Thirsty Work

all_aboardI was recently given a copy of Jim Haynes & Russell Hannah’s excellent book All Aboard! Tales of Australian Railways (ABC Books, Sydney, 2004). Inspired by what I read, I decided to give it a go and spin my own yarn, based on a story told to me by a member of the public, visiting the club.


Thirsty Work
by Ross Parker

It was about two thirty in the afternoon of a hot, still day in late spring. The kind of day where a small promise of the weather to come in summer gets you thinking; maybe the cold and rain of the winter we just had wasn’t that bad after all.

I was sheltering in the model railway shed at the rear of the museum when they arrived. From my position next to the cool drink fridge, I could survey the layout and attend to visitors, with an economy of movement encouraged by the heat.

The first appeared around the corner of the big sliding door, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the relative gloom of the shed after walking around in the bright sunshine outside. As he realised what further treasures he had discovered, he quickly stuck his head back outside and called out to his mate, “Come and have a look at this!”

They looked like they were both in their sixties — old enough to be retired, but young enough to still be able to enjoy it. Although visibly flagging in the heat, their eyes were shining bright and it was obvious they were enjoying themselves immensely.

Sensing an opportunity to make a few cents profit for the club, I called out to them, “G’day. You guys look thirsty. Fancy a nice cold drink?”

Don’t s’pose you have a cold beer do ya mate?” answered one of them grinning. We talked about a variety of subjects, from the restrictive nature of liquor licensing laws, to the quality of the exhibits in the museum.

It turned out they were both retired railwaymen. Starting out as apprentices cleaning steam locos, they had worked their way up through the West Australian Government Railways until they were drivers at the end of steam in the early ’70s. They had spent the rest of their careers on diesel locomotives, witnessing first hand the shrinking of the WA railway passenger network, and the change from the role of the WAGR as a common freight carrier to specialist bulk commodity transporter. Privatisation was the final straw though, and they had both taken advantage of the redundancies on offer during that period of change.

Speaking of beer, do you remember Thirsty?” said one to the other. Looking back on it now, the conversation never really did seem to stray far from the amber fluid. Turning to me he explained, “Thirsty was a driver based at Bunbury when I was there as a fireman. He got his nickname from his love of beer.

Tell you what, you never made the mistake twice of giving him a full jug to pour! He would start by filling his own glass and down it in a single gulp, and then refill it straight away. Whilst filling everyone else’s glasses he would be drinking his own with his other hand — and he always somehow managed to save enough in the jug at the end of the pour to refill his glass a third time. If he was pouring the jug, he was drinking three times as much as anyone else.

His love of the drop made him unpopular with the firemen. If he wasn’t drunk on the footplate, he would be more concerned about getting to the next pub as quickly as possible than on the proper firing of his loco. A fireman on Thirsty’s footplate would have his work cut out, that’s for sure.

Thirsty was in charge of the circus train for one memorable run down to Bridgetown. Back in those days travelling circuses would tour the country towns, and some of them were transported as special charter trains. Made sense really — the rail network in WA was bigger then and visited most of the larger centres throughout the southern half of the state.”

The run to Bridgetown is a tricky one, even to this day, with lots of steep gradients and tight curves. Of course back in those days, a driver had the added complication of keeping a close eye on his water gauge to make sure he had enough to make it.

You could make it from Bunbury to Bridgetown on a single tender of water, but only if you were careful. Thirsty was sober that day, but I reckon he was thinking more of the beer in the pub at Bridgetown than of the water in his tender.

There were water stops along the way, but drivers were not particularly fond of using them. Better to take a few minutes by careful running than to waste half an hour stopping to take extra water.”

The last available water before Bridgetown was an emergency tank only. It had limited capacity and a small feed pipe, and it took even longer than a normal water stop. Management discouraged making use of it; it necessitated a lot of paperwork afterwards. A report needed to be completed explaining the reasons why it was needed, and a water tanker had to be dispatched to top it back up again.

Thirsty’s fireman that day suggested they might want to stop for water as the tender was getting low. Thirsty considered it, but I guess he could hear the pub calling and decided it was worth the risk. Sure enough, at the foot of the last climb before the descent into Bridgetown, the boiler glass was too low and the injectors started sucking air as the loco started to climb. Thirsty had no choice – he had to drop the fire to prevent the boiler plugs from melting.

Running out of water on the line was a very serious offence, far more serious than having to stop for emergency water. There was a delay of several hours while they waited for another loco to come from Bunbury to rescue them, and it caused considerable inconvenience to the circus he was pulling. Thirsty was worried — he’d already had a couple of reprimands — the bollocking he’d get over this stuff-up might be enough to get him demoted, or worse.

When the demand for explanation inevitably came through, Thirsty must have had a brainwave. Not only did he get to keep his job, he didn’t even get a dressing down (or so he said). I’m not sure if management believed his story or were simply impressed with his creativity!

He wrote, ‘I had the run timed perfectly. At the last opportunity to take water, I checked the tender and found we had more than sufficient to make it to Bridgetown. I’m not certain what happened after that, but I do have a theory. It was quite a hot day and the circus elephant was on the first wagon behind the tender. I reckon he must have got thirsty and sucked the last of my water right out of it! You can’t blame a thirsty animal for just trying to wet his whistle can you?’ ”

Copyright © Ross Parker 2005

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