The Romance of Rail

Train in the distance

By Peter Stagg

Everybody hears the sound of a train in the distance
Everybody thinks it’s true.
(It’s a Paul Simon metaphor –)
The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains

It’s quite true for the most part, except for us in the Foothills, as it is for those in most railway towns. It doesn’t work as a metaphor at all in Ferntree Gully, because for us the sound of a train in the distance is generally real.

It’s actually the sound of a train in the distance, or indeed, for many of us, it’s the sound of a train over the back fence. Be it the humming of the rails, the pounding of steel wheels on steel rails, the sound of the warning at the whistle stick or the clanging of the level crossing bells, we all know that we are a part of a railway town. It’s always been that way.

Upper Gully has its own Driver’s Depot. We can hear them shuffling trains in the early mornings around 0430. It used to be, before centralised signalling, that we could tell which drivers were taking out the first trains.

Some were patient. Just a small toot when they were ready for a green light from the local signalman to let them out of the stabling sidings. Others were impatient if they didn’t get an immediate response from the station where someone might have been hovering over a potbelly stove with a warm cup of tea instead of watching his signal panel. They didn’t care who they woke up. That’s fair. They had a job to do. These are all the sounds that add to the fabric of an historic railway town.

As a daily train commuter some years ago I would wake to an early alarm, get ready for the day, jump a quick coffee and listen for the Alpine St level crossing bells at around 0635. That would tell me it was time to fling my lunch into my satchel and hightail it down Francis Crescent just in time to catch the next train to Melbourne. Roughly seven minutes between trains. It was always touch and go.

The early days of the Gully were built on timber, trains and tourists. None of it would have happened without the rail. Maybe the beautiful Upper Gully Royal Hotel would never have been so grand without it. Do you know why it’s called ‘The Royal’? Look it up, or maybe read Helen Coulson’s History of the Dandenongs. It’s still a marvellous read.

Before I leave the foothills, here’s a little personal railway story. As a young railway engineer, I designed and oversaw the development of the carpark on the eastern side of the Ferntree Gully Station. I was quite proud of it.

On the last day of construction, the landscapers moved in and planted a mass of native species throughout the garden beds. I saw them all that night. It was a botanic delight. The next night coming off the train I was devastated to find that some misguided soul had wandered through in the darkness and uprooted the lot. I bit my lip, scurried home, and offered extra pocket money to our four children to do some gardening. We marched down the hill and replanted probably 150 natives and astonishingly, most of them survived. So did the children.

I remind them regularly what a great part in our history had they played, and how much 20 cents could buy in those days! They still remind me that it was most likely slave labour.

We can all have our opinions. We are indeed a railway town. Embrace it. Embrace the sound in the distance. It’s probably a train.

Photo by Meg Hellyer

On a frosty night

By Anne Boyd

Back in the 1950s the end of the line for the red rattler electric trains from Flinders Street was at Upper Gully. We lived in The Avenue then and I often came home on the last train, the 11.50pm from Flinders Street.

Walking up the hill nearly an hour later I would listen for the sound of the train whistle at the crossings on the way to Upper Gully. Then after a pause the whistle would sound again as the train began the return trip to town.

Once, on a clear and frosty night, I stayed outside delighting at the (then) brilliant array of stars. As I gazed, I heard the train arriving back at Lower Gully, gathering speed (and sound). A while later a blast announced the Boronia crossing; the train continued on, sound growing fainter now until with the last whisper of whistle it passed through Bayswater.

Perhaps everything was quieter then; the air stiller; the acoustics of the winding forest valley better relaying the sound. Perhaps then my hearing was more acute, but in my personal history of sounds the whistle blasts from the rattling red night train to Flinders Street are a nostalgic background to home.

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