Johnny's Pages
Old S.A.R. Shunter's Memories


To see a video of the Tea & Sugar train
at YouTube.

Movie made by the Commonwealth Film Unit 1954. Once a week the Tea and Sugar Train leaves Port Augusta and heads west
across the Nullarbor with all the supplies needed by the track maintenance workers and their families that live along the route. 
Everything from a needle to a radiogram from a broom to health services comes on the train they call the Tea and Sugar.


By Cliff Olds.

The Tea and Sugar train was the lifeline of the Trans Australian Railway. It seems to have evolved from the trains that supplied track materials and worldly necessities to the workers as construction of the track proceeded from both the eastern and western ends. Even after the track was completed, it was still necessary to run departmental trains to supply coal, water, foodstuffs etc for train and worker consumption. The Departmental Retail Store which stocked the shelves of the Tea and Sugar train was inextricably connected with the that train and the “Trading Activities” section of the C.R. Annual Reports over the years provides interesting reading.

As Monty Luke says in his “History of the Commonwealth Railways”, “no other railway in Australia and probably very few in the world were obliged to provide infrastructure for its employees to anywhere near the same extent as Commonwealth Railways. Venturing down the paths of power generation, supply of provisions, poultry farming, meat supply, ice making etc. was always born of necessity. In other words the Department became involved in each particular activity only when there was really no alternative.

The Commonwealth Railways Provision Stores was such a venture forced on the railway department in 1915 when local traders expressed their lack of willingness to deal with construction employees
”. Payment for goods was the problem as local traders were unable to place a garnishee on Commonwealth Government employees whereas the railway could deduct payment for its services directly from wages. Once again quoting Monty Luke, “The first store, a tent, replaced by a galvanised iron structure of modest proportions, was provided at the platelayer’s camp, but as this was constantly advancing, it was considered advisable to replace the store by a specially constructed railway van which was in constant commission through the life of the project…….stores were opened at Woocalla, Kingoonya and Tarcoola and later at Cook, Rawlinna and Parkeston. Supplies…….were distributed from the centres named, delivery being effected from vans which were attached to trains for the purpose….(which) was almost immediately called the Tea and Sugar Train and was run for the whole life of the Commonwealth Railway and beyond.” In more recent times, Provision Stores were operated at Port Augusta, Tarcoola, Cook, Rawlinna, Parkeston and Katherine (later Darwin) and a store was opened in Stirling north in 1959.

A brief overview of other trading activities is most interesting. Bakeries were established at Port Augusta, Tarcoola and Rawlinna. Rawlinna bakery closed in March 1954 however, the other two continued well beyond that. Bread production eventually approached 250,000 loaves p.a. but still had to be supplemented by purchases of bread from Port Pirie, Kalgoorlie and Alice Springs. 

Contractors were used when possible for meat supplies however, in between times, the railway had to supply and slaughter its own meat. In 1945 the contractor relinquished his contract and the railway provision stores took over the supply and distribution of meat. Sheep were usually conveyed in a special van on the Tea and Sugar and were slaughtered by the butcher as required. The kill was usually performed in the late afternoon and prior to the rain’s arrival at its overnight stop. The unwanted offal and other bits and pieces were disposed of down a chute in the floor of the van. Pity the poor track gang. A slaughter house and butcher shop was set up at Cook to supply mutton for railway use and sale, while beef, pork and smallgoods were supplied from Port Augusta. By 1949 the railways were supplying substantial amounts of meat to the RAAF and the Army at Woomera. That lasted until 1955 when the Army Canteen Services took over supply.

The butchery at Cook was closed on 27th June 1953 and contractors for the supply of all meat were reinstated in 1954. By 1958 a contractor butcher was travelling the Trans Australia Railway, supplying meat of quality and prices controlled by the railway. His van contained the shop, cool room and living quarters. The introduction of diesels resulted in a reduction of staff along the line and consequent reduction of sales however, at its zenith, beef meat consumption and sales exceeded 174,000 kg p.a., mutton nearly 106,000 kg, smallgoods nearly 22,000 kg and pork nearly 2,500 kg. 

