Closing time at Newcastle

The closure of a railway line is always a point of sadness for me and I always regret it if I never rode the line when I had a chance to. In this case it was to be but a short length of track, a mere two stations.

Surprisingly I’ve only visited New South Wales’ second largest city proper once in my life. It was back in 1986, staying in a leaky caravan en route to Melbourne and Adelaide. Yet I remember admiring the trains running straight along the waterfront and into the historic centre of the city.

Oh, I’ve gone through the outskirts of Newcastle plenty of times, driving to Port Stephens or on the XPT from Brisbane. It’s a pretty line, but I’ve long wanted to travel the entire electrified length into the city, just never got around to it.

The time for excuses had ended. On Boxing Day the stretch between Broadmeadows/Hamilton and the Newcastle Terminus will be closed. By the end of 2016 it will return as far as Wickham, but the remaining two station stretch is supposed to eventually become light rail.

That’s a long time considering that the rails are already there. But I guess the important thing is that the property developers will be satisfied. Hey, it’s not like there’s corruption in Newcastle or nothin’.

I didn’t really want to travel so far today, but the deadline left me little choice. Alex, who’s now on school holidays, and I followed B into Central, where we swapped platforms for the Intercity Train to Newcastle.

Alex has wanted to travel in one of the “V set” intercity trains for a while and I admit that I have some fondness for them after many adventures south and west. I’ve seen them with yellow (nice) and green (sickly) interiors, but our carriage had a purple theme going on!

The first part of our journey out through the Inner West to Strathfield and Epping was just my old work journey and indeed I spent the time working on my laptop. There were many moments from Epping to Asquith where the leafy suburbs and large old houses reminded me of similar areas in Adelaide and Melbourne. It’s interesting how the natural landscape changes so much across the various areas of Sydney, the different eucalypt species that predominate, wet areas and the harsher dry ironbark bush out west.

Along the route today we passed through a range of bush types, some obviously once logged, others which showed signs of bushfires. The Christmas bushes were in flower, shocks of red foliage in the green background. Also Gymea lillies and the occasional flame tree.

The line then leaves suburbia for the ridges above the craggy sandstone valleys of the Hawkesbury River system. There are impressive views of the river crossing at Mooney Mooney before the train descends for its own crossing at Brooklyn, or Hawkesbury River as the station is called.

Then it’s a very scenic ride along the Western side of broad Mullet Creek with the posts of oyster farms prodding through the surface. The houses on the opposite bank can only be reached by boat. There are no roads there.

The train emerges from a tunnel into Woy Woy, with its pretty inlet. There are more waterside views until we reach Gosford. The Central Coast has a reputation for high unemployment and social disadvantage and I have to admit that there were many rough looking passengers on the train and waiting at the station. On an opposite platform, a pretty young Asian girl dyed blonde, her animated features spoiled in this author’s eyes by the pierced septum and crude tattoos all over the limbs and face.

Wyong marked the end of the really interesting scenery, though there were still many pretty patches, green fields with cows, low marshlands and towns. Alex was getting antsy after hours on the train. Sadly, he does not seem to share my love of just staring out the windows of trains, something I’ve done since I was little. Instead it is entertainment of the electronic kind; games and movies.

Broadmeadow marked the end of the northern run and the start of the line into Newcastle proper. I noticed that we weren’t alone in noting the upcoming closure of the line. Other passengers were videoing and photographing as we trundled past track maintenance vehicles and diggers standing prepared for the demolition to begin.

The terminus at Newcastle Station was thronging with fellow passengers, many elderly, admiring the wrought iron supports, the brickwork, the memorial signs and bell, for one last time. It is a station that feels like a proper terminus of an important line, somewhere one can easily imagine an old steam train waiting to take passengers far away.

Other buildings surrounding the station add to feeling. A customs house now a restaurant and function centre, old facades lining nearby streets, a row of terrace houses straight out of England.

We walked across to the park opposite, where jumping castles and slides were still being inflated, to Alex’s excitement and disappointment. He cheered up with a playground further on, besides a locomotive shed converted into a shelter.

Across the way was the Hunter River foreshaw, plied by cargo ships, tugs and ferries. A still working harbour, unlike Sydney’s. I thought of walking across to the beach, but it was quite distant in the heat and we were both hungry.

On the way back we discovered that the rides were now inflated. As the cheaper slide and castle were still wet from the showers I bought a $10 ticket for the Zorb balls and Alex screamed with delight as he somersaulted across the pool inside the transparent ball.

As we have so often discovered so often on our travels it is these small delights that make train journeys to nowhere worthwhile for a kid.

The area around the station seemed a little empty food wise and I had spotted a large hobby shop a little way up the line, so we then caught a diesel Endeavour set rail car up to Civic. A pity the adjacent Hunter set wasn’t running as I’ve never caught one of those, but the Hunter lines remain a future activity.

It was a bit of a walk to Frontline Hobbies which, according to its website, is Australia’s largest hobby shop. It certainly did sell a lot, though their model train section was rather disappointing, especially the expensive Japanese items. Alex played with a wooden train layout while I pondered over Lego Mindstorms. Eventually we left with a tub of slime, appropriately branded “Alex”.

Central Newcastle was quite attractive, with many historic sandstone buildings and a sense of history pervading. A lot of pubs and more than a few who had drunk too much, but also other interesting shops. I could easily see it ripe for trendy gentrification, but you could also see the economic hurt. The old David Jones department store excitingly rebranded as “The Emporium“, but a shell of stalls around boarded up space.

In some ways a tram with many stops along the way makes more sense than heavy rail, but it’s hard to understand why they can’t just reuse the existing track without so much disruption. When we returned to Newcastle Station and stuck our heads in the station cafe the ice cream fridge was empty, switched off, and there were few snacks to be bought. I hope they keep the station building for the light rail. It needs its passengers and I feel that there will be ghosts of those in transit and those who look after them echoing along the platform for as long as it stands.

For us it was time to say goodbye. A four car V set with the old green interior was waiting to take us home beneath gloomy skies that made a mockery of the long summer day. After we waved goodbye to the closing length of track Alex mixed up his gooey, snot-like slime, moulding into monsters, then giggled at old episodes of The Goodies, as I did as a child.

As we neared Central he fell asleep and I had to carry him across to the train to Sutherland, like so many times before in his six years of life. He didn’t wake until our final stop.

Sydney is fortunate to have such scenic railway lines out of the city. I’m very glad to have finally caught the train to Newcastle, but sad to farewell the last stop and with it, travel for this year.

Update 25/12/2014: A reprieve for now? They still intend to remove the overhead wires…