A delightful way to let off steam
The new Trainworks is fun for puff buffs of all ages
WHENit comes to generating delight, you can’t beat steam engines. Since retiring from just about every passenger service in the world, steam trains boast a fan club that newer systems of transport struggle to match.
That’s part of the appeal of Trainworks, the big new trainrelated attraction next to historic Thirlmere station about 90km southwest of Sydney. For years the site has housed a collection of steam and diesel trains and rail heritage items. It has been reborn and provided with fine new museum facilities, including a cafe, small theatre, children’s areas and retail outlets.
In the cavernous interior of Trainworks’ main building, mighty engines such as the 260-tonne 6040 Garrat — black, hulking and one of the world’s most powerful locomotives — stand on display, as if sleeping and waiting to roar back into life. The governor-general’s carriage, built in 1901, is a masterpiece, its interior lined in polished English oak and Australian cedar.
Right opposite, a carriage stamped with the royal insignia turns out to be less regal. It’s a prison van of a type once used to convey criminals and wardens to 19th-century colonial jails. Other exhibits include a mail-sorting carriage, a 32m turntable with real-life demonstrations of restoration and maintenance, and a jaunty little pale green and white rail pay bus powered by a Ford V8 engine.
While these stationary exhibits are impressive and sometimes quirky, it’s the 50-minute steam train rides that bring the biggest smiles. Trips take place four times every Sunday, heading from Thirlmere station to the little village of Buxton and back.
Passengers waiting at Thirlmere include older people who remember massive, smokebelching locomotives thundering along the tracks of their childhood. Children crowd around, their knowledge of steam deriving largely from Thomas the Tank Engine and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express.
I belong to the first category and my son Felix, 11, falls into the second. We both find Trainworks and the steam train ride perfectly wonderful. Locomotive 2705, a picturesque English engine in black, red and British racing green, does the pulling, with much chuffing, black smoke and that most evocative sound, the steam whistle. The engine was built in Leeds in 1913 and spent most of its working life in Narrabri.
It burns about half a tonne of coal during the 8km slightly uphill trip to Buxton. In the cab there’s much coal-shovelling and use of the regulator and gear wheel. Drivers use these like an accelerator and brake, while keeping an eye on gauges indicating steam pressure. Steering doesn’t come into it.
On special occasions, Thomas the Tank Engine, complete with face, pulls into Thirlmere to take younger children on the ride of their lives. Trainworks may be run professionally, but it’s backed by a dedicated band of loyal volunteers who do the job because they love it. They include Arthur Tubby, a retired industrial chemist whose long association with steam dates from when his father drove a steam engine at Port Kembla, back in the days when the crew would start their day by frying bacon and eggs or fresh-caught fish in a shovel heated over the engine boiler fire.
In a vintage carriage clicketyclacking behind locomotive 2705, Tubby recalls that for decades the trains at Thirlmere attracted mainly railway enthusiasts. Now, with the launch of Trainworks, families find it an attractive proposition for a great day out.
The carriage boasts green leather seats and crafted wooden panels, with signs bearing classic railway warnings: ‘‘Do not throw anything out of carriages’’. There are no such signs in the governorgeneral’s carriage.
Locomotive 1034 in the Trainworks exhibition building