Jim Attewell
Interview with: Jim Attewell (JA)
Occupation: Locomotive Driver, Moreton Sugar Mill
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Date of Interview: 27 August 2003
Location of Interview: Moreton Mill, Nambour

Jim Attewell broke with tradition when he started work at the Moreton Sugar Mill as a fireman after completing a joinery apprenticeship in 1968 when he was 22 years old. Instead of going into his father’s carpentry and joinery business in Nambour, he opted for a life at the Mill, initially working as a fireman on a locomotive and navvy in the slack season, and has been driving diesel locomotives since 1973. Jim has seen the transition from wholestick cane harvesting through to chopped cane and the evolution of harvesting practices and cane haulage in the Maroochy River area. When not driving locomotives, Jim works as a navvy on the cane rail system, upgrading and maintaining the myriad of lines and track that service the cane farms. Jim is Nambour-born and bred and an outgoing bloke, married with no kids. He is a man who enjoys the company of his workmates and loves his job.



Audio file

Jim Attewell oral history - part one [MP3 73MB]
Jim Attewell oral history - part two [MP3 73MB]



GM This is a recording of an interview with Jim Attewell, a loco driver with Moreton Mill at Nambour, recorded on Wednesday 27 August 2003 by Gary McKay for the Maroochy Library’s Last Crush Project.

Jim firstly thanks very much for taking part in interview here today. Would you like to tell us when and how you got into the sugar industry?

First job at Moreton Mill

JA My neighbour used to be the boss here of the yard gang and that involved cleaning up and filling all the 44-gallon (200 litre) drums that used to come in on trucks and molasses trucks and all that sort of thing - the general clean-up gang. He was my neighbour and at the time I had just finished my apprenticeship as an apprentice carpenter joiner and I did the joinery side. I had given the job sort of away. I had come out of my time and I thought well what am I going to do now – I don’t think this is my career for the next 50 years sort of thing. He came over to me one day and he said, ‘Jim what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing’. He said, ‘We need a fireman at the Sugar Mill and are you prepared to have a go at it?’ I said, ‘Yes, what do I do?’ He said, ‘You just go down and you hook up the bins’, or they were cane trucks in those days, ‘you hook them up and you start tomorrow’. That is the way I actually started.

GM You lived in Nambour then?

JA Yes. I’ve virtually lived in Nambour all my life.

GM So how old were you when this happened?

JA Well, I finished my schooling at ’61 and probably with the apprenticeship would have been out about ’67. I was born in ’46, so 21 years old at the time.

GM You family has been in this area too for quite a long time.

JA We owned the joinery shop in Nambour where the Donanby Place is now. It was Attewell’s Joinery Works and was started off by my grandfather and my father and his brother ran it and I actually did my apprenticeship there. It was making wooden windows, casements, hoppers, sashes and that sort of stuff. There was a bit of cabinetwork involved, but I never really did that part of it. Making the old thunderboxes, joinery shop fronts and that sort of stuff. That was my trade, but not the building part of it. I did the joinery part. That was possibly ’62 to about ’67 when I would have done that.

GM You started as a fireman. Just tell us what a fireman does, or what you did back in those days as a fireman?

A fireman’s job on the locomotives

JA A fireman’s job is really to hook the cane trucks together and to shunt the fulls (and empties) onto the other fulls. If you are driving along and there are 10 fulls here and you’ve got 40 on, they’ve got to be pulled out (of the siding) and backed on to that load to make up your load and keep going. Turn the points to go into (different) lines – that’s his job to do that. His job is to be observer and to keep a bit of an eye on the load to make sure nothing falls off, because the driver can’t be looking both ways at once. Keep an eye out for people, cars. But mainly he’s shunting. He is there to hook your load together, unhook things, and push empties into sidings, things like that. Just to be the shunter and hooking things together.

GM When you started in ’68, what sort of engines were they using?

JA The diesels were actually in, but in ’69 the “Bli Bli” (loco) went off a bridge into a river here at Perseverance. So they brought one steam loco here back into service. I actually fired on it for a while, while they got this diesel back out of the river and back on the track and whatever had to be done to it to get it going.

GM That is really when you earn the title of being a fireman, wouldn’t you?

JA The only blow you got, the spell, was when you got off the thing to turn the points. Virtually that is all they are doing these days. You are shovelling coal as well.

GM They were coal?

JA Coal-fired. You couldn’t just throw the door open and throw ten shovels full of coal in. They wanted the door closed in between shovels. It was a pretty hectic sort of job. It was very, very hot, and you still had to get off and run up and turn your points and hook all your bins. Not bins – because they were wholestick cane trucks in those days. While you were doing that the driver had to do a little bit of shovelling.

The “Moreton” locomotive crossing Currie Street, Nambour, with wholestick cane trucks, ca 1960

GM So, it was pretty hard to keep the steam up to them was it?

JA That was only as good as the driver. You had your work cut out for you shovelling and racing backwards and forwards and doing whatever you had to do. The heat was really unbearable – not unbearable, but it was pretty hot, especially in the warmer months.

GM That time of the year when you are hauling cane in.

JA You go from July to December virtually. The first couple of months aren’t too bad. This thing fell in the actual river on the very first night of the shift, of the year. So really it was in winter, so I got the cooler part. I wasn’t very long on it but I was glad to get off the damned thing.

