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Loco for 3801 to lose steam

By The Daily Telegraph’s cartoonist and enthusiast Warren Brown July 24, 2006

TOMORROW, when you're waiting in the freezing cold at Strathfield station, wondering where the 7.15am service to Wynyard is, console yourself that there is a train operating on NSW railways that runs on time, where the staff are hospitable and serving tea and scones to happy passengers who arrive at their destination with a smile.

Don't worry - Railcorp is about to stop all that.

On Sunday mornings when I was a little kid, I'd hear the blast of a steam whistle from Sutherland station about 2km away from our house.

This was the signal to instantly drop the Sunday comics, run down to the railway line at the end of the street, sit on my Dad's shoulders and wave as Australia's most famous steam locomotive, the 3801, thundered by.

Australia's 'Flying Scotsman' is a whopping, streamlined, Australian engineering marvel built at the Clyde workshops during the dark days of World War II.

My next encounter with the 3801 was in 1979, when it stood as part of the Rail Transport Museum's collection at Thirlmere - a parking lot for steam engines in palliative care - the locomotive's once brilliant green paint then dull and chalky, its boilers ruined, its wheels having sat rusted and immobile.

The 3801 was magnificent when it was alive and mournful when it was dead, locked nose-to-tail with other motionless steam trains in a bush grave.

How this was allowed to happen was indeed a crime but typical of the short-sightedness of state governments of the time.

But the 3801 was to be given a second chance: In 1983, the then-CEO of State Rail David Hill announced it was tobe restored.

It would be three years before the locomotive rolled out of the Newcastle workshops and a special, not-for-profit company, 3801 Ltd, was set up and given a 20-year lease to operate and maintain the steam engine.

Since 1986, 3801 Ltd has run a unique operation - but very soon this will change.

On August 4 this year, Transport Minister John Watkins will announce a rail heritage strategy.

Strangely, part of it is to refuse the renewal of 3801 Ltd's lease to operate the locomotive and will therefore hand it back to its original custodian, the Rail Transport Museum at Thirlmere.

This will spell the end of 3801 Ltd.

The museum in Thirlmere is delighted at the big green locomotive's return - but 3801 Ltd chairman John Glastonbury, who as Sydney University Dean of Engineering was instrumental in the engine's restoration, is at a loss to explain why they have been suddenly derailed as the engine's operators.

For 20 years, 3801 Ltd has flown the flag for railway history around NSW - the company is in the black, they have money in the bank and through charters and ticket sales have self-funded the locomotive's operation and maintenance.

Recently, the locomotive's wheels were resurfaced at a cost of $100,000 - straight out of 3801's coffers and at no expense to the taxpayer.

The steam engine has hauled trains through country NSW, offering an opportunity for people in remote areas to enjoy and experience NSW rail history firsthand.

More than 500,000 people have travelled aboard during the past 20 years. Not bad for one 63-year-old steam train. So why scrap a good thing?

Mt Watkins' spokesman Railcorp CEO Vince Graham said it simply wasn't viable for two organisations, the Rail Transport Museum and 3801 Ltd, to keep operating.

Why they aren't viable isn't exactly made clear and I still don't understand (it must be the simple cartoonist in me).

Mr Graham said he was committed to rail heritage.

By this I assume he means sending the 3801 75km out of Sydney to Thirlmere, rather than keeping it at its current location 2km from Central station, must be a step in the right direction.

But I get the uneasy feeling this all has more to do with handing over the locomotive's home, the heritage-listed Large Erecting Shop in Eveleigh, to the Redfern Waterloo Authority.

The erecting shop, a marvellous piece of 1880s Victorian architechture, is earmarked for development and when it comes to Sydney's rail heritage versus Sydney's real estate, it's a lay down misere.

Mr Graham said unlike at the erecting shop at Eveleigh, the public would be able to see the 3801 at Thirlmere when it's not operating - not that there's a shortage of non-operating steam locomotives there.

Museum president Peter Berriman insisted the 3801 would still operate - only not as much.

And like museums eveywhere, they clearly need money. Which begs the question as to how they will fund repairs to the 3801 when, not if, something goes wrong?

The 3801 needs to be out there on the rails, to be operating regularly for everyone in the state to enjoy, not wheeled out from Thirlmere every blue moon.

It doesn't belong to 3801 Ltd, nor the Rail Transport Museum nor Railcorp.

It belongs to the people of NSW and seeing the previous contractors were doing such a good job, why on earth fix something that isn't broken?

[The Daily Telegraph July 24, 2006],22049,19883846-5001031,00.html