Bruce Irwin


Interviewee: Bruce Irwin

Interviewer: Noelene Pullen

Date of Interview: 9 Oct 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Oct 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee


The fruit industry in The Hills district by the 1880's was very extensive and in fact was probably the largest in New South Wales. The problem was that getting it to market was dependant on horse drawn road lorries. The roads were terrible they hadn’t progressed. It sometimes took up to a day to get the fruit from the orchard to places such as Pennant Hills, Parramatta or Seven Hills for loading onto trains to get it into Sydney’s market. There was this desperate need for transport improvement. To the rescue to some extent was a railway that was proposed from Clyde to Dural. It was created by private entrepreneurs. It unfortunately only got as far as Carlingford before the entrepreneurs ran out of money (in 1896. The Government bought it in 1899 and re-opened it in 1901.)




There was also a private proposal to put a tramway, a very early tramway from Castle Hill down to Parramatta. Join in onto the George Street line and the fruit would then be transported along the George Street line and lighted from Redbank down to Sydney. That didn’t get off the ground either.

The steam trams in Sydney became surplus to requirements on account of the electrification that was taking place from about 1898 onwards. After much lobbying we find ourselves with approval being given to allow a tramway in from Parramatta to Baulkham Hills as a first start. Of course the orchardists were very happy. This was going to be a means of them to get their fruit from Baulkham Hills to start with into the markets. By 1902 the line had been laid in and it was opened to the public on the 18th August, 1902.

Castle Hill Steam tram

The fly in the ointment was however that the track that was laid from Parramatta Station to the Woollen Mills was grooved rail that would not fit railway wagons. So were all the points and crossovers on the line. It meant that railway wagons could not go over those sections of line. Also there was a legal impediment on carrying goods on the line in any case. So after all this lobbying had taken place by the fruit growers, it turned out that a tramway couldn’t carry goods i.e. the fruit on the line. So it turned out to be a totally different purpose in the end to what was originally contemplated. It just turned out to be a passenger carrier rather than a goods carrier.

Fares on the tram were a penny a section. The line to Baulkham Hills was divided up into four sections. A through ticket to Baulkham Hills cost you threepence.

The tram started out providing some very interesting services considering the times. Not long after it started it commenced with carrying letters. There was a letter box placed on the back of the tram. You could go up to your local tram stop and the tram would be coming along and you’d be standing there with your letter.

The tram would stop and you’d pop your letter in the letter box at the back. Away it would go into Parramatta and that was cleared probably three times a day. Now you can’t do that today with a Hills bus. So that was an interesting feature. It avoided the postal department having to put in letter boxes along the way. Eventually they carried mails, bagged mails which were brought in by coach from outlying districts like Kellyville and Annangrove. They were taken into the main postal centre at Parramatta. Parcels were carried from about 1906 onwards. There was quite a brisk parcel trade moving items from Parramatta up to the Hills district and vice versa.

From 1915 onwards the railway commissioners approved of goods being carried by tram. This opened a large measure of traffic for the line. There were bulk groceries carried from Parramatta and beyond up to the Hills district, to places such as Price’s store and Whitling’s store. They were quite big grocery outlets at that time. There were bricks carried for building works. There was timber all those sorts of things.

But by and large the orchardists did not patronise the goods service because it was too expensive. It cost them two pence to send a case of fruit. It had to be transhipped at Parramatta station into railway trucks to be taken into Sydney to be transhipped again to market.

The tramway proved to be such a passenger carrying success that they, despite an enquiry that was held into it, it was extended to Castle Hill by ministerial approval. That happened in 1910, with the tramway being opened to the public on the 1st August, 1910.

The tram did lead to substantial opening up of ground along its route. "Darcey Hey" was one that recalls to memory that was subdivided in that area. It’s a little different from what we see today where we wait for areas to be subdivided and then we put public transport into them.

Tram at Baulkham Hills Loop facing Castle Hill

By the 1920’s the tram was carrying in excess of 1.1 million passengers a year, which is a phenomenal amount of patronage considering that the district only had… the population only numbered in the tens of thousands. The tram certainly was well patronised and was very well received by the travelling public.

