Chapter 4 - Work on the Railways - Rail, Tram and Bus Union of NSW

Chapter 4 - Work on the Railways - Rail, Tram and Bus Union of NSW

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A Job for Life

The work on the railways takes in many of the

occupations in the broader community as well as some

that are unique to the railways. There is the full range of

trades from boilermaking, fitting and turning,

machining, mechanical and electrical, then the ‘railspecifc’

work – perway, signals, stations, footplate,

guards, station assistants, shunters and so on. Many

people joined the railways because it was a major, stable

employer with public service conditions that were

relatively good by comparison to other industries. Young

workers would follow family members into the job or be

advised by concerned parents, wanting stable and longterm

employment for their children. Alternatively, in

many country locations in particular, the railways was

one of a few employment options, along with the local

council or the post office.

Some of the down-side of the permanent and stable

employment for many rail workers include irregular and

broken shifts, working away from home for extended

periods, isolated and extreme work environments and

dangers that went with the various jobs. Another aspect

of railway employment in a range of occupations was

the specific and idiosyncratic nature of railway jobs. The

Railway Gang, Telegraph Point 1913

(Bicentennial Copying Project, State Library of NSW)

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ong>Workong> on the Railways

fact that a worker’s employment experience was

immersed in practices and tasks peculiar to the railways,

rendered them vulnerable to the broader employment

market. The fear for example, of a train driver, after 30

years of driving not meeting the medical requirements

and then being exposed to a labour market that has no

call for train driver skills. The same can be said of a wide

range of jobs that are essential on the railways, but have

no direct relevance to other industries or occupational

groups. To this extent, substantial numbers of rail

workers were also ‘forced’ to remain on the railways for

the duration of their working lives.

The work has been varied, hard, dirty, dangerous, often

around broken and disruptive shift patterns. It makes no

sense to compare the ‘good old days’ with contemporary

work practices or conditions, they have changed and

they have improved in most areas, but the demands,

requirements and expectations are different. They

remain, nonetheless, highly skilled areas of work.

Whether it was operating the isolated rural signal box,

using telegraphic equipment and levers, or a

computerised console; firing up a steam locomotive or

taking the cab in the millennium train; operating

passenger services and stations from small country

towns to millions of commuters in major cities. What we

can say is that it is different, but remains equally vital

and essential to the safe and efficient running of the rail

system. What it has never been, is ‘unskilled’ or ‘low

skilled’ as it has suited some to argue.

I have argued elsewhere that there is probably nothing

more offensive, denigrating or dishonest than the label

of ‘unskilled work’. “Apart from the obvious

offensiveness, and historical abuses to justify

occupational devaluing and hence lower wages and

conditions, and the encouragement and maintenance of

craft monopolies and wage relativities between groups

of workers, the notion is a conceptual nonsense. There is

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Eveleigh ong>Workong>ers, 1934

no living human being, let alone a worker (paid or

unpaid) who performs a range of complex physical and

cognitive tasks on a daily basis, who can accurately or

fairly be described as completely lacking skills or

knowledge. …..all workers are ‘skilled’. Some

vegetables,and a larger number of inanimate objects

can more confidently be classified as ‘unskilled’. “ 1

This selected sample of railway workplaces and

locations and the people who occupy them, takes our

story, from the broad political industrial settings and

relationships that provide the backdrop for the rail

industry to the more specific workplace cultures and

practices. These are the places of immense interest, the

melting pots or salad bowls of diverse ideas, people and

customs that go to create and sustain a general railway

culture, and the more specific cultural practices of

particular workplaces.

Yet, as with all cultural practice, the realms cannot be

easily or sensibly separated. They merge, collide,

conflict and wash over each other, each influencing and

affecting the other. The personalities are not left at the

workplace gate, nor does the effect of the workplace

culture remain confined. Rather, it goes with these

workers into their worlds, and in different ways, shapes

and adds to their character and talents.


Wellington Loco, 1920

ong>Workong> and Culture

In other regards, the dedication of special interests and

skills, is also a means of partially escaping and

navigating the harsher or less desirable aspects of work.

Somehow workers must find ways to reconcile their

primary beliefs and community cultures with the ‘alien’

work cultures. Somehow, workers have to make sense of

and become familiar with a secondary workplace culture

or set of practices that is often in stark contrast to their

primary culture and world view. This is often achieved

through engaging in '’borderland’ discourses, or ways of

surviving the world of work, while remaining true to

their identity and beliefs.

What is often evident in many workplaces is what some

writers have referred to as the development and testing

oftheories in use’ rather than espoused theories of

work. ong>Workong>ers are forced to regularly question, and

often abandon the official theory (or standard practice)

as their experience demonstrates that these do not fit a

particular situation. They are constantly testing out

hunches, guesses, intuitive responses, as well as drawing

on their culture-based background and present

knowledge and experience of the work-life and the

world, in relation to what their own reality tells them

will work.

Similarly, any workplace is a site of social interaction,

where the practices, histories, language, meanings,

values, beliefs, culturally-based knowledge, experience

and practice intersect, overlap, conflict and inter-relate.

Each worker, manager, supervisor, union official,

supplier and customer, brings to this site their own

peculiar perceptions, knowledge, experiences and


1Peter O’Connor, ong>Workong>places as Sites of Learning, in O’Connor (ed) Thinking ong>Workong>: Theoretical Perspectives on ong>Workong>ers’

Literacies, 1994 p 278

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The ‘borderlands’ at work provide a space and a means

for workers to make sense of the various practices, rules,

beliefs and values that operate within the workplace, and

to survive them. The tension is around resisting aspects

of the workplace which either contradict, or are

offensive to the workers’ cultural beliefs and values, and

even the ways the workers know that work can and

should be performed. These tensions exist between

workers and management, between different work areas

or occupational groupings and between groups of coworkers.

Thus, there are many practices at work that are ‘spaces

within spaces’. ong>Workong>place groupings, such as those

generally or specifically identified through membership

of a particular cultural group (national, cultural, ethnic

or language groupings); other external or public

groupings (religious or political affiliations, union

membership, occupation, age, gender, neighbourhood,

or community groupings such as sporting clubs); or

those more ‘organic’ to the particular workplace setting

(general mixed groupings of co-workers, work teams,

sections or departments, work operations, job

classifications or geographic location within the

workplace). An individual worker may simultaneously

belong to and move within and between a number of

these groups or spaces. 2

Most workers know that the workplace is not likely to

value many of the practices of their community or

cultural groups, and in many instances are in direct

opposition to them. Due to these conflicts and the power

relations of the workplace, it is equally likely that these

community values and social practices will not gain full

or equitable access to the dominant or ‘official’ values,

and the social goods that go with them. In many ways,

Wollongong Station 1950

(Wollongong Library / Illawarra Historical Society)

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then, workers use a range of strategies, talents and

practices around their work as a form of self-defence

and organised resistance to offensive or threatening

aspects of the workplace, and to remaining loyal to, and

preserving primary values and cultural practices.

I have used the example elsewhere of an imaginary

aboriginal elder employed as a cleaner in a factory in the

town near where he, his family and clan live to illustrate

how we often miss the identity of the workforce, and

limit our understanding of workplace identities to often

facile job descriptions.

The example asks the question to ‘what extent can the

aboriginal elder ever be accurately described or

understood simply as a cleaner?’ This basic question

opens up many others.

What are we prepared to understand of the multiple

identities of our ‘elder’ and his influence, identity,

meanings and status in the broader community? This

person can never be adequately understood by reference

to an employee number or job classification. It is the

peculiarities, idiosyncracies and influences of our

‘elders’ that open up our investigations and

understandings of our workplaces. 3

This section of this book is about such workplaces in the

rail industry as well as the spaces rail workers have

created, and how individual workers bring to the

workplace a set of beliefs, values and practices, and how

these facilitate workplace identities and cultural

practices, and how these in turn affect the individual.

This part of the book is both a celebration and

investigation, at the rich mix of ideas, skills, expertise

and identities that are formed and re-formed, operate,

sustain and defend themselves, providing a fascinating

entrée to tapping the layers of workplace culture within

the railways. The better we understand and respect these

practices, acknowledge their existence and their

influence, the better chance there is of a closer harmony

between theofficial’ and the ‘unofficial’ values at work

in the railways.

This is an introductory glimpse at the story of collisions

and harmonies between the various and competing

values and layers in the workplace, and how meaning is

generated, developed and modified through these

collisions and harmonies. It is also the changing story

from the secure ‘job for life’ to a more destabilised and

an predictable world that still holds some promises and

not others.

2Peter O’Connor, ong>Workong>place Communicative Practices, Cultures and Learning, Unpublished Thesis, RMIT, 1997

3Peter O’Connor, ong>Workong>ers Texts, Identities and Learning Possibilities, in Rod Gerber and Colin Lankshear (eds), Training for a

Smart ong>Workong>force, Routledge, London, 2000

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Driver Vince Waters (Driver for 50 years) on the Wyong Turntable (1930s)

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On the Footplate

Drivers, Firemen and The Loco

The first Australian locomotive drivers were almost

entirely from Britain. In NSW the most notable of these

was the English-trained William Sixsmith, who drove

the first locomotive from Sydney to Parramatta in

1855.Another well-known name from this era was the

Scottish driver, John Heron, who worked on the

Glasgow and South Western Railway. The modern

commuter train from the Blue Mountains, the ‘Fish’

(still followed by its companion the ‘chips), perpetuates

his memory. A fellow Scot, George McKenzie, was a

driver in Scotland, then South Africa before coming to

New South Wales. McKenzie was also to become a work

colleague in the Bathurst rail yards, and ultimately Ben

Chifley’s father-in-law. 1 Many of the early overseas

drivers seemed to take a colonial journey through the

railways, coming to Australia via India, South Africa,

Canada and even the United States. From the 1870s the

colonial railways increasingly trained their own drivers.

Drivers have always seen themselves as a bit special –

aloof and indispensable. While other workers lay claim

to their vital role in the operations of the railways,

drivers are probably most passionate in maintaining that

‘you can’t run the trains without a driver’.

Current drivers still express the view that when they

came on to the job, drivers were well respected –

uniform was overalls and the black cap – the suit had

gone. They recall some of the ‘old boys’, however,

would still wear the suit and tie. As Ray Cross recalls his

firing days in the 1960s– “some of the blokes I fired for

at Broadmeadow – still wore the suit and tie with the

sweat band around the collars. Some of them were

cranky old buggers.” 2

In addition to other social and cultural activity of train

drivers, the significance of the suit was enshrined in the

formation at Lithgow and other locations of a Loco Suit

Club. As the name suggests, it was established for

drivers to put aside a portion of their wages towards the

purchase of a new suit.

Recruitment and Advancement through the Ranks

Bruce Heinzel – joined the NSWGR in Parkes in 1966,

spending a year on the station before transferring to

Loco, and currently works out of Newcastle. Bruce

1 David Day, Chifley, op.cit., Pp83-85

2 Interview with Ray Cross, April 2005

3 Employment record for Albert Horton

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Driver and fireman on the restored 2705

plans to retire in 2 years, giving him over 40 years

service. He remembers always watching trains over the

back fence – and at the time of seeking a secure job,

knew that it would either be the PMG, local Council or

railways. Chances were he would follow his grandfather

(Albert Horton) into the railways. It was almost a

handing over of the staff, with Albert retiring from

service in 1958, after joining in 1911.

Albert Horton’s employment record shows his service at

Wellington, Junee, Parkes and Dubbo, and finally at the

Eveleigh ong>Workong>shops. It also clearly has him labeled as a

‘lilywhite’ from the strike of 1917, where it cites him as

being ‘Dismissed by Proclamationon 6 August 1917,

and re-employed on 18 October. Albert Horton never

progressed to ‘driver’ – being employed as Cleaner,

Fireman and Fitter’s Assistant for his career. 3

The recruitment processes didn’t seem particularly

rigorous during most of last century, with rail workers

variously describing approaching the local station

master or inspector, or member of parliament, or

someone who knew someone.

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As Bruce described the procedure at Parkes in the

1960s: “You’d go and see the foreman, pissed in a bottle,

bend down touch your toes and show you where the wild

goose goes.” 4 Mark Sheargold has a similar memory of

attending the old Railway Institute at Devonshire Street

in the 1970s, “when we got there the instructor was

writing these words on the board – ‘station’, ‘train’, and

the like – then we were given a blank sheet of paper and

asked to write them down …. this was the spelling test.”

Or when there was major upgrading work between

Parkes and Broken Hill during the 1970s,

“ Per way Inspectors would meet the immigrants as they

arrived – look at their hands – ‘yep go that way’ – sent

them out in train loads in gangs of two or three hundred

people. Most couldn’t speak a word of English, or

communicate with each other…. they were from all

over.” 5

However, once accepted in to the railways, strict

standards, hierarchy and codes of advancement applied.

All drivers began their careers as locomotive cleaners.

They had to be at least 5 feet six inches tall, literate and

without major physical impairment, especially in

relation to sight and hearing, and had to be of ‘good

character’. They were usually appointed as cleaners in

their late teens or early twenties, and once appointed

would be paid a labourer’s wages for the next two to four

years, or at least for the obligatory 500 hours of


Cleaning work was rough, hard, dirty and monotonous –

but the carrot was the advancement at the end of it –

moving closer to the footplate and becoming a driver.

After serving his time as a cleaner, a man became

eligible for promotion to third class fireman, but was

only promoted if a vacancy became available.

Ray Cross retired from driving in 2003, after 44 years on

the job. He joined in 1959, working the steam engines ,

and always wanted to be a train driver. In 1958 he went

to get a job on South Maitland Railway, but with the

downturn in coal there were no jobs. He wrote to Tyrell

House (The ‘pie shop’ , NSWGR admin in Newcastle).

Ray still drives as a volunteer for the Transport Museum

He remembers his first impressions of the job. “The first

day I walked into Port Waratah roundhouse with my

parcel of overhauls and gear (you had to buy your own

gear) – and the shed was full of steam engines – I

thought this ‘ll do me – I cleaned for 18 months – too

4 Interview with Bruce Heinzel, April 2005

5 Interview with Mark Sheargold, April 2005

6 Interview with Ray Cross, April, 2005

7 Mark Sheargold, op.cit


young. The Head Cleaner - Les Stanley – ‘Cheeky

Molly’ – in return for me bringing him in the Daily

Telegraph, he would give me engine number painting –

paint white over brass numbers. This paid a little more

(maybe threepence more) . My first pay was about 2 or

3 pounds – with my second pay I bought an electric

train set – much to my mothers’ horror.” 6

In describing the advancement process, Ray spent his

first 18 months cleaning in the shed. “You’d have a

scraper and kerosene…. and get under the train and

clean the muck off, – clean off the roads and motion

gear, and steam spraying – no eye protection – with stuff

going everywhere. Then I was promoted to acting

fireman, then taught to drive in 1963 as a fireman. Your

mate taught you to drive. For trainee engineman, there

were height and weight specifications across the

industry then, had to be above height and weight in all

areas of the industry– you got the fob watch as acting

driver, but had to hand it in when you left.”

Mark Sheargold, after working on the perway between

Darnick and Broken Hill, and briefly on the buses in

Sydney, became a trainee engineman at Parkes. “ the

first 500 hours was spent cleaning, painting assisting

shed blokes, steam spraying of locos, call boy (peddle

15km to wake one then across town to wake another. I

then became assistant engineman on the loco – started

driving mainline in 1984 Class 5 (also qualified for

passenger working) – so it was a reasonably rapid

progression. Did two car diesel passenger, high speed

freight, coal working, wide variety of work – always a

pleasure to come to work because of not knowing what

you would be doing the next day.” 7

Fireman Ray Cross, 1963

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As was mentioned in the section on Prime Minister Ben

Chifley, the well touted ‘rapid advancement’ of Chifley

from Shop Boy to driver took some eleven years. Former

AFULE and RTBU President, Bob Plain describes a

similar progression of some fourteen years from starting

as a Call Boy at Eveleigh in 1960 to becoming a fully

qualified driver of electric trains at Flemington in 1974. 8

A part of the rationale always offered for the long

‘apprenticeship’ was to gain a detailed and intimate

knowledge of the locomotive and its workings.

It was customary for four cleaners to be assigned to an

engine. Two would clean the boiler brasses, the buffer

and the driving wheels. The rest of the engine – the

running wheels, coupling rods and framing – would be

done by the others. “The unpainted steel was rubbed

with emery paper and then smeared with vaseline.

Sponges were used instead of emery paper in cleaning

the painted portions. The worst part was cleaning out

the impurities which accumulated in the boiler; to do

this a cleaner had to get inside it. …Repetitive as the

work was, cleaning was essential to the running of the

engines. Dirt and grime built up quickly on their moving

parts. The axle boxes, cranks, motion bars and

eccentrics were most vulnerable. An engine which was

not properly looked after soon needed costly repairs.” 9

Fred Grady, a driver for 42 years – mostly at Goulburn,

did his probation at Moree. “Here I first run up against

my first old cranky charge man a Mr Schultz. When we

had done our 2 hours of safe working we had to go

cleaning and we ducked off early to go to the barracks,

get cleaned up and catch the daylight passenger train

back to Moree , if we had to wait to knock off at 4.30pm

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then we had no chance of getting home early and we had

to wait till early next morning to catch the Moree mail

home, well this day old Shultz caught us in the barracks

cleaning up and summarily marched us back up to the

loco depot where we were dressed down by the district

manager, a Mr George Travis, and then let go but of

course we had missed our ride home.” 10

Fred also describes some of the friendly banter between

the footplate and the cleaners. “We took a green 38 class

out of Eveleigh one morning on No15 Riverina Express

and written on the side in chalk by some bright eyed

cleaner was the following ‘driver, driver much too slow

be like Elvis and go man go’. Well Jack [Spence, driver]

must have thought hard and long because the next time

we were going into Eveleigh he wrote on the side of the

38 class ‘cleaner, cleaner not so bright make it shine like

a light’. All for a good laugh.” 11

On the Job

Even a rudimentary understanding of the workings of a

steam locomotive tells that the work was hard, skilful

and demanding. Essential to the smooth running of the

train was the experience and know how of the driver and

fireman in combining as a team, each performing their

range of roles in ways that ensured the safeworking and

on-time running. The relationship and expertise on the

footplate could make a journey successful and enjoyable

for all concerned or a nightmare.

From the preliminary checks and examination of the

brakes and running gear, to getting the water levels right

and the fire built up properly, adjusting the safety valves

and reading of the steam pressure. Drivers relied on their

firemen to maintain appropriate steam levels for the

conditions and the locomotive, and the skilled fireman

would anticipate both the peculiarities of the loco, the

conditions of the journey and how the driver would be

working the locomotive. The building of the fire

required precision, so that the new coal could be placed

correctly and that it burned evenly. The type of coal on

the tender also had to be taken into account, both in

terms of quality and the amount of fines. If it contained

a lot of fines, not only would they be difficult to place on

the firebars, but the draft would suck them through the

tubes and out the funnel, or create a hole in the fire bed,

and the fire would not be properly activated.

8Interview with Bob Plain, October, 2002

9James Docherty, The Rise of Railway Unionism: 1880-1905, Unpublished Masters Thesis, Australian National University,

1973, p. 7

10Fred Grady, correspondence and personal historical notes

11 Ibid

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In addition to watching the road ahead, and keeping a

close watch on steam and air pressure, and water levels,

the driver had to skillfully operate the regulator, the

valve wheel or lever, and the brake valve. Notching up

the gear and opening the regulator at speed on the level,

then approaching a bank and gradually opening the

valve gear to increase valve travel and tractive effort,

maintaining the right compression and listening to the

familiar sound and beat of the pistons, and keeping the

emission of steam through the smoke box in correct

proportion, then determining and utilising the right

brake pressure. These were all a routine part of keeping

the locomotive running and stopping smoothly and

without incident.

“It soon became apparent to an experienced driver

whether or not he had been allocated a good fireman.

Likewise a fireman soon discovered whether or not he

was firing for a good driver, one who handled the

locomotive in a way that did not make the fireman’s job

too difficult. …..If the driver worked a locomotive too

hard up a bank and used so much steam that the water

level fell and, if the fireman had to start up the second

injector to maintain water level, the situation would

rapidly worsen.” 12

Firing the engine, like any job required its own knowhow,

and was required to be ‘lit up’ by the fire-lighter’s

mate several hours before the locomotive was due out on

the road. The fire would be established before the

fireman arrived. The fireman would sign the shed

register, then make his way to the engine to check its

fire, water gauge and sand box (the sand was used for

braking and traction). He would then clean out the ash

pan and make sure that the lamps were cleaned and


trimmed. The main duty of firing required its own skills,

and would need to build and maintain different types of

fires for different engines and loads.

“The firing of a railway locomotive is a job of precision

and a highly developed skill rather than of heavy

manual labour. There are no more than a few pounds of

coal in each shovelful conveyed into the firebox through

a fairly narrow door, and it needs practice before you

acquire the knack.” 13

Ray Cross describes the work in the cab of a steam train

simply as “spartan, hot and dirty – a normal routine

would be that you’d sign on, get your kit (kerosene

lamps ,flare lamps, shovel and bucket, marker lamps),

the fireman would oil it, get under the engine and oil

it…driver would go around the engine check it, put her

on the turntable – clean the cab – with cloth and

kerosene, wash it down with soap and water, hose it off.

I used to get phenol out of the stores for the glass.” 14

Both Ray Cross, who started in 1959 and Bruce Heinzel,

in 1966 (and fired for Ray ) agreed that what makes a

good driver –is not only someone who knew the road

and the loco but a “bloke who looked after his firemen….

there are drivers and drovers – if you didn’t look after

your fireman you’d defeat yourself – ‘podgers’ would

flog their fireman – Bruce and I spent 12 years working

together. It’s a close relationship”.

The mechanics may have changed in time, and the cabs

may be more comfortable. The cabs of modern

locomotives may not be noisy and draughty, or filled

with coal dust and ride like a mountain goat, but the

skills and know how in operating them remains as high

as they ever were. If people believe that the job on the

footplate is easy or without high risk, requiring a

vigilance and an intimate understanding of the loco, the

track, the load and various other factors, they simply

don’t understand the job. They don’t understand the

intricacies and expertise involved in properly and

effectively operating these beasts on a regular basis in

ways that protect the machine and its passengers or

cargo, keep it on the track and safely on its journey

Mark Sheargold, now working for Pacific National

(previously FreightCorp) in the Hunter Valley doing coal

freight work, provides some cautionary reflections on

recent past conditions and changes. “In terms of

conditions – how quickly we forget – now hours are

regulated. When I first went to Broadmeadow, I worked

84 consecutive days without a day off.

12 Eric Adam, No Fear of Change: Or Learning to Live with change, Iron Horse Press, Sydney, 2001 p43

13 N. McKillop – How I became an Engine Driver, London 1953, p 13

14 Ray Cross, op.cit.

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Trains were pulling 600 tons, and now haul up to 11,000

tons, the work has been segregated into business groups

and the number of workers has gone from about 780

train crew to now about 290.

