The rail-traveller’s approach to the Puffing Billy Railway is by suburban electric train from the City Loop eastwards to Belgrave.
Though the route is a conventional trip through the Melbourne suburbs, it’s noticeable that further out the track has been expensively lowered into a steep-sided cutting to eliminate dangerous at-grade road crossings.
Towards the end of the journey, the line changes character. After Upper Ferntree Gulley the broad-gauge electric multiple unit squeezes itself on to a rural single line with passing loops until it reaches its terminus at Belgrave.
The reason for this is that when the 1889 line as far as Upper Ferntree Gulley was extended ten years later it was built as one of four experimental 2ft-6in gauge branch lines, an extreme expression of Victorian Railways’ commitment to provide rail service even to remote communities in the days before motorised road transport.
Even though none of these narrow-gauge lines ever made a profit, the line from Upper Ferntree Gulley to the far terminus at Gembrook operated until a landslip in 1953 gave VR an excuse to close it.
The manifest popularity of the numerous “farewell” specials run as far as Belgrave motivated enthusiasts to raise the possibility of running it as a volunteer-operated heritage railway, the Puffing Billy Railway, named after the local nickname for the narrow-gauge trains.
Though VR management was initially sceptical, the scheme went ahead, with the narrow-gauge trackbed from Upper Ferntree Gulley to Belgrave converted to broad gauge and electrified.
Belgrave reopened as a suburban station in 1962, the same year that the Puffing Billy Railway opened its service as far as Menzies Creek, extending it to Emerald (1965), Lakeside (1975) and to the original terminus at Gembrook in 1998, a total journey of fifteen miles.
The result is an absolute delight for tourists as well as enthusiasts. The clearances are such that passengers are encouraged to dangle their legs out of the train windows. The route passes through beautiful countryside and crosses two spectacular timber viaducts at Monbulk Creek and Cockatoo Creek.
The railway’s preservation credentials are impressive. It possesses every surviving VR narrow-gauge locomotive, all but one of which are operable, as well as one magnificent G-class Garratt locomotive which is capable of hauling eighteen-coach trains.
It runs trains every day of the year except Christmas Day, with a core group of paid staff alongside a welcoming, cheerful team of volunteers.
The Puffing Billy Railway has now run for longer as a heritage line than it did as part of a main-line network. It dates back to the time when enthusiasts first began to believe they could run a railway, and rail professionals learned to trust them.
As such it stands alongside Britain’s narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway (reopened 1951) [http://www.talyllyn.co.uk] and standard-gauge Bluebell Railway (reopened 1960) [http://www.bluebell-railway.com] demonstrating that committed, hard-headed amateurs can make heritage rail a practical success.
Perhaps the ultimate accolade is a proposal for Victorian Railways to restore an original broad-gauge Tait electric multiple-unit set to operate a complementary service between Flinders Street and Belgrave in conjunction with the Puffing Billy trains: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tait_(train)#/media/File:TaitNewportWorkshops.jpg.