Puffing Billy keeps Australian steam train history alive

Sun Nov 2, 2014 6:34am EST
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By Jason Reed

BELGRAVE Australia (Reuters) - While the discovery of steam power 200 years ago drove the industrial revolution, the world long ago shunted most steam trains onto the sidings of history.

But in one small corner of rural Australia, the sights, sounds and smells of the industrial revolution remain very much alive. In the picturesque Dandenong Ranges on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne, "Puffing Billy" is Australia's last full-time steam engine railway.

"I grew up at the end of the steam era, I've been around the engines all my life," Puffing Billy driver Steve Holmes recently told Reuters in the locomotive shed at Belgrave. "We're not only just preserving the equipment, we're preserving the skills and hopefully the traditions of the Victorian railways as well. If it's not done, it all gets lost.'

    The short railway - just 18 miles (29 km) long and built in 16 months during the 1890s - boasted Victoria's tightest railway curve and a maximum speed of a mere 15 mph (24 kph).

Its quaint, almost toy-like nature would also prove its downfall. The need to transfer the crops and timber it carried onto larger, broad gauge trains made it financially untenable.

Despite those losses and the rise of motor vehicles in the first half of the 20th century, Puffing Billy always enjoyed a loyal following with daytrippers, honeymooners and weekenders - until a large landslide covered the tracks and closed down operations in 1953.

During a decade of decay and disrepair, public pressure to reopen the railway as a tourist endeavor built. In 1962, the railway was reborn, using mostly volunteer labor. More than 250,000 people a year now visit the railway.

Holmes sees his work as paying homage to his late father Norm, a railway guard who introduced him and his brothers to the charms of the rails.   Continued...

An engineer works inside the smokebox of a steam engine undergoing an overhaul in the Puffing Billy workshops at Belgrave Melbourne, October 20, 2014. REUTERS/Jason Reed