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Narrow gauge railways of the Victorian Railways

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The Victorian Railways (VR) built and operated four narrow gauge steam railways to open up mountainous parts of the state of Victoria. While all have since been closed, parts of two have been reopened as heritage railways.


The lines

The four lines, all built to 2'6"762 mm gauge, were in different parts of the state, and all connected with and operated as branches of the broad-gauge (5'3"63 inches
1,600.199 mm
) railways operated by the VR.

The following chart shows the relative lengths of the four lines.

 Beech Forest

Whitfield line

The first to open was the line from Wangaratta to Whitfield, in 1899, a distance of 31 miles49.89 km
2,480.005 chains
(50 km). Unlike the remaining lines, this line traversed flat country, running alongside roads for much of its route. The line was built as a narrow gauge line because of plans to extend it further south into the hills of the Great Dividing Range.[Fact?] However, these plans never eventuated.

The line was closed to trains beyond Moyhu (about half way) in 1952 on account of fire damage, although a motor trolley continued to operate to Whitfield until final closure the following year.

Gembrook line

The second line was in the Dandenong Ranges, just to the east of Melbourne. This line opened in 1900, and connected end-on with the suburban line to Upper Ferntree Gully, from where it climbed the southern slopes of the Dandenong Ranges to Gembrook.

Because of the proximity of this line to Melbourne, it enjoyed the patronage of many weekend visitors, and in 1919 additional carriages were built to cater for this excursion traffic.

However, continuing operating losses brought pressure for the line to close, and following a landslide in 1953 which blocked the line between Selby and Menzies Creek, the VR officially closed the line the following year.

However, the world's second railway preservation society was formed with the aim of keeping the line operating, and the entire remaining line (the first three miles4.828 km
240 chains
(5 km) to Belgrave was converted to broad gauge and electrified as an extension of the suburban line) has now been reopened and operates as the Puffing Billy Railway.

Crowes line

For more information, see Crowes railway line (Victoria).

The third line was the line built into the Otway Ranges south from Colac to Beech Forest. It opened in 1902.

In 1911 an extension was built from Beech Forest to Crowes, bringing the length of the line to 44 miles70.811 km
3,520.007 chains
(71 km). This extension was originally operated as a branch, rather than with through services, although a balloon loop previously built at Beech Forest did facilitate through running.

Closure was in two parts, with the section from Ferguson to Crowes being closed in December 1954, although it was reopened as far as Weeaproinah the following month. Final closure came in 1962, making it the last of the four lines to close.

Walhalla line

The final line was built from Moe in Gippsland north into the southern reaches of the Great Dividing Range to Walhalla. This opened in 1910.

Walhalla had been a booming gold-mining town, although by the time the railway arrived the town was in decline. It is said that one of the uses the railway was put to was carting the town away, as people moved out.

The last section of the line from the Thomson River crossing into Walhalla was built along the sides of the narrow Stringers Creek valley, with many trestle bridges as the line crossed and recrossed the creek and in one place as it ran above the creek next to a sheer cliff.

The section from Platina to Walhalla closed in 1944, followed by the section from Erica to Platina in 1952. Final closure came in 1954.

Several efforts were made to reopen the line as a heritage line from Walhalla to the Thomson river, but these failed due to the costs involved in rebuilding bridges, particularly as three bridges needed rebuilding before the line got even 250 metres820.21 feet
273.403 yards
546.808 cubits
12.428 chains
out of the station.

However, eventually the Walhalla Goldfields Railway succeeded in reopening the Stringers Creek section of the line, starting at the Thomson River end.

Locomotives and rolling stock

The locomotives and rolling stock that the VR used on the four lines were transferred from line to line as necessary. This was especially the case when a vehicle needed attention in the workshops. A broad-gauge train would take a replacement vehicle to the narrow gauge line and bring back the vehicle needing attention, which, when repaired, would become the next replacement vehicle. So with a few exceptions, no particular vehicle would be dedicated to a particular line.

The rolling stock was all classified with a letter code which was prefixed with an "N" to signify narrow gauge. The VR practice at the time was to use a doubled code for bogie vehicles, although this practice was later dropped. The letters "A" and "B" indicated first and second class accommodation respectively, with "D" (later "C") used to signify guard's accommodation. The remaining letters of the alphabet were used for various goods vehicles.


