3701 - The Loco That Never Was

The steam locomotive that never made it onto the rails in NSW is now steaming and running at Tamworth Miniature Railway, nearly a century after engineers first dreamed up the possibilities of a high-power passenger loco.

‘Ken’ the 37 class steam loco has been a labour of love for Tamworth and District Model Engineers (TDME) Deputy President, Les Thomas, in fact the third person to have attempted to complete building it, and now the first one to see it haul passengers around Tamworth Miniature Railway.

It took more than three years to totally rebuild the 7.25 inch gauge loco, 35 years since its boiler was first pressure tested in 1986, and many years after its original owner started the build. 3701 hauled its first passengers in Tamworth on 18th April 2021.

See here for pictures and here for a video of TDME’s 3701

Affectionately known and painted up as ‘3701 Ken’, the loco is named after Ken Baxter who purchased it in Sydney as a partially built project, but Ken became unwell and 3701 sat in a shed for many years. Ironically, another of Ken’s locomotive projects, known as ‘Kay’ did become a reality but also sat in the shed for 20 years before she was lent to TDME by the Randall family of Manilla and was refurbished by Les Thomas three years earlier. Kay has steamed the tracks in Tamworth as the first steamer fully operated by TDME.

Ken is now the first steamer fully owned by TDME, but Les Thomas will tell you it was a much larger project, requiring a full rebuild, creating a water and coal tender, and solving some of the issues with the valve and timing gear, heavier grade suspension to guarantee a longer life with less maintenance issues and making the firebox run more efficiently. There were no formal plans to follow, just photos of the more famous 38 class which did make it onto the rails and his knowledge from the previous refurbishment.

The planned 37 class was aimed at creating a higher power steam locomotive, avoiding the use of double heading (two locos) on faster intrastate passenger trains. It met greater public demand to travel by train and to get there quicker. With 6 coupled driving wheels, engineers also added a pair of trailing wheels to allow for a larger (both wide and deep) firebox, not hemmed in by the limited distance between the driving wheels. With four leading wheels on a truck to provide greater stability at speed, these 4-6-2 (under the Whyte notation for wheel configuration) locos became known as the ‘Pacific’ type as they were first utilised in New Zealand and in Australia, and then in the US.

NSW Government Railways released the 35 class (4-6-0) in 1914 and then the 36 class (4-6-0) in 1925, but the Great Depression and the onset of World War Two held up the 37 class and they never went into production. The now famous 38 class hit the rails instead in January 1943 (with 30 built until November 1949) and they soon came to take over the major express train routes. It was the last passenger steam locomotive built for NSW tracks, with diesel-electric engines taking over through the 1950’s. The last freight steam loco was built in NSW in 1952 and the last service ran some 20 years later although many are preserved by transport heritage groups across the state.

A Pacific type loco, the Mallard, holds the world steam traction speed record of 126 miles per hour (203km/hr) since 3rd July 1938, north of London. She now sits in the National Railway Museum in York. Some NSW enginemen claimed the 36 was a faster engine than the 38, but we will never know what the 37 class could have achieved.

Despite this, enthusiasts and all the kids who love steam (whatever age), can see 3701 run at Tamworth Miniature Railway every public running day - the third Sunday of every month. The track is in the rapidly growing Botanic Gardens Precinct being developed by Tamworth Regional Council with Tamworth Men’s Shed, the new Astronomy Centre, upgraded car parking and toilets, ensuring the area remains increasingly popular with the public.

TDME are planning another 900metre addition to the existing track, featuring a spiral to overcome the steep grades leading down the hill toward the back of Tamworth TAFE. It’s a long way from the initial single loop of 2007, now with multiple tracks, two tunnels, expanded loco and carriage storage sheds, signal box and workshop, turntable and the Keith Singh Memorial Baily Bridge which boasts the best railway views in the region.

After many years sitting quietly, Ken is now steaming over the grades at Tamworth Miniature Railway, a tribute to what has been called a ‘veritable milestone in locomotive progress’ as a new faster design for passenger transport. TDME members and Les Thomas in particular hope that many passengers gain enjoyment from sitting behind 3701 in Tamworth over the years to come.

Story: Jim Booth, 2021.

Pics: Les Thomas and Jim Booth.