Puffing Billy is something of a local icon that every Melbournian should ride at least once in their lifetime but the beloved train has a long and interesting history you may not know about. In this article we take a closer look at Victoria’s favourite heritage railway, and uncover some little known facts about it’s history.
The railway is 116 years old
In the 19th century, Victoria’s rail system expanded at an extraordinary rate and between 1887 and 1892, just over 1150 miles of track were laid to link Melbourne’s major population centres. However, in the 1890s, a financial recession crippled the Government’s infrastructure projects and made building full sized lines to outlying communities a financial impossibility. During that time, communities like those in the Dandenong ranges were isolated and could only be reached by bullock or horse drawn drays. The narrow gauge railway was an economic alternative, as it could be laid as surface lines which followed the natural contours of the land. In this way, Puffing Billy played a key role in connecting the communities of the Dandenong ranges and wider Melbourne.
It survived a landslide but was shut down anyway
Although it was providing a valuable public service, the Gembrook line had been a financial liability since the 1930s. Because of the steep terrain of the line, and the change of gauge at Upper Ferntree Gulley where the goods had to be switched between trains, the line was running at a loss. On the 3rd of August 1953, a landslide blocked the line between Selby and Menzies Creek. Victorian Railways, used the delay in services and the financial losses accrued as justification to close the line.
30,000 people turned out to say goodbye to Puffing Billy in 1954
Melbourne newspaper ‘The Sun’ organised one final day to farewell Puffing Billy before the line was torn up. Over 2,500 tickets were sold to ride the train one final time on 11 December 1954 but on the day, over 30,000 people lined up along the track to see the engine chug along amongst the ferns one final time. This show of public support and affection galvanized locals into protesting to save the train and form The Puffing Billy Preservation Society which runs the line today.
Puffing Billy has its own film
In 1967, the Commonwealth Film Unit made a short documentary film about Puffing Billy. The film takes place over a trip from Belgrave to Emerald, stopping at Menzies Creek. The film focuses on the passengers and volunteers working on the line. Two of the preservation society volunteers featured in the film (the fire man and the boy selling lollies at Menzies Creek) still work on the rail.