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About Puffing Billy

Puffing Billy is a preserved and restored narrow gauge railway which, through its historic character, geographical situation and wide community appeal has become an important living museum and major tourist attraction. Since the founding of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society in 1955, the primary objective has been to activate a significant portion of the original Upper Fern Tree Gully and Gembrook railway and maintain its historic character. The railway exists today through the efforts of all those who have supported its preservation.

The Puffing Billy Railway also has the role of representing the other historic narrow gauge railways in Victoria and as a broader objective preserving in its collection, narrow gauge locomotives, rolling stock and artefacts from other states and from other parts of the world.

As an operating historic tourist railway, Puffing Billy maintains its preservation and restoration objectives while also meeting needs of each succeeding generation of passengers. High standards in service, safety, presentation, lineside conservation and overall integrity are upheld on the community's be half. The Puffing Billy Preservation Society and the Emerald Tourist Railway Board are entrusted with an important community asset; the promotion, development and interpretation of the railway's essential character is intrinsic to its ongoing operation. It should be understood that the term "essential character" refers to a diversity of elements and methods of operation each linked in some way to the life of the railway since its inception in the late 19th century.

An 'Era of Significance" in the original operating period has been set down as being 1900 to 1930, with additional emphasis on the peak years of operation the early 1920s. The Era of Significance is to be a primary consideration in laying down guidelines and policies which relate to all aspects of preservation, restoration, appearance, function, interpretation and atmosphere this has traditionally been termed the 'image' of the railway.

The above text is an extract lifted from the PBPS Heritage Manual


Some Perspective

The railway line is technically off-limits to non-railway personnel, but even though strolling along the track carries a $200 fine, this is universally ignored.

For one thing it's the only level or safe footpath from Selby to Belgrave and also on the grounds that you would have to try pretty hard to get run over by Puffing Billy.
In our view, this situation alone makes the case for a pathway, off the railway track, through this area.

Whilst the land has been the responsibility of the Department of Changing Names since 1971 and is part of the Sherbrooke Forest National Park now, a minimum 44-yard corridor runs through it that is under the stewardship of the Emerald Tourist Railway Board. 44 yards becomes much wider swathe on the steep slopes each side of that portion of the track formation.

The railway's relationship with the shrubberies on the Permanent Way is an understandably ambivalent one.


The time-honoured VR way of keeping permanent ways cleared, and they were clear, was to rotary hoe along the fences and burn off everthing in between. By Order...
This was as much a fire safety procedure as anything else. Indeed, it's been reported that certain guards on the last train on the up leg home to Fern Tree Gully would flick matches out the back of the train at certain points.

Even now, on the big railway VLine, burning is still used with slashing to keep the grass down on the tracksides.

An unintended result of this policy is that some plant species have only survived to this day because they were protected (no grazing stock) by growing alongside railways. Even the frequent low-intensity burning has been helpful in the survival of many of those species.

Given all this, by the time the Preservation Society got the line open past the landslide that had closed the railway in December, 1953 and were able to run the odd train, the priorities and resources didn't extend to clearing the vegetation that had, quite naturally in these ranges, grown like Topsy on the Permanent Way in the intervening years, on top of the previous neglect by the Commissioners.

By the time the Preservation Society was ready to address it, it was too late. The Permanent Way had morphed into a Wildlife Corridor. Environmental awareness had flowered in the interim and the railway has had to graciously live with the situation ever since, that while this linear bushland reserve looks very nice, it's more difficult to keep from catching alight in summer than short grass stubble.


The Puffing Billy locomotives have open firebox grates. They are fitted with safety ashpans and they have spark arresting mechanisms, but these can let embers or ashes through if faulty or badly adjusted and they do occasionally start fires via the dry leaves on the track, usually just smouldering sleeper fires but occasionally real fires that involve the lineside vegetation. For this reason they do not operate with steam motive power during total fire ban days, using the diesel fleet instead.

