May 28th of this year marks the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the C38 class locomotives to the famed Newcastle Flyer express. Initially dubbed the Northern Commercial Limited Express and commencing operation on 11th November 1929, the Sydney Central – Newcastle return services were originally the charge of C32 class locomotives, and later the C36 class from 15th October 1934. In September 1936 the train was renamed the Newcastle Express and non-stop running began in April 1937, cementing the its place as the NSWGR’s crack daylight express.
With the entry into service of class leader 3801 on 26th January 1943, it was only a matter of time before the NSWGR’s flagship C38 Pacifics found their way onto the Newcastle Express. 3801’s first journey to Newcastle occurred one month later on 25th February, however it would not be until the following year that the class began to see regular use on these services. From 28th May 1944 the C38s (at that stage totalling four) were added to the regular motive power pool for the Newcastle Express, the start of an indelible association which would span 26 years – the sight of 3801 storming out of Central on the stroke of 9:00am at the head of No. 21 Down morning Flyer would become an enduring image of the NSWGR.
On 30th November 1947 the then twenty-strong C38 class became the sole power for the Newcastle Express, deposing the C36 class entirely. At this point the fastest timetable for the service was reduced to 2 hours 18 minutes, reflecting both the change in motive power and the recent opening of the new Hawkesbury River Bridge. Air-conditioned carriages were introduced in the form of seven-car HUB sets in April 1948, and shortly afterwards the iconic ‘Newcastle Flyer’ headboards began to appear. By September 1949 all thirty members of the C38 class were in service, and the Newcastle Flyer operations entered an extended period of stability, with little change being made in the ensuing eight years.
From January 1956 the new 42 class diesels began to enter the roster, sharing responsibilities with the C38s until electrification between Sydney and Gosford was opened on 24th January 1960, heralding the end of express through running to Newcastle by steam after more than 30 years. While 46 class electrics took over all Sydney to Gosford running, the Gosford to Newcastle leg remained the domain of the C38s, which operated in this capacity alongside their more modern diesel counterparts for another decade. Thus the Newcastle Flyer was not only the last regular steam hauled express in Australia, but also simultaneously retained the remarkable distinction of being among the fastest.
An historic exception occurred on 28th June 1964, when 3801 ran a specially chartered non-stop service the entire way to Newcastle, organised by SPER. This it did in a record 2 hours 1 minute 51 seconds – a time which remained unbeaten for some 24 years until bettered by an XPT in 1988. 3801 again did the honours on the 31st May 1969 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the C38s on the Flyer, complete with the old headboard. In an evident vote of confidence, the locomotive was permitted by the Railways to run the entire trip both ways, notwithstanding the fact that the train had an eighth carriage added to cater for the resultant flood of extra bookings.
The last swansong for the C38s on the Flyer occurred on 29th December 1970, when on an appropriately dreary afternoon 3820 hauled the 4:43pm No. 32 Up Flyer through to Sydney in the pouring rain. Upon its return to Eveleigh that evening it became the last of its class to be withdrawn from NSWGR service – that the C38s ended their lives with dignity hauling the very same express services for which they were built a quarter of a century earlier is testament to their exceptional design and construction. While the famed relationship between the C38s and the Newcastle Flyer had come to an end, they would return to Newcastle numerous times in preservation, with 3801 hauling occasional Flyer re-enactment services.
The last of these occurred on 15th September 2007 prior to the locomotive’s ongoing overhaul and was met with little fanfare at the time, however sadly it would ultimately prove to be to the class leader’s final run on the train which catalysed its rise to fame. 3830 can claim the distinction of being the last C38 to visit Newcastle, occurring on 19th April 2009 as part of that year’s Maitland Steamfest. The withdrawal of both locomotives from service for restoration and the subsequent closure and removal of the Newcastle line beyond Hamilton in December 2014 finally spelled the end of the long association between the C38 class and Newcastle.