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MOTAT VOLUNTEERS' AUSSIE ADVENTURE - Part One

In October 2019, with financial assistance from the MOTAT Society and MOTAT, five active Rail/Steam volunteers headed to Melbourne, Australia on a trip to gain ideas and information to assist in making the MOTAT Collection a better experience for Visitors and Volunteers alike. Over the next three Squeaky Wheels these intrepid adventurers share the account of their activities.

Riding on Puffing Billy Railway behind and Na Class locomotive

DAY ONE

Most of us were up around 3am to catch our 6:30 am flight to Melbourne where we picked up our rental van and headed straight to our first stop, Echuca, once known as Australia's largest inland port, about three hours north of Melbourne on the Murray River.

We arrived just in time to enjoy a ride on the Alexander Arbuthnot, a paddle steamer employing an undertype portable steam engine, with cylinders mounted beneath the boiler barrel, driving the shafts via a gear train to the paddles. The regulator was directly controlled from the wheelhouse above via a linkage, with reversing controlled by the stoker below using bell commands.

After a cruise up river we turned back to dock to check out other Echuca sites such as the replica sawmill, other riverboats and the historic wharf area. We met up with Neil who operates the river boat Canberra, a larger and much more comfortable vessel than the Alexander Arbuthnot, powered by a Marshall steam portable, and they kindly took us for another short cruise to show it off. The boilers on both boats fed water straight from the river. Apparently silt isn't really a problem if regular blowdowns are done to clear it out.

Our primary reason for visiting Echuca was to view a small Ruston Hornsby steam roller, identical to one in pieces in MOTAT's collection and we were not disappointed. We all took lots of photos and notes to assist in the restoration of MOTAT's sister engine and after viewing several other privately owned steam engines in the area we jumped in the van for the three and a half hour drive to Geelong to meet up with Tony Brens.

Tony is an NZ expat now living in Melbourne and flies home twice a year to help crew MOTAT's Live days. After dumping our bags at his house we headed out to The Bellarine Railway for a behind the scenes tour. The Bellarine is a 3'6” railway converted from broad gauge. It houses a variety of refugees from around the country and also operates the popular Blues Trains and Q Train restaurant in the evenings, for unique musical and dining experiences. Something, in our opinion, that MOTAT might be interested in.­­­­

DAY TWO We started the day with a visit to the National Steam Centre, a large site dedicated to the preservation of steam power and other heritage construction and industrial equipment. Most of the buildings are off-the-shelf commercial buildings which work well to shelter the equipment, a similar idea to plans for Motat's M2 site to replace shed alley.

Amidst the highlights of walking the Rapier dragline, showman's miniature railway, a large display hall, and many steam rollers and traction engines, we visited the engine room from the steam tug Lyttleton II.

The story of the Lyttleton II was fascinating! Saved from scrapping, it was steamed from NZ to Australia in the late 80s, making it to Sydney with 5 hours coal in reserve. Sadly, once in Australia its preservation society couldn't keep up with its maintenance and the tug ended up at a Melbourne dock, rusting away to the point that it was in danger of sinking at its moorings. The decision was made to salvage the engines, fittings and sections of the hull, but scrap the rest. These engines are now on display in the main hall with steam coming from a stationary boiler.

Next up, we went to Puffing Billy Railway where we met up with their chief draftsman, who gave us a tour of the workshops. Inside we saw the nearly complete reguaged Garret NGG15, an NA under heavy maintenance/overhaul, the diesel fired NA (undergoing light maintenance) and their new carriage fleet under construction. The new carriages are replicas of the old designs, with all structural timber replaced with steel framing. New locomotives may be on the cards next as part of a modernisation programme to build a larger fleet to help cope with increasing passenger numbers.

They have three locomotives in steam, seven-days a week, with four return trips a day, all crewed by volunteers. The diesel conversion of the NA was not about cost savings in fuel (as it actually costs more than coal to operate) but fire prevention and also means they don't need another fuel type on site

After our workshop tour we rode the railway from Belgrave to Lakeside and were impressed by the performance of the NA with the 10 car train, especially factoring the tight curves and grades of up to 1:30. The quality of the line, rolling stock, stations and infrastructure is a testament to the professionalism of the organisation. All five NA locomotives in service now have welded steel boilers with flanged back heads and throat plates. Though they have used butt welding they are quite different from the Boilers recently installed at Glenbrook Vintage Railway in NZ. They are all over 10 years old and have given little trouble except some teething issues around the stay installation.

Next we headed to Puffing Billy's Museum for a tour, which we were lucky to get as at the time it was not yet open to public. This is a fantastic and cost-effective display hall which cost about $750,000 in total, about $200k in the building and slightly less in the foundation/floor slab, along with other site prep, services, flooring finishes etc. The building has been heavily future-proofed with conduits cast into the floor­­­ and allows for the creation of a function area at one end with great views of the engines. The track is mostly dual gauge 2' and 2'6” allowing all exhibits to be demonstrated outside. A stationary steam house has also been set up in one corner allowing steam equipment to be demonstrated in steam. This area is used as a training area for volunteers new to steam power, rather than starting out straight on the locomotives, and is surrounded by a channel drain on all sides to catch any leaks. The rest of the display area is also well waterproofed, allowing the floor to even be hosed down, with the water soaking away.


Demonstration area for steam equipment inside the Puffing Billy Museum

The exhibits are varied and interesting, ranging from internal combustion locomotives - like a Malcom Moore, Climax locomotive 1624, a Shay, NGG Garret, Orenstein and Koppel, Hudswell Clarke - and Cane locomotives including a Decaux. Also featured is the last un-restored NA locomotive displayed on its broad gauge carrier wagon formerly used for transport to the VR workshops. This will be a fantastic museum when it opens to the public.­

- by Alex Smith and Martyn Radford­­


Read about the next leg of our three part MOTAT Volunteers’ Aussie Adventure in Issue #37 of the Squeaky Wheel Issue August 2020

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