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Heritage operator derailed

EVELEIGH: Heritage rail operator, 3801 Ltd, after two years of difficult dealings with Transport Heritage NSW, was locked out of Eveleigh’s Large Erecting Shop (LES) at the end of January 2017. It can no longer operate its scheduled trips including the Cockatoo Run to the Illawarra and tours which collaborate with the cruise ship industry. Anything that leaves the LES cannot be returned to it.

Locomotive 3801 in action on a 3801 Ltd tour in 2006. Photo: Owen Butcher
Locomotive 3801 in action on a 3801 Ltd tour in 2006. Photo: Owen Butcher

3801 Ltd, a not-for-profit company, has been based at the LES for the past 30 years. The company formed to operate tours in 1987, using the signature steam locomotive 3801. In 2006, the 3801 locomotive was moved to Thirlmere. At that time, the LES was to be pulled down and replaced with a 12-storey block of units. After a fight by 3801 Ltd and local residents the LES was saved and controls for heritage and training uses in the LES were put in place.

In 2013, the NSW government accepted all the recommendations of the 2013 Rail Heritage Review – All Aboard! The review established Transport Heritage NSW (THNSW), which absorbed the Rail Transport Museum at Thirlmere. One of the recommendations was that the LES become a multi-user heritage rail-operating base. THNSW initially proposed that 3801 Ltd would be able to lease two of the six indoor “roads” in the LES under the multi-user arrangement in recognition of 3801 Ltd’s long term occupancy, but nothing firm ever eventuated.

The current standoff stems from THNSW, which leases the LES from Transport for NSW (TfNSW), requiring 3801 Ltd to vacate the LES site fully so it can undertake work at the site. After completion, 3801 Ltd could then re-apply to become a possible user of the LES as one of the users of the proposed multi-user heritage rail-operating base. THNSW is not currently prepared to consider transferring 3801 Ltd to a new lease without its relocating. 3801 Ltd has proposed that the work required in the LES for the new facility could be done in a staged way around them as a continuing occupant.

Unlike other heritage groups, 3801 Ltd has no other location to retreat to as the LES has been its home for the past 30 years and TfNSW has not been able to provide it with an alternative base within the Sydney metropolitan area, which is necessary for it to remain operational.

3801 Ltd currently occupies much more than two “roads” and it initially said more than two roads were needed to run its current operational activity. To shrink to two operational “roads”, as it is prepared to do, the company will need to find a home elsewhere for over 20 truckloads of equipment, spares and non-running rolling stock.

The cost of moving anything out of the LES is not just dependent on finding a suitable location. It is also dependent on 3801 Ltd getting its tours going again to have an income to cover the cost of the reorganisation. Over the last 18 months uncertainty has already seen scheduled trips unable to be run, bookings refunded and all staff retrenched. 3801 Ltd is currently operating totally on volunteers with access to the LES only under THNSW supervision.

The 2013 Rail Heritage Review – All Aboard! promised a “fresh start and a co-operative approach to Rail Heritage in NSW”. 3801 Ltd argues the “fresh start and co-operative approach” has not been evident in 3801 Ltd’s recent dealing with THNSW and TfNSW. The company has been frustrated about its inability to resolve the situation with THNSW and has raised its concerns with the head of TfNSW.

One of the problems for the heritage rail sector is that there is little undercover storage for valuable assets, with many around the state, including at Thirlmere, sitting in the open. On top of this, TfNSW has operational pressures for stabling and maintenance facilities close to the city. This has already forced UrbanGrowth’s plans at North Eveleigh onto the back foot and even the compulsory acquisition of a small portion of the now Mirvac-owned ATP site is being contemplated.

There is concern in heritage circles that Sydney Metro will affect the XPT service centre near Sydenham and result in pressure for the LES to be used by TfNSW for the XPTs rather than heritage uses. Fuelling this concern is a decision within TfNSW, to identify a potential alternative operating site to the LES for heritage assets and services in the metro area.

In the current bout with TfNSW, 3801 Ltd has gone “softly, softly” in the hope that not making the public noise it did back in 2006 might lead to a more co-operative outcome. Therefore, it has been difficult to get details about what has been happening over the last couple of years. Information is only now surfacing when the future of the company is in the balance.

Back in 2006, then Shadow Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian became involved in trying to stop the removal of the 3801 locomotive. Her media release at the time said, “The volunteers and steam enthusiasts who make up 3801 Limited have done a wonderful job of running and maintaining the 3801 locomotive for the last 20 years, they should be allowed to continue their good work.” As Premier, it is time for her to intervene to ensure that 3801 Ltd has a place in her government’s “co-operative approach to Rail Heritage in NSW”.

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