Blue Mountains scenic thrillmaker is set for a $30m makeover

IN THE beginning, the rail carriage was a coal bin. In the late 1920s, walkers who had ventured to the bottom of the Furber Steps in the Blue Mountains would hitch a lift back to the top in the Katoomba Colliery's cable-hauled coal skip - women in frocks and solid shoes and men perspiring in shirt collars and neckties. Some reports suggested the women were permitted to kneel on chaff bags during the ride up.

"They'd put them in the coal bin and whip them up to the top," said Phillip Hammon, 67, the son of Harry, who created a family tourism empire - now Scenic World - when he bought the lease to the railway line and mine in 1945.

Soon enough, the miners realised this new business of bushwalking could be a nice little earner and "Jessie", a 12-seater wooden car named after the mine manager's wife, was put into service, followed soon after by "the Mountain Devil".

The women would gasp. "Strewth!" said the men as the train, like a cage on wheels with a conductor hanging on, toppled off the mountain on a 52-degree slope and plunged into darkness, a small green triangle of light at the end of the 80-metre tunnel rapidly expanding. And then they would emerge in ancient rainforest - from the Jurassic era, no less.

Eighty or so years later, visitors are still gasping as they plunge down the hill - albeit in the Scenic Railway's more contemporary carriages and to a stirring Indiana Jones soundtrack.

But changes are afoot. On Sunday, the Hammon family sent the world's steepest passenger railway ride up and down for the last time before a $30 million redevelopment. They hope to reopen by Easter, with new platforms at top and bottom, new tracks and new carriages.

Since 1945, the railway has carried about 25 million passengers - a few of which have been lifeless, or nearly so.

"Often I've sat down there at night waiting till 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning for the police to bring the person back and then back up on the railway," Mr Hammon, said of deaths and accidents in the valley from misadventures on the cliffs above.

Train driver Eric Jenkins, 38, who reckons he has travelled up and down the hill 5000 times or more in 10 years with the company, has dramatic stories of his own: the Japanese teenager who tried to clamber out halfway down the hill to show off. He had to stop the train and order the youth to get back in .


Mr Jenkins also recalled an Irishwoman who panicked as the train was leaving the platform.

"She managed to just get off at the end of the platform - so that caused an E-stop. She was shaking and just said, 'I couldn't do it, I had to get off, I had to get off'." The woman might have stayed on if she'd had a chance to chat to Mr Jenkins first. "It's pretty much foolproof. If something goes wrong it virtually stops itself," he said.

But not all staff have been quite so reassuring. Mr Hammon recalled a conductor from the early days of his family's ownership, the waistcoat-wearing Gus Benham.

When worried passengers asked what would happen if the cable broke, Gus would reply: "Well it's good night, nurse, and good morning, Jesus."