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3801 hauling the Newcastle Flyer at Stanmore, 31 December 1945. Photo: NSW State Archives and Records, 17420 a014 a014000205, Wikimedia Commons.

Locomotive 3801 departing from Kalgoorlie station with the Bicentennial Train, May 1988.

Photo: yaruman 5, Flickr Commons.


David Matheson

 21 March 2021

Steam locomotive 3801 is recognised as Australia’s favourite locomotive. It gained a reputation for speed by hauling express passenger trains in New South Wales. Since it was withdrawn from regular service it has operated numerous tour trains throughout mainland Australia.


38 Class

The need for additional locomotives to work express passenger trains was recognised in the middle of the 1930s. Double heading of some of the Melbourne Express and Melbourne Limited Express trains had become a regular occurrence, and the railways were eager to eliminate this practice. Several locomotive types were considered before a 4-6-2 Pacific type was decided on. The Chief Mechanical Engineer, Harold Young, supervised the design work in the Locomotive Section of the Design Office within the railways. A contract for five express passenger locomotives was awarded to the Clyde Engineering Company in December 1938. However, it was not until 1943 that the first C38 Class locomotives left the manufacturer’s plant at Granville in Sydney. Some of the engineering work required had not been undertaken in Australia before, and a result some components were imported, including the roller bearings. During the Second World War, Clyde Engineering was involved in the manufacture of military vehicles, and these took a higher priority than work on the new locomotives. After lengthy delays 3801 was ready for its first trial, which saw it run light engine to Penrith on 19 January 1943. It was painted grey, reflecting the wartime conditions, giving rise to the nickname the Grey Nurse.


3801 in Regular Service

On 22 January 1943 Clyde Engineering officially handed 3801 to the Department of Railways, New South Wales. Further trials followed before its first revenue services, which were hauling goods trains from Enfield to Thirroul and return on 26 January. The first passenger train hauled by 3801 was the Southern Highlands Express from Goulburn to Sydney on 23 February. On 25 February it worked the Newcastle Express (Newcastle Flyer) for the first time, and on 27 February it had its first run on the Melbourne Express, hauling it to Goulburn.


During March 1943 a regular roster for 3801 was hauling the Down and Up services of the Riverina Express between Sydney and Albury. Over the month it travelled a total of 12,467 miles (20,063 km) in service, which was the highest total that a single locomotive in New South Wales had ever recorded in one month. This total was achieved without mechanical problems. From April 1943, 3801 and 3802 were regularly allotted to haul the Melbourne Express and the Melbourne Limited Express between Sydney and Goulburn.


Clyde Engineering completed its order for five 38 Class locomotives in March 1945. Another 25 were to be built at the railway workshops at Eveleigh and at Cardiff. With the end of the war in August 1945, work was able to progress more quickly, and the last 38 Class engine, 3830, entered service on 27 November 1949. The Clyde-built engines were streamlined, with a cone-shaped nose in front of the smokebox door and panelling above the boiler. However, the remaining 25 engines were not streamlined.


In its first months of service 3801 demonstrated its capabilities. It was allocated to Eveleigh depot, near Redfern, and faithfully completed the work of hauling express passenger trains, such as the Newcastle Express, Southern Highlands Express, Central West Express, Melbourne Express and Melbourne Limited Express. Together with its classmates it gained a reputation for speed and reliability. On 24 June 1946, along with five other C38 Class locomotives, 3801 was used to test the new Hawkesbury River bridge. From February to April 1947 it was overhauled and subsequently painted green with golden yellow lining. By the end of 1956 it had recorded a total of 1,006,746 miles (1,620,200 km) in service. Another overhaul in July 1955 saw 3801 emerge in black livery with red lining.


In November 1951 the Department of Railways, New South Wales, introduced its first mainline diesel-electric locomotives when 4001 and 4002 commenced service. Further diesel locomotives followed and soon a decision was made that no new steam engines would enter service. A path towards dieselisation was followed with deliveries of new diesel locomotives and the withdrawal of steam engines. Diesels took over hauling express passenger trains and steam became relegated to less prestigious duties. 3801 was listed to be withdrawn in 1962, but a change of policy led to the older 36 Class locomotives being withdrawn instead of the 38 Class.