In 1947, Port Augusta changed over from 32 volt DC electric power to 240 volt AC which resulted in many town people buying refrigerators which caused the closure of the local ice works. This was prior to air conditioned trains and head end power and thus the railway still need volumes of ice. They therefore started their own ice works in 1948 and also supplied the town. Maximum production of ice neared 900 tonnes p.a. In 1952 the German built air-conditioned train sets began arriving and were followed by the Japanese built cars in 1960. The railway ice works closed in June 1960 as head end power now supplied refrigeration on the trains and ice was no longer needed.

A poultry farm was established in 1952 and by 1955 had grown into a well equipped and sound commercial undertaking. The numbers of fowls, ducks and turkeys carried have been increased considerably. The quantity of eggs produced at the farm was sufficient to meet all requirements of eggs for the dining cars on the Trans Australian Railway. Supplies were also made available to “Seaview” hostel, and Port Augusta Railway Refreshment Room and the Provision Stores for sale to employees. Dressed poultry totalling over 7,800 lbs was supplied to dining cars in 1955. (CR 1955) Production increased beyond that figure but due to greater availability and a significant reduction in poultry prices, the farm was closed on 30th June 1959. (Seaview hostel was the living quarters for state railwaymen who had been conscripted to work in the C.R. during the war, and obviously continued in operation afterwards. A manageress ran the place and to keep that lot under control, she must have been she woman!)

A citrus orchard was established in 1954 and flourished. Plans were also afoot in 1955 to establish a vegetable garden, but an acute shortage of labour prevented any reasonable development. By 1957 it seems that the railway had abandoned the vegetable garden idea, as it no longer rated a mention in the annual reports.

A power station was opened at Cook in 1948 and consideration was given to installing similar plants at five other (un-named) locations (CR 1948). Electricity was generated by the C.R. in Port Augusta and in 1954/5 electricity was supplied to the railway workshops, welding plant, offices, station yard, and the majority of railway owned residences. Smaller plants were operated at Tarcoola, Reid, Rawlinna and Cook (CR 1956). Later, power to Trans Australian settlements was provided by gensets mounted in rail vans. They were shunted into a dead end or siding at the various locations, connected to an adjacent diesel fuel tank and plugged into the settlement supply. Thus they could be swapped over at will and this portability enabled the gensets to be serviced at Port Augusta instead of sending fitters/electricians out bush, resulting in more economy of operation. By 1960, all of C.R.’s Port Augusta AC power was being supplied by the Electricity Trust of South Australia although DC requirements (welding etc) were still railway generated.

As to the operation of the Tea and Sugar train itself, an extract from the 1952 C.R. Annual Report states “Refrigerated vans, on which all meat supplies are carried, are attached to the weekly mixed trains (“the Tea and Sugar”) in both directions. These trains stop at all stations and wayside camps, and customers purchase their requirements whilst the train waits”. For many years, the Tea and Sugar train operated weekly in both directions and contained a grocery van, later changed to supermarket format and a butchers van, from both of which customers bought their needs directly from the van. Items such as haberdashery, furniture, whitegoods and other special items e.g. grog, could be ordered from the Port Augusta provision store and were delivered on the Tea and Sugar train. Prices in the retail stores at Tarcoola, Cook and Rawlinna and in the van on the Tea and Sugar were kept identical to those charged in the Port Augusta retail store. It was the lament of a Parkeston Guard in 1990 that identical items were cheaper on the Tea and Sugar than they were in the Kalgoorlie supermarkets. 

Employee welfare was not ignored. In the 1950’s, a nursing sister and assistant nurse of the W.A. Government Health Department journeyed the full length of the Trans Australian Railway in the Welfare Car. The same car, when not required as a travelling baby health clinic, was available to all denominations as a Travelling Chapel. Medical Officers and Dentists also made periodic trips in this carriage (CR 1956).

At one time, the most popular man on the Tea and Sugar train was the pay clerk, or ‘keeper of the Golden Eagle” as Monty Luke refers to him. He had his own pay van attached to the train and, as with other travelling staff, his van included his living quarters.