Job itself hasn’t changed much – empty coal train fill it

and return – but the way we do it has changed – one

man crewing will change it further – also the

interactions between crews has changed over this time –

you don’t have the meal room discussions we used to

have – with 30 or 40 people – now lucky if you see 3 or

4 people per shift. Its more isolated, and workers are

possibly more guarded than previously.”

Peter Sawtell, CountryLink Xplorer driver from Werris

Creek, who recently celebrated 50 years on the job,

remembers the thriving activity around Werris Creek

when it employed hundreds of rail workers. He also

remembers some of the old conditions, such as one week

in 1967when he worked 132 hours in the week and

received $192 for his trouble. 15

A lot of the older drivers make the point that the current

lot don’t know they’re alive, with air conditioning and

CDs. They recall the dust and the heat and the

discomfort, both in the cab and the barracks. There are

accounts of the extreme heat in the cabs, well over 100

degrees, the hot winds, matched by equally extreme cold

conditions. Many recall the barracks either being too hot

or too cold to ever be comfortable, and often having to

wrap clothing around their feet to keep warm at night.

Becoming a Competent Driver

I have theorised elsewhere that a truly competent and

expert worker is one that not only has the training and

acquired skills, knowledge and know-how, but has an

instinctive or intuitive feel or sense for the work. This is

in contrast to some of the minimalist concepts of

mediocrity as competency in vogue in much of

contemporary vocational education and training. This

theory seems to come to full living dimensions with

most jobs on the railways, and a better example could

not be provided by the progression to the footplate. Not

everyone in the job becomes a ‘good’ driver, just as not

every practising GP becomes a ‘good’ doctor. There are

attributes that set the two aside – what a number of

drivers and others have described matter-of-factly as the

drivers and the drovers.

The recent Minister for Transport Services and former

trainee engineman, Michael Costa scoffs at the idea of

the time taken to fully join the driver’s ranks. He

15 Northern Daily Leader, January 31, 2005

16 Interview with Michael Costa, June 2005

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maintains that it is mostly a self-serving craft protection

to justify status and wages. He views the time taken to

qualify as a driver, compared to some of the practices

and skill levels demonstrated on the job, as a ‘joke’, or

by implication a ‘rort’. He cites examples of this from

his brief time in the industry, and claims that the changes

to driver competency qualifications under his

stewardship as Minister were a necessary and overdue


“When I started as a trainee engineman, it took up to

seven years to qualify, …the first twelve months were

spent cleaning,… ‘made you a better engineman’– I just

couldn’t accept this …the enginemen tended to be the

white Anglos – I was firing for blokes with the attitude

of ‘elitism’ and stories about how they were a level of a

crown sergeant of police,… there was a real culture

around that stuff, a lot of blokes I was with were straight

out of the steam era.“ 16

It should be noted that this practice of lengthy

advancement from cleaner to qualified driver served a

number of purposes. Certainly it bestowed a status as the

‘aristocracy of the ranks’ among the relatively well paid

drivers. More importantly, and well in advance of the

modern management enthusiasm for ‘workplace

flexibility and multi-skilling’ it provided the employer

with a pool of workers that could be used for a range of

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functions at will, with acting fireman and fireman,

shunting and performing driving duties as required. The

practice also pre-dates the more contemporary concept

of recognising and paying employees for the skills

acquired, instead having the ‘flexibility’ to pay only for

skills as they were called upon. Drivers and firemen

were routinely demoted to lower ranks and wages as

demand changed. In addition to this, the time spent in a

particular area in the hierarchy was determined as much

by job openings at the next level as meeting the

competency requirements of the tasks. Put more simply,

these were not drivers ‘rorts’, but employers rorting, or

taking full advantage of the system at their disposal.

The enthusiasm with meeting driver shortfalls by

‘streamlining’ driver training has short term attractions

to employers in filling staffing shortfalls, and for

workers advancing more rapidly to the driver ranks. A

caution in all of this can be found in reference to some

of the older practices and the modern requirements of

the job. One risk is that employers will use the

‘streamlining’ to attempt to further devalue the job,

arguing that two year qualifications are worth less than

previous qualifications. It has the potential of also

seeking a mediocre level of competence and not

acknowledge the range of skills and knowledge required

of the job. A modern world class rail system requires

highly skilled and experienced drivers, perhaps qualified

to a point somewhere between the old advancement

practices and the new ‘supermarket’ skills approach. It

will need a strong pool of train ‘drivers’ rather than


The experienced drivers interviewed all share a concern

about the new driver training regime. They are

concerned that it is merely basic ‘technical’ training

without an understanding of the locomotives or

operating conditions.

Mark Sheargold summarises some of these concerns.

“Preparing and training to become a competent driver

now compares in two different ways – it is worse now –

then you matched up with a driver who taught you how

to drive, you received instruction from drivers,

inspectors and the railway institute.

Now it is more about competency-based tick-offs,

competent drivers take years – difference is between

‘drivers’ and ‘drovers’ – a driver knows how to operate

the train, knows how to get the most efficient working

from the train – not driving off paper or gauges - these

are the ‘drovers’.

17 Interview with Frank Graham, May 2005


The road knowledge, the know how is missing– now

training is by the ‘book’ rather than instinct, intuition

and experience. Previously the driver could spend the

time to teach a fireman. Skills that kept it running –

enthusiasm, liking the job.”

Frank Graham (father of current RailCorp CEO Vince

Graham) became a trainee engineman just after WWII,

in Mudgee , then moved to Penrith where he was a driver

until he retired in 1983. Frank recalls Ben Chifley

regularly visiting Penrith at his ‘office’ at the Red Cow

– a local pub across from the railway station. Chifley

would turn up regularly to meet with constituents over a


He also fondly recalls the experience and sharing of

knowledge from some of the drivers he fired for. Frank

had to undertake the usual formal training, and

progression from cleaning through to the footplate, and

remembers well the lengthy formal training and

examinations required when the electric trains were

introduced. The better education, though was from the

older drivers. “There was this one bloke who had

returned from the war – he wouldn’t talk much in the

cab, but when we got to barracks and he’d had a few

beers, he would explain the detailed workings of every

part of the loco… he really knew his stuff.” 17

Some Moments to Remember or Forget

Frank Graham’s memories are that he always thought

the job was good and mostly things moved along O.K,

‘but you’d have good trips and bad trips’, and there were

a lot of close calls (and some too close). One aspect of

the job that was particularly unsettling were fatalities or

serious accidents.

Fireman and Driver of 2705

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Frank’s first fatality was “an old bloke who lived at the

old men’s home at Lidcombe. This one day, he’d

obviously had too much grog and slept it off in a

carriage. I came around the bend, and he was just under

the fly-over… he must have felt the rumble, because he

just turned around to look and we hit him.” The official

response is also telling of the practices and attitudes of

the time. “I sang out to the Porter at Strathfield to get

the police and an ambulance….a short while later the

brass arrived, the gold braid, and said ‘traffic have said

that if the body is clear of the line then proceed.”

Shortly after that fatality, we were coming out from

Clyde to Auburn, and as we approached saw this woman

on the edge of the platform. The bloke I was with said, ‘I

wish they wouldn’t stand so close…then as we were

coming up to the platform, she just threw herself

sideways in front of the train. We learned later that she

had recently lost a baby and her husband blamed her for

that and was giving her a lot of trouble. Not long after

he came to the railways and tried to sue them for her

death.” 18

Frank was also the AFULE Sub-Branch representative at

Penrith for a number of years. “I gave it away

eventually, ‘too much nonsense and internal politics,

and I don’t know why, I just didn’t get on with Bernie

Willingale, just something about him, so I let someone

else have a go.”

On a lighter note, Fred Grady recalls some of the

running practices as less than ideal.

“On the express steam hauled passenger and mail trains

it was very common for drivers to travel from Moss Vale

to Goulburn without putting the brakes on and they

would have the steam drifting pilot gauge on 10 to 15

Colin Heinzel riding the loco

18 Interview with Frank Graham, op.cit.

19 Fred Grady, op.cit.

20 Bruce Heinzel, op.cit.

21 Fred Grady, op.cit.

22 Frank Graham, op.cit.

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

lbs running down the grades. The story goes that the

station staff never had to sweep the up platform at

Campbelltown as the express drivers kept it clean, I

have no doubt this was correct as I saw the speed they

maintained, they would push the 38’s down to the dam

after the pipeline and set up the pilot drifting gauge and

let’ em go.” 19

Bruce Heinzel also remembers circumstances requiring

creative repair work. “I was up front reading a dirty

book, guard was reading a dirty book There was a trike

on the line near Tottenham filled with sleepers and

fettlers – we weren’t able to stop, but when they saw us,

they cleared off – then bang – there was stuff

everywhere. The cow catcher was bent down and

wouldn’t go over the interlocking – so we got the rope

out and tie it round the homestead – backed her back

and bend it back - it worked and on we went.” 20

There was time for play

After Jack Spence, Fred Grady fired for a returned

digger, special class driver Robert Gordon Smith, who

he described as a ‘darn good bloke but we bent the rules

a lot to suit ourselves’.

“Bob [Robert Gordon Smith] was the biggest card

player I ever seen anywhere, we were forever playing

eucha or 500 some where or other, not much money was

ever gambled mostly lottery tickets. When Goulburn

enginemen used to work No1 Southern Auroa and No3

Spirit of Progress we had 19 hours off in barracks at

Albury. Twice we played cards from the moment we got

there to the time we left. The first time Jack Bales and

Pat O’Keefe were sitting at the kitchen table, billy

boiled, cards laid out for 500. The next time Bob and I

done the same to them.We used to get to Albury at about

5am and go back to work at 11pm, no sleep no meals,

just cards, good times, lots of sleep on the way home.”

By all accounts there was no shortage of characters

around the place. Frank Graham recalls a driver they all

referred to as the ‘Mudgee Savage’ due to both his

appearance and his manner. “The funny thing with this

one is that he insisted that a guard who used to come

over from Dubbo had hypnotised him, and every time the

guard would come into the barracks, the ‘Savage’ would

be spooked and leave. He reckoned he could hypnotise

people, we never knew whether he could or not, but it

was funny.” 22

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The guys in Newcastle recall one driver who would

come to work on dog watch with his mattress tied on his

back – ready for sleep. Then there was ‘the goat in the

coat’ – didn’t think before opened his mouth. ‘There was

one time working out of Port Kembla – there was metal

sticking up that took up a chunk off the cow catcher – he

took oxy gear and cut it off (the cow catcher)’.

It would also seem that you could get a special train to

the local dance. Fred Grady tells the story: -“ In the

early 50’s when very few people had cars, it was

common practice when there was a bush dance out of

town that 2 enginemen would go to loco and prepare

and “ borrow” a steam engine, go to the shunting yard

“borrow” a brake van and take it to the station load up

all the nourishments and every one and sundry would go

to the dance out of town. After the dance was over they

would just return engine and van and no one knew any

better. But this weekend the dance was at Bellata some

30 miles south of Moree, all went well until the trip

home as apparently some one forgot to “take” water

before going to the dance and they ran out on the way

home. They just left the whole show in the middle of the

Gurley – Moree section. On the Monday morning the

North West mail, No7 come upon this abandon train and

all hell broke loose. The outcome was that the driver was

demoted to labourer and the fireman demoted to cleaner

for 12 months. When I commenced some years later the

driver was still a labourer and retired in that grade

when they closed Moree years later, the fireman was a

driver by then and also left when the depot was closed.

From what I have learnt it was common practice in

many a country depot, a long way from bosses and

sneaky beaks. One has to remember the closest boss to

Moree was in Newcastle.” 23


Mark Sheargold

23 Fred Grady, op.cit.

24 Interview with Bob Plain, October 2002

Love of the Loco

Most train drivers speak of their relationship with the

locomotives with an affection which is both unnerving

and endearing. So much of the driver’s life was spent

with the loco, the long hours, irregular shifts, the

disruptions to social and family life, that the maintaining

and running the locomotive was seen almost as ‘social’.

This relationship is also expressed by many drivers who

claim to have enjoyed the job and the work, and felt a

strong loyalty and pride, not to the employer, but to the


Fred Grady says ‘I don’t consider I ever had a

“highlight” of my career but had a good life and time.

Most seem to hold this reflected view of not particularly

good days – but looking back a lot of it was good times

– didn’t think so then’. As with so many other drivers,

Frank Graham has fond memories of many of his

colleagues and the locos that he worked. “The 36 class

were my favourites, they were nice to drive, it rode well

and was especially good on the mountain climbs.”

What is also common amongst many of the old drivers

is that they shared a single childhood focus of wanting

to be on the footplate. Wanted to be train drivers. They

had watched trains as young children, would seek them

out and knew that’s what they wanted to do. By the time

many of them had reached 15 or 16 years of age they

pursued their dream, which often took a dozen or more

years from when they started as juniors – cleaners, shop

boys and call boys, moving through the ranks of acting

firemen, firemen, trainee enginemen to engineman

5th class. Upon retirement, usually with more than 40

years on the job, many would pursue their interest and

passion through local historical groups, rail museums or

model railways.

Former AFULE official and RTBU Locomotive

Division Secretary, Bob Plain describes how he used to

go and watch the trains as a young man, and just always

had a love for the ‘locomotives’. “I was always

fascinated by trains. On Friday nights as a child I would

go to Hornsby looking at trains. I always had an interest

in model trains and train photos.” 24

Not all share the romantic memories of their time on the

loco. Many of these accounts understate the pressures,

emotional and physical. The stresses of long hours,

accidents and fatalities, ever on the look out for danger.

The lifestyle of long hours in the cab, nights spent at

barracks, and working under often extreme conditions of

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heat and cold. There was also the continuous stress of

mainatining your job, both in terms of availability and

from the threat of regular testing. Many drivers end up

retiring from the job ‘medically unfit’. For long-term

drivers that is the only career they have, and the

uniqueness of the job and work meant that unless they

could find work with another rail operator, that was the

end of the line.

Similarly, the love of the engine is not universal. Most

drivers had their favourites, and some saw the

introduction of new engines as adding to their problems.

Correspondence from past drivers shed some reality on

some of the conditions. A favourite source of criticism

was the sixty class Beyer Garrett engines, which

operated from the 1950s to the 1970s in NSW. One letter

to the newspapers claimed that ‘ the Garratt engines

were the worst engines ever on NSW tracks despite what

steam train lovers say. On a hot day they could generate

125 degrees in the cabin and drivers collapsed.’ 25 Jim

Edwards, a former driver from Hornsby, had this to say

about the toll on drivers:

“On paper, they showed enormous tonnage returns, but

did not show (except through the Welfare and

Rehabilitation Sections) their tolls on the human

element forced to man them. These dangerous engines

were ‘widow makers’, caused human suffering and took

their shares of coronaries among the senior staff…..In

the mile-long Woy Woy tunnel on a boiling summer’s

day, you could get readings of 130 degrees [in the cabin]

…. We retired men, all regret (with arthritis and

bronchitis) ever having been loco men.” 26

25 Sun Newspaper (Sydney) 9 March 1973

26 Ibid, 13 March 1973

27 Bruce Heinzel, op.cit

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

It seems that the culture is slowly changing, and

according to many drivers, not for the better. They refer

to a ‘strong loyalty to the job – not the boss – but pride

in the job. Protecting yourself and your mate. We came

on the tail end of the good stuff where blokes really took

pride in the job’.

Bruce Heinzel believes it is actually more rigid now in

many ways– “instructions by supervisor – then they

probably read you the rules then and sent you on your

way , could get away with more as long as you got your

job done. Used to put the ‘bung’ in your ‘bung hole’ or

pigeon hole. They weren’t really taken seriously.

Mostly looked after you then – managers – now they

wouldn’t. They were a bit like the old coppers. Now it is

more regimented. If you did something wrong – your

manager would try to get you out of trouble. Now you

have to respond as to ‘why you should still be employed

by the company’.” 27

Many current drivers have lived and worked through

some of the most dramatic changes in working and

technology to take place in the industry – from the steam

locomotives to diesel to electrification. From the old

‘red rattlers’ to the millennium train, and from freight

trains consisting of several carriages or wagons hauling

hundreds of tons, to the snaking 2 kilometres of freight

trains now operating with loads of tens of thousands of


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First train 1855

View from the XPT Cab

Crew of the XPT

Watching the track

Container terminal

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Nine Bay Eveleigh Loco, Xmas 1950

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The ong>Workong>shops Cauldron

The rail workshops once occupied a proud place at the

centre of the railway universe. In so many ways, they

were the pulse of the industry, politically, socially and

industrially. From the early contracts to build local

engines and rolling stock at Mort’s Dock in Balmain,

where the first locomotives had to be floated by barge,

to the Clyde ong>Workong>shops where the likes of Henry

Lawson painted carriages. The large workshops of the

regional centres of Bathurst, Junee, Goulburn, through

to Chullora, the Randwick tram workshops, the

Honeysuckle Point, Cardiff workshops and Goninan’s in

Newcastle and the jewel in the crown, the Eveleigh

Railway ong>Workong>shops, were the workplaces of tens of

thousands of rail workers.

The early railway maintenance workshops were

established close to the Redfern central terminal, but the

original 27 acre site soon proved inadequate. In 1879 the

government purchased a larger, 62 acre site four

kilometres south of Sydney’s Central Business District,

known as Eveleigh. Most of this section looks at the

conditions and events at Eveleigh Railway ong>Workong>shops

as an example of the vital role played by the railway

workshops in the industrial, community and political life

of the industry and State.

The Eveleigh railway workshops were built between

1880 and 1886 and they continued to operate until 1989,

an unusually long period of continued use for the same

industrial purpose, by Australian standards. At their

peak they employed between five and seven thousand

workers, and performed a wide range of functions. They

were centrally located and at the centre of the local

railway communities that worked there. The workshops

were were a political cauldron and were responsible for

supplying the new state parliament with a constant flow

of labor parliamentarians, many rising to prominence.

Much of the land occupied by the workshops was

previously a dairy farm known as Slade’s Paddock. The

land fell away into swampy ground occupied by a large

frog population. From its early days this land was known

as Frog Hollow and was used throughout the life of the

works in unofficial and official correspondence. Preston

describes, the workshops site as consisting of the high

domed brick buildings comprising 15 bays, the twin

parallel buildings of the workshops, the Manager’s


Carriage works, Eveleigh

residence, the foundry, the Erecting Shop, Running Shed

and Marshalling yard.

“The administration of the works was controlled from a

fine two-story brick building which was built in the

north-east corner of the grounds near the present

Redfern Station. A bell tower graced the corner nearest

the works and was complete with a large brass bell. This

carillon had a very practical purpose as the ringing of

its chime was the signal to staff to commence or cease

work at the start or finish of each shift. Such was the

punctuality and strength of its ringing, that local

residents used it to set their clocks in the days before

radio time signals.” 1

After serving the community for some 100 years, most

of the former bustling, vibrant workshops that survived

have been relegated to heritage listings, housing

museums, stores and cafes. Those areas of Eveleigh

preserved for heritage purposes now house the

Australian Technology Park, with the restored office

building being used by the Australian Graduate School

of Engineering Innovation. They are there as a reminder

of how things were not so long ago.

To use Lucy Taksa’s language, “In a somewhat perverse

way Eveleigh can be likened to a bed of roses, for out of

the humus there emerged a strong, yet thorny, tradition

of activism that provided an important foundation for

the State's labour history. What was work like there?

Most people recall the noise, the dirt, the poor amenities

and serious accidents”. 2

1 R.G Preston, The Eveleigh Locomotive ong>Workong>shops Story, Australian Railway Historical Society, Sydney, 1997, p 4

2 Lucy Taksa, Remembering The Eveleigh Railway ong>Workong>shops, ong>Workong>ers Online Issue 2 Feb 1999

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But perhaps the best picture is drawn by Stan Jones, the

Secretary of the Eveleigh Sub-Branch of the Australian

Railways Union, who had followed his grandfather,

father, uncles and cousins into Eveleigh during the

1920s and who described this workplace in the

following poignant terms in 1939:

“Row upon row of drab smoke-grimed buildings,

housing a throbbing energy which pulses forth to the

accompaniment of the thump, thump, thump of giant

presses torturing white-hot steel into servitude. That is

Eveleigh workshops, the heart of the State's transport

system. There is a steady drone of high-powered

machinery, drilling, boring and turning in every possible

fashion; the clatter of overhead cranes, hurrying and

scurrying, fetching and carrying, and the staccato noise

of the boilermakers' rattler. All is somehow resolved into

a unity of sound, disturbed only by an occasional burst

of excessive violence from any one part.

Seemingly submerged in this medley is the human

element - 2,600 individuals, the strongest of them but

puny weaklings besides the machines they control. Yet

they make it all possible. Without them the roaring giant

would be but a whispering ghost.” 3

ong>Workong>ing Conditions

Eric Adam, who later became a senior engineer in the

rail industry in Australia, recounts his years as an

apprentice Fitter and Turner (from 1929) at Eveleigh:

“The conditions in the Eveleigh ong>Workong>shop were very

crude, requiring in those days attendance for 48 hours a

week, 7.30 am to 5 pm and, on Saturday mornings 7.30

to noon, as well. I used to be called for early breakfast

by half past five, catch a train about 6 o’clock from

Hornsby to Redfern. There would be no crib break until

12 o’clock……. At the end of the day, at 5 o’clock, we

would have to wash in a bucket or under a tap, take off

our bib and brace overalls and either go home or, two

nights a week, go to Tech in a black shirt and the

trousers from under the overalls still dirty……

At the Eveleigh ong>Workong>shops, there were no shower rooms

with clothes lockers to enable us to change into clean

clothes, so we had to shower at home before turning

in…..While I was serving the apprenticeship, the 48

hour week was reduced to 44 hours per week. ……

When the staff went into the ong>Workong>shop in the morning,

they had to pick up a token with their number on from a

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

board, to indicate that they were at work and put it back

on the hook on the board when they went out again.

During the day, if they needed to use the toilet, there was

a man sitting at the toilet door and they had to hand him

the token, and he would write the time. They had a

limited time in the toilet and he would book them if they

overstayed.” 4

The workshops were run by the clock, as Preston states

in his booklet on Eveleigh, “the bell above the office

was used to start and finish each work period. At 7.25

am the bell would sound to allow each employee to file

past a timekeeper located in No 8 Bay. This officer

handed each man a numbered ‘token’ to record his

attendance. …..At 7.30, the bell rang again and woe

betide any who were not at their work position ready

with tools in hand.” 5

It is little wonder then that when the workshops finally

introduced the Taylorist ‘Card System’ that the workers

at Eveleigh responded angrily, precipitating the general

strike of 1917. Since the workshops were built, the

accounts of management and supervision are of strict

hierarchy and often petty accountability of all

movements and time. This continued well beyond the

1917 strike, and remained a feature of daily life well in

to the 1950s and 1960s.

Richard Butcher who has recently published his

reminiscences of Eveleigh, worked as a Blacksmith,

Welder and Assistant welding engineer, fondly recalls

both the austere conditions and some of the lighter

aspects of life and work in the workshops.

