The Puffing Billy railway was one of four low-cost 762mm gauge lines constructed in Victoria state in the early 1900s to open up remote areas. The present line between Belgrave and Gembrook, through forests, fern gullies and farmlands of the magnificent Dandenone Ranges, is the major part of the line which opened on 18th December 1900 and operated over 29 kms between Upper Ferntree Gully and Gembrook until 1953, when a landslide blocked the track and the line was closed.
Public interest resulted in the formation of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society, whose volunteers, with the blessings of the Victorian Railways and with the assistance of the Citizens’ Military Forces, by-passed the landslide and reopened the line to Menzies Creek in 1962, Emerald in 1965, Lakeside in 1975 and finally to Gembrook in October 1998.
Now the goods and livestock have gone, but the passengers have returned in greater numbers than ever. Today, Puffing Billy is Australia’s favourite steam train and one of the finest preserved steam railways in the world.
Lots of people sit with their legs through the open windows so that they have an unrestricted view of the engine and carriages as they go round the curves of the track. As you look ahead you can see smoke swirling up through the trees from the engine and, of course, as we approached the many level crossings the train-driver tooted the steam whistle and most people in their cars waved as the train passed by. Bits of grit and soot drift down from the smoke and to ensure that there is no fire hazard a small fire patrol follows the train, about two minutes behind with water and extinguishers.
The various noises are an essential part of the Puffing Billy experience with the clackity-clack of the wheels on the rails, the chuffing of the engine as it pulls up a gradient and the sound of the linkages between the carriages as they take up the slack.
All the staff including drivers, guards, conductors as well as engine maintenance workers are volunteers, mostly older men who all take their roles very seriously but with good grace and a friendly, warm manner. The whole experience is a friendly, fun event and much different to modern day transport.