Cathie Skelton developed a passion for steam trains when she was three. Her father would “drag” the family on his train trips. Now Cathie helps to run trains that other people get dragged on.
“I started out volunteering in the buffet,” she says. “I wanted to play with the engine and the men were hogging it. So when I was in my early 30s I enrolled in a fireman’s class.”
Cathie is one of many volunteers from Steamrail Victoria who restore and operate vintage locomotives and carriages.
Sixty passengers and 20 volunteer crew were on a two-night tour to Castlemaine and Maldon. The train is hauled by a steam locomotive built in 1940, one of four of its class still in working order. Accommodation is a line of vintage carriages which operated on Victoria’s railways from the early to mid-20th century, on famous trains such as the Southern Aurora, the Spirit of Progress and the Overland. Each has been restored by Steamrail at its Newport headquarters.
My room is a 1950s single-berth sleeper in a car used on the Vinelander between Melbourne and Mildura. The compartment retains its vintage decor, though the toilet and washbasin no longer work. It is very snug.
As we gather speed out of Southern Cross Station, it feels like we’re riding something alive. The engine seems to breathe. It hisses, whistles and exhales. The smell of coal smoke creeps into the compartment, a thin haze fills the narrow corridor of the carriage.
Andrew Reynolds, a volunteer driver on the Victorian Goldfields Railway and Puffing Billy says: “Engines are just like people, they have good days and bad days. You really have to coax it sometimes.” The 75-year-old engine is having a good evening as the suburbs disappear behind us.
The train rests part of the night in Castlemaine and we have a breakfast of bacon and eggs prepared by volunteers on the platform at Maldon.
Cathie Skelton has had an early start preparing to work as fireman on the day’s Victorian Goldfields Railway (VGR) tourist services between Maldon and Castlemaine. I see her from the platform, her face smeared with soot. Today there’s a range of options for Steamrail’s guests, including joining Cathie to ride the VGR or spend the day exploring Maldon.
Later, there’s a dinner train service operated for Steamrail’s guests by VGR. Followed by a touch of luxury in the Macedon club car. The American-built 1928 Pullman carriage served on the Overland. It was rebuilt by Steamrail and converted to a club car reminiscent of 1930s America. It is, says Andrew Reynolds who helped restore it, “unashamedly art deco” in character.
The uniformed barman and 1930s music add to our historical journey as we relax in leather chairs on the way to dinner at Castlemaine’s Railway Hotel.
On our return leg, most of the passengers and crew pile off the train into the forest near Muckleford to take part in a ‘listening stop’. The train backs up about a kilometre and then makes a slow run back.
Rhythmic chugging echoes through the trees, the headlamp cuts through the mist and a long whistle blast reverberates, melancholy yet soothing. Faces brighten with smiles. It makes a lot of people happy.
Steamrail runs trips about twice a month. The Victorian Goldfields Railway operates between Maldon and Castlemaine. Visit vgr.com.au for details.