Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Holidays, Uniforms & Trains

I always associate childhood holidays with trains. And with memories of early morning excitement, on the day we'd depart for exotic destinations, coupled with spic-n-span school uniforms and shiny brown school shoes.

It seems odd looking back, but at the time - before I was 10 - I always saw wearing my school uniform, on a train going somewhere further than the extremes of the Illawarra District, on a holiday morning, as somewhat reverent.

Suit cases would be packed and ready the night before, standing to neat attention in the hallway near the front door. Dad would have called to order a cab to take us to the station, usually not long after dawn - or so it seemed. We’d all be up early, excited, having breakfast, while Mum disposed of last-minute perishable items from the bottom of our fridge. She’d then turn it off at the wall, leaving the door jammed open to stop mould from developing while we were away.

The finale was Dad neatly combing my hair, and that of my brother John, while Mum put sister Mary’s hair in pigtails. Usually as the cab beeped its horn outside. There’d be a mad scramble, as Mum checked she’d switched off other appliances and pulled electric cords from walls. This mad, excited scramble would continue until we were all safely seated on our train, catching our breath, heading north to Sydney.

Sydney was exotic enough a destination for kids without a family car. Yet we always knew holidays were to be had further afield, needing changes of trains at Central station. Another mad scramble from one platform to another, hauling cases and coats and travelling rugs as quickly as possible. The change to very different trains meant different lines, different stations along the way, different scenery beyond Sydney’s limits.

Summer weeks spent on Tuggerah Lake, near The Entrance, meant we’d leave Sydney in a quiet, all-steel, air-conditioned Express Train coupled behind a gleaming tuscan-red electric loco. Train refreshment crew staff in pale blue uniforms and white aprons would glide between us as we hurried smoothly along, heading towards Newcastle, offering delicacies such as vanilla icecream in tiny waxed-card buckets. I’d feel like a privileged prince with tasty treatures like these . . . But when our train arrived at Gosford, Dad would invariably disembark - and have us join him on the platform - in time to see the electric wheeled off, and a huge, well-maintained back C38 Pacific express steam loco pushed back into the traces for the next short stage of our dash north. While we’d only ever go as far as Wyong, the train would continue full throttle, behind steam, all the way to Newcastle, another 50 miles further ahead.

Wyong was the place to see all sorts of steam still operating along the Short North. I remember one afternoon seeing a double-headed freight lumber through while we were waiting for the cab to take us to the holiday resort. Heading south, back towards the Gosford change-over, two elderly Standard Goods wheezed their way through, squeezing gently down the side of the double locos' train of over-stacked, tarp-covered wagons. Steam, by now, had disappeared from the Illawarra, and had been replaced by 48 Class diesel locos that - from Day One - always seemed too under-powered for whatever task they were given.

Holidays to Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, brought different scenery, and different trains - what we kids called Silver Trains - stainless steel multiple-unit electric trains introduced to the steep line with electrification in the late 1950s.

These trains were fast off the mark, always slick away from any station - even those on the steep mountain slopes heading almost due west towards Katoomba. And we rarely rode electrics, even in Sydney (where all electric services were handled by so-called Red Rattler suburban trains). Red Rattler passengers nonchalantly leaned out of every other wide vestibule door, nearly always pinned back while in screaming motion, using nothing more than deft balance and a firm grip on well hand-polished brass poles bolted floor to ceiling.

The Blue Mountains trains had no such vestibules. Once inside their sensible end-car doors, there was nothing to do but to occupy vacant green vinyl-covered seats. Occasionally, you might have to swing a seat from its old position to the travelling direction. But that was it; no further subtlety. Just stainless steel, effortless speed and vinyl-clad cleanliness. And I always equate this cleanliness and the gleaming fluted stainless steel sides of these train cars with Katoomba’s thin bracing, crisp air, smacking our young faces as we alighted at the end of Katooba Street. It was different from the thicker, balmy coastal air or Wollongong, especially in Autumn or Winter.
Yet no matter where we went for our annual two-week holiday, we kids would invariably head off in our neatest school uniforms. It didn’t affect us then, and never raised second looks from fellow passengers.


Blogger slart said...

Thanks, Pete . Some memories there.
I'm going to ireland to live soon.
Best wishes.
Martin Shanahan.

12:42 AM  

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