27 December 2022

NSW's favourite 'Picnic Train' is summering in Canberra

| James Coleman
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The Picnic Train (5917) in Molonglo Gorge. Photo: Ben Murch.

You’ll recognise the name from 2022’s Easter weekend.

‘The Picnic Train’ has offered regular heritage steam-hauled train tours throughout NSW since the 1970s. Based in Sydney, these are primarily held around Kiama, Wollongong, Penrith, the Hunter Valley and Hawkesbury River, but they finally came to Canberra for the first time in a long time last year.

Touring the railway between Kingston and Bungendore via Queanbeyan proved to be such a sell-out success the organisers brought the Picnic Train back for the Anzac Day long weekend. And then they promised a return in 2023.

Well, it’s back early.

In preparation for two months of maintenance work at the Canberra Railway Museum, two steam locomotives and one diesel locomotive from the Picnic Train’s fleet – together with carriages – arrived in Canberra on 21 December.

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Capital Region Heritage Rail (CRHR) chair Jane Wheaton says there’s a lot of work ahead for the volunteer engineers at the museum.

“It’s a great profile for us to have them here,” she says.

“And it’s great for Canberra. It’s a sign heritage rail is slowly coming back from our small museum reopening three years ago. We’re on a good trajectory to have more of this sort of thing here.”

The 1952 D59-Class ‘Mikado’ steam locomotive, badged 5917, has worn the Picnic Train moniker the longest. Weighing 153 tonnes (loaded), it worked in the NSW Government Railways until the end of the steam age in the 1970s. Initially built in the US, it was converted to run on oil due to a coal shortage at the time, but once the situation improved, the power source reverted back to what it is today – coal.

The 1952 R-Class ‘Hudson’, badged R766, is the bigger of the two steam locomotives, weighing 187 tonnes (loaded). It was imported from Glasgow, Scotland, and became the first Victorian steam locomotive to be converted to standard gauge for operation in NSW. It only joined the Picnic Train fleet earlier in 2022, following a decade of restoration.

These two were accompanied by diesel locomotive 4903, dubbed ‘Tarpy’ and described as the “unsung hero of operations” for its work in moving carriages and helping to shunt trains.

Jane says it’s the first time the Picnic Train organisers have turned to Canberra as a base for their annual service schedule, due to a diminishing number of suitable places in NSW.

“It’s getting harder to find secure rail storage in NSW as more areas are developed,” she says.

“They also want somewhere with a large inspection pit where you can drop ash and other waste out of the bottom of the locomotive.”

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Not only does the museum have all this, but there was also an existing commercial relationship between the two. The six heritage carriages and a power car that make up the Picnic Train were hired from the Canberra Railway Museum three years ago.

“The carriages all look a bit tired inside and out and really need some work,” she says.

“We’ll replace windows and carpet and repair upholstery, and one of them has a leaking roof we need to fix too.”

This work, and the annual service on the locomotives, will start in early January and run through to March when the Picnic Train leaves for its Riverina tours around Wagga and Junee. It’ll then return for tours in the Canberra region over the Easter weekend in April 2023.

While the work goes on, the locomotives will be open for public viewing at the museum every Sunday between 10 am and 3 pm. Jane says they’re also opening between 30 December and 1 January, during the usual hours, to give more people more chance to see them.

“We can’t take people into the cab, but they can get up close to them.”

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This is another great reason for not moving the Canberra Railway Station to the east of Fyshwick. There is so much railway heritage at the Railway Museum which is in a cultural and environmental heritage precinct that includes Cargill’s Cottage, the Causeway Hall and the potential new Jerrabomberra Wetlands visitors’ centre. What a great asset for the planned East Lake development.

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