A full head of steam

A taste of rail nostalgia comes with a mouthful of soot, writes Shaney Hudson.

I have stepped back in time. Passengers scurry along the platform, checking numbers written in chalk on the side of carriages. Tickets are clipped by attendants in shiny black caps and double-breasted uniforms. At the front, 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.

The conductor checks his silver fob watch, blows sharply on his whistle and cries, “All aboard!” 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. At this point, I expect to wake up. Instead, I climb aboard for my first steam train ride.

The grand days of rail travel are long gone. But for a little nostalgia and romance, the NSW Rail Transport Museum runs trips throughout the year on its fleet of restored steam trains. The museum is based at Thirlmere but our trip leaves Sydney's Central Station and travels to the Blue Mountains to coincide with the Winter Magic Festival. We're travelling on the 3642, a green 160-ton steam locomotive restored painstakingly to its 1930s glory.

We lurch forward and I feel a little giddy with excitement. I've bought lounge-class seats, which position us at the front of the train in a plush carriage with wooden panelling.

By the time we reach Redfern, a little steam and smoke has filtered into the cabin and it smells like fireworks.

We stop just before the platform 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.

“They must be filling her up with some more water,” my dad nods knowingly to me.

“Why do they need to stop for water?” I ask. My father raises his eyebrows at me and I blush.

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“Oh, right. It's a steam train.”

A small red carpet is laid out for passengers and our attendant, Michael, takes each woman's hand to assist her over the gap. I marvel at such uncommon gentlemanly manners.

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.

We cross the Nepean River and the huffing of the locomotive becomes more pronounced as she pulls us up the mountain. While the 3642 does the hard work, we're served morning tea. Crisp pink lady apples appear from a wicker basket alongside home-made pecan muffins with sticky date icing that dribbles down my fingers.

It's the little touches that delight as we explore the other carriages: the sliding wood-and-glass doors to six-seater compartments, the pressed-metal frescos trimming the ends of the cabins and a framed wooden blackboard the size of a playing card with the car number chalked up. Such trim and elegance is now lost in our modern economies of scale.

I pass 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 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 – a nicer, simpler 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.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The NSW Rail Transport Museum runs several day trips throughout the year on its fleet of steam and diesel trains, including steam journeys to Newcastle, the Southern Highlands, the South Coast and the Blue Mountains.

The next Blue Mountains Flyer journey will be on Saturday, November 7, to coincide with the Blackheath Rhododendron Festival. Tickets cost $115-$245.

For a full list of scheduled events, see heritageexpress.com.au.

The Rail Transport Museum is located at Thirlmere, an hour's drive from Sydney on the M5, and has Australia's largest display of historic locomotives, carriages and rail memorabilia. Steam train rides are available at the museum on the first and third Sunday of the month from March to November.

Family “day out with Thomas” events are organised at Thirlmere throughout the year with a full-sized Thomas the Tank Engine, train rides and activities. Tickets often sell out, so book in advance. See nswrtm.org.

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