Iron ong>Workong>s, Eveleigh

3Eveleigh - The Heart Of The Transport System', Daily News: Feature for Transport ong>Workong>ers, 19 January, 1939, cited in Taksa,

Remembering the Eveleigh Railway ong>Workong>shops, op.cit

4Eric Adam – No Fear of Change, or Learning to Live with Change, Iron Horse Press, Sydney 2001, p 7

5R.G.Preston, The Eveleigh Locomotive ong>Workong>shops Story, Australian Railway Historical Society, NSW Division, 1977, p 19

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“Locomotives and carriages get pretty dirty whilst in

service, therefore head protection of some kind was

often worn. Berets, whether home made or ex-army,

were worn by some; others sported old felt hats; and

many regularly made paper hats out of folded up

newspapers…… when the oxygen stream cutting button

was pressed to oxidise a horn stay or brake rigging nut

or bolt, a shower of sparks and white hot metal spewed

all around, so head protection and a good pair of long

armed chrome leather gloves were desirable.” 6

Henry Lawson (poet and author) worked as a carriage

painter at Hudson Brothers workshops at Clyde and his

story, titled ‘Two Boys at Grinder Brothers’ provides a

glimpse into the harsh working conditions and abuse of

child labour during his time at Clyde.

“Five or six half-grown larrikins sat on the cemented sill

of the big window of Grinder Bros. Railway Coach

factory waiting for the work bell, and one of the number

was Bill Anderson – known as ‘Castor Hoil’ – a young

terror of fourteen or fifteen.

His boss was a sub-contractor for the coach-painting

and always tried to find twenty minutes’ work for his

boys just about five or ten minutes before the bell rang.

He employed boys because they were cheap and he had

a lot of rough work, and they could get under floors and

‘bogies’ with their pots and brushes, and do all the

‘priming’ and paint the trucks. His name was Collins,

and the boys were called ‘Collins’ Babies’. It was a joke

in the shop that he had a ‘weaning’ contract. The boys

were all “over fourteen”, of course, because of the


Group of ong>Workong>shop ong>Workong>ers, 1934

Education Act. Some were nine or

ten – wages from five shillings to

ten shillings. It didn’t matter to

Grinder Brothers so long as the

contracts were completed and the

dividends paid.” 7

In another story featuring one of

the main characters from Two Boys

at Grinder Brothers, another grim

image is drawn:

“In one of these years a paragraph

appeared in a daily paper to the

effect that a constable had

discovered a little boy asleep on the

steps of Grinder Bros factory at

four o’clock one rainy morning. He

awakened him and demanded an explanation.

The little fellow explained that he worked there and he

was frightened of being late; he started work at six, and

was apparently greatly astonished to hear that it was

only four. The constable examined a small parcel which

the frightened child had in his hand. It contained a clean

apron and three slices of bread and treacle. The child

further explained that he woke up and thought it was

late, and didn’t like to wake mother and ask her the time

‘because she’d been washin’. He didn’t look at the clock

because they ‘didn’t have one.’” The character of the

fourteen year old Arvie Aspinall dies in both stories

from exposure to the wet and cold, coming and going to

‘Grinder’s’, and Collins [the contractor], as Lawson put

it, ‘was one ‘baby’ short the next day.” 8

“In the Smiths Shops winter was pretty pleasant because

the forge fires gave good relief from the cold. The large

round holes in the top of the buildings would filter in a

shaft of light, the appearance of a floodlight and as the

sun rose higher, the beam moved across the floor. I

remember it was like a floodlight on the old dirt floors

and in the air, millions of sparkling fine particles of coal

dust and smoke haze shimmered like the colours of the

rainbow !”

“In summer, however, the shops would be almost

unbearably hot. Many of the jobs throughout the

workshops involved working in front of a hot furnace,

over a roaring forge fire, or in the superheated confines

of a locomotive’s fire box. These could be unpleasant

conditions….” 9

6 Richard Butcher, The Great Eveleigh Railway ong>Workong>shops, Sydney, 2004, p 205

7 Henry Lawson, Two Boys at Grinder Bros, from A Campfire Yarn: Complete ong>Workong>s 1885-1900, p 199

8 Henry Lawson, Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock, from A Campfire Yarn: Complete ong>Workong>s 1885-1900, p 201

9 Butcher, op.cit., p 206

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At the Centre of Community Life

Eveleigh workshops also provide a clear illustration of

the distinctive role of the railways in their communities

and the links between work, communities, industrial and

political activity. Their position as a major employer

contributed to the growth of the working class suburbs

around them, and the life within those communities.

It has been noted earlier in this book that the relationship

between the workshops and the political life of the state

was particularly strong. With more than 25

parliamentarians coming out of the workshops, among

them Premiers McGowan, McKell and Cahill. This

relationship cannot be separated from the close

community ties, the religious and social networks and

kinship that existed in these neighbourhoods. The

railway communities around the workshops not only

supplied the parliaments with significant numbers of

members, they directly shaped and influenced their

political views and were electorally well placed to hold

them accountable at the ballot box.

The networks that made up the ‘railway family’ in these

communities, were not only political in nature. The

neighbourhood, sporting, and religious engagements all

went to the shaping of the identities of the

neighbourhoods, the people who lived in them and in

turn, the values and practices that went with them into

the workplace. In situations where generations of

workers are employed in the same location (fathers,

grandfathers, sons, brothers, cousins, often all working

in the workshops), there is a particularly strong bond

between the issues of the workplace and those of the

community around it.

Stan Jones is a typical example of the closeness and

overlap of these networks. He went to work in Eveleigh

in the mid-1920s, where he “joined his father who was

a boilermaker, and his uncle and cousins who were

moulders and machinists. ……. Neighbourhood

networks were fundamentally affected by such

overlapping bonds of family, class and workplace.

…Like his father, Jones was born in Redfern where he

lived with his family in Wells Street. His aunt lived next

door, while his grandfather and other members of his

extended family lived in Eveleigh Street, almost

immediately behind.” 10

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These networks also extended to a range of social

activities, including parties, dances, church meetings

and sporting events. The identity of the workshop

workers seems to be as much defined by their

experiences in the workshops, as in their local

communities and neighbourhood. They proudly

celebrated their common work, their sporting heroes and

their civic and political leaders.

Red Square and ong>Workong>shop Politics

ong>Workong>shop Apprentices

The uses of space for industrial meetings at the

workshops were a powerful means for the workers, their

unions and political leaders, to not only cultivate a sense

of cross-sectional class identity and solidarity, but also

as an act of defiance and claim of territory and terrain.

Particularly after the events during the 1917 general

strike, in which Eveleigh and the Randwick Tram

workshops played a central organising role and the

subsequent formation of rank and file shop committees,

workplace meetings staked a claim on the industrial

space. During the 1920s, the Australian Railways Union

was holding regular gate meetings, then lunch-hour

meetings within the workshops. These general meetings

of the shop committees were not limited to sectional or

work area specific issues, making them dangerous from

the perspective of the Railway Commissioners. 11

Many of the meetings were deemed ‘political’ by the

Railway Commissioners and prohibited union officials

from addressing such meetings on railway premises in

1930. As Taksa describes, this gave rise to a very

interesting and bold use of public space immediately

outside or at the entrances to the railway premises, as the

sites for protest and industrial action. Politicians such as

Scullin and Jack Lang chose the Eveleigh gates to

deliver their policy and election speeches in the 1920s

and 1930s.

10Lucy Taksa, Labour Politics at the Eveleigh Railway ong>Workong>shops, in Markey (ed), Labour and Community: Historical Essaya,

University of Wollongong Press, 2001, p62

11Lucy Taksa, ‘Pumping the Life-Bl;ood into Politics and Place’: Labour Culture and the Eveleigh Railway ong>Workong>shops, Labour

History, No 79, November 2000, Pp 11 – 34

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Taksa argues that the mass meetings enabled Eveleigh’s

employees to revamp the terrain on which they engaged

in struggle over their rights, because they fostered

industrial links across occupations and spatial

connections between different parts of the workshops. 12

The refusal to allow such meetings became a source of

conflict and contest of its own. The more workers were

denied access to each other, the labour movement and

their political affiliates, the more they sought it as a

means of asserting their own cultural and political


“Annual leave was one week each year, and there was

no long service leave! Small wonder that there was

confrontations between the workers and the

management. ……..There was havoc at times, as many

workers, ultra strong in their beliefs, proved to be fine

speakers at the union meetings held in what became

labeled ‘Red Square’ the area in front of the First Aid

Centre and near the foundry and first aid room.“ 13 The

company and official name for it was Ambulance


Red Square became a crucial space of defiance and

resistance, it became the workers ‘borderlands’ that they

could occupy and defend and attack the employer’s


“There were a number of interest groups that had a level

of ‘unofficial power’ within the workshops. In some

workshops the Masonic Lodge ruled with a closed fist;

whilst in others, like the Large Erecting Shop for

example, the Catholics held sway. On top of this there

was the right wing Australian Labor Party and groups of

Communists as well.” 14


Outside Eveleigh ong>Workong>shops

By the 1950s the success of the protest space mapped

out by the workers was officially acknowledged by the

approval of permanent facilities at the back of Red

Square for use as a meeting room by shop committees

and union officials.

Manufacturing Trains, Aircraft , Tanks

and Face Masks

The workshops were initially involved in repairing and

maintenance of locomotives and rolling stock imported

from overseas. From 1905 Eveleigh was involved in the

construction and manufacture of railway stock. The

opening of the new Chullora workshops, in the 1920s,

saw most of these activities transferred, with Eveleigh

focusing on repair and maintenance and the manufacture

of tools. However, Eveleigh was later to resume some

locomotive building activities such as the construction

of the famous 38 class engines (numbered from 3806 to

3830), between 1945 and 1949 and the 58 class freight

engines between 1950 and 1952. 15 The workshops

would also be called on during the wars for munitions

and manufacture of aircraft and tanks, as well as

providing face masks during the influenza epidemic in


Building Locomotivess

For the first half century of the New South Wales

Railways, locomotives and most rolling stock was

imported from overseas (predominantly Britain and the

Unites States). Some early contracts were given to

Mort’s Dock and others to manufacture rolling stock

locally, but mostly it was considered too costly and

uncompetitive to engage in local manufacture.

Some of these early attempts, for example, the contracts

awarded to Thomas Wearne in 1893 to build engines, of

which only four part completed engines were finished,

were taken to Eveleigh and completed.

The workshops industrial and political activism,

particularly through their unions and the Labor Council,

was critical in influencing the NSW government's

decision to manufacture locomotives at Eveleigh

between 1906 and the mid-1920s.

An important figure in this outcome was J.S.T.

McGowan, a devoted trade unionist whilst employed as

a boilermaker at the railway workshops later member for

12Lucy Taksa – Spatial Practices and the struggle over ground at the Eveleigh Railway ong>Workong>shops, Seventh National Labour

History Conference, ANU Canberra, 2001, p234

13Richard Butcher, op.cit., p210

14Butcher, op.cit., p 210

15See Preston, op.cit., p 13

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Redfern and first Labor Premier of NSW. Throughout

1905, the issue of local production was intensely

debated in the parliament, the press and between

Premier Carruthers and his Railway Commissioners.

McGowan actively opposed the introduction of

piecework, bonus systems and spoke on behalf of public

sector engineering workers, before a Royal Commission

which inquired into the possibility of public sector

manufacturing in 1904. A compelling part of the

argument put forward for local production, was the

relationship and networks between the workshops, the

broader communities and labour movement. The

majority report of the Royal commission concluded that

the machinery and plant at Eveleigh workshops is

eminently suitable for economically manufacturing

locomotives with the addition of some machinery and

accommodation.’ 16

The Royal Commission recommended that the

manufacture of locomotives and rolling stock should be

undertaken locally and the workshops commenced this

undertaking the following year. The first contract was

awarded to the Clyde Engineering Company, but these

were soon extended to Eveleigh and some of the other

main workshops. During this time, Eveleigh and other

workshops manufactured a range of engines and rolling

stock, with approximately 150 locomotives being

produced at Eveleigh between 1906 to the early 1920s.

Wartime Production

In World War 1, the railways workshops performed a

range of munitions works, producing heavy artillery

shells and guns. By the time of the Second World War

they were called on for a larger manufacturing effort.

At this time, the workshops undertook a range of

munitions work as well as the construction and

manufacture of aircraft, tanks and components and

parts, as well as equipment like radar. During the 1940s,

2000 men and women were employed on aircraft

production at Chullora alone. 17

Assembly of tanks began in 1941 at Chullora. During

this time Eveleigh built three experimental tanks and

three production tanks. The workshops completed the

manufacture of some 54 tanks and work on

modifications and components for other tanks had been

carried out. The workshops were also heavily involved

in production of guns and ammunition. 18

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Natural Disasters

16Gunn, op. cit., p 250

17Gunn, op.cit., Pp 377-378

18Ibid. 19NSW Railway & Tramway Magazine, March 1919, cited in Gunn pp 289-290

Carriage Building

During 1919, NSW was swept by a severe influenza

epidemic and drought. On the one hand, these

significantly affected the traffic and revenue of the

railways, with starving stock dying on the farm, and

massively reduced passenger movements in the

metropolitan areas, due to widespread illness and fear of

infection. On the other hand, the railways played a

crucial role in meeting demands for medical equipment

and facilities.

The Randwick and Eveleigh workshops carried out a

program by the Department to manufacture face masks

for the health authorities and railway workers. “In one

weekend almost 64,000 masks were made to equip

railway and tramway staff throughout the state. ….

Experimental railway cars were equipped with

‘inhalation chambers’ using an atomizer, a glass jar

filled with disinfectant and a supply of compressed air in

the fight against the influenza threat.” 19

Machine Shop

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Enterprising Characters

There is an almost endless list of tales, tall

and true and characters larger than life, that

flow from the workshops. Richard Butcher

provides some examples from his time at


“There were always a number of

‘characters’ at Eveleigh; men who were, at

times more enetertaining than the old Tivoli.

There were strange nicknames given to such

men: silly, laughable and often selfexplanatory

names like Knuckle Head, Hairy

Harry, Moose Head, Weary Willy, Dopey,

Bill the Dill, Baldy, Greasy Joe and

Scatterbrain. Other nicknames were more

esoteric: Tic-Toc, who liked clocks and repaired them;

Plonky, who liked to drink too much; Hungry Norman,

who wanted all the overtime he could get; Magic Eye,

who was cross-eyed; Paddles, who walked with his feet

spread outwards; Slappy Jack, a rough machinist of the

‘she’ll be right mate’ variety; Red Dean, a red hot

communist; and Tapper, who was a young chap who

constantly seemed to be tapping everything with a

hammer. Each workshop had its ‘actors’, odd people

and, of course, its storytellers: some had travelled the

world; others just talked as if they had.” 20

“Other men ran small businesses: the hair cutters or

hairdressers were outside Blacksmiths No 1 shop,

hidden behind a tarpaulin and three furnaces with a

curtain draped to hide the activity. Here they charged 2

shillings and 6 pence for a haircut with some powder on

the neck thrown in. There was a bit of competition so at

other workshop locations a hair cut could be obtained

for considerably less if a person was prepared to

‘travel’“. 21

While many of those who spent their working lives in

the workshops have fond memories of the lighter and

more enjoyable moments, these recollections are

constantly overshadowed by the dirt, the dust, the heat

and dangers awaiting every activity.

“The analysts from the Wilson Street laboratories

discovered, years later, that the area was laced with

cyanide, with micro particles layers on all the overhead

beams and structures. We smiths were tough men but we

certainly didn’t know any better, either’ 22

20 Butcher, op.cit., Pp 206-207

21 Butcher, op.cit., p 206

22 Ibid., p 207

23 Ibid., p 210


Art Show, Eveleigh

Social Activities

Red Square was the gathering place for social and

political activity, and the site of many a heated union

meeting. It was also the stage and ampitheatre for many

performances and social activities.

“One Eveleigh union man I vividly remember, Jeff

Aldridge, told me about the Eveleigh Brass Band. Jeff

said they played at times in Red Square and he said the

band was an important link between the worker and

society. ……Each week a band recital took place in Red

Square.” 23

Butcher recalls also that once a month workers gained

an additional extended lunch period (of about 20

minutes) to be entertained by performing artsists,

organised by the Shop Committee – artists as diverse as

Yehudi Menuhin and Rolf Harris, Johny O’Keefe, Roger

Woodward and possibly even Dame Joan Sutherland,

performed at Eveleigh.

Other entertainment included, at least from the 1930s to

the 1950s, regular boxing tournaments and at other

times a movie was screened . The workshops and their

social activities spilled over into their community

activities through cricket and football teams, local

competitions between different workshops. To close on

Lucy Taksa’s metaphor of a ‘bed of roses’, the working

conditions and politics of the workshops were mostly

thorny, where the social pursuits, including hotly

contested flower shows, expose the soft underside of the

workshops culture.

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A Day in the Life

-Eveleigh Amenities

Extracts from The Eveleigh Locomotive ong>Workong>shops Story, RG Preston, ARHS, 1977

The first staff worked a 48 hour week and this was spread over six days. In time this reduced to 44 hours, in

1982 – 38 hour week.

Amenities were a constant source of negotiation. The original toilets were wooden seats separated by timber

partitions. Under each block was a sloping trough through which water flowed. At the start of each shift, a

designated employee turned the tap to start the clearing flow. Some of the toilets were set in a block on an

elevated mezzanine floor. One of the pranks of the time was for the apprentices to wait until the stalls were full

of the more senior tradesmen. A lad would take a ball of paper, light it and drop it into the running water then

run from the scene. Yells and roars rent the air as the water carried the ball of flame under each of the seats.

One manager became concerned that staff were taking too long to complete their daily constitutional. An

elderly employee, noted for his honesty, was positioned at the entrance to the toilet area and, as each employee

went in, his name, token number and the time were entered in a book. Upon his reappearance, the time was

again noted and woe betide anyone who stayed beyond three minutes! Similarly, only one visit per day was

permitted and any staff requiring a second call had to bring a note from his sub-foreman explaining the

circumstances. (p 18)

Morning tea and lunch time involved another strange ritual. On starting work, each man who wanted tea placed

his billy on a ladder like rack near the sign on point. A few minutes before the meal break, two Shop Boys

would fill large watering cans with hot water and fill each billy on the rack. ……. Morning tea was announced

by a bell at 9 am and ended by another at 9.10. A period of two minutes was allowed before lunch to wash

hands before the meal could commence at 12 noon. A warning bell rang at 12.28 and all had to be at work for

the 12.30 bell. (p20)

In the early period, trade and labouring staff wore trousers and shirts. Most wore waistcoats and nearly

everyone sported a hat. Many had a tie carefully tucked behind the waistcoat to avoid becoming tangled in

machinery. Senior trades often wore a bowler hat. These were essential attire for supervising staff who also

wore coats. The Manager and Senior Staff wore suits and hats……….For the fitters working in the greasy

conditions under locomotives, a paper hat became the norm. Folded from the previous day’s newspaper, they

could be thrown away when grime and perspiration finalised their usefulness. (pp 20-21)

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Inside Enfield Signal Box

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In the Signal Box

“Since the first train ran in New South

Wales in 1855 some form of signalling

had always been used to control

movements and ensure safeworking.

Initially, semaphore signals were

positioned at stations. Wooden arms fixed

to the top of a long pole were worked

from levers at the base……Gradually,

more sophisticated forms of signalling

were introduced as new lines were added

to the system and marshalling yards

expanded. Signal boxes equipped with

batteries of tall levers became a familiar

aspect of rail operations. These levers

controlled the points on the track,

directing the movement of trains into the required line.”


Signal lamps were kerosene-filled and required a

properly trimmed wick to burn for 7 days continuously

and to exhibit the correct light to the signal arm glasses.

These were awkward in windy conditions, especially

when you had to replace signal lamps attached to high

signal posts. The signal poles were often over 40 feet


A 1939 article in the ARU journal RailRoad described

the requirements, status and work of the signalman.

“From the day he steps into the signal box until he

retires, he is subject to periodical examinations in

safeworking, eyesight, hearing and medical. So stringent

are some of these examinations that any signalman not

found in perfect health is immediately removed from the

signal box and reduced to the grade of porter.

Bells and telephones are ringing, answering them and at

the same time attending to the big cumbersome looking

lever machines or even the more complicated power

machines. And I am not surprised to see signalmen

walking out of the signal box tired and weary after eight

hours of duty – frequently taking their lunch home with

them just as they brought it.” 2

A pamphlet produced by the newly formed Signalmen’s

Progress Committee of the ARU, details some of the


employment conditions prevailing during the 1930s.

Firstly, no person could be appointed to a Signalmen’s

grade until they were 21 years of age.

“To become a signalman in this period, men had to be

fully qualified in all systems of safeworking in operation,

irrespective of whether they were to obtain a job that did

not require such qualifications. Junior Porters were

required to study in their own time, or attend classes at

Railway Institutes, and were required to be fully

qualified in safeworking or other railway subjects such

as Coaching and Goods Accounts, before attaining 21

years of age. Should they fail to do so, or show no

inclination or attempt to qualify, they were dismissed –

sacked – at 21 years, or alternatively employed in the

Carriage Cleaning Sheds.” 3

The classification of signalmen and signal boxes was

based on a ‘marks’ or points system adopted from

England. The formula would allocate marks for different

aspects of box working. For example, to manually pull

over and replace lever in normal position (2 marks);

swing vehicular gates over crossings and swing back

across the road (5 marks); at a signal box where

overhead section switch indicators are provided which

necessitates prompt action being taken in the event of

interruption to power (25 marks). The formula would be

used to classify the box and the grade paid for working

the box, which caused a lot of disparity between grades

and concern from workers on the grading system. 4

1 Hearn, op.cit., p132

2 Railroad, 21 February, 1939

3 ARU Pamphlet, cited in Maurie Mulheron, 50 Years of signalling: History of the Signalmen’s Section, ARU NSW, 1936 –1986, p12

4 Mulheron, op.cit., ong>Chapterong> 1

Signal Box Wollongong 1902

(Wollongong Library/Illawarra

Historical Society)

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Men On the Wall

“The train-control officer was generally referred to as

the ‘man on the wall’, for in smaller station offices and

signal boxes, that is where the control phone with its

imperious ring was mounted. In Albury, the officer on

duty had two ‘men on the wall’, besides Junee Control

[Juco], to confer with, the Victorian control officer

overseeing the standard gauge board in distant Spencer

Street could also summon us at will from what was

known as Centrol.” 5

At some locations where there were Distant and Home

Signals, there would be indicators in the signal box,

showing the position of the arms on the Distant Signals.

The indicator would contain coloured sections with the

words stop (red), wrong (white) and clear (green) with a

small handle pointing to the position that the signal arm

was indicating. The signal box used various forms of

communications from telegraphy, to morse code, to

internal telephones using different numbers of rings to

relay messages.

In many country locations, the smaller signal boxes

were also worked by assistant station masters or

safeworking station assistants, as part of their normal

duties. Thus, the skill requirements and duties at country

stations pre-dated any modern concepts of multi-skilling

or multi-tasking.