GM Let’s stay on the fact that it went into the river. It was called the “Bli Bli” was it?

Locomotive accident

JA The “Bli Bli” locomotive was the one that fell in the river. It was a diesel, and is still running around out here. Actually I drive it now.

GM How come it fell in the river?

JA The bridge collapsed. It was a farmer’s bridge and I don’t think the maintenance was right up to scratch on the bridge and when the locomotive went over - and I was talking to the crew (after) and they said they felt it sort of wriggle a bit, the bridge, as it went over - they went over the bridge to pick the cane up on the other side and when they came back, it just collapsed. The locomotive just rolled over and went into the river.

Diesel locomotive “Bli Bli” upside-down in Petrie Creek after toppling from Perseverance Bridge, 1969

GM No one got hurt?

JA No one got hurt. More luck than good management, that’s for sure. The fireman, that was his very first night, ever on a loco, at midnight starting. When the locomotive went over, he sort of jumped out and he landed on the bridge. But he’d had his hands outstretched and as he landed his hands went over the transoms to stop him falling through. He was just lucky too because when the locomotive peeled off the bins…. I’m not sure. It was back in ’69. Anyhow the load went over and it didn’t come over the top of him. It peeled off and went down there as well. The driver was trapped down inside the locomotive and he couldn’t swim, so the fireman scrambled down the bank, and it was a pretty high bridge too, and the only way he could get the driver out because the locomotive was upside down in the river and they have a big floor plate over them with the big gearboxes there and there is not enough room to actually wriggle your way down between the gearbox and the wheels to get yourself out. But he had his head up there, getting air. He wasn’t going to get back out through that way so the fireman has actually said to him that he would have to dive down through the water and come up into the cab (through the door) and grab you and pull you out and get you out that way. This bloke wasn’t too thrilled about all of this because he was a non-swimmer and he is utterly confused and it is the middle of winter, at night, freezing. He has actually grabbed him and tried to pull him down and get him out. He did, but he said he sort of resisted a fair bit.

GM Probably saved his life?

JA Well, he would have saved his life. I just can’t remember exactly what the tide was doing. It is not really that tidal just there.

GM Where is Perseverance?

JA Just outside of town here where the motorway bridge crosses. It is just out near J.C. Hire. The bridge is still there and we still use it but no locomotives drive over it – they push the bins across by tractor and we pick them up and when we put their empties back in to them, we make sure they are pushed across the bridge and they just hook them on and pull them across themselves.

GM I read in the history book (“Moreton Mill: sweetheart of Nambour”) there was a thing called the cobra worm or something that gets into the pylons.

JA I think they may have been the cause and it sort of ate it out and it just collapsed. It would have been scary.

GM Obviously they didn’t write the locomotive off?

JA No. The locomotive is here. It probably would have sustained a bit of water damage to the motor, internally, and they probably had to strip it down and stuff like that and drain all the water and oils out of everything. It probably busted a few lights and things like that – minor. It has actually done something to the loco. It is twisted. It twisted something on the chassis and after that it has never been the same. It has a bit of a walk, a wiggle to it. They have actually got it pretty good now, but for a few years it was a bit of a shaker.

GM How long did it take them to get it back?

JA I can’t remember but I think is was probably no more than a couple of weeks. They are pretty good like that.

GM How did they get it out of the river?

JA They had to get a big crane that had to come and actually lift it out.

GM What would a loco weigh?

JA About 16 ton.

GM It’s a fair weight to drag out of the mud?

JA Certainly is. It was a pretty high bridge too – at least 25 feet (8 metres) high or something like that.

GM They were lucky.

JA They were lucky.

Training as a locomotive fireman

GM You didn’t really have any qualifications to be a fireman – what sort of training did you get?

JA You learnt as you went. The other blokes would say, this is what you should be doing and the chocks have got to be put here and you put the chock under the front wheel and never put it under the back wheel and things like that. This is the signal and that means go away and this means come toward you. You are told that and you work that out with your driver. In those days there was no such thing as an induction course like there is today. The driver would say, ‘Listen Jim, we are going to stop here and pick these six bins up or six cane trucks up. When I leave these here you are going to have to chock these. We are going to go in there and pull them out and I want you to turn the points and then we back back on and hook them on, pull the chock out and come back to me and we’ll keep going’.

GM He was really your trainer wasn’t he?

JA That’s right.

GM You hook up all the trucks, you do the points, and if it was a steam one…?

JA You’d get back in there and start shovelling.

GM (Now, referring to shunting in town.) When you’ve got these engines front and back pulling and pushing, is that’s what normally happens out in the cane fields?

JA Not really. The locomotives out there are doing their own runs. The only reason we use what we call a backup loco is the safety in the street here in case a coupling broke or something like that and the load ran backwards through the street and hit a car or something. Each bin weighs about 5 ton and when you see us coming, we are bringing 50 bins at a time up here. That’s 250 ton. There is no way in the world that leading loco could ever pull them up on their own. You might pull 25, 26, 27.

GM There’s a bit of a grade there?

JA There is a grade, and with rail it doesn’t take much to make a grade on rail. You look at it and think it could pull that up there, but it doesn’t take much (of a gradient) for a locomotive to struggle.

GM It’s steel on steel isn’t it?

