6 March 2023

Full steam ahead! Heritage rail back on track after more painstaking restoration

| James Coleman
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Railway carriages

Railway carriages at the Canberra Railway Museum. Photo: Ewout Rohling.

A train of heritage railway carriages has set off on tour again following a three-month-long marathon of restoration work at the Canberra Railway Museum.

The seven passenger carriages, which date back to the 1930s, have been on hire with NSW-based steam-haul train tour company The Picnic Train since 2019.

The owners of The Picnic Train agreed to haul them back to the Kingston yard in December last year for some welcome TLC, accompanied by their two steam locomotives and a diesel-electric locomotive which were due for their annual inspections and services.

Capital Region Heritage Rail (CRHR) chair Jane Wheaton says it was great for Canberra’s train buffs to have the fleet here over the summer holidays, but the volunteers certainly haven’t been twiddling their thumbs.

“We’ve been really busy, doing repairs and refurbishments,” she says.

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This includes a “lot of work” to the roofs of the carriages, which were leaking in places, repainting and realigning window frames, and recoating the exterior “which has suffered from UV rays”.

“The seats also take a real punishment when the public sit on them because the old leather and vinyl split as it ages and hardens,” Jane says.

Several of the seats were sent to a local automotive shop for reupholstery while volunteers salvaged and swapped others, checking locks, ensuring doors opened and closed properly, and countless other odd jobs.

The 1953 59-Class steam locomotive left Canberra on Thursday, 2 March, with now-sparkling carriages in tow, bound for The Picnic Train’s first tour of the year.

This runs from Goulburn to Junee and back again through a section of track considered a holy grail among train enthusiasts – The Bethungra Spiral. The section is so named for its design, which circles around a steep hill in Bethungra through tunnels and overpasses.

But The Picnic Train will be back by popular demand soon enough. Following two successful debut tours in Canberra over March and April last year, it’s returning for the Canberra Day long weekend and then again over Easter this year.

This also gives the museum’s volunteers some time to finish off the bits and bobs they didn’t quite get to.

“The carriages have been through three years of running every weekend, only interrupted by COVID,” Jane says.

“That’s why we’ve had so much work to do.”

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The carriages were commissioned by NSW Railways in the 1930s, making the oldest nearly 100 years old. Four of them fall under the ‘FS’ designation, which was the standard type of passenger carriage used in Australia. They might not be heritage listed, but they are “much loved”.

“There’s not many of them left anymore. They’re certainly a popular choice from the Picnic Train’s perspective because the interior is broken up into individual compartments that can be sold separately to a family group. Everyone can sit in there and have their own space.”

Many of Jane’s peers at the museum have looked after the same carriages for decades and know all the tricks of the trade when it comes to keeping them rail-worthy.

“Sometimes, if you inadvertently overtighten a screw, for example, it will sink into and damage the old timber frame. So you have to know exactly what you’re doing.”

steam train

The Picnic Train arrived in Canberra in December 2022. Photo: James Coleman.

The contract with The Picnic Train runs through until the end of 2024, at which point Jane hopes it will be renewed for another five years as the hire fees go a long way to keeping the museum financially viable.

“It’s quite hard to run a museum on reasonable entry fees alone without government funding,” she says.

“The costs in heritage rail are really significant, from huge insurance premiums to heavy engineering work that often has to be outsourced. There’s very little we do that doesn’t involve a four-figure bill.”

The Canberra Railway Museum will be open to the public on Sunday, 26 March, between 10 am and 3 pm, to show off one of The Picnic Train locomotives. It will also open over Easter between 8 and 10 April, with exact times to be confirmed. Stay up to date on the Facebook page.

“You might even be able to get a glimpse of the 59-Class being reloaded with water and coal,” Jane says.

Book a spot on The Picnic Train’s Canberra tours online.

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When does the train run between Junee and Goulburn?

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