In many crossing loops and single line boxes, ‘married’

quarters were provided, as well as single

accommodation, usually of a poor standard.

Nonetheless, rent was cheap, promotional opportunities

were slow, and signalmen would choose to remain in

these relatively isolated and difficult locations rather

than seek higher grades in larger centres.

Levers in Redhead Signal Box

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Maintaining the Signals

The Signal Sectionman and assistant were responsible

for ensuring the correct working of the signal equipment

(attending to the signal frames, points, locks and

mechanical signals). The signal electricians would tend

to the electrical workings of the signals (cleaning and

recharging wet batteries and maintaining telegraphy,

telephones and electrical signal equipment) and

depending on the box, many boxes were often

temperamental, and requiring regular repairs and

maintenance. These workers would travel between

signal boxes in their allocated section, often over large

distances, to keep the equipment and boxes in good

working order.

Max Harrison joined the job in 1971 and after working

at Chullora as an electrical fitter apprentice, returned to

Parkes and worked on a perway gang before becoming

a Signal Sectionman’s Assistant. The Sectionman was

Ron Caban, Max had to wait ten years for old Ron to

retire before he was promoted to Signal Sectionman. He

worked in this job until about five years ago, then

managed the team as well as the team at Dubbo.

“Parkes was a railway town, family and friends were on

the railway. My sister worked in the telegraph office at

Parkes, her husband was a guard, my brother was a

fireman on steam, my grandfather an examiner, my son

is a train driver, it gets into your blood. When I was five

or six year old ,I’d go and watch them from the overhead

bridge, put the penny on the track and watch the trains

flatten ‘em, the driver would oblige with a blast on the

whistle.” 6

Max and Ron were responsible for repairing and

maintenance, maintaining the kerosene lamps, work on

mechanical points and mechanical signals and repairs

after derails. They maintained signal boxes across the

area from Manildra through to Kyakatoo,

Cookamidgera, Parkes, Condobolin, Forbes , Bogan

Gate, Peak Hill, Naramine, as well sidings and crossing

loops . They were all manned 24 / 7 in those days.

“We’d go out with the two of us on a motortrike, camp a

couple of nights a week , take the bedroll and billy, then

trike out from camp on a two man trike. Had a

systematic maintenance – do the rounds regularly. Later

we had a car. It was a two man team – we used the press

button code rings, the phone on the wall, even tap into

lines along the track. Reacted to wherever there was a


5 Lloyd Holmes, Tales of the Rails, Australian Railway History, Vol. 56, No. 807, January 2005, p7

6 Interview with Max Harrison, June 2005

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“ A signaller in an isolated box would love to see you

coming….it was pretty lonely in some of those places,

they’d only see drivers for a few minutes as they passed

through, so it was a social call as well for these blokes

when we’d stop in and say g’day. The signallers were

good blokes, all different,. Characters – every one of

them in their own right , the art of conversation hadn’t

been lost there – they looked forward to sharing the

day’s experiences and a yarn.” 7

“Ron and I got on well, we’d look after each other.

Living and camping with your mate – it was close - its

like a marriage, it isn’t going to last if you didn’t accept

and tolerate each other. I lost a master key once – pretty

important – I wasn’t qualified to have it – we were

camped at Tottenham had a fire going so I said to Ron

‘you stay here, and I’ll go and do the maintenance in the

yard’, left the key and it disappeared – the Sectionman,

was disciplined – suspended without pay – I footed half

the bill / half my wages while he was suspended”.

Technology has changed a fair bit in signalling – closure

and rationalisation of signal boxes, largely replaced now

by remote controlling – in the area that Ron and Max

worked, all train movements are now facilitated from

Orange – with the use of satellite phones, mobiles, and

four wheel drive vehicles.

Later developments saw consoles with electronic

working, toggles and push button replacing many of the

old levers. Some signal boxes became modern

complexes with new equipment, while others operated

on a combination of toggle switches, automatic

indicators and manually operated levers. Modern signal

boxes, or Centralised Traffic Control, are now

computerised, replacing multiple, manually operated

signal boxes and many of the signalmen that worked

them. Through all of the technological changes and

moves from manual to more automated and

computerised working, the skill required to ensure

safeworking has changed, but has certainly not


Frank Cox was a signalman in Bathurst, joining the

railway before WWII and retiring in 1983, who claimed

that while there had been locomotive changes from

steam to diesel-electric, resulting in faster running, a lot

of the equipment around the station hadn’t changed

much at all.

7 Ibid

8 Interview with Frank Cox, in Hearn, op.cit., 135

9 Ken Ames, op. Cit., describing Katoomba Signal Box, 1951, p 11

10 Maurie Mulheron interview in Hearn, op.cit., p133


Train Control Sydney

“If you visit the signal boxes down here [at Bathurst],

you’ll find that they are still worked manually. They’ve

got the old levers, ……. And if you want to move

something you really have to work on it…………..When

I left down there, they still had the old, ancient telephone

system – wind the handle……they were very backward

with their equipment and changes.” 8

Inside the Box

“The signal frame had 40 levers, which included

signals, points and lock bar levers. The double line

safeworking system in operation was block telegraph

with starting signal control.

The signal box was well equipped with many telephones,

block telegraph instruments, and all the new gear to run

a good 24-hour signal box.” 9

Maurie Mulheron started as a signalman in Lithgow in

1943 “I liked the work, I was my own boss, I liked the

additional responsibility…….You worked your guts out.

Lithgow was a real hub of activities as far as the war was

concerned. There was the small arms factory there, all

the collieries and the coal and the traffic that was

passing through Lithgow had to be seen to be believed.” 10

Maurie was a leading union activist in the ARU. he was

Signal Section Secretary, and at one time Branch Vice

President, and was instrumental in some of the major

campaigns to improve conditions in the signal box.

These included the formation of new grades with the

introduction of the new ‘super boxes’. Another

campaign was around the reduced working week,

refusing to open the Eastern Suburbs line until such time

as Transport Minister Cox agreed to the reduction in


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The track diagram is a very important part of the Signal

Box equipment, as it indicates to the signalman the exact

location of points, signals and all train movements

within a given area. It shows the Up and Down main

lines, suburban lines and also siding points and where

these converge to and from the main line. The diagram

also displays lock lights.

“Green when free to operate and a white light to indicate

the position of the points, whether normal or reverse. The

position of the signals are repeated by a red light when a

stop and a green light when clear. Thus, the Signalman,

by strictly observing his track diagram he is able to

skilfully operate points and signals and promote

efficiency in the co-ordination of transport. The

Signalman’s technical and exacting duties frequently

demand precision judgements and he is responsible not

only for the safe transit of thousands of human lives, but

also of valuable live stock, goods and perishable trains.” 11

Former Station Master Ken Ames described the pride

and detailed care taken of the signal equipment. “In a

signal box, irrespective of the type of frame, all those

concerned with the working took great pride in keeping

everything as spotless as possible. The brass work would

be highly polished and all the glass windows and fittings

without a speck on them. On mechanical frames that had

the full-size levers controlling the signals, points and

facing point locks, extra care was taken to clean the

handles on the upper part of the levers. This section was

about 10 inches (25cm) long of rounded solid steel with

a steel locking pawl handle at the rear and were

manually operated.

This section would be cleaned back to natural highly

polished steel by the use of a special strip emery paper

supplied by the Railway Stores. A special cloth

approximately 14 x 18 inches (35 x 48cm), also supplied,

would be used by all employees using the levers to

prevent the salt from their hands coming into contact

with the polished steel and causing rust. “ 12

The signal box has always played a significant role in

the prompt and safe movement of trains within the area

of control. Barry Camage worked many country stations

and signal boxes before managing Train Control in

Sydney during the 1980s. He describes some of the

workings of the signal box: “there were the diagrams

that highlight the various positions of signals, then

another that shows clearance points. Another diagram

tells you which signals, points and lock bars that are

numbered on the diagram, tell you what your different

11 Mulheron, op.cit., p8

12 Ames, op.cit., p92

13 Interview with Barry Camage, July 2005

14 Hearn, op.cit., p135

15 ibid., p136

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

signals are, starting or ‘home’ or things like that. At

Tarana – safeworking systems included block telegraph,

on the Tarana to Loxley side – track block automatic,

Tarana Oberon, staff and ticket, different again – had to

know the different systems. It was a 32 lever frame at

Tarana – some of the down signals could be hard – had

a ratchet wheel you had to turn then an indicator behind

the signals to show whether it had been freed.”

Barry claims that the skills and technology of the signal

box and modern control rooms have changed, but

remain just as important in the safeworking of trains.

“One of the differences is that the signalmen in the box

had to inspect the trains as they went past for hot boxes,

or load shifts and the like, now the signaller can’t see

the trains, only see the movements on the diagrams. A lot

of the boxes have been abolished and centralised into

control rooms, and a lot of places don’t have shunting

yards, and the technology is much more advanced

now.” 13

A Woman in the Box

Mark Hearn gives an account of Pat Groves, who spent

about twenty years on the railways as a station assistant,

and in the mid-1970s became the Secretary of the

Station Assistant’s Section which is when she first

decided that she wanted to do the safeworking course to

better understand it and the terminology. From that time

on, she was determined to become a signalman, much to

the consternation and hostility of instructors,

management and some of her co-workers.

“When I first put in my application for the job in the

safeworking school, I was late putting the application in,

but in the meantime, the talk went through from the

department and back to the union and back to the

department. Finally I was brought in for an interview

and was asked among other questions, why didn’t I go

out, if I wanted to promote, why didn’t I go out as a

clerk. I said, ‘Because I don’t want to go out as a clerk,

I want to go out as a signalman’ .“ 14

Her persistence saw her become the first woman

‘signalman’ in the NSW railways.

“When I first went out as a safeworking station assistant

it was a slow job, but it was quite fast enough for me, as

I had never had anything to do with the operating of

signals, I’d never been in a box before …… each box is

a bit faster to the last box and you gradually get used to

the faster working of trains.” 15

Since 1977 Pat continued her career as a ‘signalman’

and remained active in the ARU until her retirement.

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Sydenham New Box



Electric staff

Ivanhoe Staff Hut

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Signal Frame, Enfield

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Fettlers Camp, Bonning (Bicentennial Copying Project, State Library of NSW)

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Hairy Legs - ong>Workong>ing the Lines

The Permanent Way

The perway repaired and maintained the line, a

continual job that was done in gangs of fettlers

(labourers or ‘hairy legs’) supervised by gangers

(foremen), over a given stretch or section of line. To

ensure that traffic could move safely over the section,

the perway gangs would constantly check for flaws,

wear, rotten sleepers, damage, sand on the track or other

obstructions that might endanger traffic.

James Docherty claims that the perway gangs were

permanent employees, not to be confused with ‘navvies’

who laboured under private contract on public works

like dams, bridge and railway construction. As Docherty

argues, “the navvies were men without women, billetted

in primitive all-male camps, frowned on by the wife of

the permanent fettler who lived a settled life in a home

provided by the department. There was no hob-nobbing

between the two groups, the wives of the fettlers saw to

that.” 1

While some of these distinctions may hold true, they are

too simplistic and nostalgic, and seriously discount the

lives and conditions endured by all members of the

perway gangs. The term ‘fettler’ and ‘navvy’ have been

used interchangeably in the industry and descriptions of

the work. Fettlers were not by any means, all married

men, living in permanent and cosy accommodation. All

accounts of work on the perway reflect that life on the

perway more often than not, involved isolation, rough

conditions and lack of amenities, with fettlers (and often

their families) camping by the line in tents or rough

mobile dwellings and shanty camps. While many ‘hairy

legs’ were single men, others shared the nomadic and

rough life with their families, who would live with the

fettler where and when the work took them.

ong>Workong> on the perway was notoriously heavy, dirty and

long work, performed under extreme weather and

working conditions. Tales of camps of fettlers in the

‘middle of nowhere’, living in austere and crude

accommodation (more often tents issued by the

Department, or rough camps consisting of lean-tos,

humpy’s and makeshift shelter), in remote areas. The

tents were prone to being blown down in strong winds,

or catching alight from sparks from passing

locomotives, in addition to other conditions that

accompany ‘camping out’.

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

On the Track, Bourke 1921

In reviewing their policies and results at the end of 1894,

the Railway Commissioners said that not only had they

improved the materials being used, but: “We have

supplied every ganger of fettlers with a tricycle to

enable him to move speedily over his section, and also

equipped the gangs over a considerable portion of the

lines with a new description of light hand car, to enable

them to move rapidly with their materials from point to

point” 2

These crude trikes were used to transport men and

materials over sections of the line and themselves

required considerable physical effort. For most of the

last century these were ‘human powered’ hand trikes,

later being replaced with fuelled and motorised vehicles.

Perway Gang, Darnick (Bicentennial Copying Project, State Library of NSW)

1James Docherty, unpublished Masters Thesis, The Rise of Railway Unionism, 1880 – 1905, Australian National university,

1973, p 36

2Annual Report of the Railways Commissioners, cited in Gunn, op.cit., p 228

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ong>Workong>ing the Section

Mostly the perway gangs were ‘out of sight and out of

mind’. The Railway Commissioners, politicians and

most members of the public, didn’t see them and mostly

couldn’t imagine their life. Strangely enough, accounts

from men who worked the perway not only give a vivid

image of a harsh existence, but also a pride in the gang

and the work. The hardness of the job and the conditions

under which it was performed, are almost worn as a

badge of honour by these men.

Describing some of the changes to the job, brought

about by mechanisation and new working, Jimmy

Burns, who worked the perway around Griffith for 30

years, describes the attachment :

“ I found it very hard – we used to have nineteen mile of

track each to look after. That was a ganger and four

men, to look after a piece of track. Well, that was your

prize possession ….. look out if someone else came

along and took a bit of material off your section or even

rode over it without your permission. It was like you

owned it. And of course today you own nothing on the

railway.” 3

Rex Sorby started as a fettler in an extra-gang in 1956,

at Woolbrook (between Armidale and Tamworth). “You

used to swing a big hammer to knock the sleepers off,

didn’t have a ‘pigs foot’ to pull the dogs – used to jack

the rails up in the air and go along with a twenty eight

pound hammer to knock the sleepers off…….When I first

started we camped in a six-by-eight tent. And they paid

us about five bob a week, I think, camping allowance”. 4

Mark Sheargold was a fettler in Broken Hill in the early

1970s. Things were mechanised by then and he worked

on mechanical TASAR gangs, upgrading sections

between Broken Hill and Parkes, mostly operating ontrack

machinery. His gang worked the 300km section

between Broken Hill and Darnick. He talks of working

in the desert in heat up to 53 degrees celsius and down

to freezing overnight. ‘When we were based in Broken

Hill you moved, worked toward Menindee, then relocate

to Menindee and work back the other way.’

“My first impressions when I started as a ’hairy leg’ at

Broken Hill.. the first day I went out in the bush, and

wondered ‘what the …. , no people, no shops, nowhere

to get a drink – after a while you started to enjoy it –

mostly the blokes, the cameraderie of the gangs (usually

3 Cited in Mark Hearn, op.cit., p156

4 Interview with Rex Sorby, in Hearn, p155

5 Interview with Mark Sheargold, May 2005

6 Ibid.


consisting of a dozen men 2 flagmen, ganger, machine

operators), the closeness and the drinking and the

interdependence, the isolation”. 5

In a wry understatement, Mark describes the conditions

in the desert as ‘fairly basic’. “Your facilities were

pretty much what you took with you – some shelter, an

eski to keep tucker cool, and something to drink. Even

then there was no sun block, hats or glasses, or ear

muffs, you supplied your own uniform – usuallly boots

shorts and a singlet Every ganger carried a small

temperature gauge – once it became too hot couldn’t

work the rail, not because the conditions were too hard

to work, but because it would affect the rail if they

became overheated.” 6

In many of the ‘bush’ locations, the main personal

contact was with the members of your gang, other gangs

and the local indigenous populations. Many of the

perway workers were also aboriginal workers, and most

speak of the closeness of the gangs without any ‘racial’

concerns. As one worker described it, the gangs were a

‘rag tag of people from all sorts of backgrounds and

from all over.’ Others reflect upon what the local

indigenous people must have thought about these ‘weird

buggers’ doing this work out in the middle of nowhere.’

Max Harrison was a thermit welder’s assistant – cutting

and replacing rail at West Avalon and beyond in the

1970s. Their gang worked west towards Broken Hill

‘out in the desert’ replacing sleepers, maintenance work

on the track, lifting rails and the like. “Then you’d have

to cut and replace the rail manually, hammer and a hot

set, pretty hard work, but you got used to it. In a normal

day you’d get your food and drink together for the day,

jumped on a trike – base wagon, that you rode

sidesaddle – rode the trike out to the worksite. There

Ganger moving gear by trilke

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were eight of ten in the gang, and mostly we’d travel out

and back during the day.” 7

Rex Rosser started in the perway at Peak Hill in 1972 as

part of the Regional Employment and Development

(RED) Scheme. Previously he had been a shearer for

about 10 years. He started in August and figured that

he’d pick up about an extra $100 which would provide

christmas for the kids.

Peak Hill was part of the Dubbo Division – which went

almost out to Broken Hill.

“Most of the work was manual – we travelled out each

day, up to about 50 or 60 km. There were about twenty

or twenty five in the gang, we’d do ballast cleaning,

tamping, re-sleeping – it was hard work, but most of us

were from a farming background - knew about hard

work and we weren’t afraid of it. Some didn’t last long,

they’d come on to the job and leave soon afterwards.

One bloke in a gang of mine started at Mt Victoria and

lasted 45 minutes.“ 8

Rex is quick to draw attention to how relative any

working conditions are and how one person’s misery is

another’s joy. He winces at the thought of some of the

work people are asked to perform on the railways that

are considerably worse than the physical work of the

perway, such as picking up ‘used needles on stations’.

He also tells of not believing the stories of conditions in

some of the cuttings, until working a week in one of

them. “There were cuttings that you would work and not

see the sun at all during the day, Some cuttings where

they’d only get a couple of sleepers per man down in a

day - and go through a new pickhead every two and a

half days – that’s how hard it was”.

Not Family Friendly

Stan and Jimmy Burns worked as fettlers around Griffith

and recount memories of the 1930s and 1940s and the

pressures on family life:

“It was tough and especially for young married men

working sometimes hundreds of miles away from their

homes and families. They’d work three weeks at a time

and make up time to get home. This was unreal. I think

it wasn’t so bad for the single man, but for a young

married man it was a shocking life.” 9

Mark Sheargold remembers feeling and experiencing

the isolation and distance from his family, when his

wife’s grandmother died . He was stuck between

7 Interview with Max Harrison, June 2005

8 Interview with Rex Rosser, July 2005

9 Stan Burns cited in Hearn, op.cit., p157

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

Railway vans used by fettlers families for accommodation, 1905

(Bicentennial Copying Project, State Library of NSW)

Ivanhoe and Darnick and it took him three days to get

home. Mark decided not long after this incident that the

‘ life of a gypsy fettler was not conducive to a good

marriage’, so moved across to loco, where the local

depot was only 100 metres from his home.

Max Harrison took the same view. He was a young man,

recently married with a young family. He decided to

return to Parkes and take any job to get back into town.

Initially, Max took the lowest job in the yard, oiling

points, just to have some form of stable and regular

family life.

Controlling the Gang

While some gangers had reputations as being a ‘bit

hard’, mostly the relationships within the gangs were

close and they worked as a team. The best ganger was

the one who looked after his men and this was mostly

the case. The protocols and supervisory skills may not

make it into the modern management manuals, with the

ganger often being the biggest and hardest man on the

team and prepared to enforce his instructions ‘directly’.

The perway gangs didn’t have much to do with other rail

workers – they mostly didn’t see train crews and others,

so fettlers stuck together and close rivalry and

competition existed between gangs.

Rex Rosser spent most of his 30 years on the perway as

a Traffic Liaison Ganger, in charge of gangs working all

over the state. There were no shortage of the traditional

ganger, who were used to having things done their way.

Rex found a lot of gangers were stubborn and didn’t

want to hear how best to get the job done.

“A Lot of them worked on fear and intimidation, rather

than leadership. There were too many people saying ‘go

on, instead of ‘come on’. I was raised with an attitude of

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seeking the ideas and opinions of others. Its easier to

get in and get the job done together, and people respect

you more for it. The stubborn ones who didn’t want to

hear the ideas of the guys would just do it their way, and

would often get it wrong.”

Alf Taylor described some of the tensions that could

exist between fettlers and their gangers:

“I was on the extra-gang at Woy Woy in 1933, I lived in

a tent, there was no morning tea or afternoon tea and

you’d have to be on the job – it may be three or five miles

away – and be out there by 7.30 am. The bloody gangers

in those days, if you weren’t finished your breakfast and

you had your billy on the boil, he’d come and kick it over

and you’d go – or you wouldn’t go. I’ve seen ‘em

fighting around the toolbox with dogs and metal and

everything, chucking it at the gangers.” 10

Putting Together a Gang

There are many stories of amusing and not-so-amusing

characters around the perway. Most recollections are

fond and of entertaining characters who would provide

relief from the hard work and make the day go more

happily and quickly. The gangs were made up of all sorts

of people, locals, newly arrived migrants, recruited to

the railways with little or no English language,

indigenous workers from the rural areas and people

coming in from surrounding regions. There was also a

period during the 1980s when women seeking equal

employment opportunity found work on the perway.

Most of the perway gangs employed a number of

indigenous workers. The Peak Hill gang of the 1970s

consisted of ‘Blokes from all over – Condoblin (100

kms) Dubbo, quite a few aboriginal blokes’ . Rex Rosser

recalls “Dibby Smith – an aboriginal ganger – all got on

really well, see we grew up with these fellas, if there

were any problems we’d always work it out. An

aboriginal bloke worked for me for almost 30 years –

I’ve got enormous respect for him - salt of the earth, he’s

still a mate today. I had more trouble with white people,

and Poms, than any aboriginal worker.” 11

Max Harrison describes the gang as “terrific blokes and

really supportive. There were three or four aboriginal

blokes in the gang, which was common. I still remember

them, Albert, Chikka and Larry… we all got on really

well, part of the team.”

Mark Sheargold also has tales of an aboriginal ganger

10 Cited in Hearn, p 157

11 Interview with Rex Rosser, July 2005

12 Interview with Mark Sheargold


Railway Cutting, Hawkesbury

who provided many entertaining distractions. “There

was this one character, he was six foot three skinny as

rake, aboriginal bloke – he’d spent 15 years in lock up

– now working as a traffic liaison ganger – workforce

and train control. He was a drinker extraordinaire,

tough and funny, but he was scared of cockroaches. He

would go walk about, just take off for a couple of weeks

at a time. When he was around he spun a great yarn –

very entertaining.” 12

In the early 1980s, there were significant campaigns

around equal employment opportunity for women and in

particular, in traditional male dominated industries. A

successful case was brought by a group of women in

Wollongong against BHP’s discriminatory employent

practices. Rex Rosser was the first ganger to have a

group of female workers employed in his gang at

Katoomba in about 1983. Seven women fettlers came

onto the job at Katoomba and women were later

employed in gangs in other locations.

