Saturday, 28 November 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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