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I know from the photograph on Simone de Beuzeville’s business card that she can certainly look much ‘prettier’ than she did brandishing her shovel, clothes and face smudged by coal dust, when she briefly visited our vintage rail compartment en route to Melbourne, somewhere between Goulburn and Junee.

Simone is a qualified engine driver who normally runs a diesel-powered coal train in the Hunter Valley for North American multi-national Genesee Wyoming, but also volunteers her time to work as a driver and coal shoveller on various steam trains.

This time the task had started in Newcastle at about 10pm the night before and involved bringing the reconditioned steam engine 5917, built in 1952, from there to pick up our vintage carriages in Goulburn, on the first day of Cruise Express’s inaugural ‘Great Southern Loop’.

An incredibly popular engine … the 5917 powers on.

And then there was a three-hour turnaround in Junee for Simone while we finished our trip to Albury towed by diesel. I wasn’t game to ask about getting 5917 back to Newcastle.

It all made our 5am start at Sydney’s Central Station seem a doddle, especially for those of us staying within walking distance in the relative luxury of the nearby Mercure.

After a night at Echuca’s brand-spanking-new Atura we boarded the old and genuinely iconic Spirit of Progress to Melbourne’s Southern Cross station.

The former express train served the Melbourne-Sydney route from 1937 to 1986. Heritage locomotives hauled the original carriages, including compartment, kiosk and parlour cars, for the journey.

Richard Boyce … doing vintage trains a huge favour.

To sit in the richly wood-panelled parlour car — definitely reserved in its day for the wealthy and famous — was a real treat, though I did have a pensive thought or two about Simone and her trip back to Newcastle. Well, it sounds good to say that, anyway, even if it isn’t all true, but the parlour car was pretty spiffy and special.

I was awake quite early in Melbourne for a scheduled 5am departure for Seymour aboard century-old carriages pulled by the giant, blue steam locomotive R711, also built in 1952.

Yes, you have to get used to early starts to join one of Richard Boyce’s Cruise Express vintage-rail excursions, on which his trains are at the bottom of a pretty strict pecking order.

Simone de Beuzeville … in her coal-shovelling garb.

But the countryside action and being in the centre of trainspotters’ attention and cameras kept me awake, even if I did have nearly sole occupancy of an original  sleeper in the Werribee, a carriage first used in the 1920s on the Victorian ‘Vinelands’ run to Mildura.

After an hour or so in Seymour it was back onto our steaming blue giant for the run to Echuca for lunch and a glass of wine aboard another form of slow-and-steady transport — a Murray River paddleboat — before perhaps the highlight of our vintage-rail excursion.

And that was the run from Corowa to Deniliquin, where no train, steam or otherwise, had ventured for some 20 years.

He’s just waiting for a train … a spotter prepares for the right shot.

It was a genuinely moving experience to have locals line the track — kids on shoulders and cameras at the ready — as we approached the world’s ute capital and had to descend the train via specially made steps. They put into perspective the time gap between rail services to Deni … or is that Denny?

Then we were herded — rather more like cats than sheep — onto buses for a couple of days break from rail, though not from organised activities, in the Italian-oriented Riverina centre of Griffith, one of the places where Walter Burley Griffin had practised his planning before being let loose on our national capital.

It’s all class in the Werribee carriage … first used in the 1920s.

But the stop in Griffith is another story, and the rest of our rail trip back to Sydney uneventful enough, except to say how grateful we should all be to the likes of Richard Boyce and Cruise Express for keeping a unique form or transport alive and for allowing passionate devotees such as Simone de Beuzeville and many others to practise their craft — and maintaining old rolling stock definitely constitutes a craft.

Cruise Express is planning another 10 vintage-train journeys in the next 12 months or so. Phone 1300 766 537 or visit www.cruiseexpress.com.au.

Disclosure: John Rozentals travelled as a guest of Cruise Express.

Written by John Rozentals