In later years the Tea and Sugar train operated in the east- west direction only however its counterpart continued to operate sans retail facilities from Parkeston and was known as “The Bomber”. The explanation proffered to me was that the original “Bomber” was the Maralinga supply train that operated from Port Augusta to Watson during the atomic trials of the 1950’s. It apparently ceased operation about the time that the supply train ex Parkeston changed in nature and the name was transferred to that train. Not a very convincing story however, The Bomber certainly existed in 1990. 

I was appointed as Traffic Manager S.O. 3 in the Australian National Railway Commission on 6th August 1990 and subsequently was sent to Port Augusta for a week of familiarization in their operations area. As a result of that, I approached my manager and requested to take a week’s leave and travel the Tea and Sugar to Kalgoorlie to further increase my awareness of the Nullarbor and its peculiar problems. He came back with the counter offer of a departmentally paid trip to Perth consisting of a Budd Car trip to Port Augusta, Tea and Sugar train to Kalgoorlie, then Prospector railcar to Perth. Inspect the W.A.G.R. freight yards and other infrastructure, then return to Adelaide on the Indian-Pacific. I was enjoined to ride the loco as much as possible and get off the train wherever possible so as to learn as much as possible. For me, an enjoyable task.

So it was that at 6.00 pm on Monday 20th August 1990 I departed Adelaide on passenger 2315 Budd Car CB1 for Port Augusta. Tuesday was spent on further familiarization there, and also visiting Woolworths to buy provisions for my trip, picking up my bedroll, installing myself into our mobile home and meeting the others who would share the carriage. After tea I whiled the time away in Train Control until the crew car picked me up and conveyed me to the now marshalled train. 

EG 347U was a Comeng built car comprising four sleeping cabins, a fully equipped kitchen area (all air conditioned), shower and toilet at one end and a small fitter’s workshop at the other. A step down platform was at the workshop end, AZFG 1109X with genset for power was attached to the other end. It was officially designated a CME work van, commissioned on 4th January 1972 and cost $90,910. An expensive caravan.

I had three travelling companions, Paul Lehmann, a Port Augusta Train Controller on a familiarization trip, Neil Hamilton, a freight manager of some sort on inspection and Keith Kraft, a safeworking instructor who was to teach loco crews en route the intricacies of the new UHF radio communication system. They proved to be amiable companions and good company.

Train 4205 Tea and Sugar departed on time at 0100 hrs on Wednesday morning, by which time I was fast asleep however, the motion of the train woke me at some stage. The van rode well enough, but we were marshalled at the rear of the train and the run in and run out as the train negotiated the undulating countryside made further sleep difficult, although I managed to sleep through the Woocalla ballast siding shunt

The first stop after daybreak was at Pimba where the van man started to earn his keep serving the local railway community. Rules existed that for safety reasons, the Tea and sugar had to serve from the main line. That way, no one crossed any tracks when making purchases from the train. At Pimba this was the case and goods 3347 to Alice Springs (AL25-CL8) pulled in behind us as we both waited to cross Psgr 3284 Ghan (DL49-GM25). After the Ghan had pulled in clear on the siding, the van man closed his doors and we shunted onto the siding behind the Ghan to allow 3347 to depart. Where train priorities were concerned, ours was the lowest on the line.

I now had time to observe the Tea and Sugar train in detail. Our loco was DL44, a 3,300 h.p. Clyde built GM powered loco of modern design, being little more than a year old. The DL’s had developed a reputation for being good locos up to 80 km/h, but somewhat rough riders above that speed. Our train was not particularly long, consisting of nineteen trucks, half of which were water or fuel tankers, the storekeepers van, supply van for his pre-ordered goods, our van, genset, sitting carriage BF 345U, an ex S.A.R. 720 class car for any passengers offering and otherwise known as the “gins’ car”, another genset, crew van (the Tea and Sugar, as well as The Bomber were worked as relay jobs and thus each carried two crews) and guards van. 28 vehicles for 1111 tonnes. We had detached six empty ballast hoppers at Woocalla and one empty flat and four bulk cement air discharge trucks at Pimba for the Olympic Dam mine at Roxby Downs. Neil had obtained the use of the local departmental utility and took me for a tour of the cement/fly ash air discharge facilities on the spur that was once the start of the branch line to Woomera, as well as the rail yard in general. What use would the extension of that spur to the Olympic Dam mine be today? It seems that the answer must remain conjecture. One of Neil’s tasks was to recover surplus and superfluous goods equipment lying idle at such locations. 

