landscape forever, and the only proof that we'd have that it was there to begin with, would be photographs like the one above.

It pays to keep one eye in the rear view mirror. I shot this freight only seconds after pulling out of the Sawtell Railway Station car park in April 2007. The raised concrete platform is visible beside the train.

I'd only just hopped back in the car and driven out of the parking lot, when I took one last look at the railway station in the rear view mirror, and saw a train approaching. Bringing the car to a skidding halt on the grass beside the road, I dived out with my camera and photographed a freight train as it roared north through Sawtell. Looking back, that photo too is now history. An orange an charcoal NR class locomotive still wearing the colours of National Rail, shortly before disappearing beneath a fresh coat of blue and yellow for new owners Pacific National. Someday our grandchildren may even refer to this as a vintage train. I suppose that's what railway history is all about. It's like any train, its coming, its coming, its here, its gone.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Coffs Harbour: fish, chips and trains

Coffs Harbour is a major holiday destination on the north coast of New South Wales, whose railway station first opened in 1915. Situated 608 km north of Sydney on the Sydney-Brisbane North Coast Line, it sees 3 XPT train services daily in each direction as well as a passing parade of interstate freight trains. The interesting observation when visiting Coffs Harbour Railway Station is; that for a city with a population of 45,580 the station only has a single line of railway track standing beside it. That is due to there no longer being any rail generated freight originating from the Coffs Coast district, and as such, the entire railway yard was lifted up some years ago.

The single track section of the North Coast Line that passes through Coffs Harbour Railway Station as seen from rail height at the Marina Drive level crossing, July 2014.

Sometime around 1993 when Countrylink was revitalising key country railway stations across New South Wales, Coffs Harbour received a railway station fitting for one of Australia's favourite family destinations. Today, a year out from the centenary of rail service to Coffs Harbour, the railway station is still attended by staff and even has a signal maintenance depot attached to the railway precinct. But the entire stretch of grassland that is fenced off from Jordan Esplanade, bears nothing of a resemblance to what was once an important loading point for train loads of what Coffs Harbour and nearby towns such as Woolgoolga are famous for. Bananas!

Coffs Harbour Railway Station on the north coast of New South Wales is located on Angus McLeod Place opposite Coffs Harbour Jetty. I shot this photo in July 2014.

Historical photos that I browse on the web show former NSWGR rail tractor X24 shunting louvered vans loaded with bananas in a very crowded Coffs Harbour railway yard. At one point, the rails even extended out onto the breakwater of the harbour itself. Today there are a swathe of trucking companies, based in or around Coffs Harbour that ply their trade up and down the Pacific Highway between Brisbane and Sydney. Somewhere it seems in the rush to embrace the interstate container traffic ahead of loading individual wagon loads of perishables in goods yards up and down the North Coast Line, the railways succeeded in turning away the banana growers of the Coffs Coast region, and truck loads of Coffs Harbour's finest are now sent direct to market by road.

The Sydney bound Brisbane XPT is the only XPT train to pass through Coffs Harbour during daylight hours. The grassed area to the right is all that remains of the once busy Coffs Harbour railway yard, July 2014.

While I'm standing on the platform pondering the real meaning of the word progress, the Marina Drive level crossing bells chime into action. With a short sound of the horn, an XPT service swings into view and quickly pulls up alongside the platform. I shoot a slew of photos while passengers board for their journey south to Sydney, or alight to begin their visit to Coffs Harbour, and watch as the station master loads and unloads all the checked luggage from the baggage car. The train only sits idle for a minute or two as it occupies the single-track section of the North Coast Line, and then with a soft sounding of the horn it quickly accelerates away again. Passengers leave the railway station to waiting cars or to queue for a taxi that will take them to their holiday accommodation and the scene falls silent once more.

The grassed parking area to the left side of Marina Drive when you visit Coffs Jetty Sunday Markets was once part of Coffs Harbour's large railway yard. This view of rusting rails poking through the grass was taken in July 2014.

