Into 2000 with Bluebird Rail...

Bluebird Rail Passenger Services
Under Australian National operation, attempts had been made, from time to time, to run special country passenger services for tourist purposes, after the total withdrawal of scheduled services. While the "Bluebird" diesel-hydraulic multiple-unit cars were an obvious choice, AN also refurbished some retired passenger stock and a spare "Overland" power generator van (4PCO) for trips to the scenic "Barossa Valley", coupling the consist with a double-ended 930 class Goodwin-Alco diesel-electric locomotive, and giving the train the title of "The Explorer", painting it dark blue with a stylish compass logo in gold. Alas, despite their efforts, there did not appear to be sufficient interest.

It is interesting to note the success with which the late John McAvaney had in the 1980s with his arranging of the running of between five and six hundred Bluebird trips, hiring the railcars from AN during this time. John was not a railwayman, but he had a keen interest, very different from his occupation of being a butcher. However the bureacracy of AN never seemed to be able to do what John so succesfully did.

One has to cite the successes of volunteer organisations such as the Pichi Richi Railway Preservation Society, Steamtown Peterborough, Steam Ranger, and more recently the Wallaroo-Kadina Tourist Railway, in their running of occasional passenger services over perhaps some twenty years in some cases, although none of these claim to be fully commercial. However, steam is a very labour intensive operation, so perhaps one should not look too closely at volunteer groups (who are by definition non-commercial), particularly those who specialise in steam.

In Victoria of recent years, West Coast Railway has shown that passenger carrying can be done commercially (when subsidised by government grants in the same way as country bus runs are subsidised by governments as a "community service"). WCR operate a passenger service between Warnambool and Melbourne, and Great Northern Rail Services are in the business of hiring engines, crews, and performing routine tasks to larger railways - also commercially, though mainly associated with freight, marshalling and switching, and infrastructure maintenance associated tasks.

Privatisation is here, and while John McAvaney's success was obviously only "occasional", it was not until privatisation ocurred that the opportunity to do it properly finally eventuated.

Bluebird Rail Services was incorporated several years before the AN organisation fell apart and it was actually unsuccesful in its bid by tender for AN's unwanted Bluebirds in December 1994, the ownership passing to a Thailand company who then procrastinated until late 1996 before selling them to Bluebird Rail whose directors included John McAvaney and Barry Martin - the latter a former Western Australian radio personality with whom this author worked in 1969-70.

John McAvaney passed away on Easter Sunday 1995, and the company was restructured to include with Barry Martin, Mike Rainsford and Phil O'Gorman (both Western Australians involved in airline managment) and Chris Hall, who had been head of passenger services in AN between 1991 and 1995.

They therefore were fortunate in purchasing most of the remaining Bluebird power and trailer cars - some from AN in their "fire sale" as previously described, and some after 1997 from GSR who had inherited them as unwanted sit-up "coach class" accomodation modified and used on their three "named" passenger trains. Not only do Bluebird Rail have several of these running operationally to and from the Barossa Valley on three commercial runs every week (runs which one should emphasise are fully booked), but their maintenance unit (Bluebird Engineering) have also refitted four others for lease to a Victorian private operator on the east coast out of Melbourne to Gippsland.

As an experiment during 1998, a special trip to one of the nearer country race meetings at Balaklava (north of Adelaide) was scheduled, and the trip was fully booked - a great success for privatisation and the entrepreneurship of Bluebird Rail.

Bluebird Engineering
Bluebird Engineering have constructed a private car for one customer, this being a conversion from a standard (and derelict) "Overland" sleeper, and the craftsmanship performed in the conversion has caused interest to be expressed by others for similar work to be performed by them. Such are unexpected spin-offs from privatisation, but again, one has to express concern at how far one has to go in order to get profitability back into a business which has stagnated for decades under government control, and perhaps (in some cases) restrictive practices.

Onr of their earliest opportunities to demonstrate their workmanship was their refurbishment in 1998 of Wegmann built ex Trans-Australian 1st class observation lounge ARF84 for Australia Southern. After being displaced by the stainless steel "Comeng" passenger cars in later CR days, the Wegmann units became redundant.

