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It has a kettle in a hole in the dashboard so the crew can boil a hot brew safely, a ''whistle'' that sounds quite a lot like a horn, a ''dead man's switch'' that must be pushed every 90 seconds and an elevated view of the countryside as it rushes past.
Diesel locomotive G524 - which pulls a giant train taking Victoria's grain to the docks - also has a fridge, red and green flags in case of an incident and a chunky black ''bat-phone'' to ensure the train driver can stay in contact with train control at all times.
And beside the track as it passes - and sometimes on the platform - the diesel has a loyal fan base who will admire it regardless of the time of day. At 2.27am when it slows to a halt at Bendigo railway station for a crew change, two young gunzels (rail fanatics) are waiting with cameras on the platform alongside the crew.
The grain train takes its immense cargo of wheat from Piangil in northern Victoria to the Port of Melbourne. Photos: Pat Scala Photo: Pat Scala
The train draws fans in the middle of the night because it's so spectacular. It weighs 3030 tonnes when filled with grain. Behind the front loco, G524, stands the second loco, behind that come 40 wagons. From end to end, the train is a staggering 638 metres, long enough to stretch from the steps of State Parliament down Bourke Street almost to Swanston Street.
Tonight it's travelling from Piangil near Swan Hill in the state's north-west to Appleton Dock at the Port of Melbourne. From there the grain, grown mostly in the wide Mallee fields, will go to New Zealand.
As the train idles at Piangil, driver Ray Hunt and trainee driver Mark Wyllie light up the Mallee railway tracks with torchlight as they approach to climb on. Soon, the headlights will throw a much stronger light, illuminating wildlife including rabbits, foxes and kangaroos, even an owl as it flies gracefully across the tracks.
For the first leg of tonight's journey, Hunt is at the controls - and sometimes on the bat-phone. It needs two locos to pull such a heavy load. After doing safety checks, it is time to join the train.
First, the rear loco is attached to the wagons, then it must be joined to the front loco. With Hunt in the driver's seat, Wyllie is on the ground nearby, advising his colleague via radio of the shrinking gap between the locos.
''One length,'' Wyllie says as the ''G-class'' loco moves very slowly, straight into the bright headlights of its stationary companion. It is a stunning mechanical feat to witness from behind the windscreen - and reassuring to know that G524 is moving at less than walking pace.
''Ten metres,'' comes the constantly updating advice, ''five to go, four, three, two, one metre'' - followed by a surprisingly gentle clunk as the locos connect.
After attending to other jobs, Wyllie then climbs into the cab, which considering the size of the train is a tad on the cosy side, and joins his colleague (plus this correspondent) on board for the journey.
AT 9.47pm we leave Piangil and head towards Swan Hill. It's pretty slow going; the maximum speed on this stretch is only 50km/h.
Driver Ray Hunt. Photo: Pat Scala
That limit lengthens the trip, but tonight it also lengthens the life of the tall grey kangaroo that hops in front of the train about 10 o'clock, then leaps alongside the track before bounding off into a paddock.
The kangaroo disappears in the vicinity of a farming district called Pira, an area farmed by the Kelly family for 119 years. Some of the wheat grown by Pat Kelly and his son is likely to be on board tonight. The journey for this train might start at Piangil, but in a sense the story really starts on farms such as Kelly's.
''I've been farming here all my [working] life, for nearly 50 years since I left school,'' he tells me before the train leaves on its journey.
The product being moved. Photo: Pat Scala
''Growing always mainly wheat and barley, but in later years we're growing more chickpeas and canola, to keep the rotations and the soil in good health,'' he says.
Kelly sends all of his wheat to Emerald Grain at Woorinen South. Sometimes it comes right past his farm again, as the Piangil to Swan Hill grain line runs by his house and between his paddocks.
''It's a satisfying sight to see the trains that are going south with our grain,'' he says. ''They're big trains now with a lot of grain on them. And to think that we have contributed to some of that is pretty fulfilling. It makes you think you're doing your job and it's worthwhile.''
Kelly enjoys feeding the world. The grain on this train will become part of a 20,000 tonne shipment to be exported to New Zealand in a few days' time. Over the next month Emerald will export a further three shipments to Asia and the Middle East. ''It is a good aspect of farming, to know you're growing so much food,'' he says.
