THIRTY years ago next month, one of the nation’s most unusual industrial actions made headlines here in the Hunter Valley.
And yet it’s a story almost be forgotten today, except for those with long memories of the old Richmond Vale Railway line.
It concerns an 84-ton, 1922 steam engine ‘borrowed’ in a protest, eight determined engine drivers and crew acting on principle and a controversial railway sit-in near Minmi which lasted three weeks.
The huge, commandeered loco, No. 25, in its striking green livery, sat waiting on the railway and was kept in steam, gently huffing and puffing, ready to be set in motion at a moment’s notice.
Curious motorists flocked there to take snapshots. A Herald report of the time spoke of the public’s fascination with “the outlaw atmosphere of the defiant workers’ camp” where a Eureka flag rakishly fluttered over the quietly hissing, stationary engine.
That was back in September 1987 when an historic Richmond Vale Railway coal line was abruptly closed, ending the era of commercial steam trains in Australia.
For 130 years, the coal railway had used steam power, outlasting the NSW-operated steam rail network by 15 years.
The railway was once a unique flood-free line snaking 26.5 kilometres inland from Hexham wetlands to Minmi and then beyond to Pelaw Main and Richmond Main colleries on the Northern Coalfields.
By 1980, the coal freight line had shrunk to about a nine-kilometre stretch of track between Stockrington Colliery, near Minmi, to the main northern line at Hexham. This last industrial steam engine operation consisted of 13 locos, the four most robust workhorses in constant use shunting coal wagons, and nine others stabled in its Maitland sheds.
In 1988 mining company Coal & Allied Industries decided to close the railway, blaming tight economic conditions. It said hauling coal by ancient 10-class steam locos was a marginal operation at best.
Events moved swiftly. Coal & Allied decided to ship the coal to Newcastle Harbour by road instead and announced the closure of the Stockrington to Minmi line from September 25, 1987.
On September 22, a final steam loco run across Hexham swamp was organised to clear some empty coal hoppers. The soon to-be- jobless, specialist engine employees responded. Vehicles were used to block road access for trucks to Stockington pit. Police were called.
Concerned Minmi residents, angered fleets of coal trucks would hammer public roads, raised a petition against the rail line’s closure, obtaining about 7000 signatures. They claimed one fully-laden steam loco could haul 50 wagons at the time, or 875 tons of coal, to Hexham.
Among those fighting to save the line was Richmond Vale Railway engine-driver/fireman Ray Cross.
“‘Stealing’ a locomotive? It doesn’t seem like 30 years ago. You wouldn’t dream about it these days,” he said this week.
Cross said on September 24, 1987, as part of a last-ditch effort, engine No.25 was “hijacked” and spent overnight parked at Doghole Road Crossing, near Stockrington mine. Then the wheezing steam engine moved to near Lenaghans Drive road bridge to a new protest camp.
A sympathetic truckie even dropped off a load of coal to the site. However, due to lack of support from fellow unionists at other Coal & Allied operations, the protest ended quietly on October 15, 1987. It had been a bold gamble, with the protestors standing to lose all their retrenchment entitlements.
Cross said despite everything, Stockrington No. 2 Colliery closed in June 1988 and was demolished six months later.
“Unfortunately, over the years, three of my ‘train robber’ mates have now passed on,” he said in a soft drawl. “We even all carved our initials into a tree near the loco as a reminder, but once the engine had gone the tree was cut down, would you believe.
“We thought an operating steam locomotive line for tourists at least [across the Hexham wetlands] was worthwhile. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, but it’s never happened.”
Cross believed even the old timber road bridge near where the engine crew made their last stand watched by passing motorists 30 years ago didn’t exist now, but he thought it was close to a concrete railway tunnel, never used, under the present motorway. Ironically, this tunnel was built 11 years later in case a future transport corridor was ever needed for inland coal freight trains.
“If there was ever an historical loco that should have been restored and appreciated more, it’s her. I mean, No.25 represents the last commercial steam railway working in Australia. Think about that,” Cross said.
One of the best reminders from 1987 is an excellent NBN TV documentary The Richmond Vale Railway ,by David Threlfo. Shot on 16mm film as events unfolded, it captures the immediacy and drama of the moment long ago.
“They were an amazing bunch of men. It turned into a national story. NBN TV won a Logie Award for best regional program as a result,” Threlfo said. “A lot of people tried to dismiss it as a trivial industrial affair, but it was a fairly major one. Those blokes put everything on the line to do what they did.
Steam engines are pretty unique. They’ve got to be saved at all costs. They’re just a living thing.
“Everyone would be so scared to pull any similar industrial action like that today for fear of the consequences.”
At the end of the doco Ray Cross says, “Steam engines are pretty unique. They’ve got to be saved at all costs. They’re just a living thing. Someone once said that it is the only thing built by man that has a living soul. And they’ll work with you if you know their language.
“It’s a little bit sad. We gave it our best shot. We did everything to save Australia’s last steam railway.”
A little later, the doco shows loco No. 25 pulling into Hexham for the last time back in 1987. Among families and supporters is a mum holding a baby at which a shocked engine crewman quips, “We haven’t been away THAT long!”
The railway’s four remaining historic 10 class locos (including No.25) were donated to the ‘new’ Richmond Vale Railway Museum, near Kurri, and hauled there by road on July 6, 1989.