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The heritage railway that could – an Ipswich tale

C17 761 in Mitchell. Photo by QPSR.

The lessons of the classic children’s tale The Little Engine That Could have not been lost on members of the Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway.

The Ipswich group has had to call on plenty of optimism, hard work and tenacity in securing a second heavy steam locomotive for its iconic heritage railway operation.

Maranoa Regional Council recently agreed to gift a historic C17 locomotive to the group.

The result followed plenty of “I think I can” moments before finally, a breakthrough.

A need arises

“About six years ago we worked out that we were in fairly desperate need of another large steam locomotive,” QPSR chairman Robert Shearer said.

The group runs a 111-year-old PB15 locomotive out of Swanbank on the Bundamba to Redbank heritage loop line.

“Basically it comes down to, every 10 years a steam locomotive has to have a mandatory overhaul but in between that you have got to do little overhauls,” he said.

“So if you’ve got a steam engine out of action for any extended period it means that you can’t guarantee that the train will be operating at any given time.”

QPSR previously hired a Queensland Rail locomotive as a stop gap measure but intent on finding a permanent solution, started hunting for a second locomotive.

The search took members 587 kilometres west of Brisbane to the town of Mitchell on the Western Downs where a 1927 C17 engine previously used to haul freight was on display in a park.

“We began talking about five years ago with the Maranoa council. The initial response was ‘no’, fairly bluntly, and so we went ‘okay’ and had a bit of a think,” Mr Shearer said.

Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway chairman Robert Shearer.

Opportunity of a lifetime

Not willing to give up, QPSR got permission to do some non-destructive tests on the locomotive, which revealed it was in good shape, and started researching its history.

“At that point we found that the locomotive actually had been heavily modified in 1962 for use on the Bundamba to Redbank loop line, which we operate over,” Mr Shearer said.

“All of a sudden there was a new vigour. We went from purely ‘this is something we need’ to ‘well, no other railway that we know of apart from Puffing Billy actually has an engine that was specifically worked on the branch line that was restored.’

“It suddenly became a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

What followed was a renewed approach to Maranoa council, which – much to the group’s pleasure – had softened its stance on the idea of the locomotive leaving Mitchell.

Discussions turned to a trade.

“The railway doesn’t have a great deal of money but it does have skills and does have a large plethora of rolling stock, some of which would not be feasible for restoration but are in very good nick for display,” Mr Shearer said.

A deal is struck

Strong bonds formed between the group and the community of Mitchell as discussions progressed, with a formal agreement eventually reached in March this year.

A final decision on what Mitchell will accept in return for the locomotive will be known early next month but it looks likely the offer of a miniature replica steam train will be taken up.

“One of the caveats we had to agree to was that the engine be named Booringa. Booringa was the original shire that got donated the locomotive,” Mr Shearer said.

“Booringa is also Aboriginal for fire and water, so it was a very fortuitous name, you know, the two things that make a steam engine go.

“We already have a few volunteers working on a little locomotive for them, so we will be ready to go if they choose that option. We’ve called it ‘baby Booringa’ as a bit of a tribute to the big engine.”

Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway’s iconic PB15 locomotive in action. Photo: QPSR.

Still work to be done

QPSR has now turned its attention to how to get the engine to Ipswich so restoration works can begin.

“The locomotive on the whole, while it was missing a lot of bolt on, bolt off parts, the actual core of the engine was pretty much as it left the workshops,” Mr Shearer said.

“In the middle of (negotiations) we had also received permission to have our boiler inspector fly down from Mackay and inspect the boiler. Save for one 20-cent piece size fault in the boiler, it is perfect.”

QPSR will use parts from an engine it acquired from Southport to get Booringa back on track.

“On the engine from Southport all the steel work was heavily corroded but the brass work was okay. On the engine from Mitchell, the steel work is okay but all the brass work got taken off,” he said.

“By mixing the two engines together you end up with one fairly good runner.”

Community support will be crucial

QPSR is seeking community support to get the engine to Ipswich so it can start the two to five year restoration process.

“It will be five years if we have to do it at Swanbank, but if someone has an undercover shed with a cement floor, we could probably get it done in two years,” Mr Shearer said.

“A lot of our issues out of Swanbank is lack of facilities; having to set up and take down every time you do a working weekend really slows you up.

“We’d love to hear from any locals and businesses who could support the restoration to either provide in-kind donations or tax deductible donations to get the engine going.”

Not quite yet at its “I knew I could” moment, the group is still very much relying on its “I think I can” mentality to get the project finished.

“The day it hits the ground is when I will believe it all comes to pass,” Mr Shearer said.

“These restorations are always a labour of love. You could pay someone to do it, but when you give yourself to do a restoration you get a real lump in the throat and your heart just sort of slows down a bit.

“The day Booringa rolls out the door I’m pretty certain I’ll be a bawling mess”.

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