JA That’s right. You haven’t got like a gear locked in. You’ve only got steel on steel although you apply sand and sand grips. You’d be buggered without the sand. Our lines up here (in the Mill yard) hold 50, so you need that backup loco here to bring the 50 up. The only other time we use a backup loco is that we have a hill out here called Bli Bli Hill and the locomotive can probably only bring about 50 at a time over that hill, depending on the size of the cane and the quality of it and how much trash is in it. Fifty would be about your max. Our loads are 90. We are legally told we can bring 90 at a time in, so what we do is we split them if you are on your own, and we bring two 45s over the hill. But, if there is another locomotive around we will get that back loco to push you over the hill with 90 and so you go up and over. It is a timesaving thing. If there are three or four locos in a row coming, it is good because one can keep bumping the next one over. It’s a good system, and it’s easier on the couplings and everything like that and it is a time factor too.

GM Tell us about your own history in the Mill in terms of when you started and your involvement today.

JA I’m still doing the same job. I started as a fireman and started driving I think about ’73. I couldn’t tell you exactly. Well, I’m still driving today. That is the class of work and in the slack seasons it’s a different job. I do a different job then, like rail maintenance and things like that. Virtually I am still doing the same job that I started in 1968.

Fireman to engine driver

GM When you did the transition from being a fireman to be an engine driver what sort of things did you have to do to get that job?

JA I had to get a locomotive ticket, which in those days I think I had to get something like 200 hours of hands-on experience driving. Would have been a doctor’s examination. A bloke came up from the Department of Transport or something like that and actually took us out for our ticket. I’m not sure who did the testing on us, but someone came. Well, they did because I can remember doing the test. Right, you’re fine and you get your locomotive ticket. But when I first got my locomotive ticket, I still had to wait for someone to leave before I actually ever got a driver’s job.

GM There wasn’t a high turnover was there? People tended to stay didn’t they?

JA There was a lot of blokes when I started. They mightn’t have come back the following year and they might have gone to other places. There were a lot who have come back, but there are a lot who have left too. I’ve stuck it out. It’s been a job and not a bad job.

GM When you are driving a train, I mean if you are driving a lorry or a truck there are rules of the road. So there are obviously rules for the rail as well. Would that be right to say?

JA Well, yes there is sort of. You’ve got to be very watchful for cars and traffic and people, tractors.

GM Do you have right of way – when you are coming down that main street? I was just down where it goes across the intersection here and down the hill. I was just down there near the fish and chip shop a little while ago and the train was coming up the road with Clickety-Clack and whatever on the back – one with the big smiley face (“Lorry Loco”). And it just went up the hill.

JA Yes, that’s the “Coolum” (loco).

GM Do all the vehicles have to give way to it?

JA No, they don’t have to give way. But common sense says you should. We’ve got 250 ton behind us, and it takes a bit of stopping. We’ve got right of way going down here once the lights come on. But if there is a car halfway across the tramline trying to turn and someone was blocking him, you definitely wouldn’t deliberately run into him…you don’t go out of your way to hit anyone. There is no sort of thing down the line to say that you have the absolute right of way. You try to fit in with the public and you don’t really want to be a big bullyboy.

GM If the train is going along on the flat and it’s full, how long does it take to stop the train?

JA If you had a full load, say 90 bins on, and four to five ton of cane in each bin - add a ton of empty bins - you’re looking at about 5 or six tons, 500 ton roughly, it would probably take you the minimum of 300 yards (300 metres) to stop. That’s on a flat run. You’ve got no brake carriages. You’ve only got brakes on the locomotive. If it’s 500 ton pushing a 16-ton locomotive and you are trying to stop the whole lot – you push a bin along the line and you can watch how easy they roll along if there is no resistance. You have got to stop all that.

GM You are still driving today. Do you work shift work?

JA Yes. I’m on an afternoon shift today.

GM When you are doing that, do you change that afternoon shift after a certain period of time?

JA Every week. We are on the ‘mad scheme’ – midnight, afternoon, day. It’s called MAD.

GM You’re on the afternoon now?

JA This week.

GM Are they eight hours each?

JA Supposedly eight hours. I start at 3.00 p.m. and work until 11.00 p.m. and then someone else will take over that locomotive at 11.00 if I am back here. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work out that you’re back here and they just have to wait for half an hour or so for you to get back in and then he takes over. But 99 percent of the time you are back in on time.

GM What is the most important part of your job as a locomotive driver?

JA Safety, nowadays. Be aware of everything and make sure everything is safe and you are not going to endanger anyone; you are not going to hurt your fireman, not going to hurt the public, and you’re not going to hurt the machine itself, the locomotive. That you’re not going to run into a tractor. Once upon a time, you’d probably see a tractor near the line and you’d sneak up behind him and blow the horn just to give him a bit of a fright, but nowadays you don’t do that – you might call him up on a two-way if you know he’s got a radio and say ‘Listen sport, can you get yourself a bit further away’ and blow the horn or something like that. I think mainly today the most important part of the job is safety.

GM Do you and your firemen work as a team or do you just get people rostered on?

JA No. He is allotted to me at the start of the year and he is my fireman for that season. Naturally if he has a sickie or I have a sickie, it works that I will end up with someone or he will end up with someone else. We are allotted a bloke and he is my fireman for the season.

GM You mentioned before when the slack season comes around. What did you do when that happens?