In fact, for the entire declared fire season, every train is followed at a strategic distance by a Fire Patrol consisting two chaps on a rail trolley equipped with radios, water and a fire-fighting pump to deal with any fires the train may have lit on it's merry way.


So, the ETRB has stewardship over a highly flammable linear park that isn't essential to the core business of running a railway "there's more than enough scenery outside the fence to impress the tourists" and expends considerable resources just managing the trees growing along the track, making sure that none fall on the train and squash a brace of kiddies. This isn't always successful, given that despite the efforts of a large team, with an arborist on board, spending many weeks removing dangerous trees and lopping branches along the line in 1995, a tree fell on a train some 18 months later.

This is a Heritage Railway and as such, has an admirably pedantic Heritage Policy and a correspondingly pedantic Heritage Committee to make sure that the all the posts are 4"x4", the paint's the right shade and that everything is just as it was.
To run trains through an overgrown Permanent Way must be painful for the committed gunzel, as that is not how the railway looked during the Period Of Interest, the 1920's.

The Community

These days, many areas the train passes through are under the care of Friends-type groups who have strong opinions on what the railway should or should not be doing with the lineside vegetation and things like the timing of slashing works to avoid periods when certain plants flower on the Permanent Way.
The PerWay has 60km of neighboring property frontage, some of it reserve, most of it private land and a few of these property owners have an axe to gind of one sort or another with the land management practices of the railway.
I would make the point that they knew the job was dangerous... i.e. Puff was there first.

It would be fair to say that the railway suffers more from irresponsible landholders who don't manage their own environmental weed issues than vice-versa.
It's difficult keeping pittosporum, onion weed, blackberries or boneseed off the PerWay, when you have properties riddled with weeds like these sharing a fence line, or trees full of ivy or banana passionfruit looming over the track from bordering properties. You don't have to have a brain to own land.

Problems & Solutions

Now, I told you all that because it's very helpful to have a bit of insight into the railway's position.

As it is, the whippersnapper gangs do a pass along the way for each fire season cutting what the slasher cannot and almost everything within the 4 metre reach of the tamper-mounted flail arm gets mown down and whether or not any care is taken to lift the flail or swerve the slasher when a remnant patch of native vegetation (often quite fire retarding or resistant) is encountered and when to cut something off at ground level is dependent on the individual behind the flail, usually with no plant knowledge.
The same applies to the brushcutter hands.
Brushcutter hands invariably spare Spanish Heath because it looks like it may be a native.
Their hearts are in the right place and all seem keen to learn, at least in contacts the Friends have had.

Vitually all woody weeds respond to being slashed (coppiced) by growing many more trunks, suckers and offshoots and often with more flowers and seed. It's usually easier and more efficient to kill them in the first place. Unfortunately the railway doesn't have anyone on the gang that can identify and eliminate woody weeds permanently during the slashing effort and they re-emerge year after year with a bigger root system.

The spraying of herbicides to keep the green out of the ballast stone has been brought into focus recently very close to home where some shrubs planted beside the line by the Cubs, and growing well inside their tree-guards, were hit with overspray from the boom spraying of the Belgrave east siding.
Half these plants have since expired...
Now that a rare patch of ferns has been located living in the same area, this area is an example of something that needs to be done differently and with more care.

This aspect is something that perhaps the railway needs some help with, if only to train the slasher and flail operators and brushcutters to a minimum level, not having that kind of expertise on staff. This is a job for individuals and groups who are intimately familiar with their own patch of country and who can advise the best way to approach weed control and native species management issues.

The key, of course is dialogue and co-operation. To this end the FOTTB is taking the trouble to contact the various goups along the line during the next year, see what their issues are and then to assist the railway in accommodating these concerns as much as is possible.

Such things as identifying problem weed infestations and the timely application of control measures as well as identifying and reserving patches of important flora so that the slasher doesn't just mow all the orchids down in one fell swoop come November. The railway does not have the local knowledge to be as sensitive to these issues as they would like to be.

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