Locomotive No 15 with driver John Heron outside the cabin. Blue Mountains City Council Image Library 003088.
The final steam-hauled run of The Fish from Sydney to Mount Victoria, standing at Sydney Terminal prior to departure with locomotive 3624 at the head of the train, 4 March 1957. Blue Mountains City Council Image Library 000283.
The Fish: Blue Mountains Commuter Train
14 September 2021
A Blue Mountains commuter train popularly named The Fish operated from around 1880. Before this time the name was often used to refer to an afternoon service between Sydney and Penrith, which was shown in timetables from 1 July 1863. The first mention of the name The Fish in a public timetable was on 27 November 1949: although it had been widely known as The Fish for many decades, official recognition in timetables took a long time to occur. The name continued to be used in timetables until it was removed in the 24 July 2004 timetable, but was reinstated with the 4 September 2005 timetable. Sadly, the name disappeared from timetables again in 2014. Running for around 150 years from the 1860s, The Fish was clearly the longest-serving named passenger train in Australia.
With its special character and strange name, The Fish developed a particular folklore that is still remembered by Blue Mountains residents. Poems were written, cartoons were drawn, and legends about the characters associated with the train grew. Newspaper articles recorded changes in the service. It was a train of great importance to regular passengers, but also admired by many others.
The origin of the name The Fish is the subject of folklore but has been traced back to John ‘Jock’ Heron. Heron was born in Dumfries, Scotland, in 1831. He worked on the Glasgow and South Western Railway before migrating to Australia with his younger brother, David. John was employed as an engineman in June 1861 with the New South Wales Railways. By 1866 he became a driver between Sydney and Penrith, which at this time was the end of the western line, having opened on 19 January 1863.
Engine No. 15, one of three 14 class ((T) 14 class from 1889) 2-2-2 express passenger locomotives, was allocated to Driver John Heron and saw regular service on the Sydney to Penrith line. At that time it was standard practice for individual locomotives to be assigned to the care and use of particular drivers. No. 15 operated a fast evening commuter service that came to be known as The Fish.
John Heron was a driver who demanded high standards and gained the nickname the ‘big fish’. He was a big man who was known to everyone at Penrith by this name. Heron developed a reputation for keeping a fast schedule and would blow the whistle for the signals approaching Penrith. This led to the response, “Here comes the big fish!” It is believed that Heron’s name had become corrupted to ‘herring’ and the nickname the ‘big fish’ followed from there. Eventually the name was transferred from John Heron to the train that he drove. The evening train would stable overnight at Penrith, Heron’s home depot, before returning to Sydney in the morning. John Heron drove the train for over twenty years and was identified strongly with it.
Heron drove for 25 years without any kind of accident. He was widely respected by colleagues. By January 1886 Heron had become a locomotive inspector at Penrith depot, and retired in 1890. After his retirement Heron lived at North Sydney. He died at his home at McMahon’s Point, North Sydney, on 2 September 1906, aged 75 years. Heron married Isabella Denoon (born Isabella Wallace) in 1857 at the age of 26, but they had no children. He is buried in the Presbyterian section of Gore Hill Cemetery in the same plot as his wife, who predeceased him. His headstone includes the inscription, ‘LATE OF N.S.W. RAILWAYS.’
Particular locomotive types were allocated to regular service on The Fish in different eras, although other engines were used occasionally. In the early years locomotives were changed at Penrith, with faster locomotives generally used between Sydney and Penrith, and locomotives more suited to the steep gradients of the Blue Mountains used west of Penrith. The practice of changing locomotives at Penrith was eventually discontinued in October 1907. Table 1 gives an overview of the different classes of locomotives that were used during different years to haul The Fish.
As the railways of New South Wales continued to develop and expand, new types of locomotives were brought into service. With advances in locomotive design they were able to haul greater loads and maintain higher running speeds.
Assistant engines were regularly used to assist The Fish as it climbed the Blue Mountains. At one stage the additional locomotive would be attached at Penrith and worked through to Katoomba. Later they were attached further up the mountains at Valley Heights.