JA I am a full-time employee here, so part of my job is, or was, that we go out and do all the maintenance on the line, maintenance on the bridges. Put new lines in if they are required. It is tramline maintenance. Some of the blokes will be on bridges, some of us on tramlines. I’m on tramline maintenance.

Jim Attewell working on cane rail track during slack season, ca 1997

GM There would be another group of blokes that would do all the engine maintenance?

JA We’ve got a diesel mechanic over there and that is his job to look after the locos.

Types of locomotives and rail line

GM How many locos are there?

JA There’d be seven locos. There are four locos running around here all the time. We have two spares sitting over there at the moment because they took them off shift last year. And we’ve got those little twins (locomotive engines), as I was saying earlier, that are really only supposed to be used on very light line where you can’t run the big heavy locos because you can do a fair bit of line damage. You can actually crush the rails.

GM Because there are different grades of line aren’t there?

JA That’s correct. You’ve got 60-pound (28 kg) rail, which is the heaviest rail that we’ve got here. It’s ex-Western Australia, Ghan rail line, that sort of stuff. There is 42-pound rail, and then on the real old rail - that year’s ago, and we have still got it actually in some of the siding and in some of the little spur lines - is 30-pound (13 kg) rail. Really these big locomotives should not be running on it because it is not as though it is brand new rail and it’s rusted, and you can actually crush the rail.

GM That’s 30-pound per yard (metre)?

JA Yes. That 60-pound rail is 20-pound a foot (300 mm).

GM You’d only find the light stuff on little lines?

JA On the little branch lines. One farmer might have a siding going out the there and that’s his line and it only gets used when he cuts. It is not going anywhere – it is only going out into his siding for him to have his delivery put on that line. Years ago a lot of the line would have been 30-pound, but then it got upgraded to 40-pound. There is a lot of line out there now that’s 40-pound line that the locos are actually running on, but over the years they’ve upgraded some of the older 30-pound rail and gone into the big 60-pound. All Dunethin and Fischer’s Line would have originally probably all been 30-pound rail. Now it is mostly done in 60-pound rail. You feel a lot more confident on it.

GM There must be a fair bit of track out there.

JA I hear there is 120 kilometres, approximately, all together.

GM During the First World War, and maybe even during the Second World War, they put some lines in made out of timber. Did you ever see any of that laid?

JA No. I’ve heard of it and I know one logging place up further - Poverty Point at one time on the other side of Gympie, between Gympie and Tin Can Bay - there was actually a line laid there with wooden rail.

GM Hard to imagine isn’t it?

JA Well, I suppose the hardest part would be keeping it in gauge because that is the biggest problem – keeping things in gauge. I suppose once it’s there and you’re not running anything super duper heavy over it, I can’t see really much problem.

GM What are the sleepers made out of?

JA No, 99 percent of our sleepers here are wood. We do have some concrete sleepers – all the streets are done in concrete sleepers. They are very expensive, very heavy, prone to break if you have a derailment and the wheels come off the rail and go down and drag along and hit one you’d smash it to pieces because they are brittle things. Nearly every one of our sleepers is timber and probably if the future ever had to keep going and there was to be a mill here in say 20 years time you’d have to probably have to start thinking about concrete sleepers, because the availability of timber these days is harder and harder to come by and the quality of the timber you get is nowhere near the quality that it was say 20 or 30 years ago. Really concrete sleepers, if they are put in and done properly you’ve got them for a long, long time. But so expensive with the initial outlay for them.

GM I remember reading the history book and when people were asking for line to be put in, they basically had to sign up that they were going to provide cane for five years and all that sort of stuff.

JA It probably did happen.

GM So, 120 kilometres of tram line, 7 locos. Have you any idea of how many trucks there would be?

JA About 1,200 of them, give or take a few that are in the hospital shop or the Hospital Line.

GM What’s the “Hospital Line”?

JA Any bins that come in to be shunted out for defects, like it might have burnt-out bearings, a pin missing on the coupling that hooks the two bins together, anything wrong with it, busted buffers maybe pulled out, broken there, bent axles. Anything that’s wrong with the bin will be shunted out and it will go through the workshop over there and it’s a bloke, that’s his job to repair that bin and put it back in service. So we call it the Hospital Line.

GM What type of locomotives have you worked on?

JA What brand, like Holden/Falcon?

GM Exactly. That steam one - that was around here was it, when it was pulled into service when the “Bli Bli” went into the creek.

JA That would have been used here before that. I think that was a Fowler steam locomotive. The loco that I’m driving now - the “Bli Bli” - is a Baldwin. The “Coolum” is a Baldwin.

GM That’s the people who make it?

JA That is the people who actually build it, like a Holden or a Ford. There is one loco here and it’s a Clyde. Those little twins over there, they are Baldwins. Mainly what we’ve got here is Baldwins, although there are two spare locos sitting in the shed over there, they are both Commonwealth Engineering locos. We’ve got a little old loco here we used to use years ago - and I drove (one like) it up the street for years pulling half a dozen bins and it was a Malcolm Moore and it only weighed about five or six ton. We used to use it in the slack season to pull the navvy carriage around with all the men in it. That is really all you’d need otherwise you’ve got a bit of over-kill if you’re running a 16-ton loco with one carriage with 10 blokes sitting in it. Not only that, if you are running on new work, you don’t want to be running a big heavy loco on it, not until it is all packed (on the new line).

