Steam dream right on track for Eddie

As a vintage steam engine rolls into Warrnambool on Saturday, it's hard to believe that we almost didn't have a train service at all, and twice came close to losing it all together. KATRINA LOVELL talks to Eddie White about his dream to revive the bygone era of steam travel by bringing a touch of nostalgia to Warrnambool on Saturday when the R711 finally returns after 14 years.

It was a $30,000 gamble, but it paid off for train enthusiast Eddie White whose only motivation to bring a steam train to Warrnambool was to relive a piece of rail history … oh, and maybe just a way to celebrate his birthday.

For over a decade it’s been Eddie’s dream to see a steam engine back in Warrnambool and at 1.25pm on Saturday that dream will become reality. His original plan was for May 19 –  his 34th birthday - but the train was earmarked for another trip that weekend.

But there are still plenty of milestones to celebrate. This year marks 25 years since West Coast Railway’s privatised service began operating the Warrnambool-Melbourne service.

For almost 11 years it operated the state’s only privately-owned country passenger service which included a five-year stint when the R711 steam engine visited Warrnambool every Saturday during the low fire danger period. Eddie has had an exact replica of the headboard that once sat at the front of the engine made and fitted for Saturday’s nostalgic trip.

When tickets for the return trip from Melbourne to Warrnambool went on sale it sold out in 10 days – that’s 220 paying customers and 120 more on the waiting list.

“I knew it would be popular. I didn’t think I’d sell it out,” Eddie said. “I think everyone has underestimated how popular this train would be, me included.

“I put $30,00 of my own money into it. I’m lucky that I was in a position to be able to take the gamble.”

For the past three years, Eddie has been putting money aside to fund the trip, but there were those didn’t think there wasn’t room in the train timetable to squeeze in a day trip to Warrnambool.

Convinced it was doable, Eddie’s “off-the-cuff” remark about going it alone became his ambition. “I had a dream and the dream’s happened,” he said.

“It’s been a big financial commitment. I’m not making any money out of this. It’s purely break-even.”

The R711 – an ex-Victorian railways engine built in 1950 in Glasgow – was rescued by West Coast Railway from a Bendigo park.

Some of those making the trip on Saturday used to crawl all over it when they were kids, Eddie said. Also on board is the crew from R711’s last trip to Warrnambool in November 2002, as well as up to 20 other former West Coast Railway staff. With all the excitement around the visit, it’s hard to imagine that Warrnambool almost didn’t have a railway at all, and over the past 128 years came close to losing it more than once.

During the 1880s, everyone wanted a railway to their town... except Warrnambool which was actively opposed to it fearing it would hurt the shipping trade, according to research by a retired station manager named Mr Curnick kept at the historical society. A trip to Melbourne aboard one of the steamers that would regularly stop in Warrnambool’s Lady Bay was cheap and when in 1884 a government grant paved the way for the construction of the breakwater, they celebrated in the streets.

But when Warrnambool was included in the Railway Contruction Bill of 1884, one MP called for it to be struck out, arguing the people of Warrnambool were content with a breakwater. Five years later, the final spike was driven into the railway line at Gillies Stree, bringing to an end the stagecoach trips which would depart the Western Hotel at 3am for a journey that took three times as long as the 6.5-hour train ride.

With the addition of a train line to the breakwater, business to the port flourished, at first. And from 1919 to 1958, Warrnambool boasted the only local passengers service outside Melbourne with a train known as the Pilot ferrying Nestle workers from the station to the Dennington factory. But rail was in decline and by 1977 the lines to Hamilton and Port Fairy were closed.

In the 1980s, the government had recommended closing the Melbourne to Warrnambool rail service, but after lobbying it won a reprieve. In the early 1990s it again came under threat, prompting a Save our Rail rally attracting 1000 people.

By September 1993, West Coast Railway was running a privatised service which one of its former directors, Michael Menzies, says saved it from the fate of many other towns which were left with just a bus service.

The company employed about 60 staff and purchased their own rolling stock which was maintained at Warrnambool. “There were plenty of doomsayers,” Mr Menzies said. He said the company grew passenger numbers by up to 20 per cent, and the Saturday steam train brought as many as 200 extra passengers.

In an era before mobile phones were in common use, the trains were the first in Australia to be fitted with public pay phones. The initial seven-year contract was renewed for three years, but to invest and update the rolling stock they needed a longer contract, Mr Menzies said.

So on August 31, 2004, the last West Coast Railway train pulled out of the Warrnambool station to be replaced by V/Line the next day.

It was during the era of West Coast Railway that Eddie’s love of trains grew. As a kid growing up in Allansford, Eddie admits he would get distracted in school and stick his head out the window to watch the trains go past.

But when, at age 12, he met one of the directors of West Coast Railway on the platform in Geelong in 1995, his passion for trains grew. “Gary McDonald gave me his business card, which I’ve still got, and said ‘if you ever want to do a cab ride on the engine give me a ring I’ll organise it’,” he said. It was an offer Eddie took up five times and when the steam engine started making trips to Warrnambool, he volunteered to help get it on the turntable and wash it. 

From then on, Eddie was riding the steam engine most weeks, driving to Camperdown or Colac to meet it. “In the later years I was left in charge of getting the water and oil into it,” he said. “I was always mad on trains, but when I started giving West Coast a hand in 1999, it blossomed.”

On his travels with the family trucking business, Eddie can  be seen trackside with his camera waiting to capture a photos of the trains going past – many of which he turns into a yearly calendar for Steamrail Victoria which is based in Newport and where he volunteers his time. ”I go around taking photos of trains everywhere,” he said.

When Foxtel was looking to interview someone about outback trains for the TV series Railroad Australia, they were directed to Eddie. He spent three days filming in Port Augusta for the episode that aired last year.

Passengers aboard R711 will travel in either 1950s-era Spirit of Progress carriages or carriages with opening windows. And in the past week a lounge car with a bar has been added. Eddie said he could have added a diesel engine and two extra carriages, but that’s not the atmosphere he wanted. “I want this to be a steam trip only. I want people to experience the steam,” he said. T-shirts, mugs and stubbie holders have even been made to commemorate the day.

While Eddie is clearly passionate about trains, they are not the Allansford identity’s first love. “I was born in Allansford, lived in Allansford my whole life, won’t move. I’m involved in everything out there. That’s me first love, Allansford, but trains do run a very close second.”