18 South near Murray’s Flats, heading towards Sydney at speed.

Photo by Dennis Forbes

After the Riverina Express was dieselised in 1964, there was one true steam hauled express train left fbetween Goulburn and Sydney. True the Southern Highlands Express had the name board and title, but it stopped all stations to Campbelltown, not exactly a fast run. No 18 was a different story.

The regular weekday express to Canberra, the Canberra-Monaro Express was operated by a DEB air conditioned diesel railcar set. For some reason it was given the weekend off, and replaced by a loco hauled train leaving Sydney on Saturday night, returning from Canberra on Sunday night. The consist included a number of 6 wheeled bogie heavy cars and often a load of well over 300 tons. More challenging was the schedule, pretty much in alignment with Riverina Express times, a much lighter train.

Double 30 tanks on Minto viaduct as my train with a 32 class passes by.

As I was a keen train timer or ferrochronographer as we called ourselves, I made a few trips down south to ride the fast train back to Sydney.

In fact there were four weekend excursions we could make in the later years. The first was a Saturday morning spark to Liverpool and 32 to Campbelltown, where we arrived in time to catch the Southern Highlands Express back to Sydney. On occasion this sped along the speedway through Ingleburn at up to 80 mph and had been known to average 60 mph start to stop between Campbelltown and Liverpool. An exhilarating 53 minute run to Sydney Terminal.

The Southern Highlands Express leaving Goulburn with 3810 in charge

On Sunday night 51 South headed off from Sydney with a 38 in charge and crossed number 24 loop line train, usually with a 36 at the helm, between Douglas Park and Picton. That made a nice 90 mile trip behind steam.

This photo of the Southern Highlands Express crossing the ancient Menangle bridge is from “Superheat” and taken by Col Gilbertson in April 1968

The third option was to ride 17 Canberra train with a diesel up front to Mittagong, and transfer to number 18 for a fast run back to Sydney. One night on 17 with a 44 class up front we did under 8 minutes start to stop from Sydney to Strathfield. It flew. You would quite often have a 42 or 43 pulling this train.

The fourth effort involved riding 33 south leaving Sydney at 11.20 pm on Saturday night for a 5 hour trip to Goulburn, spending the day there, and returning on no 18. At the time the 280 mile round trip behind steam was the longest available in the state.

Arriving at Goulburn in the dead of night on a cold winter’s Sunday morning was something I will never forget. We would spend the rest of the night in the waiting room with heat suppplied by a small gas heater similar to those in the 620 railcar sets.

Well after the sun rose, we were politely asked to move on by station staff, so we moved to the Paragon Cafe on the other side of the main street. There we had breakfast accompanied by a bottomless cup of coffee.


It’s 7.00 am on the dot and a delightfully noisy scene is unfolding as the green machine,
3813, accelerates steam heated No. 50 away from Picton. Next scheduled stop is Douglas Park.
Col Gilbertson, 6 September 1969 From “Superheat”

With eyes popping out of our heads. we would wander around, waiting for 6.32 pm when the 38 off 33 would couple on to the huge load for the race back to Sydney. No Big Merino in those days. Watching the 38 with steam leaking all over the place in the night air was a magnificent sight.

An hour to Moss Vale with a stop at Bundanoon saw plenty of 70 mph running, although it took a while to get the heavy cars up to that speed. From there the train cruised off the Highlands back to sea level, with a non stop run from Mittagong to Campbelltown. No great speed with plenty f curves. It wasn’t easy timing the train on a cold winter’s night, but we were dedicated school boys, so it didn’t matter.

As it turns out, the last run of 18 with a 38 up front was on July 20, 1969. I arrived at Mittagong on 17 from Sydney and as 18 steamed into the platform I observed my friend John Lacy timing the train. That was my intention, but there was no point in two of us doing it, so I asked for a cab ride which I was granted. I had no idea it was the last time a 38 would haul the train.

The loco was 3810 and the fireman had been given the job of taking her down the grade. I hopped on the inspectors seat and had a good chin wag as we cruised down the hill rather slowly. We were losing time. Being a bit cheeky, I asked the fireman if he would be prepared to give it a spurt down Spaniards Hill, a long fst downhill grade leading into Menangle.

We got to the top of the grade and he kept the throttle open. As we charged down the hill, the 38 picked up speed and started lurching. This engine was not known for smooth running, and it was in its last days in service. As we neared Menangle, the driver lept across the cab, shut the throttle and applied the brakes. He was getting worried, partly because of the behaviour of the loco, partly because of the speed and partly because Menangle had a pair of facing points, which were frankly dangerous at high speed.

I left the cab at Campbelltown, and though the driver was probably not very happy with the brash 17 year old and his need for speed, discovering later that this would never be possible again made it all worth while.

They were great times. It is sad that they no longer exist. Photos of 18 south are rare because it ran at night, but the memories remain.

“Superheat” captures many of those memories of steam train in NSW in the latter years. A reminder of the good old days.

John Gaydon