Main line Down Under
by Martyn Bane

Note: Since this article was written and published Gary McDonald has, very sadly, passed away. I would like to record here my sincere thanks for the many privileges he allowed me during my two stays in Australia. He was very kind and extremely generous to myself and my parents. His constant good humour and enthusiasm was infectious. Rest in peace Gary, you'll be sorely missed.

In May 1997 Working Party Member Martyn Bane took a two week holiday aboard a railtour from Cape Town to Victoria Falls and back. In addition to experiencing Africa for the first time and the superb Class 25NC 4-8-4s he was very fortunate to become good friends with a group of Australians on the train. In May 2001 he finally lived up to his promise to visit his friends in Australia, and for a number of months. Being fortunate enough to know the right people he experienced main line steam down-under at firsthand. Whilst he was involved with preserved main line operations with Steamrail Victoria he also sampled something of a dying breed - steam on scheduled express passenger services.

As in the UK, Victoria's railways have been privatised, and much in the same way. The first franchise to be let was for one service, namely the country service between Melbourne Spencer Street and the coastal town of Warrnambool. The service is run by West Coast Railway. Unlike in the UK most country passenger services remain locomotive-hauled passenger stock. This presented an opportunity the enthusiast management of West Coast couldn't resist. North British built 5'3" gauge two cylinder 'R' Class 4-6-4 R711 was acquired on lease from the City of Bendigo in 1994. Since November 1998, following overhaul and modification, the locomotive, now joined by R766 has been operating a scheduled return passenger service over the route every Saturday between April and December. Where else in the Western world is it possible to travel on a regular steam-hauled express, timed at an average start to stop speed of 86kph (54mph)? It should be added that the up run includes seven stops. I can thoroughly recommend a run on this service. It is the real thing and is something I never thought I would experience.

R711 is turned on Echuca turntable. July 2001.

R711 is turned on Echuca turntable. July 2001.

The two 'R' class locomotives, originally similar in capacity to the BR 7P 'Britannia', have been modified to better-suit current conditions and increase power output. Whilst not heavily modernised along 'Red Devil' lines the locos are still very interesting examples of just how much potential the steam engine had. The modifications were carried out to the designs of South African-based engineer Phil Girdlestone. Perhaps the two most obvious alterations are the fitting of an oil firing system and redraughting. The oil burnt is de-watered, used sump oil, this being very cheap in Australia, but it does produce plenty of black smoke. The exhaust system has been altered from a single chimney with multiple jet blast-pipe to the L. D. Porta-designed Lempor (Lemaître-Porta) system coupled with a Kordina. To help obtain efficient draughting in the height available the locomotive has a double Lempor arrangement with two physically separate chimneys. One chimney is angled forward, the other backward, an arrangement that is somewhat unusual to look at. Often such re-draughted locomotives sound quieter, having less of a 'bark'. Having heard a conventional 'R' Class driven in the same manner as a modified 'R' it is the latter that is louder and crisper. Other modifications made to the engines include fitting a second air brake compressor as a back up, Hadfield power reverse (from a South African GMAM Garratt), altered valve and piston head ring arrangement to reduce blow-through, increased mechanical lubrication, more comfortable seating for the crew and, very interestingly, a standard diesel power control stand. This stand enables multiple working with any West Coast diesel in the consist and all under the control of the steam locomotive driver. A host of other minor modifications are also visible on close inspection but are too numerous to mention here.

I have had the good fortune to see R711 at work and to have ridden the foot-plate on several occasions. My first experience of this blue monster's abilities was in July on the Warrnambool service. Having travelled first class on the down that morning I was privileged to join Driver Bob Buttrims and Fireman Gary McDonald for the entire up journey taking just over three hours. The load of 9 vehicles was too much for the 'R' on her own, as it would be for a single diesel, so we piloted a 1500hp 'B' Class Co-Co diesel. Essentially the diesel was used to help accelerate the train away from station stops and for the banks, otherwise the 'R' did the work. This provided a very interesting demonstration of the different power characteristics of the two types of traction. The diesel is able to provide high horsepower and high adhesion at low speeds, something which a two cylinder steam engine finds more difficult. However, as speed increases the diesel's available horsepower drops off whilst the steam engine's increases. Based on dynamometer car tests with unmodified 'R' Classes undertaken in the 1950s horsepower rapidly increased above 15mph and peaked in the region of 38mph. From my observations on the footplate, and in comparison with Steamrails' unmodified R761, it was clear that R711 has considerably reduced back pressure and the available power has consequently increased. Whilst no dynamometer car is currently available it has been estimated that the increase in power output across the speed range could be as high as 30%. The modified 'Rs' are certainly very strong engines. The route includes a number of 1 in 50 climbs, including one immediately on starting from Warrnambool. On my first trip the initial start from Warrnambool was made without diesel assistance. The locomotive started this heavy load., in the region of 600 tons including the 'B' Class, without fuss and was a great introduction to its strength.

R711 & B61 accelerate away from Maddox Road crossing with the 08:48 Melbourne Spencer Street to Warrnambool service. August 2001.

R711 & B61 accelerate away from Maddox Road crossing with the 08:48 Melbourne Spencer Street to Warrnambool service. August 2001.

Throughout the tightly timed runs speed was high with long sections reeled off at 100kph (62mph) or more. Once on the move speed was rarely below 90kph (56mph). I made the maximum speed on my trips to be 117kph (73mph), 2kph over the maximum permitted 115kph. To achieve this sort of performance the locomotive was worked for long stretches on full regulator with 45% cut-off. From 30kph (19mph) the locomotive would be really opened up and set to the task. At the same time the diesel would be providing full power until running speed was reached after which the diesel locomotive would be set in notch one, thus providing sufficient power to take its own weight.

