Friday, September 08, 2006

Falling between the rails

As much as they excited me from the earliest age, trains and railways could be deadly with little or no emotional notice.

Like the time we were walking along the platform at Otford, on the far southern end of the Royal National Park, south of Sydney. We were only kids, and my sister, Mary, would have been lucky to have been five. The year was perhaps 1963. The surrounding sub-tropical rainforest of this part of the National Park smelt damp and richly rotting, of aging timbers sinking back into the landscape, constantly washed by repeated rains. The bush birds called incessantly to each other across the narrow valley in which the station is jammed, and the brilliant Spring morning sunshine struggled to break through between the trees and branches towering over the station. But the smell and sounds came to an abrupt end as Mary somehow slipped on the edge of the station platform. One second she was with us, walking and chatting as part of our family along the eastern platform. Next second, she was sprawled between the tracks. One second more and she was on her feet, looking up at us, hands reaching upwards in begging grasps, looking for salvation. The look on her terrified little face said it all without a word. I have realised down through the years that I was terrified, instantly, of losing her, knowing the expected southbound train would be here at any second.

Dad leapt over the edge, and in a single, swinging motion, lifted Mary up to us and safety. Then, with a deft side hop and a push, he was up alongside us all – just as the south-bound, Wollongong train steamed around the curve to the north and rolled confidently, almost triumphantly, into the station area, gliding around the curved platform. The gap between fall and train rolling over the same spot couldn’t have been any more than 30 seconds, but it had felt like an entire slow-moving, shuddering, freezing afternoon. It still does when it comes to mind, which, interestingly, it does often. Ironically, Mary is now near 50, and the C32 Class steam loco of the day only survived another few years before falling to the scrapper’s torch.

Five years later, in 1968, early in my second high school year, I saw the ancient two-car diesel railmotor train rocking and rolling through Corrimal station on its high-speed morning dash from Thirroul into Wollongong. As it roared alongside the tall timber fence edging the classic brick railway worker’s cottage immediately north of the Railway Street level crossing just before 8.00am, the railmotor kicked up a huge, ominous dark dust cloud, swirling with sheets of paper. I saw it clearly at an angle from the platform on which I was waiting, another 100m further south, but didn’t comprehend.

Moments later, after the railmotor had screamed through Corrimal at better than 110km/hr, terrified kids in tears pelted onto the platform, racing straight into the station master’s office without knocking. This was the first I knew that Alice DeMartin had been struck, and the same empty sensation of untimely horror swept through me. Nothing as final as death was supposed to happen to us at this early stage of our life journey. Alice, my age, attended the girls’ school adjacent to our boys’ school. I can still see the ashen-faced station master and two teenage platform assistants darting along the platform and bobbing north across and between the lines to where a group of people were milling near the level crossing’s eastern boongate. I had known Alice since kindergarten. We went to the same Catholic primary school, high on Corrimal hill. Alice, with Italian parents and a younger brother, had always been quiet. I still cannot remember ever saying more than three or four words to her the whole time I knew her. High School Alice had always walked along the side of the railway line to the level crossing, her back to Wollongong-bound trains. Why she wasn’t aware of the speeding railmotor, I’ll never know. Like almost all other mornings, it was dead on time this fateful day. It has scooped Alice up from behind, and carried her forward at lightning speed before thrusting her headlong into a steel post by the level crossing. Alice would have been terrified for a second or two before experiencing ultimate pain that, in a blink of an eye, would have helped catapult her to somewhere infinitely calm, surrounded by angels.

As our school train slowly laboured through the level crossing, someone in the crowd milling around the fatal spot had thankfully covered Alice’s tiny body with a tartan car blanket. Looking down from my carriage window, full of panic dread, I also saw her smashed school case lying close by, along with one of her empty brown school shoes. That’s the last time I ever saw anything of Alice.

And apart from almost being struck myself by an extremely quiet and potentially lethal steam locomotive gliding through a freight yard many, many years later, I have never seen another rail accident at close quarters.

Rail fascination

I have always loved railway lines themselves from the earliest age. They, sometimes more than the trains that ran on them, stirred excitement in me. Roads carried cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles, and lacked discipline. They also lacked any sense of real permanence. I saw that traffic was free to roam from one side of roads to the other, to overtake itself and maintain a soulless modernity bred of ubiquity. Their very lack of control underscored the chaos generated.

Railway lines, those not torn up, remained permanent in my mind. Rather than shift, or allow for shift, they steadfastly held their position, sinking deeper and more gracefully into the same spot for decades on end if allowed. But never disappearing completely. I noticed that first the ballast shifted back into the earth. Then the sleepers, perhaps with only their bleaching tops remaining exposed to sunlight. Sometimes even these would succumb, leaving only the thread of rails meandering through weeds. To me, every piece of railway line I came across was connected to every other piece of line throughout Australia, by sheer dent of joining fishplates.