“At first I wasn’t in favour of it at all – just saw it as

creating problems on the job and amongst the gangs. Of

the seven, four left pretty well straight up, another one

got pregnant. A lot of blokes weren’t suited to the work

either – swinging an eighteen pound hammer is fierce

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work. We gave one of the new women an eighteen pound

hammer – she lifted it and went down the embankment

backwards. The other three stayed for a while – they got

there and just found the work too heavy. One woman

[Tracey Wallace] stayed on in our gang for years – she

was good, she was a young woman, she wanted to be

there, she wanted the job, a good worker, she’d put in a

solid day on the jack hammer – didn’t phase her at all.” 13

Rex Rosser claims that most of the gang didn’t mind the

work and others would jack up – trying to do it easy.

“There was one bloke – ‘Skeeta’ that I knew before the

railways – I learned after a while that on every job there

was a ‘skeeta’ – a little bloke always crying about the

work, always complaining, moaning, whinging about

the job”.

The Perway Motel

The amenities and living conditions on the perway can

be generally summarised as appalling. However we may

choose to romanticise the rough and rugged life of

working the lines in remote locations, the reality check

is never far from the edge of the imagination. The work

involved continuous work on the maintenance and

overhaul of allocated sections of track, usually covering

vast distances and a long way from any recognisable

settlement. Starting at one end of the section then

working back from the other. The verses from Sandy

Hollow line, depicting an attitude of cheap human life

and concern for the more valuable assets such as horses,

continually come to mind.

Rex Sorby described the living quarters and amenities

when he was working at Guyra. “You used to have to

cook in a galley. Used to be an old chimney sort of affair

with a couple of sheets of iron around it, a roof on the

top …. It was also the only source of heating in cold

weather….We had these six-by-eight tents and the wind

used to start blowing across this great lake up there and

it would start snowing and we used to get out and knock

the snow off, shake the tents, so the snow would fall off

the bloody fly, so the tent wouldn’t collapse on us.” 14

In other locations the ‘perway motel’ would consist of a

camp of lean-tos and makeshift shelter, some would

have permanent, basic barracks accommodation and

others still, old rail carriages would serve as the

accommodation. All would comprise shared facilities

and amenities insofar as they were in existence. Those

workers who were on the perway in the 1970s and

1980s, also speak of the ‘portable accommodation’ –

and/or tents and the shared crude amenities

13 Interview with Rex Rosser, July 2005

14 Rex Sorby cited in Hearn, p158

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Social life on the Perway

Fettlers have a reasonable reputation for liking a drink

and enjoying the lighter side of the job when they

finished up after a long shift and hit the local pub or have

a few drinks at camp. Perhaps the origin of the term

‘hairy legs’, has more to do with camel-like drinking

habits than the shorts worn on the perway. All have

stories to tell of an array of interesting characters.

We’d socialise together – at lunch have a game of

euchre, play a game of cricket or ‘paddy melon bowls’

[paddy melon was about size of lawn bowl, played the

same alongside the track]. After work, you’d have a

drink, some who worked hard also like to play hard –

nearest pub was about 15 kms away, and its not like you

could go to the pictures.” 15

Mark Sheargold recalls a light moment at Menindi – “I

was enjoying a nice cool shower under a big overhead

watershed off in my own world. I didn’t relaise that I

was standing naked under the shower surrounded by

about 45 aboriginal women laughing at the skinny little

white boy.”

Rex Rosser also has no doubts that he and many of his

colleagues have contributed enough to have substantial

share holdings in the odd brewery. He tells the story of

a christmas party that his gang had in King’s Cave,

between Linden and Woodford, when they carried a keg

in on their shoulders for the christmas party, which was

enjoyed by all.

Trackwork, City Underground

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A report by the American consultancy firm Ebasco,

aimed at modernising the NSW system and reducing

employee numbers, found that in the Ways and ong>Workong>s

Branch, the Department employed 8537 maintenance

employees, 1801 employees in extra-gangs, relaying

rails and sleepers, and 6736 employees in smaller gangs

repairing and maintaining tracks, structures and bridges.

Then ARU Branch President, Jim Walshe, explains that

prior to moves to mechanise the perway, everything was

done by hand. “We had every four miles along the track

a gang fettlers, usually a ganger and four men. And all

they had was manual equipment, there was no such

thing as mechanical means of making holes in sleepers

for dog spikes or anything of that nature. Everything

was done by hand.” 16

The Ebasco report was the beginning of ad hoc

mechanisation and amalgamation of the perway into

larger gangs. Apart from the tricycles described by the

Commissioners in 1894, the 1960s and 1970s saw the

introduction of different equipment to make the work

easier and to reduce the required numbers of perway


Initial mechanisation included ‘spot air’ machines that

made holes in the sleepers for the dog spikes, these were

later made in the sleepers before they left the depot. In

time, there were also graders, spacers and slowly to the

heavy track work machinery that operates today.

Frank Slavin, the ARU western organiser in the 1960s,

points to the pride fettlers have in their work in tending

their section of line and how the introduction of

mechanisation was perceived as further devaluing this

and the quality of the workmanship.

“Most of them, strangely enough, looked after as if it

was a garden, and then when this mecahnisation came

in they got 40 miles of length with machines doing the

work that they used to do by hand. They no longer felt

pride in it because of the machines.“ 17

Year of the Perway

The conditions and hardships on the perway were to

reach breaking point in the late 1970s, with what

became known as the Year of the Perway campaign in

1979, which included the longest strike on the railways

since 1917. Prior to this, many workers on the perway

15 Interview with Max Harrison, June 2005

16 Jim Walshe, cited in Hearn, p 153

17 Frank Slavin, cited in hearn, p 155

18 ARU Journal Railroad, June-July 1979


‘just accepted’ that this was the job, or that they were

‘lucky to have the job’ and couldn’t do much about the

poor conditions.

In 1978 the union demanded an upgrading allowance of

$20 per week for members on the perway, to address

general conditions and additional requirements of the

massive track upgrading program after the Granville

train disaster. The claim also included an increase in the

camping-out allowance, improved amenities and supply

of protective clothing.

The union executive decided to focus efforts on these

grievances and claims by declaring 1979, ‘the year of

the perway’. This campaign is described in more detail

in chapter 3. Arbitration of the matter dragged on and

members started to become agitated at what they saw as

the Public Transport Commission’s delays. Stop work

meetings were held around the state and strike action

lasting ten days was taken in May 1979, action that

Transport Minister Cox described as ‘straight out

bloodymindedness, which virtually borders on mob


As with the escalation of feeling by the rank and file

expressed in other major disputes in the past, the union

leadership found the response of the men well beyond

what they had anticipated. The union leadership in

trying to contain the perway dispute to a planned

strategy responded angrily to rank-and-file actions and

propaganda. In a RailRoad editorial, ARU Branch

Secretary, Jack Maddox accused ‘union knockers’ for

the distribution of a Rank and File circular to striking

perway and signal branch members and misinformation

about the union’s efforts. 18

Mechanising Trackwork

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Arbitration didn’t deliver all of the demands, but did

result in a new award, with better career structure and

wage increases. To achieve their final outcomes, the

perway rank and file again took strike action in

February, 1980. In defying the directives of the union

executive, the perway men gained respect from the

union leadership and from the general industry that had

previously discounted the perway as the lower end of the

railway tree.

The general sentiment around the campaign can be

19 Railroad, June-July, 1979, p 4

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Did you ever give a thought to the Navvy on the line

summarised by a resolution carried at a meeting at the

Railway Institute in Sydney on 10 June 1979, agreeing

to return to work. “This meeting of Metropolitan and

South Coast Per Way and Signalling Branch members

recognises, that after 40 years of depressed wages and

conditions, our combined strength, solidarity and unity

has enabled us to win the first round. We recognise that

our struggle has only commenced and urge members not

to relax their vigilance until all our outstanding claims

are satisfactorily resolved .”19

The man who has to run his length, in weather wet or fine

He gets starvation wages, and lives in a wayside shack

To keep the road in safety, along the Broken Hill track

The summer brings its nursery, with dust and sandy blight

But the Fettler must keep toiling, to keep the track all right

For that pride of Mr. Hartigan, the Flying Diesel train

That shoots along at seventy-five, through dust or blinding rain

Now the Navvy has demanded a shorter working week

And an increase in his wages, and made the bosses squeak

About the mighty deficit, and revenue being light

But these excuses do not help the Fettler in his plight

So it's up to every Railwayman, in city or outback

To help the Navvy win his fight, along the Broken Hill track

If the Fettler must keep toiling to keep the track all right,

It's up the wages, shorten the week, or else expect a strike

(Anon, (1939) "Magnet" Newspaper of the Council of Railway

Shop Committees)

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The sun was blazing in the sky and waves of shimmering heat

Glared down on the railway cutting, we were half dead on our feet,

And the ganger stood on the bank of the cut and he snarled at the men below,

"You'd better keep them shovels full or all you cows 'll go.

I never saw such a useless mob, you'd make a feller sick,

As shovel men you're hopeless, and you're no good with the pick."

There were men in the gang who could belt him with a hand tied at the back

But he had power behind him and we dare not risk the sack.

So we took it all in silence, for this was the period when

We lived in the great depression and nothing was cheaper than men.

And we drove the shovels and swung the picks and cursed the choking dust;

We'd wives and hungry kids to feed so toil in the heat we must.

But still the ganger drove us on, we couldn't take much more;

We prayed for the day we'd get the chance to even up the score.

A man collapsed in the heat and dust, he was carried away to the side.

It didn't seem to matter if the poor chap lived or died.

But one of the government horses fell and died there in the dray,

They hitched two horses to him and they dragged the corpse away.

The ganger was a worried man and he said with a heavy sigh:

"It is a bloody terrible thing to see a good horse die.

There much too valuable to lose, they cost us quite a lot

And I think it is a wicked shame to work them while it's hot.

So we will take them to the creek and spell them in the shade,

You men must all knock off at once. Of course you won't be paid."

And so we plodded to our camps and it seemed to our weary brains,

We were no better than convicts, though we didn't wear the chains,

And in those drear depression days, we were unwanted men,

But we knew that when a war broke out, we'd all be heroes then.

And we'd be handed a rifle and forced to fight for the swine,

Who tortured us and starved us, on the Sandy Hollow Line.

(Duke Tritton, 1937. Sydney Bush Music Club.)

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Drainage Gang, Casino 1931

Viaduct, Lithgow

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Manual and motorised trikes, Condobolin

Fettlers Camp (Bicentennial Copying Project, State Library of NSW)

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Station Master Ingleburn, 1920 (Bicentennial Copying Project, State Library of NSW)

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On the Stations

The railway stations of the cities and the country towns

were the public face of the New South Wales Railways.

They were also the centre of travel and freight activities,

as well as community life. The people employed on the

stations performed a range of duties from porters

assisting with luggage and loading and unloading

freight, the ticketing and book-keeping, signals,

maintaining points, tracks and platforms. The

Refreshment Rooms or kiosks would service the hungry

travellers, while the larger stations provided

accommodation. The guards would give the ‘all clear’ as

gate-keepers tended the crossings. The goods and freight

once moved by rail covered everything from the mail, to

groceries, fresh agricultural produce, coal and wheat and

wool, to heavy industrial machinery. Most stations

would move the needle as well as the haystack. The

stations ranged from modest timber buildings to grand

and ornate public buildings dominating the centre of

many towns.

A Brief History of Sydney Station

When it was first opened in 1855 the main station was

named Sydney Station until 1905, and was colloquially

known (as well as in official dispatches) as ‘Redfern’,

reflecting its distance from the city centre in an area

known as the Cleveland Paddocks. This name was later

dropped as the former Eveleigh Station was renamed

Redfern in 1906, by which time a second station had

been built and was known as Central.

The original station was solely for passenger use, but

soon expanded to accommodate goods yards, parcels

and freight. The station was serviced by horse-drawn

cabs and buses to Circular Quay, by way of George, Pitt

and Elizabeth Streets. Later these were replaced by

steam trams. By 1864, the railways had reached Penrith

and Picton, requiring further expansion of station


Commissioner Eddy had requested that the terminal

station be moved closer to the city in the late 1880s, but

legislation for the new (and current Central Station)

wasn’t passed until 1901. The construction of the new

station required the removal of a number of buildings

and resumption of land around the site, including the

steam tramway depot, a convent, church, and a cemetery

at Devonshire Street. The first platform and two storeys

of the main building were opened in 1906.

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

Wollongong Station Staff, 1928 (Wollongong Library/Illawarra Historical Society)

Yards, carriage sheds and sidings, platforms and signal

boxes were added and remodeled to service the Central

Station. The distinctive clock tower was added and

began operating in 1921. The modifications continued

with electrification, and the construction of the

underground railway, signals and communications

advances. The station also boasted a grand Refreshment

Room. Eventually, the new station, which was separate

from the site of the first and second stations, was

extended in 1961 to go across Devonshire Street and

back onto the site of the old station.

The unfinished business of Central includes the two

‘ghost platforms’ or platforms 26 and 27, that sit above

platforms 24 and 25, complete with lighting, no tiles,

and space for track. Each has a short length of tunnel

from each of the platforms that lead nowhere. They were

constructed at the same time as the Eastern Suburbs

railway, in case they were required in future. 1

The impressive Mortuary Station pre-dates the

developments around the new Central Station. It was

opened in 1869 in Regent Street. It was one of three

cemetery lines that were operated by the New South

Wales Railways. These were the lines to Sandgate

Cemetery in Newcastle, which operated for 100 years

from 1881. The other two lines were to Sydney’s

Rookwood cemetery, opened in 1867 and the branch to

Woronora Cemetery opened in 1900.

“Impressive arches shelter part of the platform and

enclose the track. Hard sandstone is used for the

columns, parapets and arches while the softer Pyrmont

sandstone is used for the walls. …. Funeral trains,

1For a detailed history of Sydney Central Station, see John Oakes, Sydney’s Central, Australian railway Historical Socierty,

NSW 2002

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complete with hearse wagon loaded with coffins,

departed from this station for Rookwood Cemetery. The

funeral trains would also pick up mourners as required

at stations along the route. The line to Rookwood

Cemetery closed on 29 December 1948 and that to

Woronora on 27 August 1944. “ 2 Mortuary Station has

been classified by the National Trust and Australian

Heritage Commission, as a magnificent example of

colonial architecture. It was extensively restored and reopened

by Premier Neville Wran in 1985.

ong>Workong>ing the Stations

Many of the workers who built a career in the Traffic

Branch of the railways started as a humble junior station

assistant or porter, performing a range of often menial

tasks, from general cleaning, running errands, to oiling

the points and changing signal lanterns and indicators.

From there a person could move through the ranks in

signalling, take up a position in the guards van, or

become ASM or Station Master in charge of their own


Ken Sullivan joined the railways as a junior Porter at

Narranderra as a 15 year old in 1958. At that time in

Narranderra, ‘300-500 people worked in the railways

out of a population of about 3,000’ . His father and uncle

were railwaymen, so Ken had grown up within the

railways culture. For his four pounds per week in wages,

the junior porter would perform wide ranging tasks such

as: “working telegraph, switchboard, morse code – there

were no automatic telephones then – all code rings,

carriage cleaning, call-out of guards, wake them up.

You’d be taking train numbers and sending train loads

details to Junee control, clean out the freight vans,

clean offices, keep the fires up in the barracks.” 3

Lloyd Holmes, who retired as ASM at Albury after 40

years on the job, described some of the mayhem in

station communications and activity.

“Copious volumes of wires poured into Albury’s

telegraph office via a pair of teleprinters, giving train

loads from both directions, livestock transit advices,

passenger loads and Canas [standard telegraphic code

for the passenger count, first class, second class and

sleepers on passenger trains], Per Way speed

restrictions, loaded freight wagons to be diverted,

special train movements, delayed wagons to be

expedited, empty wagons and equipment book-outs, staff

and rostering arrangements, transit of corpses and

2 Ibid., p57

3 Interview with Ken Sullivan, March 2005

4 Lyod Holmes, The ASM at Albury, Australian Railway History, January 2005, p8

5 Cited in Hearn, op.cit., p120


dozens of other items to do with what was then a very

busy and diversified transport system, operating to its

charter of a common carrier…..” 4

The station workforce was mostly male (with the

exception of the women in the Refreshment Rooms and

related service), until the 1950s. Mary Stratton thinks

that she was probably one ofthe first women that

started on the platforms’. Mary was employed as a

station assistant at Town Hall. “Well, when I first started

on the railway I was doing barrier work…then I went to

platforms. I was doing platforms and cloak room and

parcels at Town Hall….you had to keep the escalators

clean, the stairs clean, the platform clean and the

control room clean, in between putting the indicators up

and sending trains off….and by the time you finished you

would be so filthy and exhausted. Then you’d have a

shower – oh yes, you weren’t allowed to have a shower

before you bundied off for your meal break.” 5

The Current RTBU Branch Secretary, Nick Lewocki

started work on the stations in 1963 He originally sat an

entrance examination as an apprentice fitter and turner.

The results were not good enough to get a job in Sydney,

but was later offered an apprenticeship in Broadmeadow

in the Hunter. Knowing how innocent and

impressionable he was, Nick’s father wouldn’t allow

him to go it alone at 16 and be ‘led astray by rough

types’. He asked friends about other jobs on the

railways, and in particular, John Melezko – station

assistant at Minto – who told him that working the

station was a good job. Nick then re-applied and went

through basic examinations and was successful. He then

went into the training program at the Railway Institute at

Devonshire Street for six weeks before qualifying and

going out onto Glenfield Station as a junior station


Wollongong Station 1950

(Wollongong Library/Illawarra Historical Society)

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Internal arches, Central Station 2005

Nick remembers his first day on the job when he walked

into the Station Master’s office in his heavy black wool

uniform and cap. He was informed that he had arrived

‘just in time for clean-up’ of the tickets, mess and broken

furniture all over the flloors from a burglary the previous

night. “The roles of the junior station assistant included

cleaning, cleaning toilets (still pan toilets prior to

septic) and painting the urinals, check deliveries of

every train that came in, and after the Station Master left

you sold tickets, answered the telephone and dealt with

parcels basically run the station as a 16 year old”. 6

Nick was working as a relief at Glenfield, so also found

himself working at Cabramatta, Liverpool and the

Campbelltown Line, and by the time he had finished on

the stations had worked most locations in the

metropolitan area. The Hurlstone Agricultural College

was nearby to Glenfield, and one of the jobs for the

juniors was to book the tickets and organise the luggage

of the boarders at the College.. “You’d load their

luggage onto the old parcels van – there could be a

thousand pieces of luggage a day when these kids were

going home for their holidays.”

Tom Owens, who started in 1927 and worked at Darling

Harbour from 1935, describes the regimented and

fastidious Station Master of the 1930s. “Jackson was the

Stationmaster, and they were 100 per cent in those days,

everything had to be up to date – they’d come to work at

half past seven in the morning and make a tour of

inspection before they went into their office – they’d go

right around the goods shed and up into the yards and

go through all the points and everything – all the trucks

in the yard, and get the dates of the tickets, everything

was done in detail. They even went to the loco and

checked the engines.” 7

6 Interview with Nick Lewocki, April 2005

7 Hearn op. cit., p 60

8 Dave Anderson, Railway Daze, Unpublished Diary

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

Dave Anderson, the Station Master at Hazelbrook

describes a lighter moment to some of this attention to

detail. “In the 1960s we had to do a collected ticket

return every month. God knows what bacteria were

deposited on these old tickets ! Some masochistic clerk

who wanted every collected ticket placed in separate

piles in station and number order decided this. Ted

Whitton, the Station Master at Blaxland, checked his

thoroughly, so one day I was concentrating on my pile of

tickets, dealing them out like a card shark into separate

piles. Suddenly there was a crash of a walking stick on

the window with the cry from an old woman who I

obviously ignored in my concentration, yelled out ‘Is

that all you have to do – play patience!” 8

Other work that had to be performed by station

assistants included having to polish the outside of the

diesel locomotives, carry out work in the yards to keep

them maintained and tidy, oiling the points, night shift

could include wiping down seats and inside of carriages,

cleaning and emptying toilets on the passenger trains. It

would involve assisting with shunting, and relieving in

the parcels and goods offices, as well as flagging on the

tracks. If you qualified as a safeworking station

assistant, after completing the safeworking school and

qualifying in safeworking, this would enable work in the

signal boxes on stations.

The conditions on most stations and yards, considered

acceptable and the norm, were very basic and

uncomfortable for staff. There was no running water in

the station, no staff ‘kitchenette’, lockers or fans.

ong>Workong>ing in the yard you might have to walk a kilometre

for a drink of water or to use toilets. As Nick Lewocki

explains, ‘it was hot, miserable and dusty, but people

weren’t jumping up and down about it, what was then

accepted as the norm nowadays would be rejected as

intolerable’. Nick describes having his eyes opened to

the benefits of unionism around some actions on staff

amenities in the early 1970s. “ A friend, Brian Bradley

– relief ASM said to me’ these are bloody shocking

conditions, Lewocki ‘why are you putting up with

them?’ – we’ll get the union in’. A union officer turned

up looked at the conditions and put in a call to get the

local Inspector - who was very nervous as the union

officer yelled and screamed and threatened to shut the

yard down. We got new wet weather gear for everyone,

new ballasts in the yard, and a demountable building,for

staff facilities.”

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He took up the issue of staff amenities when he became

a Traffic Industrial Officer with the ARU in 1979. The

union was well pleased when it first got permission from

the railways for staff to buy their own second-hand

fridge and have it installed on the station. After that, it

was decided that a minimal standard for staff facilities

would include lockers, stove, hot and cold water, and air



Cleaning cars, polishing brass,

Sweeping brake and cleaning glass,

Juggling samples, pushing brooms,

Cleaning point and sweeping rooms,

Chasing truck around the yard,

Waiting on a big fat guard,

Nipping tickets, collecting freight,

Shining scales and cleaning weights,

Unloading trucks, folding sheets,

Trimming lamps and dusting seats,

Climbing signals, trimming wicks,

Using shovels rakes and picks,

Turning cheese knobs, shunting train,

Pulling staffs, handling hoops,

Loading fowl and chicken coop

Loading wool and weighing truck,

Handling turkeys, geese and duck,

Dodging bosses, watching rail,

Loading parcels, goods and mail,

Selling tickets, weighing logs,

Way-billing prams, goats and dogs

Climbing ladders without fear,

Filling tanks and loading beer,

Pushing pens, and answering phone,

Filing numbers, labelling bones,

Filling tenders up with water,

Now who wouldn't be Porter?

Source: Allen Mclnnes’ book ‘Folklore of the

Australian Railway Man’, Railway

Review, February 1975

Goods and Parcels

9 Cited in Gunn, op.cit., p156

10 Ken Ames, From Grease to Gold Braid, Australian Railway Historical Society, NSW, 2001, p 47


Railway stations were a vital cog in the transportation of

all manner of goods and parcels, from small personal

items to heavy freight consignments. Stations goods and

parcels activity included everything from fresh produce,

livestock, personal items, mail, rail workers pay,

medical supplies, wool, coal, wheat, racing pigeons,

groceries to supplement the limited stocks of the local

store, mail order items and gifts. When they talk of

‘mixed trains’ that’s what they meant – a train could

include passengers, chooks, cows, wool, clothing and

footwear, fresh produce and a wide range of small


The issue of the railways being able to profitably move

a vast array of freight has always been a preoccupation.

