Saturday, November 28, 2015

Gembrook: Victoria's Narrow Gauge Survivor

Sixty-six kilometres from Melbourne's Southern Cross Station lies the sleepy little village of Gembrook, the terminus for a 2 foot 6 inch narrow gauge railway line built by the Victorian Railways in 1900 as cost-saving measure. Today, it marks the end of the line for the Puffing Billy Railway.

With rain threatening the side flaps on the open-sided carriages are down at Gembrook Station, July 2015.

Gembrook Railway Station first opened in 1900, and for over half a century it survived hauling timber and potatoes to where the narrow gauge line met up with the Victorian Railways 5 foot 3 inch broad gauge system at Upper Ferntree Gully. Following the line's closure in 1954, the Puffing Billy Preservation Society worked hard towards re-opening the line from Belgrave, first to Menzies Creek in 1962, then Emerald in 1965 and Lakeside in 1975. It wasn't until 1998 that the line was reopened to the original terminus of Gembrook.

Gembrook Station, visitor centre and gift shop as viewed from the middle of Main Street, July 2015.

The 24 km section of narrow gauge track between Belgrave and Gembrook is today one of the most popular tourist railways in Australia. Arriving at Gembrook, the train pulls up alongside a purpose-built heritage station and gift shop that was erected alongside Main Street in 1998 to cater for the large number of tourists arriving in town. The original platform stands just to the north where a replica station building has been erected, and is still used on the fourth Sunday of each month when the Gembrook Markets take over the station precinct. Stepping from the train on a non-market day in the middle of a chilly Victorian winter's day however, I have no problem standing in the middle of Main Street to shoot some photos of the railway station.

The Motorist Garage on Main Street with Gembrook Station in the background to the right.

The town of Gembrook is extremely picturesque, even on a extremely cold and rainy day. A rotunda stands in the adjacent park and nearby there is the much talked about vintage motorist garage. However, with the return train to Belgrave not scheduled to depart for another 2 hours, it only takes 2 minutes to realise that it is probably an hour too long. There is literally no more than a handful of shops on Main Street, and sadly the pub across the road from the train station has closed down. Apart from a popular little bakery and a well-booked cafe a few doors up from the station, it becomes a challenge to fill-in 2 hours in town.

That's Brenton hard at work raking the cinder-box over the pit at Gembrook, photo July 2015.

Fortunately there was some action happening back at the station. Steve and Brenton (the driver and fireman on the Gembrook train) had decided to put 12A over the locomotive pit at the rear of the station and rake out the cinder-box in readiness for the return trip to Belgrave. Not only was it an opportunity to have an up-close look at the under-frame of a steam loco, but I had arranged to ride on the footplate with the guys on the return trip, and give Brenton a spell from firing the loco where possible.

Yours truly soaking up the quiet before a footplate ride back to Belgrave. Gembrook Station, July 2015.

So with the train being shunted into place at Gembrook Station for the 2.45 pm departure for Belgrave, there is just a moment for this writer to soak up the quiet and bygone charm that has fallen upon Gembrook Station before climbing up on the footplate for the thrill of a lifetime. From Geelong to Gembrook and the MCG, I tried to cram as much train and tram travel into a 3 day period for my book Train Tripping Around Melbourne. By the time I crawled into my hotel bed back in the city after experiencing what it was like to be a volunteer fireman aboard Puffing Billy, my 365 km railway adventure had come to an end. However, even now after sharing this post with you, I still can't wipe the smile off my face from that day. Best railway adventure ever? You bet!

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Southern Cross: Melbourne's modern railway masterpiece

Southern Cross Station stands on the corner of Collins and Spencer Streets in Victoria's capital of Melbourne and was opened in time for the city's hosting of the 2006 Commonwealth Games. To a seasoned railway traveller that is more accustomed to exploring historic station buildings dating back to the early 1900's, stepping into Southern Cross Station at first feels like I've made a wrong turn and arrived at the airport, that is until I see the all trains lined up beneath the imposing glass canopy.

Southern Cross Station as seen from Spencer Street on a chilly July morning in 2015.

Southern Cross Station stands alongside Spencer Street and occupies an entire city block between Collins Street and LaTrobe Street. It also stands on the site of the former Spencer Street Station that first opened in 1859, and just as in the olden days, this is still Melbourne's terminal for all country and interstate train services.