I remember the day Dad took us up a steep escarpment track behind Corrimal, until we reached a level space between the trees. I marveled at ‘discovering’ spindly 2ft-gauge tramway tracks among the fast growing bush. These I was later to discover were part of the Corrimal Colliery tramway that had operated from pithead to the very incline we’d climbed that morning. Coal in tiny timber skips was hauled along this tramway before descending the incline to the loading staithes of Corrimal Colliery’s standard-gauge line which ran down behind Corrimal Coke Works, and joined the main government line just south of Corrimal station.

Some kids imagined fairies and dragons and knights bravely battling strange and dreadful beasts. I always imagined, in equal wonder, what trains had run on such tracks, and why . . .

Train passion

You either love or hate
The smell of railways and their things.
That medieval smell of
Steel powder,
And heavy hammers.
Ancient passenger cars ooze this essence,
Along with that of sagging upholstery and
The mingling of a million human skin oils on
Timber window ledges . . .

I didn’t need to catch the train to high school – from one stop at Corrimal to the next stop further north at Bellambi. If I had walked the whole way to high school, I would have perhaps covered only an additional 400-500m beyond my walk to Corrimal station, and from Bellambi station, across the playing fields, to school. I was to later ride the distance, in my final high school years, on an old, colourless push bike I built and maintained myself.

Traveling by train was novel. A rite of passage. I still remember, as clear as yesterday, that bright, warm, cloudless January day in 1967 I strode towards Corrimal station, cutting down Harbinger Street to Railway Street, full of hope for a future I could barely imagine through my intense excitement. Resplendent in new long serge school trousers, looking down at new black shoes, I was proudly heading off to my first day at high school. My first day as a youth. My first day on the clear road to becoming an adult. I had been impatiently waiting for this day all through the Summer break. I was joining a much bigger group of youths-in-waiting, the majority of whom I’d never met, feeding in from any number of Catholic and other schools throughout the Illawarra district. And all wending their way to Bellambi in ancient end-platform timber passenger cars, painted in flaking tuscan red, hauled by over-taxed, equally tuscan 48 Class diesels. Several trains from the south, several from the north, and all converging on Bellambi, near our school by the sea, in good time before class.

These were the days before electrification. When the Illawarra line was still a Cinderella Way, populated by the rest of the NSW Government Railways’ rolling stock hand-me-downs and powered by what the Government brazenly described as ‘branchline locomotives’. The diesels were relatively new, but many of the passenger cars had been working the Illawarra for more than 50 years. And we rarely saw motive power bigger than 48s.

Nothing had changed on Corrimal station for more than half a century, the original timber buildings on both platforms dating back to the line’s duplication in the 20th Century’s teens. The backs of both platforms were lined by equally ancient slip-rail timber fences, and the side road between the western platform and Corrimal Coke Works was an undulating way of gravel acne, pock-marked with holes and ruts. It required deft hopping from end to end on rainy days. The platform buildings – waiting room, ticket office, ancient signal cabin and toilets – bore the hallmarks of more than 70 years’ grime and grit. A patina I was to find only appeared on or around railways and their equipment.

Bellambi station was of an equal vintage. Its main timber building, positioned at the extreme northern end of the island platform served as ticket office, station master’s office and signal cabin. Many years before, the private coal line from South Bulli Colliery had cut across the Illawarra line at right angles immediately north of the Bellambi Lane level crossing, itself at the northern foot of the platform, lending this building a far more important controlling influence.

With this as a backdrop, I can’t be certain exactly when I became Jennifer’s first boyfriend. Or she became my first girlfriend. We’d gone to primary school together, but only spoke matter-of-factly pre-hormones. But our delicious afternoon meetings, midway along Bellambi platform, followed by dreamy hand-holding all the way over the hill south to Corrimal was recognised, understood and accepted by our peers. I cherished those innocent days throughout my third and fourth high school years of 1969 and 1970. The couplings between the old wooden carriages had clunked and ground in unison as the ancient wooden passenger cars groaned with the diesels’ distinctive Alco exhaust beat. We held hands and stared into each others’ eyes, equally astonished by feelings we shared for each other – well ahead of experiencing anything like it for those life’s loves to come.

I still see myself, wishing against the clock, hoping the train would go even more slowly than its crawling reality, wanting to stay holding Jen’s hand as long as possible. Wanting to capture her sweet smell for as long as possible. Wanting to watch Jen’s excited, quivering, blushing smile for as long as possible.

When Jen left for boarding school at the end of Year 10, I happily took to my push bike for the ride down to Bellambi. There was no need for the circuitous train trips, my ride taking no more than 15 minutes each way. Jen and I stayed a pair until the end of our school days, but never again shared innocent hand-holding on trains. We shared kissing and exciting exploration at increasingly erotic teenage parties and dinners at home with my family in the months before university, but our train romance had ended forever . . .


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