Sunday, September 24, 2006

Gleaming World Series future

I saw my first mainline diesel locomotive standing at the head of the afternoon workers’ train at Port Kembla platform one brisk September afternoon in 1961. I was six. I’d come to Port during the school holidays to help pick Dad up from work, and to travel home to Corrimal with him on that train.

The rhythmic rumble of the gleaming, fresh-off-the-showroom-floor Goodwin-built 44 Class Alco was mesmerising, and I clearly remember wondering in awe how these new diesels could possibly affect those venerable steam locos still scuttling around the Illawarra en force.

I didn’t know it then, but this was the manifestation of the American Locomotive Co’s internal combustion swagger on the global stage – a representative of Alco’s so-called World Series. A sister to almost identical locos arriving simultaneously on railway properties throughout Europe, South America and elsewhere in Australia. She stood motionless, smug, all shining tuscan red and NSW Government Railways golden yellow, girthed by a wafer-thin red waist band, with pitch black wheel frames, fuel tanks and buffing beams.

Standing aloofly at the head her ancient train of grimy, classless wooden passenger cars – the ones with Wild West American end platforms that remained well into my early adulthood – she juxtaposed eras on that chilly Spring afternoon.

In retrospect, she was more than motive power. Her rumbling heralded a technological avalanche poised to carry us all increasingly faster through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and into a fresh, mechanically gleaming, greaseless New Millenium. And in retrospect, the sound of those familiar, elderly, venerable steam locos was really nothing more than the collective death-rattle wheeze of an industrial age fast drawing to an end. And the richly warm, oily aroma of steam would soon dissipate ahead of instant energy from brash fuel oil, and the sharp tang of graphite on new plate steel.

I can still feel that train sliding effortlessly out of Port station heading north-west into setting sun gold and smoke, threading its way through the industrial sidings between the station and the start of the Steelworks property. The 44 was barely aware of herload of hundreds of weary passengers heading homeward . . .

There was none of the slight to and fro pulling and rolling motion associated with steam locos starting from still. Her motion was smooth and effortless, without any sense of piston pause.


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