In 1878, Commissioner Charles Goodchap reported on

the variety and classes of goods traffic carried. Firewood

outdistanced coal in terms of weight and was the leader

in the specialist categories, which included shale, hay,

livestock and road metal. While the jewel in the crown

was wool. “There is no large item of traffic which does

not contribute to our net earnings.” 9 The list of reported

lost or diverted items published each week gives a clear

picture of the diversity of goods transported across the


There were travelling post offices attached to the night

running, where mail would be sorted and bundled and

put into canvas bags and dispatched accordingly. These

were handed to porters at mainline and junction stations

for forwarding to their destinations. Some Stations had

large mail boxes installed in their waiting rooms to

deposit the bags of mail. Guards could deposit and

collect mail bags from these.

Former Station Master Ken Ames describes the situation

in Kingsvale in the 1960s – “The local store only sold

certain items and it was necessary to have our fresh meat,

bread, fruit, vegetables and chemist items sent out by

train. Burrow’s Butchery, Rendall’s Bakery, Favero’s

Green Grocer’s and Stewart’s Chemist at Young all ran

monthly accounts for country people and forwarded these

commodities daily, or as required. All railway staff were

entitled to have their foodstuffs etc carried free when the

address labels were endorsed ‘OS’ (on service)”. 10

While Darling Harbour Goods Yard was the central

location for goods and small freight traffic for much of

the life of the railway, this changed with the purchase of

the Seatainer terminal at Chullora in 1983 for

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development as the headquarters of all general and

parcels freight. The development of the Trackfast Centre

at Chullora was a reversal by the State Rail Authority on

its earlier decisions in 1980, and contrary to trends in

other states, to phase out small freight and parcels from

the rail system.

Station Regulars

In addition to the regular commuters that station staff get

to know in the course of their daily work, there are

others that see the station and the staff as a good place to

socialise and have a chat. Then there are the ‘characters’

that become known, the eccentrics or the ‘out of luck’

swaggies or homeless people to whom the stations

provide refuge as well as a social space.

“At times we have homeless men who are often

pensioners who travel around the system and get to

know the staff. Many are a nuisance, but one you

couldn’t help but like was Kevin. His hotel was the

deserted station at Bell. He’d sleep at Bell overnight,

then head to Blaxland for the for the day with me until 1

pm. Then he’d travel to Emu Plains to spend the

afternoon with the Assistant Station Master Dave

Sloane. I would put extra food in my bag for him and

would have to shout him a hamburger and chips until

pension day. After payday he might disappear for a

month or two, but like an old smell, and he did have an

odour at times, he’d turn up again.

11 Dave Anderson, Railway Daze, unpublished diary, p 7

12 Ken Ames, op.cit., p57

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Produce for market, Woodstock, 1906

One day before payday he was hungry and I was broke,

so I told him why not take up the metal grates on the

platform, clean out the rubbish, and maybe he’d find

some cash. He refused, as work was not part of his

lifestyle. He went to the loo and I took up the grate

outside the office, placed a crumpled $20 note in the

debris, replaced the grate and waited. He returned and

I explained how easy it would be to do the job. I lifted

the grate, rummaged around and with a look of wonder

I found the $20 ! Of course he immediately grabbed the

tools and cleaned the grates and found about $5.” 11

Ken Ames tells the story of the gentleman Swaggie who

would appear at Kingsvale every Easter. “All his worldly

possessions were carried in an old suitcase, on his back

and in his bedroll. He was an elderly gentleman with

snow-white hair naturally given the nickname of

‘Snowy’. As he was clean in his habits I used to allow

him to stay on his short vacation in the main waiting


He would do his cooking on an open fire a safe distance

from the railway station. Our visitor was never any

trouble and always cleaned up any mess that he made.

My wife used to send over a hot meal and other

‘goodies’ to help him.

On Easter Sunday he would attend the service at our

local church and although he wore an assortment of

crumpled clothes, they were always clean and his boots

were always polished. After Easter Monday, he would

just disappear into the night, as quietly as he came.” 12

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Have you ever stood for hours

On a cold, wet concrete floor

Clipping tickets as they pass you

Till your hands are stiff & sore

And when you roar out ‘Show em’

All the flappers murmur ‘Gee’

That’s the way we put our time in

Underneath on 23.

The stools are just to look at

Never dare to take a seat

Even tho’ your legs are weary

And you feel ‘all in’ and ‘beat’

For orders are you must not sit

It seems all wrong to me

So we stand and clip the tickets

Underneath on 23.

The lights seem placed to trick you

And your weary downcast eyes

Glance at the rushing tickets

As they swiftly pass you by

And a sleek-haired sheik from Carlton

Roars out ‘Let’s go home for tea’

As he shoulders past a flapper

In the rush for 23.

Of cranks there’s always plenty

Abuse—we get a lot

The ladies call you ‘nuisance’

And the drunks are pretty hot

For they always seem to wander

When they’re full of beer and glee

Down to where you punch the tickets

Underneath on 23.

But the trains will still be roaring

And the crowds still pushing past

When I’m old & aged & pensioned

And a seat I have at last

When I sit in my old armchair

By the fire, I’ll always see

The portals that are always rushed

The gates of 23.

(Anon 1928, The Ticket Collectors Soliloquy, "Railroad" Journal of the

Australian Railways Union).

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A Day in the Life

-The ASM at Albury

Lyoyd Holmes worked on the New South Wales Railways for 40 years, starting at Clyde Wagon ong>Workong>s in 1947 and finishing

as ASM at Albury in 1987. He recounted some of his experiences at a model railway seminar at Petersham in 1997. The

following is selective extracts from the article.

The Traffic Branch Depot Officer

“The requirements for a traffic branch depot officer on the Department of Railways NSW have always been demanding.

Among the necessary attributes were dedication, sobriety, patience, commonsense and practicality, a good measure of

omniscience, and excellent knowledge of the Rules and Regulations, both books of the General Appendices, relevant

sections of the Local Appendix and a more than nodding acquaintance with the Railway By-Laws.

Toward the staff he must show no favour, display firmness, honesty and not a hint of hypocrisy. Time had to be found to

lecture young employees about safe-working practices around a busy and dangerous workplace, and encourage them to

study for departmental examinations through the Railway Institute.

To the public, the officer should present the picture of a neat and competent representative of the system, courteous, friendly,

solicitous of their well-being and forthcoming willingly in imparting any information they may require.” (p. 3)

“As the said depot officer would almost certainly work night and afternoon shifts only, he had to accept the fact that he was

a social outcast and would always be short of sleep.

His family would learn at an early stage to tiptoe around the house in daylight hours, lest they incur the wrath of the sleepstarved.

He was a difficult creature, the depot officer, and while many aspired to the virtues listed above, few consistently achieved

them and just did their best in working environments that were most part, simply archaic.”

“The chargemen at Loco changed shifts at the same time as us, so early in the shift we would confer about trains, engines,

crews and guards, and forecast arrivals from each direction.

Room was the perennial problem in Albury, room to accommodate arriving trains without blocking and delaying the

departing ones……So, quick and early discussions with the shunters and signalmen were vital to make the best of what room

we inherited on each shift.” (p5)

While the majority of our time was taken up with freight train working, we could ill afford not to give the attention necessary

to the many passenger trains that came and went on both gauges. The Spirit of Progress was our busiest train, disgorging

and entraining not only sizeable human cargoes, but profuse quantities of mails, parcels, luggage and sundries.”

Problems with the Public

“Lest any of the ‘modern management’ gurus waving their business college and other qualifications jump to their feet and

challenge this subheading as sacrilegious, even blasphemous, for me to suggest, in this day of flowery jargon such as

‘customer-oriented’ services, problems and the public go hand in hand’. (p11)

“Shortly after I ‘took up’ in Albury, I received a call from the signalman at Albury South box, advising me that a young

woman clad only in a nightdress was sitting on the track at the southern end of the NSW platform. ……It was a very hot

summer afternoon with plenty of light remaining and I was desperately trying to get on top of the book and paperwork…

Not feeling at all confident about my skills of counselling disturbed young women who may or may not be serious about

suicide, I tried a gentle approach……If I called the police she might bolt and perhaps return later when it was dark.

……Thankfully, the incident worked out successfully and at odd times in later years I would see the young woman around

town…” (p12)

“…it was fairly commonplace that we would receive phone calls from one station of the other [on the Victorian side],

advising us that the train conductor wanted police to meet No 41 [Spirit of Progress] on arrival at Albury……We detected

a distinct lack of resolve on the part of the Victorian employees to deal with troublemakers in their own State, preferring to

carry on and dump them in our lap.” (p12)

“In this era, infatuated with the premise that privatisation is the panacea for all of society’s dilemmas, let no one deride and

ridicule the outstanding public enterprise that built, expanded and maintained our State rail system for 133 years from 1855

up to 1988, when the emasculation began in earnest….. Thus, the spirit of the ‘old firm’ will live on as will it’s largely

unsung, but very major contribution to the development and prosperity, of the State it so long and ably served.” (p13)

Source: Lloyd Holmes, Tales or the Rails, Australian Railway History, January 2005.

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A Day in the Life

-1960s – In the country

Ken Ames’ railway career spanned four decades from 1944. He retired as Station Master at Ingleburn on

medical grounds in 1986, after having served in the mechanical branch, then in the Traffic Branch “worked

in nearly every District except the North Coast, so I have had a full ‘railway life’ and done a lot more things

than the average bloke would not have done in his lifetime and unfortunately, the railway man of today is

unable to do.”

Ken Ames has maintained his interest in the railways through his involvement in the NSW Rail Transport

Museum and Thirlmere Rail Museum. He has also published accounts of his time on the railways, giving

detailed insights into the people and places of the railways. He is currently compiling another book on work

on the railways.

The following extracts recount instances when Ken was Station Master at Kingsvale (situated 228 miles from

Sydney via the South, on the cross-country connection running from Harden on the Southern Line to Blayney

on the Western line) for a decade from 1955, providing a glimpse into life around the country stations.


“We were responsible for the correct working of the station. These included signal box and complete train

working, attending to all aspects of coaching, parcels and goods traffic, attending to the goods and coaching

accounts and submitting the monthly accounts and returns…….Also the shunting, and cleaning and oiling of

all points, cleaning, trimming and lighting of all signal lamps. Loading, roping and sheeting trucks of wool,

attending to the loading and unloading of sheep vans” (p 46)


“The local store only sold certain items and it was necessary to have our fresh meat, bread, fruit, vegetables

and chemist items sent out by train”……..Suppliers ran monthly accounts for country people and forwarded

the goods as required. “All railway staff were entitled to have their foodstuffs etc carried free when the

address labels were endorsed ‘OS’ (on service) “ Ames p47

Fruit and Veg

The first fresh fruit consignment under the new rail loading system commenced. The orchardists brought their

small consignments up and were stacked on the platform, in a position where I could load the cases of fruit,

with the assistance of the guard directly on to the van for Darling Harbour. When the fruit season got into

full swing, I was authorised to employ a casual porter to assist, then later I was allocated a relief porter to

cover the heavy fruit seasons. (Ames p 61)

The Royal Mail

The Post Master General’s mail was transported by rail in the travelling Post Offices that were attached to the

night mail trains running on all mainlines across the state. The mail was place in canvas bags, sealed and

addressed. These were handed to porters at various mainline and junction stations for forwarding to various


Rail Pay Bus

On alternate Wednesdays all railways staff on the Harden-Blayney Line, including the Grenfell and Eugowra

Branches, be they salary or wages, were paid in cash by the paymaster travelling in the special rail paybus.

We would all have our pay dockets, so the pay bus would stop and pay the Perway and Bridge Gangs

wherever they were working along the tracks. At stations the men would present their dockets and be paid


Source: Ken Ames, From Grease to Gold Braid, Australian Railway Historical Society (NSW Division),

Sydney, 2001

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On suburban railway stations - you may see them as you pass-

There are signboards on the platform saying ‘Wait here second class;’

And to me the whirr and thunder and the cluck of running gear

Seem to be forever saying, saying ‘second class wait here’ -

‘Wait here second class,

‘Second class wait here.’

Seem to be forever saying, saying ‘second class wait here.’

And the second class were waiting in the days of serf and prince,

And the second class are waiting - they've been waiting ever since.

There are gardens in the background, and the line is bare and drear,

Yet they wait beneath a signboard, sneering ‘second class wait here.’

I have waited oft in winter, in the morning dark and damp,

When the asphalt platform glistened underneath the lonely lamp.

Glistened on the brick-faced cutting “Sellum’s Soap” and “Blower’s Beer”,

Glistened on enameled signboards with their “Second class wait here”

Wait here second class, second class wait here",

And the others seemed like burglars, slouched and muffled to the throats,

Standing round apart and silent in their shoddy overcoats,

And the wind among the poplars, and the wires that thread the air,

Seemed to be forever snarling, snarling “second class wait here”.

Wait here second class, second class wait here",

Out, beyond a further suburb, ‘neath a chimney-stack alone

Lays the works of Grinder brothers, with a platform of their own;

A I waited there and suffered, waiting there for many a day,

Slaved beneath a phantom signboard, telling all my hopes to stay.

Wait here second class, second class wait here",

Ah! a man must feel revengeful for a boyhood such as mine.

God! I hate the very houses near the workshop by the line;

And the smell of railway stations, and the roar of running gear,

And the scornful-seeming signboards, saying ‘second class wait here

Wait here second class, second class wait here",

There's a train with Death for driver, that is ever going past,

There will be no class compartments when it's ‘all aboard’ at last

For a long white jasper with an Eden in the rear;

And there won't be any signboards, saying ‘second class wait here.

Wait here second class, second class wait here’.

(Henry Lawson)

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Picton Station, 1963

Corrimal Station (Wollongong Library/Illawarra Historical Society)

Kiama Station 1905 (Wollongong Library/Illawarra Historical Society)

Qurindi Station 1890

Brocklesby Station

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A Day in the Life

-Chullora Railway & Migrant Camp

A Shanty Town That Makes the Railways Ashamed

In 1948 a railway camp for railway workers was established near the corner of the Hume Highway and Brunker

Road, Chullora, adjoining the railway workshops. The camp was on a 45 acre (or 18 hectares) site, consisting

of small huts for single men, larger ones (‘Chalets’) for railway staff (drivers, firemen, guards and conductors.

By 1951 the camp was known as Chullora Accommodation Centre for Migrants. The camp was established to

provide accommodation for railway employees transferred from the country and as the Secretary for Railways,

Mr Anderson said, “to meet the urgent requirements of operating staff, drivers, guards and shunters, at Enfield

locomotive depot and marshalling yards”. It was also designed to accommodate displaced persons relocated

under the United Nations Relief Scheme, and allocated work with the railway department.

Originally comprising approximately 20 huts, the camp grew to 640 huts, housing thousands of workers and

their families in crowded and primitive conditions. Most of the huts were one room of 10 feet by nine feet (or

3 metres by 2.75 metres) in size, with a fuel stove, 2 electric lights and 2 powerpoints. Facilities such as laundry

(tub and ironing board), toilets and showers were shared. The camp had an Australian and migrant section.

Migrants were generally Eastern European displaced persons, mostly from Poland.

“In a crowded, run down shanty town at Chullora, 1500 New Australian men, women and children live as

tenants of the New South Wales Department of Railways in 640 huts each one 10 feet by 9 feet……..Nearby

in 136 bigger huts, Australian workers live in accommodation whilst better than the 10 feet by 9 feet huts is

still substandard.”

“Only railway employees can be tenants. The larger units, officially called chalets, are reserved for running

staff drivers, firemen, guards and conductors many of whom have come to Sydney from the country railway


“Life in the 10 feet by 9 feet huts is primitive, because the huts when built just after the war, were intended for

single men only, the department provided only community showers, toilets and cooking huts. For the mothers

of families of small children they are pitifully crude.”

“The cooking centres consist of a galvanised iron shack with a low roof and a cement floor. In one, I saw an

open coke and coal fire, was burning under two long bars of railway track………At one end of the bars was

a camp oven, which looked as though it had not been used for months. It was the sort of cooking one would

have expected in remote fettlers’ camp, but not a big city.”

“Rent of the small huts is one pound a week, including electricity……Where a man has more than 2 children,

he is supposed to rent 2 huts at 1 pound a week each, but one official admitted that some migrants undoubtedly

have understated the number of their children in order to save the cost of an extra hut.”

“The original 10 feet by 9 feet boxes have taken on a new shape over the years as Chullora’s population had

grown from within, tenants have had added verandas, small vegetable gardens, kitchenettes, fences to keep

the children home and even car shelters.”

“ I spoke to Mrs S. Maka, whose husband is a fireman and acting engine driver. She came from Poland seven

years ago. Like all the New Australians, she had expected Australia to be an Eldorado after the harshness of

Europe……From camps in Europe, she came to Cowra and spent 2 years in a migrant camp there. She has

been five years in the 10 by 9 feet hut at Chullora. There are three small children.

The Makas have bought a block of land and have saved some money toward building a house. But as their

savings grow, the amount of money they need to start building seems to be growing ahead of them. ‘It seems

we will never have enough’.

“The Railways Department is well aware that it fathered a monster when it set up Chullora Park

Settlement……..The accommodation was regarded as purely a temporary measure, as the department had in

conjunction with the Housing Commission, a scheme for the provision of cottages for those employees and

others in the metropolitan area who were living in tents.”

Mr Anderson stated that “the department is already committed to very heavy expenditure in the maintenance

of the settlement and funds are not available for other than purely essential needs.”

Source: The above extracts describing the conditions of the camp and the plight of its ‘inmates’are taken from

an article (with the above caption) appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 April, 1957.

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ong>Workong>ers at Sydney Rail Yards, 1905

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Around the Yards

Trains need to be loaded and unloaded, and put back

together, require maintenance work, and regular checks

and inspections of their workings. These would mostly

be carried out in the major yards around the state.

Shunting wagons and carriages, to re-configurre trains

depending on their loads and cargo, car and wagon

examining to ensure that the rolling stock is roadworthy

and safe, faults would need to be reported and rectified.

Thus was the daily life in the rail yards. At one time all

major stations and junctions had their own yards to

perform these duties.

Now, with changes in the way that loads are configured

and dedicated trains rather than mixed trains, has

resulted in changes in the job and in the number of

locations where major shunting and examining are

carried out. Now the once discrete functions of shunter

and car and wagon examiners have largely been

subsumed under the unfortunately named classification

of ‘Terminal Operator’. By all accounts, many of the

past shunting operations in particular were also

‘terminal’ on too many occasions.

ong>Workong>ing the Yards

Mick Schmitzer is the RTBU NSW Branch Assistant

Secretary and Northern Organiser. In 1964, he joined the

railways as a 16 year old junior station assistant at

Cundle Cundle, just outside of Taree. He started

working night work at a level crossing, when the

gatekeeper knocked off at 10 pm. “ I did all nightwork

for about 18 months and got about twenty pounds per

fortnight. I lived at home and rode a pushbike about 10

miles to work. There used to be a show on the television

then called “Outer Limits’ - used to watch it and then

ride in the night in the dark for about 40 minutes, and

behind every bush you’d imagine one of those ugly

buggers – a kangaroo jumped out once and I reckon I

did the last five miles in about 5 minutes flat” 1

“I wanted to move on, so transferred to Newcastle. I

went looking for where I had to work, first to Hamilton

they’d never heard of me, told me to go to

Broadmeadow – same story never heard of me – you’d

better go to Tyrell House – the Pie Shop – Admin in

Newcastle. They told me I should be at Broadmeadow

Yards. OK – so I went to Boadmeadow Yards as a

Number Taker (still a station assistant class 1) – he was

1 Interview with Mick Schmitzer, April 2005

2 Ibid

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Enfield Roundhouse

the young bloke who took all the particulars down after

shunters were done, clean the wagons down, keep the

fires going.”

As with many other jobs on the railways, you had to be

over 19 years of age before you were considered

sufficiently mature and experienced to become a

shunter. “So, I became a shunter during the time of the

Vietnam War – when blokes we worked with were

conscripted, some didn’t come back. I spent the next 17

years as a wagon shunter at the one location – people

don’t believe me when I tell them– to get a promotion

seniority – once you became a senior shunter class 2 –

jumped ahead, if you didn’t move around – you tended

to get left behind in promotion. I decided to stay put – I

had a wife and young kids and didn’t want the

disruption of being a railway gypsy.” 2

Mick describes many of the working conditions as

appalling at the time, and the dangers of shunting in a

large yard using gravitational shunting, but also that

there were aspects of the job that were enjoyable and

satisfying. “It was dangerous, but it was outdoors, it

was physical, you kept pretty fit doing that sort of job.

Not just the coupling, had to put the air hoses onthey

could also do some damage if you weren’t careful –

there was a knack to shunting with hooks – had to get in

between to couple them but not to uncouple, and so on.

Things slowly changed with more automatic couplings

and things did improve. We weren’t allowed to work any

longer than ten hours – we were out in the open all the

time. It may sound silly but I really loved shunting, I

really enjoyed it.”

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Dave Morris has worked at Enfield for the past 25 years,

and remembers first going in to the yard with its 40 Up

roads, and 30 Down, and those in between, and

wondering how he would remember all of them. He

came to shunting through labouring at Lidcombe

Electric Depot, then transferred across to Traffic to do

shunting before ‘going out as a guard’. He worked at

Darling Harbour as a Porter loading wagons, before

attending shunting school. He started at Enfield yards in

1981.He abandoned the idea of becoming a guard and

settled for the more regular and predictable rostering

around shunting. 3

Enfield Yard was once the biggest in Australia, and also

relied on ‘gravitational’ shunting – releasing and

applying hand brakes and allowing the grades of the

yard to move the rolling stock – it was particularly

dangerous as the wagons and rolling stock could ‘get

away’ if they picked up too much momentum or a brake

failed. The shunter could be seriously injured or killed

working these conditions..

Jim Walshe, former ARU Branch Secretary, worked as a

station assistant at Town hall before taking on shunting

at Darling Harbour in the 1950s. He describes the work

at Darling Harbour as hard and dangerous with its

‘gravitational’ and ‘loose’ shunting movements. On

reflection he believes that the closure of Darling

Harbour yards was a ‘good thing’. It wasn’t uncommon

for wagons or carriages to ‘get away’ and end up in the

harbour. Whether working the goods trains or


Enfield Yard, 1930s

3 Interview with Dave Morris, May 2005

4 Interview with Jim Walshe, June 2005

5 Hearn, op.cit., p 123

6 Dave Anderson, unpublished diary Railway Daze, p 5

7 Interview with Mick Schmitzer, April 2005

performing coaching (passenger) shunting, it was

dangerous work. 4

“Down through the years shunting was recognised as a

very dangerous pursuit, and indeed the traffic award

recognises that, not only in shunting but also in guard’s

duties, by restricting the number of hours that people

can work in a shift …… and of course if you made the

wrong decision in a shunt, you could easily get killed

and many of our fatalities have occurred in the shunting

area.” 5

As a lighter aside, Dave Anderson, currently the Station

Master at Hazelbrook, fondly remembers coming across

Jim Walshe, then a guard on the job in the 1960s.