Of interest to we of the S.A.R. was the grocery van. It had been built by the Pullman Car Co. in the U.S.A. in 1928 and had started life as an S.A.R. & V.R. joint stock Overland sleeping carriage named Mt. Lofty and sister carriage of Macedon. It passed into S.A.R. ownership and was later purchased by the C.R. It was converted into its present configuration to replaced the previous provisions van which now resides in the National Railway Museum at Port Adelaide, alongside the butchers van. The storekeeper’s supply vehicle was a louvre van modified by having an end door fitted to allow access to it from the serving carriage. 

Train working completed and section clearance ahead gained, we departed Pimba, next stop Kultanabie to cross goods 4166 hauled by DL40-CL13, then on to the ghost town of Kingoonya where the empty houses reminded us of what was before the new Stuart Highway bypassed the area. The old platform crane, power house, water softening plant, concrete water tower and water columns for steam loco use still stood, but all was quiet. No one disturbed the van man. The day had become dull with a biting wind blowing, adding to the melancholy of the scene. We crossed DL45-CL5 on 2PA1 freight and I walked forward to enjoy the comfort of the loco cab from there to Tarcoola. 

Tarcoola was still a bustling town compared the Kingoonya. The town boasted a golf club and a little gold prospecting was still done in the surrounding hills. The Wilgena pub was open and had a healthy patronage. The celebrity bash was due in town for the night and all the locals had gathered. Railway matters were overseen by Station Master Roly St. Clair. Fixed lower quadrant signals still existed, so the station had to be attended for all rail movements. Tarcoola is the junction for the Alice Springs (now Darwin) line and locos working trains in that direction, or eastwards to Broken Hill refuelled there. The old bakery ovens were in the process of being demolished. The retail van didn’t serve there because Tarcoola was the site of one of the retail stores however, stocks for the store were unloaded from our train. We crossed goods 2PS1 with BL30-CL4 at its head and had caught up with DL45-GM45 on 4147 ballast train to Reid. 

We departed Tarcoola at 4.40 pm, now 34/793t, then detached a van at Malbooma. Night had fallen by the time that we reached Lyons and we pulled into Barton at 8.00 pm. Barton was the home of the somewhat eccentric Ziggy, a retired fettler of European heritage who had built himself a shanty out of old sleepers and other scrap at Mount Christie, but as the train no longer stopped there, he had moved the house 10 sleepers at a time on his wheel barrow to Barton, 55.5 km away. Believe it or not? Maybe he had a little railway help. He confided in me that he could no longer shift 10 sleepers on the barrow, he was fit enough, but the wheel bearing had collapsed! He had worked in the S.A.R. years ago, but was upset at his treatment by the civil branch, so resigned and joined the C.R. He could quite readily recall the offending gentlemen, some of whom I knew. The van man served the locals, I rang home from the public telephone surprisingly provided by Telecom in the street there, then retired to our van for the night.

Thursday morning saw us at Ooldea (pronounced Ool-day). Ooldea is situated on the extreme western fringe of the Barton sand hills and was the site of the last potable water before the Nullarbor Plain was reached, and as such was home to aborigines at one time. Daisy Bates was a resident at Ooldea from 1918 to 1934 and at Wynbring from 1941 to 1945. At both places she dedicated herself to the welfare of the aborigines. She was born on 16th October 1863 in Tipperary, Ireland and was a personality on the Trans Australian Railway. She was apparently popular with the railway workers and the extent to which they assisted her will never be known, although she was not backward in criticizing the C.R. management when she felt that assistance from Port Augusta was denied when it could have been rendered. All that remained at Ooldea in 1990 were the railway sidings and a stone cairn commemorating her efforts there.

The celebrity bash was due there that evening and the Army had erected tents and marquees on the old flying doctor aerodrome to accommodate them. Smoke told of breakfast being cooked and some vehicle movement was occurring. We shunted there and allowed 4AP5 to pass (AL22-CL6-CL12-GM35) and crossed 3PS1 (AL19-CL1) which resulted in a lengthy delay.