EARLIER in the day, the train had arrived at Emerald Grain's Woorinen South receival site to be loaded. It had been driven from Melbourne overnight. (Most of the work done by freight locos is done overnight, to free up the rails during the day for passenger services.)
The wheat to be loaded was grown in vast Mallee paddocks at places such as Pira, Swan Hill and Lake Boga, with about 20 per cent grown across the Murray in NSW.
With the morning sky turning pink and blue, the flick of a red lever saw the first grain of the 2200 tonne load shoot out of a chute and into the wagon below. Grain loading requires both skill and eye protection - chaff billows out while the grain rushes down. Hunt had inched the train forward and then stopped to help ensure the grain was evenly spread. With 40 wagons to fill, it was a move repeated many times.
About 100 metres away at a huge grain bunker there was just as much activity, as a front-end loader gathered more grain to be ferried to the silo complex on the rail line. Wearing a white hard-hat, Emerald Grain regional operations manager Neil McLennan kept an eye on loading activities in both places.
''Approximately 60 per cent of the grain from this site goes by rail and this year we've loaded 13 trains so far,'' he said. ''And we're anticipating there'll be another half-a-dozen or so for the remainder of the year.This is the third train we've had since last Saturday.''
If not for the mega-trains, many more trucks would be on the road. A quick calculation suggests that the 2200 tonnes of grain is enough to fill about 50 B-double trucks.
BACK on the loco that night, , Hunt says the load will be ''very very pushy'' travelling downhill given the amount of grain on board. ''Two thousand tonnes of commodity is a lot of weight to have behind you.''
With so much weight it is not surprising that it takes a long distance to stop this train. ''It takes about half a kilometre to stop with the brakes fully on when doing 55 kilometres per hour on a flat track,'' he says as we travel across the plains south of Pyramid Hill. So when going downhill it can take ''five or six kilometres'' to stop a train as big as this one.
But Hunt does not sound the least bit daunted. He clearly enjoys the challenge of safely controlling a train that is so long and heavy. ''I personally think this is the best part of it, the bulk rail side of it.''
It's imperative that the driver stays alert through the long trip. The ''dead man's switch'' must be pushed every 90 seconds as a precaution. If not, the train will come to a halt.
Still, the long country railway lines that run past countless silos and small towns dotted across northern Victoria provide a certain amount of freedom for the train crews. ''Once you leave you're on your own, basically. You're your own boss,'' Hunt says.
As we head towards Bendigo, Hunt points out a small green glow ahead on the edge of the track. The light is at Dingee, he says, about 15 kilometres away. The signal is far easier to see than some of its predecessors. ''When I first started they were all kerosene-lit signals. And you could not see it unless you had your nose pressed up against it. Now they're all LED. Half the time the wind would blow them out when they were kero.''
About 20 minutes later we travel through Dingee and past the signal. The green light is about four or five metres above the railway tracks, and only as big as a CD.
As we slowly approach the Dingee Rochester Road railway crossing, Hunt reaches up with his left arm and pulls a cord to ''toot'' the whistle. We'll pass through dozens of other railway crossings and stations tonight.
Hunt says he never feels nervous when approaching a road. ''You definitely feel safer on this than on any other train - just the sheer size and weight.''
IN THE hours from 2.27am until we reach the docks, the loco continues steadily and safely. There is a crew change at Bendigo, and again as we wait in the ''Totty'' railway yard at about 6.30am. Darryl Young is the driver for the last leg, about 7.5 kilometres through Tottenham, West Footscray and Footscray to the port.
Before we exit the Totty yard we pause at the city end and wait. There is more activity on the rail system now, and G524 must give way to suburban and country passenger trains.
On the other side of the fence, an early morning jogger wearing headphones dashes past without so much as a glance towards the train. But shortly afterwards the loco captures the attention of another man, who rushes towards the fence with a camera.
As we travel the final few hundred metres, it is approaching 8.30am and the docks are buzzing with activity. Giant container cranes prowl around moving cargo.
With the morning sun shining, I recall something Hunt had told me, many hours before, as we rushed through the dark, carrying our load.
Freight train drivers, he said, ''get lost in the daylight''.
Darren Gray is The Age rural affairs reporter.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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