“ Another job was at Valley Heights where shunting took

up most of the day. In 1964 during my first shift alone it

was daunting when you consider the workload,

accuracy and decisions required for the eight-hour shift.

I walked up to the 46 Class to see a large Irishman, pipe

in mouth, mocking me with the words ‘Bluddy ‘ell – you

call this a shoonter? We’ll be here t’midnight!’

Jim Walshe was an imposing figure who made me feel

inadequate, especially the day when I derailed two

trucks near the fettler’s shed. Lucky the ‘fets’ were

somewhere else! But in 2001 I met Jim at a retirement

function for a Station Master. Age had shrunken him a

little. He introduced me to one of his friends and stated

‘We used to give him ‘ell, but we made a good shoonter

out of ‘im!” 6

The shunters, like other railway

occupations could be quite tribal and

rigid in their groupings, often

competitive or resentful even of other

shunters at other locations. Mick

Schmitzer and others refer to the

rivalry and ‘love/hate’ relationship

between the Broadmeadow Yard and

Port Waratah. “Shunters had their

own identity – stuck together. Don’t

really know why there was a tense

relationship with Port Waratah, we

were in the same section of the union.

We were a marshalling yard they were

a push – pull operation, and we

always called Port Waratah the ‘Old

Man’s Home’.” 7

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A Dangerous and Unforgiving Job

There are numerous accounts of horrific shunting

injuries and fatalities. Bill Sperway was working as a

safeworking porter at Grafton in 1940 when he was

seriously injured. “I was crushed between two trucks,

two carriages actually…… So I got between the two

hooks, the two hooks came together and I was in

between, so I broke four ribs back and front and

penetrated the lung and so on. So I was off for about

three months.’ That was of course the last of my

shunting.” 8

Mick Schmitzer recalls the dangers of gravitational

shunting, working with buffers and hook couplings at

Broadmeadow. “Hook wagons were difficult to couple

together – you had to bounce the truck in front of you

off the other one with the engine and you were in the

middle of that – quite a number of fellows got badly

injured and others that got killed. Knowing what we

know now about safety and if we had the OHS

legislation that we have now, we would never have

started a shift.” 9

One now famous incident was the death of shunter

Timm Dwyer at Enfield. The following extract

describing the circumstances are from an article on

former ARU Secretary Lloyd Ross by Mark Hearn in

ong>Workong>ers Online.

On 19 June 1938 Timm Stephen Dwyer, a 41 year old

shunter with the NSW Government Railways, was killed

in a workplace accident at the Enfield railway

marshalling yards in Sydney. Dwyer was found crushed

between two goods trucks.

The shunter's job was one of the railways most

dangerous, particularly in the Enfield yards - the largest

in Australia, containing over one hundred miles of track.

On a quiet Sunday, Dwyer worked along a string of 56

trucks 'through down departure into the neck'. Enfield

yard ran downhill, and a system of gravitational

shunting was used to sort the trucks and carriages into

trains of various lengths. The engine in front of the long

line of trucks was out of sight around a curve. Dwyer

was standing between two trucks when they slammed

together, leaving him pinned. An inquest found that the

coupling on one of the trucks was defective, and Dwyer

had been forced to get between the trucks to force it

loose. Dwyer's union, the Australian Railways Union,

was angry that Dwyer had been left to perform such a

8 Hearn, op.cit., p 123

9 Interview with Mick Schmitzer, op. cit

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Coal Wharf, Darling Harbour, 1969

dangerous task unaided. 'Sunday work at Enfield is

performed by the skeleton of a normally thin staff.'

Timm Dwyer had been an active unionist. Jack

Ferguson, the ARU organiser sent by the union that

Sunday to investigate the accident, had been signed up

by Dwyer as an ARU member in 1926. In the ARU

journal Railroad Ferguson observed that for the

managers of the NSW Railways Department, Dwyer's

death was 'merely an impersonal incident.' For

Ferguson, Dwyer's work mates and above all, for

Dwyer's family, Dwyer's death was not impersonal.

Dwyer was the father of two children, and Ferguson

recorded meeting Helen Dwyer, Timm's widow, and the

children, Robert and Barbara. 'If only those responsible

could enter the homes of the bereaved!'

Ferguson described how Helen had been informed of

Timm's death with 'callous indifference.' No-one from

the NSW Railways Department officially contacted her.

A young girl, hastening with the rough speed of bad

news, came to the door of the family home that Sunday

afternoon, and told Helen that 'her son' had been

injured. Realising that the girl was referring to Timm,

Helen immediately made for the Enfield yard. As Helen

rushed to the railway station, she was told by one of

Timm's fellow workers that Timm was in hospital after a

minor accident. When she arrived at the hospital she

was finally informed that Timm had been killed instantly

in the accident, and had been dead some hours.

The death of Timm Dwyer triggered an industrial

campaign to improve the conditions in the yards,

facilitated and reported by the ARU Secretary Lyoyd


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Ross demanded that the Railways department listen to

the need for action to prevent more deaths. In the

Railroad, Ross issued a challenge: 'Who says shunters

are not men?' A challenge to both the Department and

the shunters. Ross knew that he could not singlehandedly

solve the shunter's problems, and nor could

the union: the shunters had to help themselves.

Within a week, the Department made a series of

improvements for shunters - increased staff, a shorter

working week, provision of gloves (the shunters had

been grappling with the often greasy couplings with

their bare hands) and improved lighting in the Enfield

yard. Ross told the shunters that they had not only won

those gains: 'men', he said, 'have defended their selfrespect.'

…But the gains had been won at a terrible

price: between January and July 1938 the ARU's 'red

roll' recorded thirteen workplace deaths in the NSW

Railways, four of whom were shunters. 10

Shunters were a relatively militant section of the railways

workforce, and continued to campaign for improved

conditions in the yards over the years since the tragic

death of Timm Dwyer. One such campaign was for the

removal of buffers from trains. Mick Schmitzer became

active in the union and became the Shunter Section

Representative at Broadmeadow before later becoming

the State Secretary of the Shunters. It was the time when

Jim Walshe was in Newcastle as the ARU’s Northern

Organiser. “We were involved in a lot of campaigns then

with Don McKechnie, who was the State Shunter’s

Secretary at the time. We ran a major campaign to get rid

of all the buffers because of the injuries. Even when they

introduced automatic couplings they kept the buffers on

to save the cost of removing them. We saved them the

trouble, a part of the campaign involved ‘flying gangs’

that went into the yards and cut the buffers off with oxy

gear, and just dropped them where they were. We did get

rid of them.” 11

Shunting in the Rain

In addition to the congestion in the yards and the usual

hazards of the conditions, the weather caused its own

problems in many of the yards. The additional dangers

of work in wet and slippery conditions, with no or

minimal wet weather gear,gloves or other protective

equipment was compounded by flooding in a number of

yards. Jack Sparkes was an acting examiner at Enfield in

the 1940s, and describes the problems that came with

the rain.

10 Mark Hearn, Enlarging Personality – ong>Workong>ers Online Issue 101, July 2001

11 Interview with Mick Schmitzer, April 2005

12 Hearn, ong>Workong>ing Lives, op.cit., p127

13 Interview with Dave Morris, May 2005


Senior Shunter Paul Dalmay, Sydney Terminal, 1990

“ See that yard is gravitated. All the water would run

down the bottom of the yard to the out-going train

section and there’d be a great lake right across the

bottom of Enfield yard and when we rung up about it

they didn’t believe us. But on the high tide at Cooks

River it used to flood and it was in a shocking state, and

they used to laugh when I told them that I had to tie

sleepers up to a lamp-post to save them derailing the

trains going out.” 12

New Times in the Yard

Dave Morris estimates that in 25 years at Enfield there

have been about 25 managers, often external to the

railways and using it as ‘a stepping stone, or the one

their management career perished on’. While Dave sees

some of the changes made as necessary and some as

contributing to improved working, he is frustrated at the

more recent management approaches and strategies. He

decided to stay in shunting at Enfield because it was

‘close to home, the work was to a regular roster and the

money was reasonable’.

“The numbers of shunters has dropped dramatically

through changes such as block loading where it was

previously mixed, abuses of multi-skilling, and

combining the shunting and examining roles and

duties… The guys develop a loyalty to the job that the

company doesn’t respect. Until recently, the money was

O.K (before aggregate wages were introduced in the

Pacific National Enterprise Agreement), and you could

reasonably predict your wages and work times. With the

new work arrangements, you are all over the place and

just can’t plan your time and family and social

commitments outside of work.” 13

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Dave believes that the company is slowly ‘bleeding off

Enfield yard, letting it run down’. “It used to be busy

with a lot of different traffic. The volume has dropped,

where you used to get for example, 10,000 tons from

Botany now there is none. They are just doing

miscellaneous contract work through there now.”

Suzanne Molattam has recently been employed at Port

Waratah as a trainee driver. At present she is working in

the yard as a Terminal Operator. Unlike some of the

conditions described in this section, there is no

gravitational or ‘out of train’ shunting at Port Waratah, it

is all done from on the train. The work combines

shunting and inspecting wagons to ensure that brakes are

working, wheels are in good condition, as well as other

workings, and to check that the trains are made up

properly. The locos are taken off the train and put in the

fuel shed, and the terminal operator may have to ride out

on the train as a second person.

The approach to training hasn’t changed a great deal

over time. Suzanne describes the preparation for the job

Enfield Yard

14 Interview with Suzanne Molattam, June 2005

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as consisting of “two weeks classroom training, and two

weeks with a mentor. You have a handbook, and also

refer issues to more experienced operators for advice.”

The basic details are recorded in an allocated book of

dockets, usually with details of the first three and last

three wagons to verify that the train is complete, and

these details as well as any anomalies are reported. If a

problem is detected in the inspection or the checks in a

slow-speed roll-by, the train will either be recalled, or

depending on the problem, a fitter or maintenance crew

will be called in to rectify the problem.

With the new classifications and roles in the yards, some

of the conditions of the past may have improved.

Modern shunting doesn’t appear to involve the same

daily hazards as experienced by many in the past, and

certainly shunting deaths are significantly less prevalent

as a defining characteristic of the work. It remains to be

seen whether the new management practices and

approaches to the work make it any more pleasant to

work in the major yards in future.

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The engine bars are splashed and starr’d

They've killed a shunter in the yard.

“He never seen how he was struck

And he died sudden,” someone said

The driver coughed – ‘That flamin' truck

Came on the slant and struck him dead.’

The fireman chocked and growled ‘Hard Luck!’

As he was carried to the shed.

The engine whistles short and low

(his blood is on her ‘catcher-bars’)

We had to let his young wife know

His soul had passed beyond the stars

Where he will hear no engines blow

Nor listen for the coming cars.

She stared and stared - until he came

On four men’s shoulders, up the hill

She sobbed and laughed and called his name

And shivered when he lay so still-

She had no cruel words of blame-

She bore no one of us ill-will.

They’ve washed the rails and sprinkled sand

(Oh! Hear the mail go roaring on!)

And he was just a railway hand-

A hidden star that never shone-

And no one seems to understand-

Her heart is broken! He is gone!

The engine-bars are cold and hard-

They’ve killed a shunter in the yard.

(Will Lawson, 1898: Source "Freedom on the Wallaby" - M. Pizzer [1937])

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At Play on the Trike

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At Play on the Railways

Rail workers and their families ,as is the case in other

industries to a greater or lesser extent, often mixed with

rail families. The similarities in lifestyles determined by

the shifts and peculiarity of work on the railways, as

well as location and proximity, rendered this a logical

social extension.

The railways ‘family’ however, is also much more

extended than location or occupation. It is a bond that

extends to all parts of the country and amongst rail

workers around the world.

Max Harrison describes this phenomenon – as one

where you would never be lonely in a strange town if

you were a railway man. “You could go into the local

pub [most towns had a ‘Railways Hotel’], start up a

conversation, say that you were a railwayman, and

you’d be immediately accepted by other railway men as

a ‘lost brother’.” 1

The rail industry, as any other, is as much a social

phenomenon as it is strictly technical, industrial or

political. The social requirements and expectations of

workers and their families are essential to their working

lives and general well-being. A sense of belonging, of

being a part of the railway ‘family’ has been at the

centre of a rail identity. This was recognised early by the

Department and is reflected in the resources and effort

directed towards attempts to provide a range of social

and educational activities for rail workers.

Healthy Bodies, Minds and Attitudes

The Railway Institute was formally opened in 1891 to

provide education and appropriate recreational activities

for rail workers. In stating some of the grand goals of the

Institute, Sir Henry Parkes concluded his speech at the

opening with the following remarks:

“ I look to the Institute to do so much in the direction of

improving the condition of those connected with it, to

raise the character of all, and to impress the true sense

of brotherhood upon all those connected with that great

and important public service.” 2

Employers such as the Railways provided social

activities and education and training to employees and

their families for a number of main reasons, all primarily

in the self-interest of the company. These efforts also


Art Show, Eveleigh

indicated long-term strategies to not only develop

‘suitable’ employees, but also to provide a supply of

labour, minimise industrial unrest, and serve a wider

public relations and recruiting purpose.

Many rail workers not only received a range of technical

training through the Railways Institutes, but also their

social activities. In many locations the Institute was the

social gathering and meeting place, in lieu of publicly

provided or commercial leisure venues. They were often

the place where not only sports were organised, but

where the town dance, banquets, smoke ball or other

social events took place. They provided an opportunity

for workers to mix socially, dress up, step out and to

meet new people on a social basis. The nexus of this

relationship is not only apparent in the reports of sport

and social activity around the Institutes, but even in their

naming. For example, this desired relationship is

reflected in the Institute in Junee the Railway and Town


The range and types of social activity organised by the

Railway Institute was extensive, and included sporting

teams and competitions in most sports (including rugby

league, cricket, swimming, gymnastics, aussie rules,

wrestling), leisure activities such as billiards, card

games, bowls, darts, flower shows, orchestras, brass

bands, choirs, theatre, dances and concerts. An example

of the extent of the activity is that by the late 1920s the

Institute had 63 tennis courts in country areas, many

built by member’s voluntary labour 3 . A similar story can

be told for billiards halls and other facilities built in

country towns.

1 Interview with Max Harrison, June 2005

2 Cited in a summary of the history of the Institute in Institute News , Summer 2005, p13

3 See Nikki Balnave, Company-sponsored recreation in Australai: 1890-1965, Labour History, November 2003, p5

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These social and recreational activities also crossed over

into more ‘patriotic’ endeavours, such as military

reserves, aimed at not only identification with the

company but also with the nation. This patriotism could

then be called into question at times of industrial unrest

or political conflict in the industry. Greg Patmore

describes the development of the Reserve Railway Rifle

Company, established in 1888, as ‘a positive though

minor element in the development of labour control

through cultivating a general respect for authority and

fostering loyalty to management goals.’ 4 By 1914 this

activity had extended to a national Railway and

Tramway Reserve Rifle Association.

These activities were encouraged at several levels, as is

reflected in the Department’s magazine the Budget in


“We have annual interstate cricket, football and other

sporting fixtures, for which it is claimed that much good

is derived by the provision of the social element

connected with and following upon such meetings. How

much more so when members of the opposing teams

represent the patriotic element of the Railway and

Tramway staffs, and fully recognise that the experience

and skill required in friendly rivalry have really for its

ultimate objective that of the defence of our homeland.” 5

Many of the Railway Institutes around the state were

primarily social in their early activities, and it wasn’t

until after the 1917 strike in the railways and tramways

that the Department embarked on a more concerted

building program and extending the activities and

functions of the Institute. In many locations [Junee,

Werris Creek, Blayney, South Grafton and Nyngan] the

Institute purchased the School of Arts buildings and

largely subsumed their community roles. Even in the

locations where the Institute ‘competed’ with such

organisations, their role was viewed as a positive

contribution to town social life.

In Armidale, when temporary Institute premises were

replaced with a permanent building in 1922, Dr Harris,

president of the School of Arts is reported as saying “he

could see why the Railway Commissioners subsidised

such Institutions; because they were for their benefit as

well as the good of their staff and they were really more

Schools of Art than the Institutions known by that name,

which were generally only social clubs.” 6

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Some of the uneasy tensions around the relationship

between the activity of the Institutes, the Railways and

worker disquiet are evident in the awkward speech by

the Mayor of Goulburn (formerly ‘employed at

Goulburn loco, until dismissed as a ‘lilywhite’ in the

1917 general strike) Alderman Rogers at the official

opening in 1919.

In officially welcoming the Chief Commissioner, Mr

James Fraser, the Mayor stated that he was “until

recently one of Mr Faser’s employees at Loco., one of

those unhappy fellows, but right through the course of

that unhappiness he was pleased to say that whenever

they approached the Commissioner they got a ‘fair cut’.

For that reason he was glad to have the honour and

privilege of giving Mr James Fraser a right hearty

welcome to the City of Goulburn.” 7

It has been the character, loyalty and hearts of the

railway family that employers and unions have been

competing for over most of the life of the industry. By

providing a defined and identifiable sporting team or

leisure activity, the hope is that those participating will

take pride and a sense of unity in the ‘team’, whether it

be company or union.

Welfare or ong>Workong>er Solidarity ?

Company-sponsored recreation has been an important

part of industrial welfare for at least two main reasons –

to improve and attract labour supply and to enhance

managerial prerogative and control.

This was particularly the case from the depression and

industrial conflicts of the 1890s until the 1960s. A

concept that went out of ‘fashion’, but is being

reinvented by modern workplaces and management. The

irony is that as many ‘given’ social services and benefits

are being wound back or privatised (self-funded

retirement and superannuation, higher education fees,

means testing of a range of social security benefits), the

concept of company or union-sponsored entitlements

are having a revival of sorts. The pendulum has turned

once more, where serious consideration is being given to

‘benefits’ in preference to wage increases. These include

more emphasis on standard of life, leisure and general

facilities and amenities, whether it be extended

parenting leave, subsidised workplace meals, travel

concessions, superannutaion contributions, workplace

4Greg Patmore, A History of Industrial Relations in the NSW Government Railways, PhD Thesis, Department of Industrial

Relations, University of Sydney, 1985, p 42

5Cited in Balnave, op.cit., pp 15-16

6Reports on Opening of Armidale Railway Institute, NSW Railway Institute Archives

7Reports on Opening of Goulburn Railway Institute, NSW Railway Institute Archives

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health and fitness facilities. For many industries and

workers these items will be the hotly contested industrial

issues of the future. Awards and agreements are

increasingly focussing on clauses relating to work and

social relationships the notion of ‘working to live, not

living to work’, a slogan used in recent RTBU


Many of the recreational facilities were provided at

times and in places where these were not generally

available or accessible. Private transport and mobility

was more limited, and the opportunity for affordable

recreation and leisure activities were limited. They were

also most popular when social and welfare services were

non-existent or restricted. They pre-dated council

sporting grounds or private entertainment centres. They

were often the only social facilities in town. In many

ways the Railway Institutes were the forerunners to

modern community centres, halls and recreation


The local community was just that, ‘local’ and defined

by geography and distance. ong>Workong>ing people mostly

socialised within defined geographic areas, which in

turn were defined by walking distance, or local train and

tram services. Without mass private vehicle use, a range

of public and private recreation, without cable and

satellite bringing television and movies into our homes,

and without the advent of the private media rooms,

surround sound and home theatre – the recreation

provided was often the only social events that many

workers engaged in.

Companies and employers seldom provide noncompulsory

benefits to employees simply out of the

‘goodness of their hearts’. What is often referred to as

company ‘welfare’ usually has little do with the

‘welfare’ or well-being of employees, but more to do

with investment in human capital or resources. Many of

the schemes developed have clear business motives.

Much in the same way as with the early efforts at mass

and worker education, literacy was required in the new

industrial age in order to be obedient and loyal servants

– both to god and to capital.

When a company provides training and education for

workers, social activities and gifts – they are not usually

motivated by acts of altruism or ‘christian charity’. They

are usually quite blatant attempts to ‘educate’ workers in

the particular discourse, ways and expectations of the

employer – to be the model employees required. They

are also ‘loyalty’ programs – to ensure loyalty of

8 ARU State Secretary, Arthur Chapman, cited in Hearn, op.cit., p42


employees and their families toward the employer.

These are clear cut business decisions and strategies,

and were recognised as such by many unions, who

realised that they had to win back or hold on to the

hearts and minds of members, as they went about setting

up competing ‘loyalty’ programs and direct services to


Therefore, as the Railway Institutes served the railways

well in educating workers in the subjects required of the

job, both technically as well as morally and ethically,

and even educating the next generation to be ‘good

employees’, the unions developed parallel programs

through their own education activities such as ong>Workong>ers

Education Association (WEA), Mechanics Institutes,

and establishing their own reading libraries with

‘alternative’ reading material. Some of the activities

became enshrined in industrial conditions – such as

union training and the union picnic day.

Competing for Loyalty

These employer-sponsored schemes were often matched

by union-sponsored recreational activities In fact, the

union became concerned that management used the

sport and cultural activities of the Institute to ‘maintain

allegiance’ in railway towns:

In 1929, The ARU Secretary, Arthur Chapman outlined

the need for the union to match the company social and

recreational activities, as “the very life of the worker is

bound up with the administration. He becomes

thoroughly ‘departmentalised’ …..the union must

assume the lead in these matters, and form its own

sports organisation, bands, orchestras and holiday

camps, even its motor clubs.” 8

Union Football Team

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Ladies Gymnasium (NSW Railway Institute)

The union’s Educational and Organising Committee

formed in 1933 launched the ARU Football Club, and

an ARU Cricket Association. The ARU sponsored its

own 28 piece band in 1934, a Womens Auxiliary was

formed to involve the ‘women folk’.

It should be noted that the Women’s Auxiliary was not

established to provide ‘tea and sympathy’ but a

complementary industrial and political support role, ‘to

participate in the struggle for working class

emancipation.’ 9 One example of the advocacy role

performed by the Women’s Auxiliary in the 1930s is

recounted by the Secretary of the Newcastle branch,

Pearl Hickey was taking up the plight of fettlers and

their families in the far west of the state.

“The women folk, as regards shelter, a lot of them lived

in tents, and they lived a long way from shopping …

there was no … extra pay for climatic work. We

campaigned for that sort of thing.” 10 Many of the

campaigns were successful in gaining improved

conditions and allowances across the industry.

The unions also set up their own union library and

reading rooms with ‘alternative’ reading material,

published pamphlets, journals and newsletters, and

organised lectures and sponsored drama groups.