The 'R' steamed superbly as driven, no worries about coal quality. However, I never saw the engine run on a very short cut-off as would be expected from a locomotive with a modern front end. A traditional 'R' doesn't steam well on short cut-offs and perhaps this is the case with the modified 'R'. If so it suggests the draughting still needs some work. The Lempor should provide good steaming across a wide range of cutoffs, just like any other well designed exhaust system. It would seem that this characteristic could explain why the modified 'R' is a louder engine. Theoretically more power can be extracted from the expanding steam due to lower back pressure, thus allowing the use of shorter cutoffs and less steam, to produce a given level of power. If the engine will not steam at short cut-offs obviously a longer one will be used. Thus the exhaust is at a higher pressure than in a standard 'R', hence more noise.

The fireman regulated the oil feed, and thus the fire-intensity according to the regulator opening. When drifting (Victorian practice is to drift with the regulator shut and in full forward gear) the oil delivery rate is turned back to prevent thick black exhaust, blowing off and noxious fumes blowing back into the cab. When under steam the oil feed is naturally turned up considerably. It was very obvious how quickly the firebox temperatures could change. The rapid fluctuation in boiler pressure testified to that. I saw the pressure vary between 200psi and 150psi in a matter of minutes. Fortunately the 'Rs' have steel fireboxes so are less affected than copper by the rapid heat variations and the more fierce oil flames. It is interesting to note that West Coast are experiencing accelerated deterioration of the superheater elements at the firebox end.

A few years ago in Britain there was talk of oil-firing locomotives to get around the summer steam ban. R711 is, to date, the only large oil-fired engine I have ridden on. Much to my surprise she throws more sparks than any engine I have seen in the UK. The spark throwing is only transitory, normally when the engine is opened up. This does show one reason why the steam season only runs from April to December, thus avoiding the hottest months of the Australian summer. Interestingly when sand was used to score the tubes clean of built-up carbon there were no visible sparks, just even more thick black smoke !

My second foot-plate ride, also a run on the up, demonstrated one feature of the 'R' that was, frankly, somewhat worrying. On about a dozen occasions the locomotive slipped, apparently on Eucalyptus oil from over hanging trees. That may not be so out of the ordinary but to slip with full regulator, 45% cut-off whilst running at about 100kph (62mph) is something I had never experienced. Naturally unless caught immediately the locomotive rapidly got away from the driver and gave the engine a considerable shaking. The speedometer reads from the rear axle of the trailing truck so I have no idea of transitory speeds achieved during slipping. None the less it brought to mind the failure of 60532 Blue Peter at Durham. Whilst there have been major mechanical failures with both R711 and R766 they have not been a result of a slip and prime. By common consent the 'Rs' have always been very slippery machines, even before modification. Porta has long advocated the use of his high adhesion tyre profile, it would seem the 'Rs' would be the perfect candidate.

Victorian track is not the greatest, being in the Railtrack quality league. I found R711 not to ride as well as 6024 at speed. A true comparison is hard but things got very lively at times. On one occasion the driver commented that things were too rough and slowed down. The ride was much worse on my second run. I don't know if this was down to the locomotive or the track, however I suspect the former. My first ride was after a period in the shops for R711. It is my suspicion that the locomotive ride deteriorates with use. Whilst the locomotive does have roller bearings on the axles there are no Franklin self adjusting wedges, or anything similar, to help maintain ride quality.

R711 & S302 cross Mount Emu Creek viaduct on the 08:48 Melbourne Spencer Street to Warrnambool service. September 2001.

R711 & S302 cross Mount Emu Creek viaduct on the 08:48 Melbourne Spencer Street to Warrnambool service. September 2001.

I also experienced R711 on her once a month Melbourne to Echuca and return Sunday excursion. For these trips the locomotive runs without a diesel and over more sustained 1 in 50 grades than on the Warrnambool line. With a heavy load R711 once again proved to be a very capable locomotive. Travelling in an air conditioned car five back from the locomotive the exhaust was clearly audible, especially on the return run. I think the Kangaroos heard us coming that night.

Perhaps because it is a regular occurrence the Victorian rail enthusiasts, known as "gunzels" generally seem to ignore the Warrnambool service. The public, however, does not. It is common along the route to see families out to wave at the train. Hopefully that bodes well for creating another generation of steam enthusiasts.

It is acknowledged by West Coast that the 'Rs' cannot go on forever. They are taking more punishment now than they did in the days of steam. So if you fancy a ride with an 'R' Class to Warrnambool don't leave it too long. Who knows if you ask nicely you might even get a foot-plate ride, an experience I'll remember for a very long time. I would suggest combining a visit with a Steamrail Weekender Railtour, 3 or 4 days away with steam in superbly restored sleeping cars. Those excellent trips are, however, another story.

I wish to thank the following without whom this article would not have been possible: Peter Keen, Keith Findlay, Warren Banfield, Gary McDonald and the steam crews in Victoria.

Further information on West Coast Railway operations, the modifications undertaken &steam in Victoria can be obtained from the following websites and publications:,,,

Locomotives International No.56 November-December 2000, Steam Railway No.258 May 25- June 21 2001

'The Red Devil and Other Tales from the Age of Steam' by David Wardale provides a wealth of information on L.D. Porta, Lempor exhausts and modernised steam.

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