17 February 2024

The Picnic Train returns - no wonder steam enthusiasts are stoked

| James Coleman
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steam train

The Picnic Train takes in the spectacular Molonglo Gorge between Canberra and Bungendore. Photo: Ben Murch.

For Canberra’s steam train enthusiasts, the year has two parts: when ‘The Picnic Train’ is here and when it is not.

Well, we’re nearly at the former, and the Canberra Railway Museum in Kingston hopes it can pad out of future years with more stream train rides.

The Picnic Train, normally based around Kiama, is back by popular demand over the Easter long weekend (Friday, 29 March to Monday, 1 April).

The 71-year-old steam locomotive 5917 will pull two tours a day from Canberra to Bungendore and back, taking in the spectacular Molonglo Gorge, three tunnels and rolling country scenery along the way.

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It first did this over the Easter weekend in 2022, and such were the ticket sales it returned that Anzac Day, and again for the same two long weekends in 2023.

“Canberrans love a steam train,” Canberra Railway Museum secretary Jane Wheaton says.

The museum not only serves as the local base for The Picnic Train – where it’s stored at night and replenished with coal and water – but also supplies the 1920s and ’30s-era FS-class carriages on a hire arrangement.

“Our vintage cars have individual compartments of eight seats you can buy tickets for – so if you’re a family or group of friends – but if it’s just a couple, you would go in a different type of car, what we call in-class cars, with two seats facing each other.”

She says they all sell “very quickly”.

steam train

The Picnic Train will be based at the Canberra Railway Museum during its tour. Photo: James Coleman.

Over the Australia Day long weekend, the museum began running additional Canberra-to-Bungendore tours with the ‘Molonglo Valley Explorer’, delivered in partnership with Cowra’s Lachlan Valley Railway Society.

The stars of this show were two 1960s railmotors christened ‘Neville’ and ‘Joan’, freshly restored by the museum’s army of volunteers, and the result was a sell-out.

“It was obvious to me, working as a passenger attendant on the railmotor trips, how much Canberrans and other people want rail trips,” Jane says.

“It’s not just the attraction of steam.”

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The museum is gaining accreditation from the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR), which would allow it to run its own tours. Hopefully, these will start with the rail motors and steam locomotives next year, Jane says.

“Canberra had accreditation in the previous organisation, but the ONRSR will count us as a new organisation and look at us in that sense,” she explains.

“It’s a well-trod path, and we’re engaged with others who have done it before, but it’s a complex and thorough process – as it should be.”

She flags steam-powered tours as a couple of years off. For now, the focus is on raising funds to restore 3016, a 121-year-old locomotive she hopes will run regular trips to Bungendore and Tarago, and eventually Goulburn and beyond.

steam train

The Canberra Railway Museum is asking Canberrans to “donate $30.16 to 3016” for the restoration effort. Photo: James Coleman.

“The fitter has been removing rivets so the boiler is nearly ready to lift out and go off to his workshop in Sydney for work,” Jane says.

“We hope to know inside a couple of months what he’s found, and then we, as the board, will determine next steps.”

In the meantime, she says the museum will also pursue all the opportunities it can.

“Hopefully, The Picnic Train sells out and they can put on more trips the following long weekend, and then again towards the end of the year. If we can find another operator for the intervening period – that would be great.”

The Canberra Railway Museum is open from 10 am to 3 pm every Sunday but is open every day over the Easter long weekend. Visit the Canberra Railway Museum website for more information or The Picnic Train website to book tickets.

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