Evening classes were held at many depots

The ARU drama groups were particularly popular in

Newcastle. Tom Hickey was the principal organiser of

ARU plays in Newcastle, along with ong>Workong>ers Education

Tutor, Lloyd Ross. One of the plays organised was a

dramatisation of John Reed’s celebration of the

Boshevik revolution Russia, ‘Ten days that Shook the

World’, slightly different subject matter than that

provided by the Institute.

Lloyd Ross, then WEA tutor and later to become ARU

State Secretary, also organised a pageant in 1933, titled

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‘Labor’s Cavalcade’ which was a sequence of choruses

and dramatised scenes drawn from five centuries of

working class history. At this stage Ross claimed that he

could better serve the educational interests of workers

better through the ong>Workong>ers Education Association than

as a direct member of the labour movement. 11

It must also be remembered that the Railway Institutes

or the rail unions were not the sole sources or providers

of social services to rail workers and their families. They

existed in a broader context of working people and local

communities would formally or informally organise

appropriate recreational activity. They competed for the

leisure time of workers in a period of high demand.

These developments occurred in the climate of limited

social opportunity and choice, and in an era when social

clubs, local sports, amateur theatre, associations formed

around all manner of common interest. Suit clubs were

social as well as a practical means of loco drivers

acquiring a quality suit. The garden clubs would allow

workers to show off their acumen or green thumbs in

their small garden plots – to share their home-based

leisure activities or hobbies in the workplace.

Railway Picnics

Railway picnics and similar activities [in particular brass

bands] have traditionally been labour movement rituals

and cultural expressions, and intrusions into these areas

by companies were mostly not welcome. Many of these

areas of ‘recreational’ activity were areas of contested

loyalty, where unions and company would compete for

patronage. In the railways, the Department was expected

to contribute to these events through recognition of a

declared holiday, provision of special trains and other

resources, but it was never ‘their’ picnic – it belonged to

rail workers and their families. This is further reflected

in the place union picnic days have held in awards and

agreements over time.

Tom Owens (who joined his brother and father on the

railways in 1927 as a junior porter) recalls the picnic

“[The annual railway picnics] were a beauty. You see

they were something that you looked forward to, we used

to go on a special train everywhere, we used to go to

Quirindi and Muswellbrook and Tamworth. That was a

big show. The annual; picnic, everyone went …. A real

social event. Used to supply the kids with all the things

they wanted.” 12

9 Railroad, 1931

10 Interview with Pearl Hickey, in Hearn, op.cit., p45

11 Darryl Dymock, A Special and Distinctive Role in Adult Education: WEA Sydney 1953-2000, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2001, pp 15-16

12 Tom Owens, cited in Hearn, op.cit., p 60

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These were opportunities for inexpensive family

outings, where the whole family could board a special

picnic train and be delivered to the location and spend

the day playing, competing, eating drinking and

receiving gifts. The family picnic days were held in all

major locations, with hundreds and at times more than a

thousand people attending the local picnic day.

Former union organiser Ken Sullivan, who started work

as a junior porter at Narranderra in 1958, describes the

railway picnic as a huge annual social event. “The

railway picnic was held at Narranderra – trains would

come from every where, they’d come from Hillstone,

Hay, Tocumwal, Junee and all over….It was a really big

event, and we used to also have Highland Dance

competition in the middle of it. There were money prizes

for races for kids and adults, plenty to eat – ice cream.

400 or 500 people would come streaming down from the

railway station – kids were allowed off school to go to

the railway picnic.” 13

There are still local christmas parties and picnics held in

most regions of the state, even though they are waning

as the popular events they once were, and are gradually

being removed from industrial agreements as dedicated



Australian Railways Union Band (Hood Collection, State Library of NSW)

13 Interview with Ken Sullivan, March 2005

Union Holiday Park

The ARU purchased a holiday park at Sussex Inlet on

NSW South Coast in 1948 to provide holiday amenities

for union members and their families. This was the first

trade union holiday camp in Australia. Initially the

holiday park was targeted at country members , enabling

them to take their families on an inexpensive seaside

holiday, it extended to a popular holiday destination for

members from all over the state.

Later re-named New Generation Holiday Park, it is still

run as a profitable commercial venture by the RTBU,

and in recent years has been significantly renovated and

upgraded. The holiday park has a full-time manager, and

requires ballots of members for places over the main

holiday periods.

The popularity of many of the company and unionsponsored

sporting and social activities went into

decline by the 1950s. The initial enthusiasm of the late

nineteenth century, when there was high industrial

unrest, economic depression and limited recreational

options had passed. Similarly, the disruptions of the

major wars and depression of the last century, coupled

with limited mobility and geographic restrictions, as

well as the need to attract and hold ‘suitable’ workers,

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and to dampen industrial

militancy as motives for a range

of social activities were losing

their appeal and could not be


With urban developments,

suburbs being spread further, the

advent and common ownership of

private motor vehicles, and the

increase in a variety of public and

private social, sporting and leisure

opportunities, the public social

activities of the railways went into

decline. ong>Workong>ers sought their own

leisure activities independent of

the company. While some of these

activities remain in limited guises,

the major social events – the huge picnic crowds and

special trains, the large dances and railway balls no

longer exist as the social centre of the local town.

The much diminished Railway Institute still organises

sporting teams and competitions , trophies – including

touch football. For example, in 2004 12 teams competed

for the 3 Divisions. The Macquarie Hotel Team won first

Division (and the Railway Institute Shield over the Late

Night Vomits). In second division the Bob Yohnick

Shield was taken out by the Illawarra South Electric over

the Bundy bears. The PacNat Sidesteppers won the over

40s competition.

Rifle clubs still exists through affiliation with the NSW

Rifle Association, and the Railway Institute still fields

teams in interstate competition such as the Triggs

Shield.The Institute is also involved in organising local

picnic days and christmas parties in the industry 14

ARU Cricket Team

14 Institute News, Summer 2005

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First Interstate Tennis Team

The Rail Tram and Bus Union also continues to provide

a range of ‘social’ or ‘loyalty’ services for its members,

often in collaboration with commercial providers. These

include a range of financial and legal services,

partnership programs such as the RTBU/Melbourne

Credit Union Visa Card, income protection schemes,

and member discounts on a range of consumer items.

The areas of social, recreational and educational activity

remain industrial battle zones where employers, for

example, attempt to veto, restrict or deny union training

and access to union information. Union picnic days are

denounced as employee rorts and so on. However, as

union and worker focus shifts increasingly away from

strict wage claims to more ‘lifestyle’ or quality of life

issues, this contest is likely to see a revival and a new

intensity. Similarly, as employers increase medical

requirements and formal qualifications for their

employees, then it is reasonable to expect responses that

make claims on employers to provide health and fitness

facilities, child care, and access to a range of education

and training.

Nostalgia would sometimes demand the return of some

of these social activities, to relive the ‘good old days’.

Modern circumstance and conditions would show this to

be impractical and largely undesired. Nonetheless, it is

worth pondering whether more contemporary forms of

this type of collective social activity, the play of

solidarity, the identification with the railway ‘tribe’ or

‘family’ are not worthy of consideration in the face of

breakdowns of support and social networks across the


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Learning to be a Good Rail ong>Workong>er

In addition to the attempts to provide a range of social

and leisure activities for workers and their families, a

‘proper’ education has remained a strong focus of rail

employers. The desire to control the minds, bodies and

souls of workers continues to be an ideal of even modern


The role of education and training, as well as

propaganda tools such as in-house magazines,

newsletters and journals, and more recently web pages,

have been significant in the contest over the loyalty, cooperation

and compliance of the workforce.

From the establishment of the Railway Institute in the

late 1880s, to regional and site-based industry training

centres to the State Rail Training College, and through

more informal education programs, the railways have

always been preoccupied with shaping and moulding the

workforce to a desired shape.

The NSW Railway and Tramway Institute, for example,

offered (for five shillings per annum) employees’ sons

(not less than 14 years of age) the opportunity to attend

classes offered by this institution, other than those in

purely departmental subjects, on payment of the above

subscription fees. It also offered free travel passes to

junior employees, and half-fares to seniors and sons of

employees, to attend the classes. The Institute officially

opened in 1891, focussed on libraries and technical, and

non-technical classes, as well as social and recreational

activities of railway workers. 1

As Nikki Balnave points out, the list of classes

conducted by the Institute was broad. During the 1898

session, classes were held in Advanced Shorthand,

Elementary Shorthand, Goods & Coaching Accounts,

Typewriting, Telegraphy, Mechanical Drawing, Safe

Railway ong>Workong>ing, and Mathematics. By 1914, this list

had extended to also include Applied Mathematics,

Arithmetic, Boiler Construction, Car Construction,

Bookkeeping, Electrical Car Driving, Electricity

(Elementary), Electricity (Advanced), English, Spelling

and Composition, Locomotive Engine Driving, Plate

Laying, Sign Writing, Car Decoration, Steam, and

Westinghouse Brake. 2

At the Annual Meeting of the Institute in January 1913,

it was announced that there were upwards of 60 classes


Old Railway Institute Building,

Devonshire Street, Sydney

with nearly as many teachers, and by the support of the

Chief Commissioner, the teachers were paid for their

services. Non-technical education was also provided by

the Railway Institute. For example, lectures were

provided on a variety of topics such as ‘Matching and

Mating’, ‘My Trip through Europe’, ‘Diamond Jubilee

Celebrations’, ‘The Rocks Around Us’. 3 It is probably

best that we only speculate about the content and motive

of the ‘Matching and Mating’ training! The Railway

Institute also had fully-fitted out carriages as Instruction

Cars that would travel and be used for classes at

locations all over the state.

Companies such as the Railways provided education and

training to employees and their families for a number of

main reasons, all primarily in the self-interest of the

company. As mentioned in the previous section relating

to company-sponsored social activities, these efforts

also indicated long-term strategies to not only develop

‘suitable’ employees, but also to provide a supply of

labour, minimise industrial unrest, and serve a wider

public relations and recruiting purpose.

The focus by the Railway Institute on educating sons

and daughters of rail workers, 14 years and older, was

aimed at securing a future source of compliant labour,

particularly in country areas, and attempting to secure

the good will and loyalty of the workers and their


1Institute News, Summer 2005

2Reported in issues of the Budget between 1899 and 1915, Cited in Balnave, unpublished PhD thesis, Industrial Welfarism in

Australia 1890-1965, University of Sydney 2002, p157

3Ibid ong>Chapterong> 4 - ong>Workong> on the Railways

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On the opening of a new wing of the Institute building,

the NSW Premier, G.H. Reid declared that “we have

men who have grown up with sufficient intelligence,

having the opportunity of guidance from such hands,

that we are placed in the position that we have no need

to go elsewhere for a man for any position in the

service”. 4

The emphasis on technical education was directly to

meet the current and future requirements and changes in

the industry. However, non-technical education was also

viewed as important in the overall development of the

‘character and morality’ of the workforce. Thus,

personal development was seen to be a combination of

technical skills as well as personal growth to provide a

well-rounded and productive workforce. The classes,

recreational activities and libraries of the Railway

Institute also served a broader social purpose of luring

young workers away from the evils of the saloon and

other temptations that may be found in wandering the

streets. This sobriety and ‘good living’ was considered

essential to, and synonymous with being a ‘good

worker’. The railways had strict rules about no drinking

or smoking on the job, and this extended to taking a dim

view of drinking out of hours.

In praising the work of the Institute, the Premier, the

Right Hon Reid stated “I think that great as is the

natural tendency of people in this colony to enjoy

themselves we should always endeavour to find some

time for the development of our heaven-born faculties,

and I hope that the young men will endeavour to devote

their leisure time to cultivate their faculties so as to

become not only fit to take their places in the highest

branches of their profession, but also to develop them in

such a way as to be able to rise to the top of the tree”. 5

Inside Westinghouse Air Brake Instruction Car

(NSW Railway Institute)

4Budget, 20 March 1899

5Ibid 6Balnave, op.cit. pp180-181

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

Commissioner Fehon echoed these sentiments at the

Institute annual Meeting in 1899, when he remarked that

he was ‘particularly pleased to find the younger

members of the service coming forwards year after year

to take prizes for work performed. This was the more

gratifying because the youths of the Australian colonies

were inclined to run wild instead of studying and fitting

themselves for higher positions in life. There was a large

amount of chaff among the young people of Australia,

but among those present, he was pleased to say, they

could find the wheat’.

Despite all the high hopes and praise for the education

offered by the Railway Institute, it wasn’t until many of

the courses offered were directly linked to qualifications

required for promotion and advancement in the service,

that they were taken up in significant numbers. For all

the early fanfare, the numbers of rail employees making

up the membership of the Institute was only 7 % in

1912, and as low as 5.7% in 1914, and increasing to

approximately 13% by the end of the war in 1918.

The educational importance of the Institute was elevated

by the steady introduction of the use of Institute

certificates in promotion and staff reviews for seniority.

From 1920 onwards, the Institute also had responsibility

for examining subjects such as safe-working and railway

accounts. Not surprisingly, given these enhanced roles in

the direct employment, promotion and advancement, the

membership of the Railway Institute increased

dramatically to about 48 % of the workforce in 1929. 6


Libraries were central to the educational efforts of the

Railway Institute. The NSW Railway Institute library

opened in 1891 with a stock of around 7,000 volumes,

but by December 1921, the total number of books had

reached around 100,000. The books were selected with

‘due regard’ to the tastes of the members who were

encouraged to make suggestions on purchases, with

special consideration given to ‘ the mechanical arts and

sciences as applied to railways and tramways and their

working’. The reading rooms also contained a large

number of the magazines and newspapers of the world,

including major newspapers from the Empire and

America. For members in country areas where branches

of the Institute did not exist, books were sent free of

charge from the library.

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Libraries provided a number of opportunities. They

firstly provided a comfortable and relaxed space for

employees to engage. They also provided a more

intimate space for the employer to influence workers,

and to raise issues in a non-confrontational manner.

The Railway Institute Council Chairman, E.B Taylor, in

1913 summarised these sentiments:

“It is necessary that a man, unless he intended to be a

mere vegetable, should be a reading man, in order that

he might learn something of the history of mankind,

something of the history of our institutions, and

something of the struggle which brought these

institutions into existence, so that he might gauge and

appreciate the conditions of the present day. In the

library they provided that food…… A man’s first aim

should be to make himself efficient in his calling – to be

at the top of his class, and ready and capable of

accepting any other position which might be for his

betterment”. 7

Thus, one of the main objectives of the libraries was to

provide appropriate reading material to allow workers to

see the virtue of the railways, and to be respectful and

thankful of the authority within the service and in the

broader community – that is, to generally become ‘good



Railway Institute Electrical Class

7 Ibid., p165

Journals and Magazines

The role of journals and magazines in assisting the

educational and propaganda roles on the railways have

always been, and continue to be viewed as essential

communications with the workforce. The contemporary,

folksy, congratulatory magazines issued throughout the

industry today reflect the tradition of this form of

‘intimate’ and selective communication medium.

The Railway Institute launched the New South Wales

Railway Budget in September 1892, which was

published continuously until 1930, and was eventually

replaced by the Staff, which commenced in 1924 and

later incorporated the various publications and

newsletters of the Railway. These publications always

explicitly appealed to personal betterment and

improvement on the job and inculcating the values

required of staff.

The journals would report results of working and point

to areas for improvement, point out to workers the many

avenues for advancement within the industry and

provide light-hearted and biographical examples of

‘model’ rail workers. They were an effective way of

getting the company message out and reinforcing the

values and expectation of the Railways and Tramways.

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Fighting for Minds and Hearts

There is no doubt that one of the objectives of the

Railway Institute, in addition to developing the technical

and social skills required of employees, was also a

‘political’ education. It was seen as a means of

minimising worker militancy and radicalism, especially

at times such as the first world war, with the influence of

the IWW and socialists, and later when communists

were more actively involved in the industry and union


In 1916, Assistant Commissioner Milne stated that the

Institute’s educational facilities would equip workers

“mentally to form opinion on the great industrial and

social problems of the day with consequent ability to

analyse and refute any of the pernicious influences

which strove to sway them from the path of duty”. 8

The unions, while providing lukewarm support to the

Institute and some of the services it provided, were

suspicious at the motives, and wary of the loyalty that

may be generated. They were concerned that the

strategies of the employer through the educational,

social and library services may be successful in drawing

support away from labour and industrial matters towards

a anti-union complicity.

The unions were not prepared to let these activities go

unchecked, and felt the need to make their own efforts at

‘loyalty’ and propaganda programs, to ensure the

solidarity and ongoing support of members

Union Education & Training

As was mentioned in the previous section, the unions set

up their own libraries and reading rooms, produced their

own journals and publications, and conducted their own

educational activities for their members. The classes

offered through the Institute also took on industrial

significance, as failure could result in lost promotional

opportunities , demotion or dismissal from the service.

Patmore claims that the discontent and criticisms of the

Institute had lead both the NSW Branch of the ARU and

the AFULE members to call for a boycott of the

Institute. 9

The ARU had formed its own Education and Training

Committee in the 1930s, aimed at combating the

influence and allegiances generated by the Railway

Institute, and to encourage members to be active

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

unionists. This educational and organising role was

viewed not only as a foil to the employer’s efforts, but as

a more important plank in the objective of ultimately

bringing about socialism, as a ‘prelude to taking control

of the social and economic machinery and operating it

in the interests of the workers.’ 10

The importance of worker education, beyond employer

control, was also reflected in the establishment of labour

movement education and training programs through

initiatives of the Labor Council of NSW, the ACTU and

the establishment of the Trade Union Training Authority.

Unions were also actively involved in establishing,

influencing and monitoring organisations such as the

ong>Workong>ers Education Association, Mechanics Institutes,

ong>Workong>men’s Associations, and a range of community

adult education initiatives.

The ong>Workong>ers Education Association was established in

New South Wales in 1913 at a specially convened

committee of the Labor Council of NSW. Among the 28

organisations responsible for facilitating this

development were the Australian Railway ong>Workong>ers

Union and the Tramway Employees Union. One of the

main objectives of the new association was:

the ideal of building up an organisation which should

be a factor in the educational life of New South Wales,

an organisation which would be truly representative of

working-class opinion on educational questions –

capable of taking an active part in the moulding of our

educational system in accordance with democratic

ideals and aspirations.” 11

Telegraphy Class

8Balnave, op.cit., p 164

9Greg Patmore, op.cit., pp396-397

10See Hearn, op.cit., p43

11First Annual Report of the WEA, cited in Darryl Dymock, A Special and Distinctive Role in Adult Education: WEA Sydney

1953-2000, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2001

ong>Chapterong> 4 - ong>Workong> on the Railways 181

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On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

Some of the WEA’s main supporters later became

disenchanted as they saw it moving away from these

ideals. Lloyd Ross, who was then a tutor in WEA in

Newcastle, and the editor of its journal ‘The Australian

Highway’, complained that it was becoming too ‘timid’

and was moving away from the ‘social towards the

individual’. He claimed that the WEA had become ‘not

a working class but an adult education movement, with

numbers as the only criterion of success and failure’. 12

Over its history, different unions have removed their

support then reaffiliated with the WEA over concerns of

direction and content.

The WEA continued to provide a wide range of popular

adult education programs, including many focusing on

labour movement issues and topics. It also remained

active as an alternative to many of the non-technical

classes run by the Railway Institute. It is also worth

noting that in the period when the Railway Institute was

declining, the WEA enrolments grew from under 5,000

in 1948 to approximately 20,000 in 1999. In keeping at

least with its original ‘liberal’ ideals the WEA still

attracts more than one third of its enrolments in

humanities and social sciences subjects. 13

The importance of education and training, both

internally for union members, as well as inconsistent

external developments in the industry, through

traineeships and other recognised and accredited

vocational qualifications, has become increasingly

important in recent times.

The NSW Branch of the RTBU had previously been

involved in a range of delegate training, internally and

through TUTA, but in 2000 employed a dedicated

education and research officer to develop a more


Loco Engine Driving Class

12 Lloyd Ross cited in Dymock, ibid., pp15-17

13 See Darryl Dymock, op.cit

14 NSW Branch Report to RTBU National Council, 2003, p 52

15 Interview with Linda Carruthers, April 2005

strategic and systematic approach that was more central

to the overall Branch planning and organising. Some of

the activities were summarised in reports to the 5th

National Council in November 2003. The report

provides details of training activities conducted across

different work areas in the preceding years, as a part of

the union’s overall organising strategy.

The Branch Report states “the role of education and

training in the organising plans is set out in the Branch

training policy adopted by Branch Council in 2002. The

policy is directed to ensuring that education and

training is undertaken in a way that supports the

organising activity identified in each area, and refers to

mutual accountabilities and responsibilities at all levels

to ensure that the Branch training effort is focussed on

achieving the goals set by the Branch”. 14

The Education and Research Officer for the NSW

Branch of the RTBU, Linda Carruthers, was invited to

come to the Branch from the union’s National Office to

assist in the implementation of strategies aimed at

achieving the objectives described above. Linda

summarises the new focus of the union’s education and

training as one towards an organising and movementbased


“By providing education and training of activists and

delegates and a developmental role for union officers,

we are trying to change the way that the branch does its

work. It builds the union by building the capacity and

the activities of members, delegates and activists –

moving away from an ‘insurance company’ idea or

model where you pay your money, pick up the phone

with a problem ,and they fix it - towards a movement

based model of the union as a collection of active people

campaigning and working together to bring about

results in the workplace and the broader community by

collective action.” 15

As disputes continue between unions and employers

over the contested ground of rail workers education and

training, the two continue to compete for the hearts and

minds of the workforce. Both are acutely aware of this

contest in the current industrial climate. Employers are

intent on controlling the training and education content,

and restricting or denying access to union training.

Unions, on the other hand, see much of the education

and training as essential to maintaining and developing

union activism and organising in the workplace, and

crucial to the viability and future roles of the union.

ong>Chapterong> 4 - ong>Workong> on the Railways

*On Wooden Rails ong>Chapterong> 4 8/30/05 8:28 PM Page 183

Safeworking Instruction Car

Shorthamd class

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

ARU Women's Bowls Team, 1991

Mechanical Drawing Class

Arithmetic Class

Railway Institute Reading Room

ong>Chapterong> 4 - ong>Workong> on the Railways 183

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On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

ong>Workong> Permits for Aboriginal ong>Workong>ers

ong>Workong>ing on the line, 1994


Stephen Doyle, Bogie Maintenance

Centre Chullora

Early Electric Train and ong>Workong>ers, 1920s (State Rail Archives)

ong>Chapterong> 4 - ong>Workong> on the Railways

*On Wooden Rails ong>Chapterong> 4 8/30/05 8:29 PM Page 185

Rodrigo Adriano, Central 1992

XPT Train Crew

On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways

Guards, Central

Welcoming the XPT

Enjoying a cuppa

Dan Elkoudousi, Guard

Sydney, 1992

Pay Bus, Parkes

Haslem's Creek

ong>Chapterong> 4 - ong>Workong> on the Railways 185

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On Wooden Rails - Celebrating 150 Years of ong>Workong> on the NSW Railways


Certificate issued to rail workers after the Sydney Olympics 2000

ong>Chapterong> 5 - Putting on a Show

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