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Researching steam train travel

Welcome to my strand of the World Wide Web.


Over the past couple of weeks, I've been writing train travel scenes. Easy. Right? Put the scenes into the correct context - travelling from Sydney to Melbourne in 1882, and it's not quite as easy as I imagined.

I prefer my characters to move around in settings that are reasonably accurate so I need to be careful of automatic assumptions about common activities; like catching a train.

1882 was still within the pioneer years of the Australian rail system. Train tracks were all over the place, but the gauges didn't match from state to state, and the bigger regional stations were still being built (or newly completed). Albury Station, the last stop in New South Wales before disembarking and catching a horse-drawn coach over the Murray River to Wodonga; the first Victorian Station for passengers travelling south, was opened in 1882. Albury is a reasonably sized city now, back then it was booming: cattle, wine, travellers, you name it and it was probably on the move through Albury.

My characters, and therefore my research, are sitting on the train. They've just passed Goulburn, itself a city on the rise, but it would be dark by the time the train pulled in there so not much to see apart from a few streetlights and flickering lights from homes.

I know that by 1882, Sydney's General Post Office had electric lights and that Tamworth was the first Australian town to have electric street lights (1888), but what about trains. The locomotive was all about coal, fire, and great plumes of steam, but how were the passenger cars lit - oil or electricity? I presume oil with the odd candle here and there, but I like to be certain.

What was the interior of the passenger car like? Would my characters have travelled in First Class private compartments with doors and windows? That would probably be best considering they're often beset by spirits, demons, and the plain weird. Or would they have travelled in Second Class semi-private compartments (two upholstered bench-seats facing each as in a compartment, but with no door or windows providing privacy from the corridor)?

Second Class carriage - NSW Rail Museum, Thirlmere

I've made great use of Pinterest and found a good range of European and English Pullman cars. Unfortunately, these weren't introduced to Australia until the 1890s. American passenger cars were in use (see picture).

I drove down to the NSW Rail Museum at Thirlmere to see if they had any restored carriages of the correct period that I could wander through (close but not quite) and to get a feel for the sound, smell, and rattle of steam train travel.

I had a chat with one of the volunteers at the museum who gave me some helpful advice, in particular terminology (so important for search engines) and I've now struck gold with the MAAS Museum. They have restored First and Second Class carriages, photographs, and good descriptions of each. I now have enough to comfortably carry on with and will be slipping a visit to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney soon to see the carriages for myself.

By the way, the carriages would have been lit with oil lamps burning rapeseed oil. I wonder what that would have smelled like?

Images above are from MAAS

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