The large booking office has an entire floor of shops and eateries above it. Photo July 2015.

Inside the impressive steel and glass structure, a large concourse surrounds the many platforms that are served by Metro Trains suburban services and V/Line country services to every corner of the state. Collecting my ticket from the ticket counter on what was a cold winter's morning, I made my way up the escalators to the food court that overlooks the concourse for a hot breakfast and quite possibly the best train watching seat in Australia.

The food court on the mezzanine floor overlooking Southern Cross is possibly the best train watching location in the country!

The platforms at Southern Cross Station are unique to most other railway stations in Australia in that they each have an A and B designation, meaning that two trains can be stationed at the one platform. As such, the 8 main platforms are quite long, stretching beyond the overpass that can be seen in the distance of the above photo that leads to nearby Etihad Stadium.

A Velocity train to the left stands beside a V/Line locomotive hauled passenger train that has just arrived. July 2015.

V/Line is Australia's largest regional transport operator and still maintain a fleet of locomotive hauled passenger carriages for trains headed to Bairnsdale, Shepparton, Albury, Swan Hill and the destination that I was headed to, Warrnambool. For many shorter routes to major regional cities in the state such as Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and Echuca, high speed Velocity diesel railcar sets have revolutionized train travel within the state. Along with XPT trains running interstate between Melbourne and Sydney, and Great Southern Rail's The Overland train between Melbourne and Adelaide, Southern Cross Station is a veritable train traveller's paradise.

The 7.20 am Warrnambool service ready to depart Southern Cross Station, Tues 7th July, 2015.

Reminding myself that I had a train to catch, I made my way to platform 4B to board the 7.20 am to Warrnambool, some 267 km south west of Melbourne and about as far south as I could travel by train in Victoria without crossing the border into South Australia. Southern Cross Station may be as historic as the hoverboard from Back To The Future, but it is spacious, clean and packed with that sense of excitement you get when you're about to embark on a train journey. As far as railway stations are concerned, it is the equal of Europe's finest. It is also the starting point for day two of my 3 day railway adventure around greater Melbourne. If you enjoyed reading this post, then my book Train Tripping Around Melbourne is filled with more interesting facts, figures and funny stories I collected while spending 3 days riding trains around Melbourne that are waiting to guide you on a real life railway adventure of your own.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Wright: Steam through the forrest

Wright Forrest is one of the scenic highlights aboard Puffing Billy on the run from Lakeside to Gembrook through Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges. Not only does the train snake past an untouched stand of native stringy bark and eucalyptus trees, but north of the tiny wayside halt, the line passes over three timber trestle bridges, one of which is an impressive 200 feet long and stands 50 feet above a deep gully.

The tiny wayside halt of Wright is located on Puffing Billy's narrow gauge line to Gembrook. Photo 2015.

The 2 foot 6 inch narrow gauge line first passed through Wright Forrest in 1900, and 4 years later in 1904 a small wayside halt was opened to serve the nearby village of Avonsleigh. Little remained of Wright Station following the closure of the Gembrook Line in 1954. So when the line to Gembrook was reopened by the Puffing Billy Preservation Society in 1998, a replica of the original corrugated iron waiting shed and station sign was reconstructed alongside the line.

Wright Station as seen from the fireman's seat as we pass through under full steam in July 2015.

Although Wright is not a scheduled stop on Puffing Billy's trip to Gembrook, the tiny waiting shed can be seen to the left shortly before crossing the first of three trestle bridges. Although with spectacular views of towering gum trees pressed hard up against the line on either side, you may be forgiven for missing it altogether. When passing by Wright on a cold winter's day in July 2015, I had the warmest seat on the train, the fireman's seat. Courtesy of the Puffing Billy Railway, I was able to spend the day shadowing driver Steve and fireman Brenton aboard locomotive 12A on the run to Gembrook and back for my upcoming book.

Puffing Billy was definitely one of the highlights of my 3 day adventure around Melbourne by train, and the entire trip from Belgrave to Gembrook is featured in my book Train Tripping Around Melbourne. From Gembrook to Geelong and the MCG, I covered 365 km while exploring the best of Melbourne from the window of a train, and my book is filled with interesting facts, figures and enough funny stories to make you want to head off on a real railway adventure of your own.

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