Sydney train


Travelling by steam train is like stepping back in time. Passengers scurry along the platform, checking numbers written in chalk on the side of carriages. A red carpet is laid out, and an attendant takes an older lady’s hand to assist her over the gap, while tickets are clipped by attendants in shiny black caps.

At the front of the train, a man in soot-covered denims shovels coal into the fire box while the driver, wearing a slouch hat, monitors a pressure gauge the size of a dinner plate. There is a massive sigh from the engine and steam engulfs the station. In the swirling fog, the pitch-black barrel of the engine is the only thing distinguishable. The conductor checks his silver fob watch, blows sharply on his whistle and cries, “All aboard!”

It could be a dream, but it’s real: We're travelling on the 3642, a green 160-ton steam locomotive restored painstakingly to its 1930s glory by a dedicated team of volunteers from the NSW Rail Transport Museum, based at Thirlmere, in the south of Sydney. It’s the biggest rail and transport museum in Australia, and well worth a visit on a weekend in Sydney, where train rides are offered on its diesel and steam fleets.

Amazingly, all the crew on the 3642 are volunteers. Most are train buffs, many are family and just as many have been involved from the beginning, when the train was a shell covered in graffiti. On just a handful of dates each year, the crew take the train out for special events- a trip to the Blue Mountains, a jog along the coast to Wollongong, a trip inland to the Southern Highlands. Often the destination isn’t the main drawcard for passengers, but simply the delight of the journey.

The grand days of rail travel are long gone, but little nostalgia and the romantic appeal of train travel go a long way: our train is packed, and as we gather steam and pass through Redfern, there is the faintest smell of fireworks in the carriage.

We stop just before the platform 45 minutes later at Penrith station.A workman with a wrench the size of my arm heads to a pump, while another positions a big metal pulley over the black tank in front of our carriage, to fill her up with more water.

We cross the Nepean River and the huffing of the locomotive becomes more pronounced as she pulls us up towards the Blue Mountains. While the 3642 does the hard work, I explore back through the train.

I’m a little affronted by the people dressed like mad scientists in clear plastic goggles and white lab coats but when I stick my head out the window I understand – I'm immediately covered in cinders and soot. Hanging out the side of the train as it chugs along is an unsafe but irresistible pleasure. My grin is so wide, I later find a bit of charcoal lodged between my front teeth. I watch the steam puff out of the engine like a perfect children's drawing and when I glance back, every window is occupied with grinning idiots, their hair flying madly.

Traffic banks up as trainspotters chase us up the mountain. There's one guy with a video camera set up on a tripod on the roof of his car, while another wearing headphones holds out a microphone to capture the sound of the steam whistle. People perch on top of chain-link fences and squeeze through locked railway maintenance gates to take photos. Parents stand on overpasses with their kids, engulfed in steam.

The appeal is understandable. It is a glimpse of the past, before terrorism and carbon offsetting and security checks– a nicer,more simple and innocent time for travel.

On arrival, the Blue Mountains are as stunning and cold as ever and the Winter Magic Festival as crowded and wacky as expected. But we're just anxious to get back on our train. It's easy to talk to the passengers beside us as we're warmed with wine and cheese, raffles and laughter on the return journey down the mountain.

It's dark when we reach Penrith but families bustle up to the platform for a closer look. A woman with a toddler approaches Michael.

“Is it Thomas?” the toddler asks.

“More like Henry,” he replies kindly.

It's a completely different language but one they both understand. The toddler smiles and walks up to the engine for a closer look.