GM What are the hardest locomotives to manage that we’ve got here, and why? You mentioned the “Bli Bli” used to get a bit of a wriggle up.

JA That was only through its accident. The Clyde is probably one of the nicest locos to drive here.

End Side A Tape 1/Start Side B Tape 1

GM This is Side two of an interview with Jim Attewell. You were talking about the Clyde (model loco).

JA It’s a very balanced beautiful locomotive to drive. Everything’s nice on it; everything seems well balanced. The only thing it has got against it is that it has a small cab compared with the Baldwins. The Baldwins have a bigger cab but they are not balanced as well. One of them has very heavy front headstocks on it. They have put the sand boxes up higher on it now which seems to have thrown it out of whack and it tends to make it rock backwards and forwards a bit on its own, because the wheels are in here and your weight is out there, and it wants to rock backwards and forwards a bit and having the weight up high on it, it makes it slap. Slap means when you are going along the line it wants to fishtail a bit – slap. Especially if the line is a bit worn and it’s not right in on proper gauge and the loco instead of running true square and will actually want to slap, left to right as you go along. That loco, the “Petrie”, actually does do it, worse than the “Bli Bli” - you probably don’t notice as much because it still has the whoop, whoop, whoop a bit still in it. The Commonwealth Engineering loco’s a little bit like that. They are a nice well-balanced loco too and actually get along pretty well these little things. They are a lot lighter. They are probably only about 14 ton, so you won’t pull the same load as you will with the other bigger locos. The big “Coolum” loco here is a big Baldwin and it is a bogie drive and it’s just like riding in an armchair. It just glides over everything. But it has very bad visibility and you can’t see much out of the thing because there is a big square bonnet right out the front of you. They don’t use it out in the paddocks anymore – it is kept as a town locomotive – but you get a false sense of security because it is going over bad line and just gliding over. If you look back and watch the bins all rocking round, you think something is going to jump off here in a moment. It’s a nice locomotive, but not really good out on bad lines in the sense that you get too much of a false sense of security on it.

GM How old are the locos?

JA The “Moreton” loco was the first diesel to come here and it would have come here in 1963, I think. Actually when I did my trade down there in the joinery shop, I can remember it coming up the street and I thought that thing has got to be a bit better than those bloody old steam locos coming up here with all their steam and smoke coming out and fogging us out half the time and the smell of coal and all that sort of thing. This thing just seemed to glide up through the street pulling its load. I thought a bit of power there compared to the steam. Effortless it seemed to me and I thought ‘way to go’. I never thought I’d be driving the damn things.

GM The steam ones also occasionally started fires too.

JA That’s right. They were pretty good at doing that.

GM How fast do they actually travel when they are out in the paddocks – I guess it would depend on the line they’ve got?

JA If you’ve got a good section of line and just hold it dead flat the speedo reads about 27 or 28 kilometres an hour. I think the steam locos actually were faster, but whether you’d be game to do it or not is another matter. You only do this on really good sections of line.

Worst experience as loco driver

GM What has been your worst experience driving a loco?

JA One time we were coming into town, and actually I was driving a remote controlled loco at the time. When I say that, we had the “Bli Bli” loco as the lead loco and at that time we had the “Moreton” loco set up as a remote. You could actually drive it from the front loco, so we had it in the middle of the load. We were coming into town and we had one big siding there that we had all our old rolling stock stored when we converted from 2-ton bins (sic: trucks) to 4-ton bins. We had something like 200 bins stored in this siding and we came across the bridge and we looked up and the points were turned to go straight into that siding. We had about 76 bins on from memory. No way in the world are you going to stop and there was no way in the world that the fireman was going to be able to get off that bridge, get off the locomotive on the other side of the bridge, and get those points in time. I am talking about maybe only 20 feet (6.5 metres) or so from the bridge to the points. We knew what was going to happen and as soon as that loco went over the bridge, I went off one side and he went off the other side. It went straight into the empty bins. They were destined to go to the wreckers anyhow.

GM You just helped them on their way.

JA A few of them got a bit mangled up. When the locomotive actually stopped and you walked up and had a look at it all, there were bins up on top of the bonnet of the lead loco. The back loco was sitting on the middle of the bridge with the wheels still spinning around because it was still on about No. 3 (three-quarter) throttle. So we had to race up to the front loco and turn all the dials off to get the back loco to turn itself off.

GM How does it actually work when you’ve got it in the middle?

JA It was done by an electronic set-up. There is a computer in there and you had four throttle settings, seven brake settings. You could change the gears, you could blow the horn, you could sand the line, you could turn the lights on and off, but there was a delay on everything because you had to send a message to it and it had to acknowledge that it received it, then it had to come back, and then it would actually do it. If you give it two things at once it would do one and then it would go through its motions, and then it would go through the next motion. If you asked to drop the throttle and apply the brakes at the same time, whatever you asked for first, it would do first.

GM Do they still have that sort of system?