Special Trains

3801 was overhauled at Chullora from March to July 1963. It emerged to take to the tracks again in its green colour scheme with yellow lining. Over the next few years 3801 became popular as a tour engine, hauling numerous trains for enthusiasts. During a tour on 28 June 1964, it set a record time of 2 hours, 1 minute and 51 seconds for a journey between Sydney and Newcastle, and may have broken the two-hour barrier if not for a signal check of around three minutes at Broadmeadow. Although it did not make the journey in under two hours, it retained the record for the fastest train journey between Sydney and Newcastle until it was broken by an XPT in 1988.


Following the discovery of serious boiler problems in October 1965, 3801 was withdrawn from service and given to the care of the New South Wales Rail Transport Museum. The museum was eager for it to be returned to service and contributed $18,000 to the cost of its overhaul, which took place at Cardiff Workshops. It re-entered service in October 1966 before further problems saw it withdrawn again following a run on the Up Southern Highlands Express on 11 October 1967. In 1969 it returned to operation for some special workings, including hauling the Newcastle Flyer on 31 May 1969 for the train’s 25th anniversary.


The year 1970 brought a new adventure for 3801. Completion of the standard gauge railway across Australia from Sydney to Perth enabled the possibility for the first time of making a journey across the continent without the need to change trains. On 22 August 1970 a special train, the Western Endeavour, departed Sydney at the beginning of a return journey to Perth. Sister engine 3813 joined 3801 as far as Port Augusta. Between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie 3801 was assisted by a diesel locomotive to conserve coal and water. 3801 then hauled the train on its own from Kalgoorlie to Perth, arriving on 29 August. After a week in Perth it departed on its return run on 6 September. The train was again diesel-assisted between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta, where 3801 was joined by 3813 for the journey home. The Western Endeavour arrived back in Sydney on 12 September. 3801 had become the first steam locomotive to cross the continent from Sydney to Perth and return.


3801 hauled the Newcastle Flyer for the last time on 2 December 1970. It had been temporarily returned to general service again to alleviate a motive power shortage. In 1974 it was the star of the film A Steam Train Passes. It was moved to the new Rail Transport Museum at Thirlmere in June 1975, operating on special services on the Loop line between Picton and Buxton. During an examination on 6 December 1976 its boiler was deemed unfit for service. 3801 became a static exhibit at Thirlmere and would not steam again for ten years.


Return to Service in 1986

3801 was hauled to the State Dockyard in Newcastle on 20 November 1983 to be fully restored. The Hunter Valley Training Company, which had been established to enable ongoing training for apprentices, provided the workforce for the project. A major task was rebuilding the boiler, while the driving wheels needed to be reprofiled and many parts required reconditioning. Various experts were consulted regarding technical aspects of the restoration. After extensive work, 3801 was ready to steam again. It was re-commissioned on 15 November 1986, and it then hauled a special train from Newcastle to Maitland and return. 3801 returned to Sydney on 29 November 1986. David Hill, who was resigning as the Chief Executive of the State Rail Authority of New South Wales, welcomed the newly restored steam locomotive 3801 in a triumphant return to Sydney Terminal. A grand ball was held on the concourse to welcome back Australia’s most famous locomotive.


A company was established to manage and operate 3801 for 20 years from its return to service in November 1986. 3801 remained the property of the railways but was effectively leased to 3801 Limited. From 1986 to 2006 it operated numerous tours with the dedicated support of numerous volunteers. Australia marked the bicentenary of permanent European settlement in 1988, and during the year the Bicentennial Train operated tours throughout mainland Australia, including visits to Sydney, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. 3801 was one of the feature engines at Hunter Valley Steamfest in 1987, and then every year from 1989 to 2007, a total of 20 appearances, more than any other steam locomotive. On 6 May 1990 an interurban train collided with the rear of a special train being hauled by 3801 between Hawkesbury River and Cowan, killing six people. Following the accident mainline steam train operations were banned in the state until April the following year. In the longer term, a stricter regime of regulation and accreditation was implemented for tourist and heritage railways. 3801 visited Alice Springs in 1992.


The lease to 3801 Limited was not renewed at the end of 2006 and 3801 reverted to the care of the Rail Transport Museum. It operated tour trains until the end of 2007 when the need for a major overhaul led to it being withdrawn.


Overhaul and Testing

Planning commenced for the overhaul of 3801, and it was based at Chullora Workshops in Sydney while work progressed. The overhaul was expected to be completed by the end of 2010, but major difficulties and delays were experienced. Many of the tools and practices used for locomotive overhauls during the steam era are no longer readily available, presenting a considerable challenge. A new welded boiler was ordered from the Meiningen Steam Locomotive Works in Germany and manufactured to an approved design, but after its arrival in Australia it was discovered that the new boiler did not fit the locomotive frame. The boiler was returned to Germany and some rectification work was undertaken but a decision was eventually made that it was unsuitable. Meanwhile a team of volunteers was working on the other components of 3801 at Chullora.


