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The development of the ‘R’ class steam locomotives goes back to January 1943 when a new express passenger locomotive began to take shape on the drawing boards in the design offices of the Victorian Railways Rolling Stock Branch. The R class locomotives were designed as a replacement for the ageing 'A2' class locomotives which had faithfully served the Victorian Railways since their introduction in 1907. Due to the introduction of diesel locomotives in the early 1950's the 'R' class locomotives were to become the last and most modern steam passenger locomotives on the VR.

As the design evolved, many modern features were incorporated, such as:

  • provision of a mechanical stoker which largely eliminated hand firing with the shovel and enabled a much higher power output to be sustained (the only other VR locomotive fitted was the solitary 'H' class No.220 "Heavy Harry" which entered service in 1941 and was withdrawn in 1957)
  • SCOA-P type driving wheels with their unique U shaped spokes were fitted along with SKF type roller bearings to all axles on the locomotive and tender
  • 5” (127mm) steel bar frames were provided instead of the more traditional plate frames which were prone to cracking from fatigue
  • use of thermic syphons in the firebox for improved water evaporation
  • provision for the conversion of the locomotives from 5'3” (1600mm) broad gauge to 4'8½” (1435mm) standard gauge should the need ever arise
  • a new tender design and carried on two bogies of four wheels each and incorporating the stoker coal conveyer screw

It was intended to construct 20 'R' class locomotives at Newport Workshops and a large number of components were ordered. Due however, to a number of factors such as industrial disputes and a huge backlog of repair and maintenance work, it was not practicable to build any locomotives at Newport. Federal Government restrictions on the availability of U.S. dollars meant that diesel electric locomotives could not be purchased from the United States. In September 1949 an order for 50 locomotives placed with the North British Locomotive Company Limited of Glasgow, Scotland. This order was subsequently increased to 70 locomotives when the Newport order was cancelled in January 1950.

The engines were allocated road numbers 700 to 769.

The first engines to be delivered were R702 and R703 which arrived on 31 May 1951 and, following delays caused by repairs and adjustments, R703 became the first R to enter service on June 27 1951. Deliveries continued over the next twenty-one months with the last engine, R769, arriving on February 1953 and entering service on 23 September 1953. Several locomotives were significantly delayed entering service by the need to rectify numerous manufacturing faults and shipping damage.

Some of the 'R' class became better known than other members of the class.

  • R704 gained fame by being displayed in London at the "Festival of Britain" (a festival aimed to raise the nation’s spirits whilst promoting the best in British art, design and industry after the devastation of war and years of austerity) from May to September 1951. This resulted in its entry into service being delayed by six months. The engine was highly polished and detailed with stainless steel boiler bands, chromed number plates, highly polished fittings and gold lining being added to the red band along the engine and tender.
    The locomotive was also selected to be the leading engine on the Royal train which was to have run in February and March 1952 during the planned visit of the then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, but, due to the death of King George VI, the tour was cancelled. Two years later, the Royal Tour did run but by then the 'B' class diesel-electrics had taken over.
  • R707 was converted to Precipitated Brown Coal (PCB) dust firing, having been in storage at Newport Workshops following delivery due to damage sustained during shipment from Britain in July 1951. It entered service in August 1954 and ran until May 1956 when it was taken out of service with minor damage caused by a derailment. The PCB equipment was removed when the locomotive was repaired and it returned to service as a standard coal burner in May 1957. Although the use of PCB dust burning was a technical success, its use was not economic compared with the operation of the increasing fleet of diesel-electric locomotives.
  • R748 was converted to oil firing in June 1955 following a period of storage at Newport Workshops after it had rolled into the turntable pit at Geelong Locomotive depot in April 1954. The stoker equipment was removed and modifications included the removal of the grates, fitting a brick lined pan in the firebox and the installation of a 2,000 gallon (9080 litre) oil tank removed from one of the scrapped 'S' class locomotives (of Spirit of Progress fame). Following the success of R748 in service, R719 was converted in June 1957 but no more engines were converted because of rising oil prices.