JA No. We got that sort of taken away. When it worked good, it worked good; but when it was bad, it was very bad. Towards the end it was very bad. We had too many troubles with it. It would lose contact with each other even though it might only be 40 bins apart. It would lose contact and when it lost contact, it would go into a shutdown mode. The shutdown mode involved dropping the throttle to zero and starting to apply the brakes to full braking capacity. What would happen, you’d be going along and you’d feel it going heavy. What’s gone wrong? Have we got bins off? You’d have a look and next thing it’d start speaking to itself that it is going into a shutdown mode. What would happen was that it would lock the wheels on it and you would actually pull that train along, the other locomotive, with the wheels locked. Then you’d put a big flat spot on the wheels and every time that wheel goes round it goes bang, bang. That has a multiple effect and all your cards in the computer get disrupted, it breaks little twiddly wires in there. It was more of a pain that it was bloody worth. There is a lot of work involved in this too, because you have to set that up and you had to get this locomotive into the middle of your load and when you got it into town you had to get it out of the middle. Things like that. It’s a bit funny too in some ways because we only ever used it to pull 95 bins but we’re pulling 90 with a single loco now. What have we gained?

GM What has been the best season you can remember?

JA The best seasons were years ago when everyone was happier and things weren’t so stressful. We had more locomotives running and they were sort of better times. Dry years are definitely better times. Wet years you have too many derailments and a lot of times the line is only held together by the mud. It’s all boxed in to the top of the rail but when that gets wet, it goes all soggy and gooey and there is nothing to stop the line from spreading. I’m talking about not on first class lines, but on some of the older lines. There are a lot of derailments in wet years. But really I think the older days were the better times. Too much workload today.

GM The impending closure of the Mill would also be adding a lot of stress, but it’s been going for a while hasn’t it?

JA It’s in the back of your mind – it doesn’t matter what you are going to do or how well off you are; it is still in the back of your mind that you’re going to lose your job at Christmas for sure.

GM What has been the worst season you can remember? Were you here in ’73 when the cyclone hung around?

JA I suppose I would have been. That probably doesn’t affect us as much as Management. It is probably bad for them because the economics probably come into it and it has been a worry for them, but for us driving the trains the worst part is if the line is going to have any bad spots in it, are they going to develop in the line and things like that. You never got put off through wet weather or anything, so it didn’t really worry us.

GM If you were going from here out to the further part on the line, how long would it take you?

JA (About) an hour and a half. You could probably do it quicker, but with the condition of the line in a few places you tend to back off a bit.

GM If you come on shift and you start going out and picking up trucks and that, how many trucks do you think you’d move, as an average?

JA I start at 3.00 o’clock in the afternoon and I am going to go out to the river and will be looking for a bit of cane around there. I will come into town with 90 bins and I’ll take a big rake of empties out with me to help with the midnight (shift) with their deliveries. I will store them and I will bring another 90 bins in. So I will be pulling 180 bins in myself tonight. There is another loco and he will be trying to do the same thing, and there is another loco, which will be out there and bringing it in a bit closer for us, so when he comes in he will bring 90. So between us we will probably be bringing in 360 bins or so at least tonight, on this afternoon shift.

GM So we are looking at 1,000 ton aren’t we?

JA Yes.

GM The Centenary Celebrations?

JA It didn’t mean anything to me. They didn’t go out of their way to do anything for us (that I recall).

GM What did they actually do?

JA To be honest with you, I don’t know. When was the Centenary?

GM 1995.

JA I don’t remember handing out any free gifts or anything. I don’t remember getting one or a free T-shirt of anything. Nothing unusual seems to come out for me. I shall have to pass on that question because I don’t remember anything special about it.

GM Would there be about two dozen loco drivers?

JA About 11 actual loco drivers now. Three for the “Coolum”, three for the “Bli Bli”, three for the “Moreton”, two for the “Petrie”. 

Line-up of cane rail locomotives at the Moreton Mill, left to right: “Jamaica”, “Petrie”,“Bli Bli”, “Moreton”, “Coolum” (Lorry Loco), “Dunethin”,  Bundaberg Fowler No. 5,“Eudlo”, 1997

See, they’ve taken two locos off service too. They were really only day locos, so you’re down two drivers there, so that was 13. But years ago it was a bit different because they had little locos running out in the paddocks out there bringing the cane to one spot and you just ran from Nambour out to the river and hooked on and brought it into town. Now you’ve got to run out and do it all yourself. Really you are doing a lot more work today than you ever were in the olden days. You are still expected to try and do it all in the same time. They took two locos out of service and you are doing the work of those locomotives and they still expect you to run between 3.00 and 11.00 or 7.00 and 3.00. It’s a lot harder. The pressure is there.

Accidents with locos

GM Ever had a collision with a car?

JA Heaps of them.

GM People just tend to run into you?

JA One was a beauty. I came down the street with a load of cane one time and Walton Motors had a Holden dealership down here opposite Law’s Store and this woman drove out and she stalled it right on the tram line in front of me and the damn thing had just come out of the panel beater’s shop, and I had it fair amidships. I pushed her up the road and it ended up on the footpath at Law’s Store. They came out and got the car and towed it straight back into where it came from. I’ve hit cars. You don’t go out of your way to do these things. You come across a street with a full load of cane and cars will come down the street and turn into Howard Street and they are just like a dog with his tail – the dog goes round but the tail doesn’t come quick enough. One goes and one will try to follow it. You hit them. Nothing has happened for a little while. I hit a semi-trailer one day – it was a ripper. One Saturday afternoon I came up with a load of cane and a semi came down the street and he has actually turned into Howard Street. The back loco is pushing us and so you get on the two-way and say, ‘Listen, back off a bit mate because we have a semi (cane truck) turning in front of us here’. The semi driver is committed. Once he turned he was committed. I hit this thing. I hit the front set of wheels of the tri-axle on the trailer, like three sets of wheels on the trailer. I actually hit the front set of wheels and took them completely out, blew the tyre right on the front of the loco with a big bang and about 50 blokes shot out of the pub. Bloody big cloud of dust shot out everywhere. Hell of a bang. The truck continued around the corner and the wheels were all skewiff and what they actually had to do was jack the trailer up a bit, take the wheels off the axles and chain the axle up and continue down to the marshalling yards to take the bins off. Then they had to do whatever they had to do to straighten the axle back up again. Probably bent all the spring hangers. They had that truck going again in a couple of days. They were pretty good like that. That was one experience. You do hit cars. People just pass a little bit close to the line at times and there is nothing much you can do about if you are coming up and there is a car right next to the white line. If they are not going to get out of the way, and especially if you’re moving with a full load of cane, you are not going to stop. You give them a bit of a scrape up the side, but that can’t be helped.