In September 2016, Transport Heritage NSW, which was established by the New South Wales Government in 2013, announced that the old boiler previously fitted to 3801 would be repaired by K and H Ainsworth Engineering of Goulburn. During its regular service life the boiler of 3801 was changed several times. When locomotives received a major overhaul, often a spare boiler was installed. This could be a brand-new boiler or one taken from another member of the same class which previously been repaired. The practice of exchanging boilers enabled time in the workshops to be minimised. In 1966 locomotive 3801 had been fitted with the boiler that was originally used on 3819, and it has retained this boiler, known as Boiler 3819, since that time. The boiler was transferred from Chullora to Goulburn by road on 22 September 2016. Following extensive work, including manufacturing replacement parts, welding and riveting, it was returned to Chullora on 1 July 2019.


On 7 September 2019 the boiler was fired up and completed its first steam test in more than a decade, and then on 7 January 2020 locomotive 3801 moved under its own steam, undertaking several runs on a section of track at Chullora. Significant steps were being made as the lengthy overhaul neared its completion. Another important milestone was achieved on 24 January when 3801 operated from Chullora to Thirlmere, hauling a carriage with Transport Heritage NSW staff and volunteers on board. Speeds of up to 100 km/h were reached on the main line. The locomotive had returned to it home at Thirlmere, while more testing was undertaken and new green paint was applied.


The relaunch of 3801 was planned for 27 March 2020, but restrictions on public gatherings resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic brought a further delay. This provided the opportunity for further testing and on the night of 13 May an adhesion test took place on Cowan Bank. Hauling a load of 318.2 tonnes, 3801 made two runs from Hawkesbury River to Cowan, a distance of 8.5 km with a gradient of 1 in 40 (2.5%) for most of the distance. Wet weather conditions were simulated with jets spraying water on the rails in front of the wheels. Both runs were successful, the first being completed in 22 minutes and the second in 19 minutes. Further trials and crew training was undertaken in September 2020 when 3801 hauled a 422-tonne train making four trips from Thirlmere to Goulburn and return, and two trips from Thirlmere to Moss Vale and return.


Return to service in 2021

The easing of COVID-19 restrictions finally enabled the relaunch of 3801 to take place in March 2021. A ceremony was held at Central station in Sydney on Friday 12 March, with the Governor of New South Wales, Margaret Beazley, officially relaunching the locomotive. Following the ceremony 3801 operated a special trip to Rhodes and return for invited guests, including volunteers who had worked on 3801 during its restoration. For part of the journey a parallel run was made with historic single-deck electric set F1.


Over the weekend of 13 and 14 March, 3801 operated shuttle trips between Central and Hurstville. Over 1500 passengers were carried, taking the opportunity for the public to ride behind 3801 for the first time since 2007. After a much longer wait than expected for steam enthusiasts, 3801 was finally back.


Besides 3801, three other non-streamlined 38 Class engines have been preserved. 3820 is a static exhibit at the NSW Rail Museum at Thirlmere. 3830 is owned by the Powerhouse Museum, and is also located at Thirlmere; it was restored to service in 1997 and operated tour trains until 2009. 3813 is owned by the Dorrigo Steam Railway and Museum, and is in dismantled condition.



The key specifications of 3801 in original condition are shown below. Non-streamlined 38 Class engines had a lower overall weight.

Wheel arrangement                4-6-2

Steam pressure                      245 pounds per square inch (1689.2 kilopascals)

Tractive effort                          36,270 pounds (161.4 kilo newtons)

Driving wheels diameter         69 inches (175.3 cm)

Firebox size                             224.58 square feet (20.9 square metres)

Overall length                          76 feet 4⅝ inches (23.3 metres)

Overall weight                         201.2 tons (204.4 tonnes)

Coal capacity                          14 tons (14.2 tonnes)

Water capacity                        8100 gallons (36,823.3 litres)



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     Book 3327–5309.

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3801 and 3830, Bulli, 18 August 2007. Photo: Rowan Atkins, Flickr Commons.


Steam locomotive 3801 is back in service operating a shuttle trip from Central to Hurstville, seen passing Redfern station, 13 March 2021

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