The VR bought from Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia two "Prairie" (2-6-2) tank locomotives, then made 15 further copies of these locomotives in its own workshops at Newport. These locomotives were classified "Narrow gauge A" or "NA", and were numbered 1 to 17.

Nos. 2 and 4 were compound engines, with the rest being simple expansion engines. Nos. 3 and 4 incorporated spare parts that Baldwin supplied with Nos. 1 and 2.

Of these 17 engines, Nos. 6, 7, 8, 12, and 14 survive in an operating condition on the Puffing Billy Railway, and the railway also has No. 3, which has not been restored to operating condition.

In 1926 the VR bought two Beyer Garratt locomotives from Beyer, Peacock and Company in Manchester. These were classified G and received the numbers 41 and 42. No. 41 was allocated to the Crowes line where it spent its entire career, whilst No. 42 was allocated to the Walhalla line. After closure of the Walhalla line, No. 42 was transferred to the Weeaproinah line to assist its worn-out sister. It survived until closure of that line, and was subsequently transferred to the Puffing Billy Railway where it remained a static exhibit for many years, but was eventually restored to service on that line in 2004.

Passenger carriages

The original passenger carriages, providing second-class accommodation only, were 22-seat end-platform vehicles. Six were constructed between 1898 and 1904. They were classified NBB (later simplified to NB) and numbered 1 to 6. Numbers 1, 2, and 5 survive on the Puffing Billy Railway.

Commencing in 1906, further carriages were provided, including four with first-class accommodation.

17 second-class carriages were built between 1906 and 1915, also classified NBB and later simplified to NB. Unlike the first vehicles, these were compartment carriages. Only No. 14 survives, on the Puffing Billy Railway, but has not yet been restored to service.

An NB (originally NABAB) carriage

Four carriages were built from 1906 to 1909 which catered for both first and second class travel. These were classified as NABAB, later simplified to NAB, and were numbered 1 to 4. Later, first-class travel on the narrow gauge was abolished, and these carriages were reclassified to NB and renumbered to 25 to 27 and 24 respectively. Nos. 24 and 26 survive in an operating condition on the Puffing Billy Railway.

In 1919 fifteen open-sided carriages were built (six by converting open wagons) for excursion traffic on the Gembrook line. Apart from a few years after closure of the Gembrook line prior to closure of the Colac line when they operated on the latter line, they never saw service on any other line.

These carriages were classified NBH (the "H" standing for "Holiday" traffic) and numbered 1 to 15. All are still in use on the Puffing Billy Railway.

Goods vehicles

The mainstay of the goods vehicles was the NQR open wagon. 218 of these vehicles were built between 1898 and 1914, numbered 1 to 218. They had removable sides and ends, allowing them to be used as flat wagons. Six survive in serviceable condition on the Puffing Billy Railway, which also has another 16 which are not serviceable.

When temporary additional passenger capacity was required, some had temporary frames, seats, and canvas covers fitted. In 1919 six wagons were converted to the first of the NBH excursion carriages.

For carrying livestock, 15 NMM vans were built between 1898 and 1915. Numbered 1 to 15, their code was later simplified to NM. One survives in operating condition on the Puffing Billy Railway, with the body of a second waiting restoration.

Fourteen enclosed vans were built between 1898 and 1911, with louvred sides to allow for air flow. These vehicles were classified as NUU vans, later simplified to NU, and numbered 1 to 14. Five remain intact on the Puffing Billy railway, although only one is in serviceable condition.

The rest of the goods fleet comprised two vehicles; an insulated van classified as NTT (later simplified to NT) and an explosives van classified as NPH (later simplified to NH). The former was built in 1899 and was used on the Whitfield line for transport of milk, and the latter was built in 1910 for use on the Walhalla line to transport explosives for the mines at Walhalla, as well as general goods. The NPH van was divided into two compartments to keep the explosives separate from the general goods. However, with the mines at Walhalla closing, both compartments were then used for general goods. Both vehicles carried the number 1 and both survive on the Puffing Billy Railway.


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