(Editor’s note: A bad accident occurred on 17 September 2003 when the cane train “Petrie” demolished a tractor near Bli Bli, but luckily with no serious injuries)

GM Have you been derailed?

JA Yes. I actually hit a semi-trailer last year coming out of the marshalling yard. He pulled out with his empty bins and I got him. 

Collision between semi-trailer and “Bli Bli” locomotive, with bins, in marshalling yards in Nambour, 2002

I thought he was going to stop and let me go across. As he pulled out of the ramps, he would stop just before the line and let me go across the front of him, so I kept coming. I had a load of cane on. When I got there, he pulled straight out in front of me. The locomotive hit the side of the trailer and you wouldn’t believe it – I came off worse than he did. His momentum of driving forward and hooking the locomotive pulled the locomotive sideways up onto the bitumen and with the 50 bins that we had behind us gave me a bit of a bump up the back and actually turned the locomotive sideways and then the first bin smashed the windows on the locomotive and that side got all hooked up and ripped all the fuel tank out on the winch motor on the truck. There was a bit of a fire hazard for the moment, but that was nothing. It sorted itself out after about an hour after we had the crane down. They got Maroochy Crane Hire or someone like that to come and put the locomotive back on and put the bins back on. Actually the truck came out far better then we did. These things happen. You don’t go out of your way to do these things. Little accidents just happen.

GM I think you’ve already answered this one. How does the cane get from the field to the cane truck and how do you get tasked to collect the cane? Out in the paddock, the harvesters cut the cane and drop it in the trucks?

JA A trailer with a bin on the back of it and it is driven along the side of the harvester, and the harvester puts the cane into the bin and then they come up and pull up on their siding and drop the points down and run that bin off onto the siding and then go around the other end and pick up an empty one and away you go again. Or, they have bins on the sidings. They have a bin behind a tractor with a hydraulic tipping action and they fill it up and it runs up along the side where all these bins are stored and tips it into the bin and it fills up again. They might have two or three of these things, so the harvester is not actually sitting there waiting for this one bloke to come back again. It is a constant go-around.

GM The four-ton bins, what used to be called cane trucks…?

JA Years ago we had old wooden trucks and they were called cane trucks. They were wholestick. That was when the cane was cut by hand cutters and the whole stick of cane was loaded. We actually call them cane trucks, but these are called bins.

GM The four-ton things we’re using now to go into the Mill are called bins?

JA We call them a bin. That’s our terminology for them.

GM I think you might have answered this – what is special about the tracks themselves? What is the gauge?

JA Two foot (600 mm).

GM Is that all?

JA Yes.

GM Narrow isn’t it?

JA It is really, but there is a thing in gauge too. You can remember the wider the gauge, the less you can carry up to a point because your axles will bend.

GM So it is pretty efficient for what you’ve got to do?

JA It is efficient for what we want. But I know what you mean. It doesn’t take much to get it rocking and rolling and the line’s got to be reasonably level otherwise you get that rocking and rolling effect and if you get it up too much or too much speed it just pops straight off. That’s all it is, a two-foot gauge. The bins themselves are 8 foot wide. That is about the legal limit and that is all you could ever have; otherwise when you put them on the back of the semis, they would be over-width.

GM So you hang out three foot (1 metre) each side of the track?

JA Yes.

GM What is the most common type of accident on the rail system?

JA Derailments. Bin derailments; bins coming off the line. Most of it is either caused by bad track or a bad bin in the sense that it might have a burnt-out bearing and instead of the wheels all sitting nice and flat on the rail running along, it might be burnt out and is carrying a wheel a little bit. You come to a curve and instead of just gliding around it, it just goes straight ahead because the wheel is sitting up in the air that high and the flange is sitting up and instead of the flange just biting in all the way around, it is above it. It just glides straight off. Track condition and bad bins. I will be honest with you – I would say 90 percent is track. You’ve only got to get a hole in the line and they’ll pop off. Wide gauge is the worst because the line’s spread wide, because the sleeper’s gone rotten and the dogs aren’t holding it into gauge. The bin might be running along and hanging in by just half an inch and next thing it’s gone a bit wide and falls through the lines. The next thing what happens is it spreads the line too, because once they fall through it just keeps spreading and spreading. Poor old navvies; instead of going out and having to fix ten feet (3 metres) they might have to fix 50 feet (15 metres) because you don’t stop these things instantly. First of all you’ve got to notice that it’s off and it’s pretty hard at night time when you’ve got 90 bins on and the seventieth one fell off the line. It’s pretty hard to see if it’s gone off the line because it is not as if it is going to drop down two foot out of the way. It’s only got to drop four inches (100 mm) and it is pretty hard to see these sorts of things. You feel it more than you actually see it. You keep an eye out all the time for these sort of things, but when you are on a nice section of the line, well you are still looking, but your chances of it happening are much less than on a bad a bit of line.

