The State of Victoria was firmly established with the introduction of the Railways. Small, private companies running individual rail lines and routes were combined to form the Victorian Railways. And the epicentre of all rail activity up until the 1970s and ‘80s was the Newport Railway Workshops.
Ultimately, the Railway Workshops built the rolling stock, the Steam Engines, and serviced all locomotives. When the suburban system was electrified, the main works still occurred at Newport. The new Diesel Locomotives were also serviced and maintained there.
The Golden Age of Rail was essentially in the early 20th Century through to the 1950s and ‘60s. Luxury trains like the Spirit of Progress, the Daylight Express and the Overlander all departed from the former Spencer St Station, now known also as Southern Cross. The actual trains themselves – the steam engines, the saloon cars and carriages were all built at Newport. Newport currently houses the Railway Museum in Champion St Newport, with its incredible collection of Steam Locomotives, and Steamrail Victoria.
The Railways ensured that produce was shipped to the ports – Port Melbourne, Victoria Dock, Appleton Dock and other Melbourne locations (Williamstown, Yarraville). Provincial Ports located at Geelong, Portland, Warnambool, Hastings and other less known locations accepted grain, wool, timber and produce bound for the Northern Hemisphere. It was a massive system and represented the State’s biggest employer.
Passenger Travel was the only means of movement for most of the population in earlier times with busy timetables enabling students, businesspeople, the sick and infirm and young families to travel to provincial cities throughout the State of Victoria and beyond. There were literally hundreds of stations servicing many obscure branch lines deep into regional Victoria.
Much of the original freight infrastructure has gone. Frankly none of it was very attractive, yet parts of the grand design still remain. The Spencer St Goods Yards are no more, the Electric Train Workshops in Batman are now an Art Gallery.
Many suburban Railyards have been sold off to developers. There are still intriguing buildings such as the Goods Shed on Docklands, the old Yard control tower down on Dudley St West Melbourne and many other unique and historical station buildings around Melbourne.
Newport Workshops and its huge parcel of land represent the last vestige of this great rail empire. Today it houses the historical working locomotives and rolling stock of Steamrail Victoria.
Dedicated Volunteers restore and maintain these beautiful old trains and provide the renowned Steamrail journeys for the public. “Riding living history in beautiful timber panelled carriages, many still with fantastic Edwardian pressed tinwork on the ceilings. up front is the real deal – a fully restored steam locomotive up to 127 years old – or a heritage Diesel dating from the 1950s ready to take you on your way.” – Steamrail website.
Victoria’s state railway agency, VicTrack, is refusing to guarantee the renewal of the Heritage Group’s lease, due to expire in 2020.
VicTrack has engaged Consultants to develop and oversee a ‘new strategy that includes the possible relocation of all trains, the workshops and rail groups.
Steamrail have stated that a shift to Regional Victoria will basically shut them down. Read about it here…
Heritage train groups fear wipe out from Newport rail yards
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect to find a Millennial restoring a century-old train at a Newport workshop for fun.
But Sam Barnes is one of several 20-something men and women volunteering at the historic rail workshops in Melbourne’s industrial west, soaking up the history of Victoria’s old steam locomotives and learning from their seniors how to take care of them.
“There’s generational knowledge that you can’t pick up from a book,” 23-year-old Mr Barnes says.
“It’s a dying art”.
Mr Barnes is part of several self-funded rail preservation organisations operating out of the old Newport rail workshops for over 40 years.
The volunteers come on weekends, or before or after working shifts, to protect and restore the vintage stock without charge to the government.
But many fear that it will all come to an end, which would put a stop to the 60 days a year that members of the public can board the old trains as they run on the state’s railways.
Victoria’s state railway agency VicTrack is refusing to guarantee the renewal of the heritage groups’ lease, which is due to expire next year.
VicTrack is reviewing the site, and has brought in consultants to oversee a new strategy, which includes the possible relocation of the trains and rail groups.
The heritage-listed workshops would not be relocated, the agency’s spokesman said.
“This work is ongoing, and no decisions have been made about the future of the Newport workshops at this time,” the spokesman said.
Joe Kellett, the chairman of the biggest rail heritage group Steamrail, says relocating to a regional area (which the groups believe is most likely) would force them to shut down.
Groups like Steamrail rely on volunteers to service the trains, but the bulk of these people live in the city and won’t travel to the country.
It would also cost double the price to run the trains on the railways if they are based in the country, he says.
The trains would have to do two extra trips, as most of their customers are from Melbourne.
“Our future would be very uncertain,” Mr Kellett says.
“We would probably have to end up curtailing the business or just go out of business.”
John Green, who heads up another heritage group called 707 Operations, says that he faces the same fate.
“If we relocated to regional Victoria, we won’t exist,” he says.
VicTrack argues that as the government runs more train services, it will become increasingly difficult for the steam trains to depart from inner-city Newport.
However, rail experts have denied that this is a pressing problem.
The uncertainty hangs like a cloud over 23-year-old Mr Barnes, the rail enthusiast who showed up at the workshops a few years ago after moving from Sydney to offer his services.
“Newport was built around these workshops,” he says, as we tour the cavernous sheds. “The inner west owes its history to these workshops.”
The Newport workshops, which opened in 1888, is not the only location in the state where old steam trains are stored, but it is certainly the biggest.
When constructed, it was the largest industrial centre in Victoria – the cutting-edge of new railway technology, where locomotives and carriages now at the Puffing Billy Railway were made.
It houses a navy blue steel carriage belonging to the Spirit of Progress, a steam locomotive built in 1937, fitted out with Art Deco seating booths, cast brass luggage racks and polished wood and glass sliding doors.
The train ran from Melbourne to Albury, and was the first fully air-conditioned train in the southern hemisphere.
Two stripes of yellow painted across the centre of the carriage were was once made out of 24 carat gold leaf.
“That’s how proud they were of this train,” Mr Barns beams.
Not far from the Spirit of Progress is a severe-looking black loco with polished brass and exposed copper, which used to belong to the Victoria’s railway commissioner, Mr Barns says.
This commissioner had his own sleeping quarters, a buffet dining area and separate quarters for the press and his minders.
It’s a world away from the current commuter experience, which comes sharply into focus as 18 or so faulty and graffitied Metro train carriages lie at the edge of the workshop site.
The street artists have turned their cans away from the carefully restored locos, targeting only the newer stock.
There is a degree of cynicism and/or pragmatism here depending on your perspective. There is a huge land parcel involved, worth literally billions. However, before it could be sold for residential or commercial usage, it would require a massive expensive environmental clean-up.
The Steamrail group and the Railway Museum deserve Government funding. The sound of the steam train whistle echoing through the CBD is still amazing and the old trains have now formed part of our character.
The Heritage Victoria Statement of Significance can be read here. It is a very long document, one of the longest on their website.
The situation calls for clever compromise. This is no small part of Victoria’s history and it must be protected in some form and in an effective manner. Much of the overall site is neglected with detritus of the 1960s ’til the present bringing disrepute to the much older more important sites and facilities on the entire land lot. This requires intervention from Heritage Victoria, the Government’s Planning Department Heritage arm – it is non-negotiable. We cannot lose this site or these incredible old trains. This Heritage belongs to all of us – let’s fund it properly and protect it for posterity. Time to get on board.