The oil burning locomotives were regarded as the best in the fleet with their high availability and they subsequently recorded the highest mileage of any 'R' class locomotives. They were also highly regarded by their crews because of the absence of dust and cinders swirling around at high speed.

Despite their early and serious "teething" troubles, the R's began to take over the principle express passenger runs with general reductions in overall running times being achieved. But, the reign of the 'R' class was all too brief for in 1952/53, the 'B' class diesel-electrics began to arrive and very quickly took over the duties for which the 'R' class were designed. Consequently, more and more R's were being placed into storage. Many of them were suffering severe boiler damage because of inadequate boiler water treatments being applied, resulting in R715 being withdrawn on the 4th May 1956 followed the next day by R716 (which had a ridiculously short life, being in service just short of four years and never to run again), the first of many withdrawals over the next four years. minimum maintenance found them falling from favour with their crews and apart from being used on secondary passenger and freight services, most saw service during periods of motive power shortages and peak traffic flows, such as holiday periods and the bumper wheat harvests of the early 1960's.

Accidents were relatively few and far between, mostly being confined to engines rolling into turntable pits, through depot walls and the odd derailment. Some engines, due to a lack of major maintenance, caused more than a few headaches to both crews and running staff alike.

A very serious accident occurred on 14 September 1960 when R755, hauling a passenger train from Numurkah and Seymour, ploughed into the back of a stationary goods train at Broadmeadows. R755 was badly damaged an on 28 November 1960, became the first R to be scrapped.

During the 1960's, many R's were withdrawn and scrapped as more diesels entered service and 1967 was the final year of the 'R' class in general service on the Victorian Railways. The final three withdrawn were R742 on 23 June, R735 on 24 July and oil burning R748 on 10 August 1967. R749 which was set aside for use on special trains only.

Some engines did manage to continue on in service running special excursion trains. Each being replaced as boiler and mechanical conditions made them too costly to maintain. These being in order R706, R769, R749, R707 and R761.

The end of the 'R' class era in VR service finally came when in 1974 the last two engines in excursion service were withdrawn - R707 on 21 May and R761 on 5 September.

In R711 and R766 were converted to oil burning with a Lempor exhaust by West Coast Rail and used to run Saturday excursion trips to Warnambool. The first trip ran on R711 November 1998 with R711. West Coast ceased operation in 2004.

As at November 2008, the location of the seven locomotives that escaped being scrapped was as follows:

  • R700 – dismantled with boiler and frames at Ballarat East Yard and many parts stored  at Newport West Workshop
  • R704 – on display at AHRS Railway Museum, North Williamstown
  • R707 – operational at 707 Operations, Newport West Workshop
  • R711 – operational at Steamrail, Newport West Workshop
  • R753 – dismantled at 707 Operations, Newport West Workshop
  • R761 – operational at Steamrail, Newport West Workshop
  • R766 – converted to standard gauge by Steamrail at Newport West Workshops and  transported by road to the Hunter Valley Railway Trust in NSW where final fitting out is being carried out. Expected to be operational in 2009.

The R's may have gone from the regular main line service hauling any thing from express passenger trains to the lowly roadside "pick-up" runs but the memories of the 'R' class will always remain for those who knew them. Who could forget the sights and sounds of double-headed R's struggling up the long 1 in 48 grades of the Ingliston Bank between Bacchus Marsh and Ballan with the Adelaide bound 'Overland' express and then, once over the top of the grade, the mile after mile of 70 mph (112km/h) running when the cinders really started to fly; or of double-headed R's climbing out Ballarat with another 'R' pushing valiantly at the rear to Warrenheip. Some could run like the wind, and notable perforamces were put up by R734 running from Geelong to Melbourne in 54 minutes, and R749 hauling 400 tons over 75 miles (120km) including Glenrowan bank, in 77 minutes.

Last Updated: 08 January 2009