This vehicle had been renumbered NARF84 and used on the narrow gauge "Ghan" service for a couple of years in the seventies, and later became inspection vehicle EI84 for many more on the Trans line - usually trailing at the end of a freight train such as the "Tea and Sugar", often being provided for staff from the Rural and Isolated Childrens' Exercise on their bi-monthly visits from Port Augusta to the fettlers' camps along the route as far as Rawlinna.

The painting of EI84 in the Orange and Black house colours of Genessee and Wyoming was performed when ASR first arrived upon the scene. It is believed that this is the first passenger vehicle ever painted in GWI colours, because GWI have no need for passenger vehicles on their US freight-only railroads. ASR themselves painted a second Wegmann lounge car (AFB137) in early 1999, and the two were run together from Adelaide to Kalgoorlie in February 1999 on the occasion of the visit of Mortimer Fuller III, GWI's boss. Car 137 is still without the corporate logo as of 10th May.

Currently, there is work for ASR on the conversion of a retired "Overland" sleeper into a crew car, retaining six of the sleeper compartments and converting the rest of the space into a cooking and eating area.


Bluebird Engineering's main source of work (and therefore income, leading to the ongoing re-employment of a number of tradesmen of various disciplines) has continued to be the refurbishment of rollingstock for other commercial rail operators.

Several locomotives for private rail operator Silverton Transport Industries and rollingstock for several private freight train operators are included in this list; two ex-NSW class 442 Goodwin-Alco locomotives were converted to Driver Only Operation and repainted in the new yellow and blue corporate colours of Silverton during 1998, and in early 1999 two class 45 Goodwin-Alcos had a similar treatment performed.

Ongoing work rejuvenating freight flat cars and box vans will see them through the next many months, with (hopefully) extended and new contracts as well.


Bluebird's Future
Currently, the one remaining Budd RDC-1 of the three originally purchased by Commonwealth railways in the 1950s is at Islington awaiting work to start in the complete refurbishing of this unique machine which has great potential for sale somewhere overseas that could cope with the very generous dimensions of the American loading gauge.

While speculation could exist on the running of this unit as a standard gauge "connection" with the broad gauge Steam Ranger trips from Mount Barker to Victor Harbour, the dimensions of the (mostly curved) tunnels would not permit the length of a Budd RDC to negotiate them.

It is also a sad fact that in their wisdom AN (via its track authority recently privatised) decided to remove the points (switches) which connected the Mount Barker Junction platform with the main line. Situated between Balhannah and Nairne, there had been a junction in broad gauge days connecting the line to Victor Harbour to the Main South. The loop (which included the passenger platform) was disconnected at the eastern end in the 80s, and when the line was standardised in 1995, a third rail was initially laid which allowed crippled locomotives or wagons of either gauge to be dropped off there. Rather like the Victorian philosophy at Ararat where the broad gauge connection to Ballarat was severed and pushed to one side with a bulldozer when the line became only standard gauge, connection was completely severed at Mount Barker Junction.

This would not preclude the running of a standard gauge Bluebird set for this purpose if the loop could be reinstated. Railcars 260 + 104 + 26xx have been earmaked to be refurbished (on standard gauge) for a proposed privately run reintroduction of the "Iron Triangle Limited" with the corporations of the cities of Whyalla, Port Pirie and Port Augusta having applied for grants to subsidise the service. We shall have see what funds are forthcoming, though perhaps it would be unwise to hold one's breath.

Such a service could also service tourism in the nearby Flinders Ranges as well, perhaps also providing a standard gauge connection to the narrow gauge tourist railways in the region, such as Peterborough and Pich Richi. Hopefully it will not remain a pipe dream.

Bluebird is one of many small companies - with great potential - which has sprung from the ashes of the dead phoenix that was the Islington Workshops. We should ensure that public and bureacratic apathy does not allow any of these entreprenurial exercises to fail because of lack of support.

Barossa Train Schedule

Adelaide......dep 0850
Tanunda........arr 1025
Nuriootpa.....arr 1035

Nuriootpa...dep 1530
Tanunda.......arr 1545
Adelaide.......arr 1715

Bookings by telephone to (08) 8232 4060; fax (08) 8232 5465

Updated 12th May 1999