We’re lucky at RT Health to have a community of members who can fondly recall the formative years of the railways – the busy days of the steam era and the ongoing development of the modern era.
Proud career railwayman Carl Ellefsen is just one example of the thousands of hardworking Aussies who’ve spent their working days in service to the railways.
We spent some time with Carl and his wife, Alma, recently. Now both in their late eighties, they’ve been with RT Health for 70 years!
Carl recounted some great stories from his 42-year career, starting from the romantic era of steam engines right through to the complexity of managing a busy stores complex in the 1990s.
Married in 1959, the couple is now retired and lives at Shell Cove on the idyllic NSW South Coast (after more than 40 years in Padstow). We loved spending some time with them to hear about their memories of their life as a railway family over four decades.
The era of steam. A career is born.
Carl started on the railways as an apprentice in 1952. It was the era of steam. He recalls in detail his work on steam engines and steam engine maintenance – and the training provided by the Railway Institute.
A five-month break for National Service in 1955 meant that Carl’s apprenticeship went a little beyond the usual five-year indenture period.
Carl became a fully qualified fitter in 1957 and was set to work on two-and-four-car self-propelled rail cars manufactured at Rolling Stock Workshop.
“That was a highlight at the time because it was all new work and overhaul, and modifications and development,” says Carl.
And this was just one was just one of many career highpoints that took Carl across Sydney’s rail infrastructure.
“In 1961, I had the pleasure of being the construction fitter on the first 620 railway set that went to Newcastle. I was fortunate enough to deliver it from the workshop to Newcastle. And after that I had a stint of relief time in the planning office and we continued to manufacture the 18 sets altogether,” Carl recalls.
Much of Carl’s later career was invested in material supply – making sure stock and equipment was kept up to the busy rail network.
After 23 years at Rolling Stock, Carl relocated to Clyde, where an opportunity presented itself in a new workshop dedicated to maintaining freight wagons. He liked the work so much he stayed until 1985.
Opportunity again called when Carl went on to take up a supply officer role at the General Manager’s Office in Redfern. He relished the responsibility of his new role.
“Each workshop had to confer with me, so we ordered enough wheels and axles to maintain the system, what they were using in every quarter. And it was a very big bill. Sometimes in the early stages, it was around $25 million a year,” he says.
Inevitably the workshops closed, and Carl transitioned into reclamation work in the Storage Branch, identifying equipment and materials either unused or no longer suitable for use.
It wasn’t long before a job came up as the manager of the City Rail Stores, a role Carl proudly took on for three years before retiring in 1993.
Carl was at the helm of stores for four branches – Elcar, Mortdale, Flemington and Hornsby – with the responsibility of $33 million of stock to look after: thousands of items, from small components through to rail engines and motors.
“There were thousands of items, some probably as big as your thumbnail while others you couldn’t lift unless you had a forklift. So that wasn’t light work to start, but it had to be done,” says Carl. “You might get a semi-trailer load of toilet paper one day and tomorrow you’d get an engine or a motor from one of the suppliers. It was a big program.”
Fond memories. The Railway Institute.
One of the things Carl recalls most fondly is his years of training at the Railway Institute.
The Railway Institute was established in 1891 to provide for the education and welfare of railway workers in NSW.
Carl has great memories of five (and a bit!) years of learning and mateship at the Institute.
But it wasn’t all work. He also remembers the comradeship and social events to sustain the rail workers.
“We could get library books. And then they had pool tables, table tennis, so there was sport available. So you’d go into tech, do your class and come out and have a half-hour of table tennis. And then you went back to the workshop, and at lunchtime they had table tennis and shuttlecock competitions in the workshop.”
Carl also remembers monthly concerts presented by the workshop committees. He’d keenly pay his threepence a week to be involved. (This was the membership dues for the Railway Institute.)
“They used to have a big auditorium and an eating area, and the canteen used to serve you lunch. They had hot lunch service as well,” says Carl.
“That was tops to get a meal, because the workshops were in places you couldn’t walk out the front gate and get a sandwich … A lot of the food was homemade by the cooks at the railway refreshment rooms at Central, down under Central Station. They used to cook all the meals and send them out to the workshop canteens. So, they all made homemade pies and slices. So, you got a pretty good deal.” But it wasn’t always fun and games. There was a lot of hard work. Carl’s confident that apprentices of those days came to greatly value the training they received.
“It was good training. And all the apprentices, I don’t think any of them regretted training in the Institute because it was top class.”
The rail life
Carl knows he was fortunate to be able to live a settled family life alongside his family, while also progressing his railway career.
After marrying Alma in 1959, the couple moved to Padstow, where they lived for almost 41 years.
He says it was a lot harder for some families – with rail workers who were often away for extended periods and travelled large distances away from their wives and children.
“You had to move in the system to get grades. It was quite a lot; people used to come home on a Friday night with their washing and ironing and then Monday morning, they’d be on a train to travel to somewhere in the state where they’d be for the week, then back home on the train. Yeah, a lot of men had families where mum had to mind the kids while dad went to work,” he recalls.
“A driver, fireman and guard could be away for two or three days, and then there were other specialised people who had to go around the state and supervise and see what was going on. That was the hardest part, I think, for a lot of the railwaymen and their families to get. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do that and I got all my grades in Sydney.”
Carl says he has a lot of respect for the teams who worked hard every day and sacrificed time with their families to keep the trains on the tracks.
“The driver and the fireman's life was very hard in those days. And the guard. It was always a three-men group, but they got to know one another so they often shared meals and stuff when they got to the barracks. So, they stayed in the barracks overnight if it was too far and they couldn’t get a shift back,” he says.
With some humour and a sharp wit, Alma recalls just how dirty the work could be, especially in the earlier days. She had the unenviable task of washing Carl’s work gear.
“Carl always used to come home with this stuff on his gear. I thought they’d stand up on their own, they left so much gunk and stuff,” she says.
Alma recalls the process of soaking the clothes for hours in hot water in a kerosene drum before even being able to handle them.
And Carl adds: “The guys took it in their stride. They were black on Monday morning, they were still black Friday afternoon when they finished; so it didn’t matter, they got used to it. That was the hard part, because in the steam depots it was dirty as you had grease and oil and coal mixed, and the steam engine blew out ash too, and that used to get into the oil and stuff on the foot pavement.”
Proud Sydneysiders, Carl and Alma once declined an offer to move to Newcastle when their kids were young. They didn’t want to leave what they’d established together in Padstow.
Proud RT Health members
Carl joined RT Health way back in 1952 (more than 70 years ago). Back in those days, agents for RT Health were stationed in the workshops to encourage the rail workers to become members. That’s how Carl was introduced to the organisation that’s helped look after his family’s health for seven decades.
Reflecting on private health insurance, Carol and Alma are both grateful they’ve been able to protect their wellbeing with private cover.
“We really wouldn’t be without our private health cover. Especially later in life we’ve used our RT cover many times, so it’s been great for us,” said Carl.