Departing Ooldea, we head for Watson. In this section we passed the memorial commemorating the joining of the East-West line and at the 797 km we entered the “long straight”, which would end 478 km away between Loongana and Nurina. Approaching Watson we rose through a limestone cutting to a slightly higher elevation, then enter the yard.

Watson was a settlement of four houses, a few of the old tent houses now probably serving as rest houses and a camp train for per-way workers. We had quite a shunt to perform here to pick up empty water tanks for Parkeston and managed to give the camp train a healthy bump which disarranged the furniture therein, much to the chagrin of its residents. Walking around the place, I discovered the narrow bitumen road leading to Maralinga (about 50 km away) heading north-east from the vicinity of the old power house, its 50 m.p.h. speed limit sign faded, but still legible. Newer signs advised of a 25 km/h limit in the town area. An old steam loco cowcatcher lay in the grass. No hope of souveniring it from here! Marine fossils could be found in the limestone track ballast. 

4AP8 (GM14-GM28) Trans Australian Express pulled in to the siding, stopped, then proceeded on its way. It had stopped to allow John Kramer, the Industrial Chaplain from Port Augusta to alight. He was a Uniting Church man but denomination meant little out here and he was well received by the local families. A tall, gangly man dressed in jeans, shirt and beanie, he joined us in our kitchen for sandwiches for lunch and proved to be good company.

Departing Watson, we stopped for a short time at Fisher, where I noticed a hi-rail following us. We were now in the Nullarbor Plain proper, Nullarbor being a corruption of the Latin, nul (no) arbour (trees). I heard birds and commented on it to Neil. He later advised me that there was a box of chickens in the van next to our carriage! Nonetheless, there are birds on the Nullarbor.

During the day we had become aware of an incident near Hughes where an axle had seized and twisted off, causing a friction fire in the truck. Fortunately there was no derailment as a gang had seen it and stopped the train by radio. This was all going to delay us at Cook and when we arrived there, congestion was such that our train was stabled on the main line at the home signal.

Other trains were stabled awaiting track clearance and the Cook Club did a roaring trade that evening because the Trans that had passed us at Watson was also blocked there. I knew the Station Master Merv Gould who had lived in Tailem Bend and enjoyed a few social beers with him after he had finished work. 

By Friday morning, the track had been cleared, the Trans had departed, our train was stabled on the western leg of the triangle and we eagerly awaited the arrival of “The Bomber”. Crews, crew vans and passenger cars would be changed to return to their home stations. For some reason, east end and west end crews did not get on. They each had their own sections of the barracks and did not mix. Port Augusta crews would work west of Cook if necessary, but western crews were adamant that Cook was their limit and resented any infringement by the eastern crews. To while away the time, Paul and the van man played several holes of golf.

Our car was watered and the genset refuelled, then after lunch we departed for Hughes and adjusted our watches accordingly. After swapping tail ends with the Bomber, I noticed that our new “gin car” was BC 329, formerly a N.S.W.G.R. FS steel car. 

Approaching Hughes, the remnants of AOOX 3011 and burnt out contents was sighted south of the track and on arrival, we were given a lift out there to inspect it. Recovery was under way, but the intensity of the fire was indicated by melted ends on bundles of aluminium pipes and gas cylinders with melted valves. Thankfully, they had been empty. Hughes consisted of four derelict houses, an underground tank and nothing else. 5267 accident train from Port Augusta, with GM22 at its head was stabled in the siding. The sky to the north-west was now becoming dark and indicating possible inclement weather ahead. 

At Deakin, the one remaining house had been reduced to a shell from abuse by shooters. A miniature tower, remnant of the 1962 Geophysical Year still existed. Apparently it was part of a survey to properly map all of Australia.

We arrived at Forrest by nightfall and the van man fulfilled his duty. Forrest possesses quite an airfield with sealed runways and was a manned refuelling point for aircraft crossing the country. The D.C.A. had their own mess there, which was appreciated by those who passed through. We crossed 5PS8 I-P (GM32-GM44) which included an ex S.A.R. Bluebird 100 class railcar trailer, now operating as a normal carriage in its consist. We then waited for 3SP1 (BL29-CL7) to pass.