Following electrification of the Blue Mountains line, 46 Class electric locomotives began work on the Blue Mountains when the electrification of the line. On 5 March 1957 the 46 Class began operating The Fish regularly between Sydney and Mt Victoria, displacing the 36 Class steam locomotives that had been in charge of the train for over 20 years.
A range of different carriages have formed The Fish throughout its history. In its early years of operation, the train was formed by four-wheel carriages that were the mainstay of passenger services until the 1880s.
SUB 102 set entered service and began operation on The Fish in March 1932. With the introduction of Set 102, The Fish began carrying nameboards on the side that clearly identified the train.
With the growing population there was an increase in traffic density on the Western railway line crossing the Blue Mountains. A decision was made to electrify the line and work progressed over a number of years. The last steam-hauled run of The Fish from Sydney occurred on 4 March 1957, hauled by 3624. The first regular run of The Fish hauled by an electric locomotive, on 5 March 1957, cut 41 minutes off the previous running time from Sydney to Mount Victoria.
The Fish continued as an electric locomotive-hauled service until stainless steel interurban carriages were introduced in September 1958. Double-deck interurbans began operating No. 10, the Up service of The Fish, from Mount Victoria to Sydney, and No. 57, the Down service, between Sydney and Mt Victoria on 31 January 1978.
Various changes to the schedule of The Fish occurred, reflecting developments in trains and changing service requirements. In the early years of The Fish the population of the Blue Mountains was small and only a few trains were required to meet the needs of travellers. In 1898 The Fish was one of three passenger trains on weekdays operating beyond Penrith. However, today there are 36 passenger trains between Sydney and the Blue Mountains line in each direction on a typical weekday. Table 2 provides an overview of the departure and arrival times of The Fish for Sydney and Mount Victoria, together with the overall running times, to reflect schedules during different eras.
With the disappearance of the name The Fish from current timetables, some of nostalgia about the train has begun to wane. Nevertheless, its lengthy history will remain in the folklore of Australian railways.
A longer version of this article appeared in Australian Railway History, July 2011.
‘New South Wales’, Here and There, Supplement to Bulletin, no. 235, May 1957, p. 1.
‘Double deck interurbans’, Railway Digest, May 1978, p. 123.
Bayley, WA, Blue Mountains railways, Austrail, Bulli, 1980.
‘Everyone happy as new ‘Fish’ starts its work’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 September 1958, p. 6.
‘Gay scenes as “The Fish” begins its last Blue Mountains run’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September 1958, p. 3.
Grunbach, A, A compendium of New South Wales steam locomotives, Australian Railway Historical Society, Sydney, 1989.
Oberg, L, Locomotives of Australia: 1854 to 2007, Rosenberg, Sydney, 2007.
Park, MA, ‘“The Fish”: Seventy years of history’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 15, January 1939, pp. 2–5.
Park, MA, ‘Seventy years of history’- Part 2’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 18, April 1939, pp. 33–4.
Preston, RG, The time of the passenger train: first division, Eveleigh Press, Sydney, 2003.
Preston, RG, The time of the passenger train: third division, Eveleigh Press, Sydney, 2006
Quinlan, H & Newland, JR, Australian railway routes 1854 to 2000, Australian Railway Historical Society, Sydney, 2000.
Singleton, CC, ‘Train and locomotive working on the Blue Mountains in 1898’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 57, July 1942, pp. 8–10.
‘The Fish: Australia’s oldest named train’, The Railway News, August/September 1965, pp. 2-4.
W520, Up The Fish, crosses the Nepean River bridge between Emu Plains and Penrith carrying commuters on their way to work, 21 April 2010. The piers behind the railway bridge carry the road bridge, which formed railway bridge over the Nepean River until 1907
Grave of John Heron and his wife, Isabella Wallace, Gore Hill Cemetery. The inscription reads:
BELOVED WIFE OF
DIED 12TH JANUARY 1901
AGED 75 YEARS
HUSBAND OF ABOVE
NATIVE OF DUMFRIES, SCOTLAND
DIED AT McMAHONS POINT, 2ND SEPT 1906
AGED 75 YEARS
LATE OF N.S.W. RAILWAYS
The Grave is in Presbyterian Section K, Plot 14, facing pathway 9. Photo 8 May 2010.