Puffing Billy is a narrow gauge (2’6″) steam train, that runs about 25 km through the southern foothills of the Dandenong Ranges, near Melbourne, at a maximum speed of about 24 kph. It is run mainly by enthusiastic volunteers – of which there are in total, over 900. Most trains start from Belgrave, and travel to Lakeside or Gembrook and back, although you can board at other stations. There are about 6 working steam locomotives that pull the Excursion Trains, and others are used for special events. Built in 1901, 6A is the oldest operational locomotive. On a return trip from Belgrave to Lakeside, a locomotive uses about three-quarters of a ton of coal. There are also two diesel locomotives, which are used predominately on days of Total Fire Ban; and Fire Patrol vehicles follow all trains during a Fire Danger period.
Opening in 1900, the line was part of the original Victorian Railways branch line between Upper Ferntree Gully and Gembrook, and its aim was to service the settlements and farms in the Dandenongs. It was known as the ‘Little Train’, and carried everything from mail and passengers, to timbers and farm produce. Attracted by the fresh air and stunning scenery of the Dandenongs, it soon became popular with tourists, and in 1917 special carriages were constructed with open sides, which are still in use today. By the 1950’s road transport had improved dramatically, and use of the railway declined. In 1953 a landslide blocked the track between Selby and Menzies Creek, and in 1954 the track was closed. The Puffing Billy Preservation Society, created in 1955, ran trains at weekends until 1958, when the Upper Ferntree Gully section was swallowed up by the growing electric track – now part of Melbourne’s suburban railway network. The narrow gauge track remained closed while the society restored the Belgrave to Lakeside section, which reopened in 1962. Bit by bit more sections underwent renovation, and in 1998 the fully restored track reached Gembrook.
We board the train at Lakeside with only minutes to spare, and buy our tickets to Belgrade from a very helpful ticket inspector. (We’re doing the normal trip backwards!) And then we’re off, creaking and clanking, with a deep laborious puff-puff-puff from the engine! Chugging through thick undergrowth, and steep hillsides bursting with tall gaunt trees. Puff-puff, overshadowed by closely knit clumps of ferntrees, so close we could touch them. Labouring and straining upwards, slower and slower, flattening out, gaining speed, then almost free-wheeling down the other side. The trees open out to beautiful views of Cardinia Reservoir, and swathes of rolling grass. The track twists and turns, passing steep banks of red earth, and hugs the edge of deep gullies that fall away below us. We steam across a wooden trestle bridge that looks – and probably is – a century old. Hanging out of the window; smelling the aromatic gum trees, smelling steam and coal smoke, smuts in your eye! Through stations and past sidings, until at last we pull sedately into Belgrave.
We had just enough time to walk into Belgrave, grab a sandwich, and be back for the 2.30pm return trip to Lakeside.
And the journey back was just as good. Wheels rumbling, joints creaking, windows rattling, brakes squealing, cockatoos screeching, whistle blowing, and the constant chug of the locomotive, now uphill, pulling hard: puff…. puff…. puff…. and the strident blow of the whistle again. And then we were back, pulling into Lakeside, and it was over much too soon.
That’s the Puffing Billy!