I’VE always had a love of railways. Ever since I saw the steam locomotives struggling up the Longwarry Bank, east of Longwarry, alongside our farm, the magic only a steam locomotive can give has been a part of me.
That was on the Gippsland line but the line that’s somehow always seemed the most romantic is the “Great Southern” line, if I can borrow *Keith Bowden's name for it. This is the line into South Gippsland and it was the hardest one in Victoria to build. It runs through some of Victoria's best scenery, and it was as crucial to the settlers along it as any line, but it was awful terrain for a railway.
Let me take you for a ride.
Pretend it’s May 9, 1892 and I'm treating you to a free ticket to Port Albert. Have you rugged up? May can be cold in South Gippsland. I see you've had the sense to wear an old coat. I wore my best suit when I rode the first train to Sale fourteen years ago and I had several large holes burned in it. It's the locomotives, you see. Blow sparks everywhere. Set fire to the scrub alongside the line, as often as not, though that doesn't matter too much out in the scrub.
And I tell you what, you'll see some scrub on this trip. Miles and miles of it, with just the odd small clearing with a house or a few shacks in it, and some of the biggest trees God ever made. Even the towns seem to sit huddled in small clearings with the forests frowning down on them.
You'll see it all because we're taking the 6.30am train from Princes Bridge station. That'll get us down to Port Albert late in the afternoon, just after 4pm. Not bad, is it?
There's another passenger train that leaves Princes Bridge at 5pm, and it stops at Leongatha at about 10.30pm. Only five and a half hours. Ah, here's our train. A straight passenger service. No “mixed goods”. You can always get a ride on the goods trains but it can be a pretty miserable old ride. Wind. Cinders. Soot. You wouldn't like it. Of course, we pick up a few goods trucks at Dandenong. That’s when we become a “mixed goods” instead of a “passenger” train.
Get a seat with your back to the engine and don't sit too near the window. There isn't any heating, and smoke and cinders coming in the window are about all the warming up you'll get.
What's that? Stopping all the time? Yes, we run as a normal suburban train as far as
Dandenong. We stop at nearly every station. Richmond. South Yarra. Caulfield. Oakleigh. Springvale. Oh, yes, and Clayton. Then Dandenong.
Of course, we don't stop at every single station. We don't stop at Rosstown, for instance, or Sandown Park Racecourse. Just a paddock, really. Still, it’s only the pony races.
Dandenong coming up now. Making pretty good time, too. Still only 7.30. We've got a twenty-minute break here while we pick up the goods trucks and the engine takes on water. We'll be in Cranbourne by 8.15. There's Hyde's Brick Siding and now we're stopping at Lyndhurst. Waste of time, stopping at these little bush places.
Now that's not bad. Cranbourne at 8.14. Right on schedule. An hour and forty-four minutes to cover twenty seven miles. There's Clyde next, then Tooradin. No you won't see the inlet. Yes, I know it would make a pretty sight but the station was built a long way north of the town. Didn't amuse the locals, I can tell you.
Here's Koo Wee Rup West. Not much of a station. I think the locals call it Dalmore now. Wet, did you say? You should have seen it before there was any drainage. I know it’s still a morass but there used to be a boat kept here so travellers could get away from the station. The station was a sort of island. True!
Look at all the bridges along here. The contractor must have been tearing his hair out to get the line across here. You'd wonder why anyone bothered. This part of the country will never be any good for anything. The Great Swamp, they call it, and you can see why.
We're 20 feet above sea level here. We were only 16 feet above it at Tooradin, and that was a few miles inland. Still, we'll be climbing soon. Yes, we run into the Strzeleckis soon. Koo Wee Rup – funny name, that – then Monomeith, Caldermeade and Lang Lang.
Nyora next and now we're climbing pretty steeply. You can hear the engine working hard. We climb up from 53 feet above sea level at Lang Lang to 396 feet at Nyora. Its downhill then to Loch at 293 feet but the curves and the narrow cuttings will keep the speed right down.
Yes, its steep country, all right. Did you know that between Loch and Jeetho stations we climb up 102 feet in less than three miles? That'll make her work. There’s worse to come. It's only three and a half miles from Jeetho up to Bena and she climbs 298 feet in that distance. Call it 300. Tough climb from a standing start.
I'll give you an example of how hard it is to work trains through these hills. That's Korumburra coming into sight, the highest station on the line. What was I saying? Oh, yes, the coal trains, and they're getting a lot of coal down here just now, go up to Nyora as short trains and then they put them together into longer trains for the run to Melbourne. Must annoy the railwaymen, eh?
Yes, black coal. Good quality, too. I don't know whether they'll ever find enough to make it really worthwhile. The locals say there’s a lot of it here, but Coal Creek might be just a flash in the pan. A black flash!
You're starting to look a little queasy. Are the curves worrying you? There’s enough of them.
We've got 20 minutes here but it’s a little early to eat, don't you think? We'll be in Leongatha by noon at the latest. Yes, we'll open the hamper about then, I think. We've got 20 minutes there, too. There’s a two-hour run to Foster after Leongatha and we'll be there by 2pm. Beats riding a horse, eh? We'll fly along, too, because it’s all downhill for the next 15 miles. Tarwin’s only 65 feet above sea level. Mind you, Foster’s only 76 feet above the water but between those two the line goes up and down a fair bit.
You'll see a little place called Boys. On the top of the Hoddle Range and about 422 feet up! I'm glad I didn't have to survey the route for this line. It must have been a murderous task. Look how thick the scrub is, and the hills are as steep as a billygoat's forehead!
Wherever the land is flat it’s a swamp. They'll never do much with South Gippsland. Any settler who comes down here should get a medal. Or be locked up, perhaps.
Well, we didn't do too well there. This is Foster and my watch tells me it’s 2.23pm. We were supposed to be here at 2 and leave at 2.15. What use is a train that can't run on time?
Well, Foster. Stockyard Creek, they used to call it. Not much good even for cows, eh? Just look at those hills.
The line gets sort of trapped here. It’s a narrow coastal plain. You can't see the water, but you can certainly smell it. We're only a few miles from Corner Inlet and 100 yards from the hills.
Well, here we go again. Next stop Toora. Did you know there’s a body buried under the line here somewhere. Anyway, the locals say there is. Agnes River, Welshpool, Hedley, Gelliondale and Alberton. Around here a good haul of fish is about as exciting as it gets. Nearly there.
Here we are at last – don't put your head out that window! You'll get an eyeful of soot. Port Albert, and just look at the time. Five o'clock. We should have been here just after four. We've come 136 miles ... what?
Hey, hey, hey, settle down. You needn't speak to me like that! I've only been trying to keep you informed and entertained. Share my knowledge. Hmmph! Last time I shout him a ticket. Next time he can bloody well walk.
* Source: The Great Southern Railway: the illustrated history of the building of the line in South Gippsland, by Keith Macrae Bowden. This essay was first published in the West Gippsland Trader.