With nothing nothing more to see at this idyllic railway setting, it was time to head to the nearby marina with my family to visit the Sunday Harbourside Markets that are set up on the jetty foreshore and buy some fish and chips to enjoy for lunch by the sea. I head down Marina Drive, jolt over the railway crossing and pull into the grassed parking area in front of the foreshore. As I step out of the car my feet find something hard beneath the surface. You guessed it, the rusting remains of a railway line now buried beneath the grass and sand. There really is history waiting to be rediscovered wherever you go.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Coramba: Chasing trains and Gladiators

Coramba is a small country town on the north coast of New South Wales that hasn't lost any of its out-of-the-way charm, despite being only 15 km from Coffs Harbour. Situated 628 km from Sydney in the beautiful Orara Valley, Coramba Railway Station was opened in July 1922. Today however, all you will find alongside the Sydney-Brisbane North Coast Line where Coramba Railway Station once stood, is a rather utilitarian concrete signal block building alongside a passing loop and siding. There is no date recorded as to when the railway station was closed, or when it was pulled down for that matter, although nearby Nana Glen Railway Station closed in 1974.

The Coramba Railway Station site in July 2014. In its place is a drab concrete signal relay hut.

What Coramba does provide, is a key passing loop on the North Coast Line for trains heading south on the single-track line through Coffs Harbour, and a siding that is easily accessible for infrastructure work trains. On two separate occasions when travelling along Orara Valley Way, I was fortunate to have photographed these work trains taking refuge in the loop or siding.

A track maintenance vehicle parked in the siding at Coramba Railway Station, 2009.

The easiest place to pull up to photograph trains is beside the rural fire brigade building, just past the railway bridge as you're approaching town from Coffs Harbour. Just be sure not to block access to the volunteer fire services building or the rail access road, and you'll be able to get some great camera angles of trains passing over the railway bridge, or holed up in the loop. A short walk up the access track will get you a great view of the passing loop, siding and the former site of the Coramba Railway Station without needing to trespass on railway property.

Former State Rail Authority of NSW 81 class locomotive 8127 on a Australia Rail Track Corporation concrete sleeper work train waits in the loop for a ballast train to head south on the mainline back in 2007.

The main street in the village of Coramba is located only a short distance from the former railway station and is the best place to stop to grab something to eat if you are spending the afternoon exploring the Orara Valley Way. Hollywood A-lister and Oscar winning local Russell Crowe is known to visit the Coramba Pub when he's at home on his Nana Glen ranch, and if you're heading north out of town, you'll pass the home ground of the Orara Valley Axemen, the rugby league team of which Russell is a fan and sponsor. But for me, it's always been about the trains. So with no sign of the Gladiator in town, it was back behind the wheel of the family car to chase the ballast train south towards Coffs Harbour.

Chasing a work train along the Orara Valley Way south of Coramba in 2007 resulted in this photo of a badly vandalised 81 class Pacific National locomotive. What a mess!

I overtook the train halfway between Coramba and Karangi. As the road parralels the railway line for some while, it was easy to find a safe place to pull to the side of the road and jump out of the car with the camera. I aimed the lens for a photo of another 81 class loco freshly painted in the colours of its new owner Pacific National, and as soon as I pressed the button on the camera sighed in disappointment. Some vandals had spray painted the entire side of the locomotive with graffiti. C'mon, the locomotive? I mean seriously? If someone had done this to a jumbo jet at an airport it would be considered an act of terrorism. So why isn't the same respect afforded to a locomotive that operates on part of our national railway network? Maybe when someone is caught spray painting graffiti on trains they could be tied to a pole for the day wearing only a pair of goggles and a speedo while the community take turns spray painting on them. I'm sure they'd never do it again. Or better still, maybe we could put them in an arena with the Gladiator. I think we'd know who'd come off second best!