MADE TO LAST: Red Cliffs Historical Steam Railway’s sleeper refurbishment project will see more than 1500 existing timber sleepers replaced with new plastic versions which are rated to last a minimum of 50 years. Pictured is Red Cliffs Historical Steam Railway treasurer, Bob Collins, and Integrated Recycling general manager, Stephen Webster. Photos: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

IT’S full steam ahead for the Red Cliffs Historical Steam Railway’s (RCHSR) sleeper refurbishment project, which will see more than 1500 existing timber sleepers replaced with new, innovative ‘Duratrack’ plastic versions in the coming years.

In advance of the project’s roll-out, the RCHSR has been conducting a trial of the new technology sleepers, which commenced almost three years ago.

The sleepers, which are rated to last up to 50 years (possibly much more with light usage) are manufactured by Mildura company Integrated Recycling, and are made from recycled plastic in the form of expanded-polystyrene which combines a patented mix of various ingredients, including 20 percent wood-fibre provided by Red Gum sawdust.

Most of the recycled plastic used in the production process comes from table grape vine covers which have beed discarded.

RCHSR president, Gerry Collins, said the sleepers were a fantastic innovation and would last a long time.

“These sleepers will potentially give us up to 80 years, which is pretty good,” he said. “They’re a lot easier to put in than the timber ones, although they are more expensive at a cost of $60 each, but they are value for money.

“We’ve just bought 50, so there’s $3000, and that’s significant for a small group like us when all our fund-raising comes from our ticket sales.”

Mr Collins said the group may need to look at seeking financial assistance in the future.

“We may need to apply for funding to support this sleeper replacement program, as yet we haven’t done that, but it’s something we need to think about,” he said. “In round figures we have about 1.5km of track, and you have a sleeper every metre, so there’s 1500 sleepers, it’s a lot of money and a lot of sleepers.”

Former Pacific National train driver of 45 years, and RCHSR volunteer Allan Manning, said the group’s working-bee team will begin installing the new sleepers straight away.

“We’ll get as many as we can in depending on the weather. Eventually every sleeper will be replaced on the main line and then there’ll be the sidings to do,” he said.

“Once they’re all done we won’t have to worry about putting any more in for a long time.”

On hand to witness the official commencement of the new sleeper installation earlier this week was Integrated Recycling’s general manager, Stephen Webster, who said his company was thrilled the RCHSR had chosen to install the plastic sleepers.

“It’s been three years in the making, and finally it has started, and it’s nice that it’s a project which is in our backyard,” he said. “It will of course be an ongoing project, that’s the good thing about rail – it never stops.”

Mildura Mayor Mark Eckel, who was also present to inspect the new sleeper project, said that maintaining a significant tourist attraction like the Red Cliff railway was vital.

“This is a working historical railway like no other in Australia, and so I’m really pleased that they have been able to connect with Integrated Recycling and install these sleepers which will last them a long time,” he said.

“Retaining this attraction in Mildura is very important, and I’ve been speaking to the group of volunteers here today, some of whom have their steam-ticket, and just like the Psyche Pumps enticing volunteers to be a part of this fantastic tourist attraction is challenging.”

The history of the little steam engine that pulls the passenger carriages on running days is a fascinating one to say the least.

The locomotive, built in 1901, is a Skylark Class named ‘Lukee’, which was manufactured by Kerr, Stuart and Company at their California Works at Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England.

Gerry said the engine had then gone to India for a period and then returned to England to be refurbished.

“After that it travelled the high seas, around the world to Tasmania, where it worked in the mines at Mount Lyell,” he said.

Mining and Railway Company was a Tasmanian group formed in March 1893, which was commonly referred to as Mount Lyell, the dominant copper mining company of the west coast from 1893 to 1994, based in Queenstown.

“It then ended up in South Australia’s Riverland, carting the aggregate (crushed stone) and cement when they were building the pipelines for irrigation,” Gerry said. “After that, in 1924, it was acquired by the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria, and transported up river from Cobdogla to Red Cliffs by the steamer ‘Renmark’, where it performed work at a site five kilometres away, taking coal to fuel a power and pumping station.”

Gerry said that when the electricity grid came to the region, the hard-working little engine was retired and obtained by Red Cliffs Rotary Club on the proviso that it didn’t leave the district. It was then given a new home near the local Red Cliffs Kindergarten, following which it sat on display in the park in Jacaranda Street, adjacent to the original railway station for a number of years.

“In the mid-80s the Preservation Steam Society restored the engine to working condition, during which time it was housed in a shed, until the Red Cliffs Historical Steam Railway site was developed on the South West Reserve, which in 1992 was selected as the permanent site to operate the locomotive as a tourist train,” Gerry said.

“What you see today has all happened since then, and the running days commenced more than 20 years ago.”

Gerry highlighted the fact that the engine is the only one of its type in the world, and still works today, all these years after it performed active service in the district from 1924 to 1954.

“We’re lucky to have it – and we’d like to preserve it for future generations to enjoy, but it takes people to do it, and with an ageing group of volunteers that’s not going to happen,” he said.

“We need younger people to come in so we can train them to take over.”

Gerry describes the railway as Sunraysia’s “best kept secret”, saying that if anyone would like to join the volunteer committee they can contact him on 0437 526 003 or visit the group’s website; www.redcliffshistoricalsteamrailway.org.

The next scheduled running day is this Sunday, commencing at 11am at Millewa Road, Red Cliffs.