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IN this, the NSW Railways much lamented and prestigious 150th birthday year, Goulburn district people who have been enthralled by the giant streamlined steam locomotive 3801, will be alarmed to hear its future is under a cloud.
Nineteen years have passed since the 3801 was rebuilt under a Bicentennial grant for mainline service. Since that time, the iconic heritage steam locomotive has become the most widely recognised and travelled locomotive in Australia.
More than 500,000 passengers have enjoyed the unique experience of riding in heritage carriages hauled by the 203-tonne streamlined locomotive, many of which have included trips to the Southern Highlands, Goulburn and other southern line destinations including Canberra, Junee and Albury.
Cared for by a heritage operating company known as 3801 Limited, it has just emerged the giant green-painted locomotive's operation future has become uncertain on two fronts.
Firstly, its home base at Eveleigh workshops (near Redfern) is under threat of closure from proposed non-railway development.
"Without an operating and servicing facility for steam locomotives within the inner metropolitan area heritage steam train operations, 3801 Limited will find it extremely difficult and costly to provide steam locomotives for special trains including gala occasions such as the recent NSW Railways 150th celebrations," said the company's general manager Arthur Tubby.
"This will also impact on other groups including the Powerhouse Museum, who periodically use Eveleigh as a base for servicing, maintenance and shedding.
Secondly, 3801's twenty-year tripartite lease agreement involving 3801 Limited, the NSW Rail Transport Museum (who originally preserved the relic) and RailCorp expires in November 2007.
Mr Tubby said there were real indications the agreement might not be renewed.
"This could result in an uncertain operating future for the locomotive," Mr Tubby said.
"For almost 20 years 3801 Limited has proved to be financially viable and highly esteemed rail heritage operator bringing to the general community the unique experience of rail operations of a bygone era and in the process providing enjoyment, education and entertainment to hundreds of thousands of people.
"We are now asking for the public to express support so that this can continue for the next 20 years," he said.
"Eveleigh is not only a convenient location to base tourist train operations but it is a purpose-built century old genuine purpose-built steam era shed which itself offers significant heritage value," he said.
Locomotive 3801 was built in 1943 and the classleader of 30 engines designed specifically for express passenger operations. The big engine was a regular sight on the main southern line and was selected to work the very last steam hauled Southern Highlands Express from Goulburn to Sydney on October 11, 1969.
It was retired in 1976 due to its boiler and mechanical condition but resurrected by then State Rail chief executive officer David Hill nine years later after undergoing a complete overhaul for the nation's Bicentennial.
Mr Tubby said while the re-tyring of the engine's driving wheels at a cost of $100,000 was currently underway, 3801's boiler would need major work in 2007 too.
He said budgeting for that expensive work was already underway.
Speaking in the NSW Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, the Shadow Minister for Tourism and Member for Burrinjuck, Katrina Hodgkinson has called on the NSW Labor Government to guarantee the operating future of the historic 3801 steam locomotive.
"The 3801 steam locomotive is a significant tourist attraction, which for the past 19 years has allowed the community to relive the magic of steam rail travel," she told Parliament.
"Since its restoration as a bicentennial project 3801 has carried more than 400,000 tourists on heritage rail journeys throughout NSW," Ms Hodgkinson said.
"Now there is a cloud hanging over the renewal of the tripartite lease between RailCorp, the NSW Rail Transport Museum and the operating company 3801 Limited," Ms Hodgkinson said.
In putting forward a Notice of Motion calling for the renewal of the leasing agreement, in the NSW Parliament, Ms Hodgkinson asked the House to note the importance of this historic steam locomotive, which took a significant role in the recent 150th anniversary of NSW Rail celebrations.
"The continuing of 3801 as a fully operational steam locomotive is very important to rail tourism in NSW," Ms Hodgkinson said.
"I call on the Minister for Transport to cut through the red tape that is threatening the future of this magnificent and popular machine," Ms Hodgkinson said.
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