By Saturday morning we were at Nurina where serving from the van was attempted however, the gang were still drunk from their Friday night’s activities, so little was achieved there. There’s not much else to do on the Nullarbor! I remember that back in the early 60’s, it was said that some who were employed in the gangs out on the Nullarbor were “wanted” men, usually for lesser crimes such as maintenance dodging which earned one a spell “inside” in those days. The Police at Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta reportedly knew who was out there and as long as they stayed out there, they weren’t troubled. Apocryphal, who knows? 

At Haig we detached several cattle vans. I noticed that the sheep loading ramp had copped a bump at some stage and was now tied up with rope to keep it square. Trees were now starting to appear in the countryside and the Nullarbor was being slowly left behind. The weather was now looking quite threatening and from there to Rawlinna, it became increasingly overcast and drops of rain started to fall. I was again riding the loco.

Rawlinna still had its signal masts, but the arm on the distant was history. Neither signal worked though and admission was by green flag. Our shunt here was not extensive and because of the local retail store, no selling was done from the train. We soon departed in what was now rain. Opposing rail traffic seemed to have diminished because of the weekend, so our progress improved. 

Lime mines were sighted towards Kitchener. Similar mines exist at Loongana. The lime was railed to Parkeston, where the lime was used as an explosive (ammonium nitrate or Nitropril) in the gold mines. We shunted two trucks off at Kitchener, then proceeded on towards Zanthus. In the section, Goddard’s Creek was crossed on a timber bridge reportedly built by the W.A.G.R. after a wayward cyclone flooded the track and closed the line. It was the only bridge from Yorkey’s Crossing at Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie.

By the time that we had reached Zanthus, the rain had really settled in. Zanthus still retained water columns from steam days and old steam loco tenders were still used as water tanks. I inspected the solid rest house, which seemed not to receive much custom these days. After serving, our van, the genset and store van with its much diminished supplies were detached to return to Port Augusta and we now travelled in the brake van, which was ex narrow gauge relay van NHRD 189, now AVDP 189U.

At Coonana, which still had an unused elevated steel water tank, we took the siding and crossed DL 41-GM25-GM28 on 6PS1 which was the last train we saw for the trip. The countryside was now dominated by large salmon gums and mallee and glistening in the rain, it looked quite good. The 1612 km post glided by and several of the old mileage posts were also evident.

Still in steady rain, we arrived at Parkeston at 7.35 pm where the crew changeover ritual was re-enacted. The complete train was pulled through until the guards van was opposite the station and the relay crew, guard and any passengers (e.g. me) alighted. The train then pushed back until the locos were at the station, then the loco crew changed over. That saved time? Well then I waited, and waited, and waited. The crew car was elsewhere occupied, so I had a late tea and cold beer to look forward to at the motel.

The trip was a rare experience for me, especially as it was devoid of the frills of contrived publicity exercises using the Tea and Sugar which the railways engaged in on occasions. After that experience, my thoughts and feelings were with the people of the Nullarbor and I treasure the memories of that trip.

Today (October 2006) the Tea and Sugar train is history, it ceased running in the earlier 90’s. All the retail stores are also closed. ANRC was swallowed up by NRC which ran a service train to resupply Cook with fuel, but they were in turn swallowed up by Pacific National which runs no supply trains. All the small settlements are now deserted although reports tell of Ziggy still out in the Barton sand hills. Tarcoola is all but deserted, the Wilgena Pub having pulled its last beer years ago. Rawlinna town has been taken over by Loongana Lime interests and Cook is inhabited by a couple of caretakers only, as refuelling of some locos still occurs there, fuel being supplied from Kalgoorlie by Genesee Wyoming. Airport caretakers still live at Forrest and I believe that they rent the houses there as holiday homes! Thus the Nullarbor has been handed back to the kangaroos and a most interesting era has vanished. Did I want to live out there – well - no. 


Commonwealth Railway Annual Reports of various years

Australian National Railway working time tables

“Riders of the Steel Highways – The History of Australia’s Commonwealth Railways 

1912-1975” Monty Luke. Published by V.M. & B.M Luke 1997. 

Notes, photos and video taken on the trip related and AN computer printouts of same.

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