GM What has been the worst accident, not necessarily that you were in, but that you can recall? Would it be the loco going in the river?

JA I suppose it was for those people. Just after I started here they had a big prang down the bottom of Bli Bli Hill. I honestly don’t know how this happened. This bloke came over the hill and I remember going out and looking at it and there was bloody bins here and a set of wheels here, and a side of a bin here, a draw bar here, a chassis here. All mixed in with cane. It was just like someone just got a whopping big stick and belted the crap out of all these things. Cane three and four foot high just laying there in an area in about 10 or 15 metres round. All these wrecked bins in amongst them. I would have loved to have a photo of that. Someone probably has. I’ve seen heaps of them, but that one just stood out as a pretty good one.

GM I could imagine people being killed in some of these prangs too.

JA Not that I know of. No one here has been killed. Probably more frights than anything.

GM I am talking about people in cars.

JA No one as far as I know of. We had an accident on the Bli Bli Road one time. A bloke ran into the bins going across the Bli Bli, up past the bridge up near the Bli Bli straight up there. I think the bloke might have lost the sight of an eye. Pretty lucky. If you slam into that at say 50 mile an hour (80 kph) straight into the side of the bins going across the road.

Changes in the rail system

GM Especially when the cane is nice and tall and people aren’t watching where they are going. What has been the biggest difference to cane operations and the cane rail system since you’ve started?

JA To me it has gone from old wholestick days to two-ton bins (sic: trucks), now in the four-ton bins. Really you are only pulling half the numbers. They are better quality too. These bins here when we first got them were excellent quality, but now they are starting to get a bit run-down. Lack of maintenance in the last year or so and they are sort of getting worse. I think, in the old days, the old cane trucks stanchions would fall out of them or the dry weather would dig them into the ground, and you’d be pulling them along and then the next thing you’d see them all go into the air. The buffers were down on them. You’d come over the top of the hill and the buffer would go over the top of one and sit up on the top of the other and when you come to stretch them out again hopefully they fell on the line. But if you go around a curve they didn’t, they would just drop down there. The rolling stock has got better. The locomotives now are probably better than when they came here, because they are all soundproof cabs, they have better engines in them; they have watchdogs on them now. They are all computer-operated, so if anything goes wrong, if the water runs down, the motor will turn itself off. To me, as far as my part of the job, the rolling stock has got better, the locomotives have got better and they are not pulling as many as you would have had to in the same days to get the same weight. Even though we are pulling 90 bins now, years ago you only pulled 70 to 80 2-ton bins (sic: trucks) but now we are pulling 90 4-ton bins with the same locomotive. But the locomotives are better.

GM What size engines have they got?

JA I think they are only about 230–240 horsepower. Really surprising - some of these semi-trailer trucks pulling four bins with 500 horsepower on them. We’ve got 235 or 240 horsepower and we are pulling 90 in. I can’t see the efficiencies of road transport. If you had a good rail system that is well maintained, it has got to be better. I can leave the river if I know there is someone who is going to push me over the hill with 90 bins, and I’m in Nambour in 45 minutes. And the fuel that sort of thing. I couldn’t grasp the idea of road transport. I suppose if that was the only system...

Moreton Sugar Mill closure

GM What are you going to do if the Mill closes?

JA I am going to keep a positive attitude. I have driven a tip-truck here now for the last 30 years carting the ballast, sleepers and all the materials out on the jobs and general mill work, whatever has been needed for the truck. I am talking about the slack season work here now. I will see if I can drive a tipper for someone or part-time work like that. I am too young to retire. I’ll keep the missus working.

GM You’re the same age as me just about.

JA It is unfortunate. Ten years ago if I’d known this was here and this was going to happen I don’t know if I would still be here. In some ways I wish I was 10 years older or 20 years younger. If I was 20 years younger, I definitely wouldn’t be here. I would be out of here. If I knew the sugar industry was going to go the way it was, I would have got out because I am at a ‘too young to retire’ age.

GM What do you think is going to be the greatest loss if the Mill closes?

JA The history of the place because Nambour has always been sugar. That’s it. A lot of people come just to look at the cane trains, and it will all be gone. Probably what won’t be missed is smoking fires and things like that. But I think that is the loss – the history and I don’t know what is going to happen to the cane paddocks. I just hope it all doesn’t all go urban development. To me I don’t really want to see just one sea of houses. You drive up to the top of hills and look down and see nice big green fields

GM It’s one of the reasons people come to the Sunshine Coast.

JA That’s right. A lot of people move here, but for every person who moves here there has got to be a house built somewhere too. It is a bit of a Catch-22. I think the town will keep going, but a lot of people are going to find it hard. The tyre companies, sales, the fertilizer, fuel; all those people are going to find it hard. Tractor sales people.

GM If the cane growers go down.

JA I think they will find it hard, but I think the place will still go.

GM Okay, Jim that is the end of our questions and I thank you.

End of Interview