Damsel in distress looks to its heritage to get back on the rails

By Daniel Lewis, SMH September 8, 2003

"A rebirth" Chris Holley at Werris Creek station. Photo: Peter Rae
My engine now is cold and still
No water does my boiler fill
My coke affords its flame no more
My days of usefulness are o-er
My wheels deny their want of speed
No more my guiding hand they need.

The battling railway town of Werris Creek is trying to make sure the epitaph on engineman William "Porkie" Paget's gravestone doesn't become its own.

Only two passenger services stop at its grand station, and a radical restructuring of the state's rail network would be another painful blow for a town that is tethered to the rails like no other.

But by building a monument to the thousands who died working on the nation's railroads, Werris Creek hopes its rail heritage can help it thrive again.

Werris Creek, 45 kilometres south-west of Tamworth, boasts a unique culture that comes from being the state's first railway town. It came into being in 1877 when the decision was made to build the Great Northern Line's first branch line to Gunnedah.

In 1879 Werris Creek got its first wooden platform and locomotive depot. In 1884 its famous Railway Refreshment Room opened.

As the network grew through Moree, Manilla, Inverell, Walgett and Binnaway, so did the town.

The daily rail services to Moree and Armidale still split at Werris Creek and rejoin there for the return journey to Sydney. But in the glory days the Northwest Mail and Northern Tablelands Express steamed into town.

At its peak in the 1950s Werris Creek had a population of about 2500 and up to 800 people were employed on the railways.

About 1400 now live there and fewer than 100 earn a living on the rails. The Refreshment Room closed in 1972.

The Australian Railway Monument project has settled on a multimillion-dollar design that will include the work of Dominique Sutton, who made the Olympic figures on top of Sydney Tower.

Research has found the names of more than 2000 people who died on the railways in NSW.

The historic railway station buildings will become a rail museum while the platforms, it is hoped, will continue to load and unload passengers.

Chris Holley, 64, is determined to see rail revive his town.

The son of an engine driver, he spent 38 years working for the railways as a porter, shunter, guard and train controller.

His wife worked in the Refreshment Room, one brother was a railways fitter, another a time keeper. His daughter was a railways clerk and his son-in-law still works as a driver.

"We were given birth by the government and then the government killed us with rationalisation," he said. "This is a rebirth, a thankyou to the railway men."

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