Despite the fact that the tram was an excellent convenience to the general public the citrus growers in particular found it an unsatisfactory work. They continued to lobby for a fully fledged railway. They found a willing ear, round about 1919 with the government at that time. There were some good friends in high places. With a considerable amount of lobbying the government finally approved for a railway to be built into the Hills district. It was a pinch penny railway that was planned. Basically it entailed putting in an arc of railway which ran from Westmead around through the Westmead Boys Home and the asylum area, came into just north of Briens Road at Northmead that was a new length of line. From that point onwards the old tram line was to be converted to railway standards. The original estimate for this work was going to cost eleven thousand pound for the laying in of the new railway from Westmead to Briens Road. For the conversion work of the tramway it was going to cost ten thousand pound which was well within the limits of the minister to approve of himself. The conversion meant that some of the road works had to be re-levelled because the gradients on the tramway were a little bit to steep. It was a pinch penny railway. There were no platforms that were contemplated for it. You were going to have to go from the road level up to the carriage like they did in certain places in South Australia. There was no staff appointed for the line. That was all going to be done by the staff on board the train as it was on the tram. It was a very mean and lean railway that was planned.

The railway was ready to commence in 1923 and the tram finished at midnight and the railway commenced five or six hours later at first thing in the morning. This was on the 28th January, 1923.

The tram was curtailed back to the old Woollen Mills at Briens Road there at Northmead. The depot that had previously been built at Baulkham Hills, on the site of the present day bowling club, was dismantled and moved down to the site at Briens Road. That stood right up until the 1990’s.

The railway was a somewhat inferior service. The tramway had provided basically an hourly service and that was stepped up somewhat during peak hours. The railway seldom got past an hour and a half between trains. Sometimes it lengthened out to almost two and a half hours.

Baulkham Hills tram depot yard

People that had been used to a very regular service of trams had to get used to this makeshift arrangement with the railways. But of course the orchardists were extremely happy. All their fruit was being loaded on at good’s yards such as installed at Baulkham Hills and Castle Hill. They could get their fruit to market very quickly.

Unfortunately by 1923 a lot of things had begun to change in the transport industry. A lot more motor vehicles were on the road. In particular trucks, a lot more trucks were available, second hand left over from the First World War. There was a lot of unemployed soldiers came back that readily got into getting a truck sorted out and got themselves into the carrying business. The orchardists were starting to do one stop travelling with the transporting of their fruit. The fruit was loaded onto the truck in the orchard and taken direct into the markets in Sydney. This was found more convenient than taking it to the train at Castle Hill or Baulkham Hills. Never the less we saw an extension of the railway through to Rogan’s Hill at the request of certain growers. The station at Castle Hill was in the Arthur Whitling Park. There was a goods yard there which was basically a loop and a stub line there. Of course the railway station at Rogan’s Hill was down behind the retirement village that is there at Rogan’s Hill now. It also had a good’s yard there.

We also saw coming into road transport more buses. People could start up a bus run themselves just with the approval of the local council. They just rocked on up with an application and a petition signed by a few hundred people. The council probably approved it and said “yes you can run your bus from A to B”. These invariably ran from Castle Hill to Parramatta principally in between the times that the train didn’t run. So this was good for the travelling public because the fares were very similar in fact they were even cheaper. This left the poor old railway bereft of passengers which was most unfortunate. So we see a decline happening for the railway both with passengers and with goods traffic principally fruit. There are also changes in the fruit industry. Oranges in particular were starting to be grown in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. They were growing navels down there we were still growing Valencia’s up here and the trend was towards navel fruit. So we see in the late 1920’s a lot of orchards pulling out their citrus and moving towards either poultry farms or soft fruits.

Bus outside Kellyville Post Office on corner of Acres & Windsor Roads Kellyville 1930s

The bus industry was of course unregulated. We see that the buses would run in front of the train to start with from Parramatta or Castle Hill. Pick up all the passengers en route and the train was left with nothing to pick up on. We see enormous losses accruing for the railways, during those years. In 1929 we saw the onset of the Great Depression, which was another blow. By 1931 the losses were so extensive on the railway, even though by that time there had been regulations brought into play regarding buses and truck transport. The losses were such that they decided to close the line. That was done on the last day of January 1932.

Fortunately we still have a steam tram left out of the massive fleet that was once in Sydney. We have a steam tram motor and a trailer car that still operates today at the Valley Heights Locomotive Depot. We’ve got steam tram motor 103A and car number 93B. The interesting thing with car 93b we have on record that it was at Castle Hill for probably about three or four years. There is a strong possibility that it was on the last tram that went from Castle Hill to Parramatta before the line was curtailed to the Woollen Mills. That makes it particularly interesting for people in the Hills district I think.

As a society, the Steam Tram and Railway Preservation Society, we operated in Parramatta Park from 1954 until our museum was destroyed by fire in June of 1993. We found ourselves not completely being welcomed to set up in Parramatta Park again. So we had a look around for another home. Which we did ranging from points as far north as Toronto and Yass in the south and finally we were invited to move into the rail depot at Valley Heights by the Rail Transport Museum. We have a small section of line up there where we operate. We give a reasonable portrayal of steam trams as they were in Sydney and indeed the Hills District from the early nineteen hundreds.