I was intended to travel from my Newcastle DFAS lecture to the next booking at Scone by car, but my chauffeur was taken ill so I took the train to Muswellbrook (pronounced Mussel-brook), and after I’d lectured at Scone, another train from there up the length of the Hunter Valley.
I wasn’t aware at the time but later discovered that Sandgate station on the way out of Newcastle marks the location of the Sandgate Cemetery Branch, which operated from when the Cemetery opened in 1881 until at least 1933 – (the cemetery website [http://www.sandgatecemetery.org.au/index.php/our-cemetery/history-of-sandgate] – indicates services ran until 1985).
Stations with evocative Geordie names – Wallsend, Hexham – lead to Maitland, the junction where the North Coast Line, built on a shorter route closer to the coast between 1905 and 1932, leaves the older Main North Line.
Maitland is also the base for the elaborate Hunter Valley Steamfest [http://www.steamfest.com.au], which offers an astonishing range of steam-related entertainments, not all of them rail-based, every April.
Even from the road, especially on the New England Highway, the coal and the trains still dominate: the inexorable coal-trains look a mile long, and at a level crossing you might as well switch off the car-engine and pour yourself a coffee.
Yet the countryside is open and pastoral: here there is money to be made from horse-breeding and wine-growing.
The station-names become Scottish for a while – Lochinvar, Allandale – and then switch to Co Durham – Greta. Eventually, after the vast Dartbrook Colliery, the landscape turns rural again and the towns more elegant, with Scots names – Aberdeen and Scone.
From Scone the route continues to climb and the ruling gradient of 1 in 80 becomes 1 in 40 at the approach to the single-track bottleneck Ardglen Tunnel, over a quarter of a mile long, at over 2,300 feet altitude.
The once-a-day CountryLink service to and from Sydney breaks at Werris Creek, still a significant railway junction with a fine station building by John Whitton (1820-1898), Engineer-in-Charge of New South Wales Railway and builder also of the border railway station at Albury.
One portion of the CountryLink train goes takes the Mungindi Line to Moree; I followed the main route to the present-day end of the line at Armidale. Past Tamworth the line tends to follow tight river-valleys, until at Uralla it emerges on to the open, empty tableland plain.
Passenger service ends where the line turns sharply north-west at Armidale, at the fine 1882-3 railway station designed by Edmund Lonsdale with cast-ironwork from the New England Foundry at Uralla.
You can stand at the north end of Armidale Station gazing at the rusting tracks which stretch another 93 miles to the break-of-gauge at Wallangarra.
The line to the border with Queensland was abandoned beyond Tamworth in the late 1980s, though services were restored as far as Armidale in 1993. The abandoned track and infrastructure remains in place, though it must be decrepit by now.
Queensland Railways’ 3ft-6in-gauge services to Wallangarra ceased in 1997, though heritage steam services occasionally operate: http://www.southerndownssteamrailway.com.au/news_events/040409.php.