A short history of the Tea and Sugar carsComrails Logo

A short history of the Tea and Sugar cars

The Tea and Sugar is well known to most people as the train that services the remote employees on Australian Nationals Trans Australia line. It began life very early this century during the construction phase of the Trans Australia Railway (TAR) which links Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie. The original survey party recommended that a line of 1,063 miles in length be built to the then new Australian Standard of 4ft. 8½in., with a ruling grade of 1 in 80, and a minimum curvature of 20 chains radius for a total estimated cost of £4,000,000. The leading cost items were permanent way and water supply. Once construction had began it became apparent that apart from shortages caused by World War I, keeping the workers supplied with materials and food was destined to be one of the biggest organisational headaches for the line builders. Initially an ad-hoc service using a brake van to transport goods was implemented with the exact inauguration of the Tea and Sugar as a regular service being a bit of a mystery. Certainly by 1915 it had been formally recognised with the provision of dedicated vehicles for use as a travelling supply van, butcher shop and a fruit and vegetable van.

Whilst construction was taking place two sets of vehicles were provided, one for the Kalgoorlie construction crews and the other based at Port Augusta. The two pair of supply and butchers vans initially began life in 1913 as "B" class four wheel ballast wagons built under contract by Grey Brothers for use on the construction. Sometime about 1915 the ballast wagon bodies were removed and the underframes fitted with newly constructed bodies. The general stores/supply vans were a simple wooden van body, but the butchers cars were far more interesting. Part of a sheep wagon and a wooden van were combined to create a hybrid vehicle that was used to transport live sheep that were killed enroute when and as required. This arrangement had been forced on the Commonwealth Railways as no suitable method of refrigeration was available to keep killed meat fresh for long periods. All the vehicles once converted were classified as "VS" 4 wheeled enclosed vans, having the road numbers 123, 126, 248 and 426 despite their unusual modifications. The fruit and veg van is a bit of mystery, as very little information on it survives, but I suspect it was just a standard enclosed 4 wheel "VS" van.

Early in 1918 authorization was granted to construct a replacement travelling Butchers shop. The contractors, Fullerton Brothers, had repeatedly complained about the existing accommodation and lack of facilities. Enclosed van V258 and sheep wagon S308 each donated half their respective bodies to the other creating two new hybrid vehicles which were coded SA258 and SA308 at a cost of £142 and £101 each respectively. Despite the original complaints, that had forced the new vehicles to be constructed, the replacement vans facilities were still so spartan that Fullerton Brothers made the following request to the Railway Commissioner on behalf of their employees on 15.11.1919.

"I consider that a stove should be placed in the van on the eastern side. At the present time there are no means by which the butcher, the man in the fruit and vegetable van, and the man in the provision and bread van, can cook their meals on the train. They have to jump out and light a fire, whenever the train stops and boil the billy alongside the line. In some cases the train goes before the billy is boiled. The Commissioner originally approved of a stove being placed in this van; but it was not put in..."

As a result of this submission better facilities and accommodation were provided in 1922 at a cost of £634, with the hirer (Fullerton Bros) being forced to pay the Commonwealth a new rate, set at £1 per week, to use the van.

The two original "VS" stores vans were replaced on 8.11.1920 by purpose built vehicles VP351 and VP352. Whilst the new vans provided improved accommodation, electric light was lacking and was not fitted to the provisions and meat supply vans until 1924. Prior to this lighting had been provided by kerosene lamps.

After the initial vehicle building program, following completion of the line, nothing much happened to the rollingstock used on the Tea and Sugar until 1944 when two new bodies were built for use as mobile Butchers cars. Van FA640 entered service on 20.11.1944, being constructed on a 45' flat wagon that originally had been built in 1916. The other van FA658 entered service on 18.12.1944 and had been built on the underframe of a "G" class open wagon. Apart from new refrigeration units fitted in 1963 both vans remained basically unaltered, apart from minor overhauls, until being written off on 11.9.1982. They were stored at Port Augusta and Stirling North for six years until FA640 was delivered to Port Dock Station Museum on 2.8.1988 and FA658 was tendered for disposal. Unfortunately prior to being obtained by the Museum FA640 was badly vandalised and many fittings stolen. It is currently stored under cover awaiting full restoration.

In 1955 the two existing provision stored vans were replaced by two purposed built brand new all steel framed vehicles. Entering service on 18.10.1955, VPA1339 provided a far superior service and facilities to that of the then existing vans. The other provisions stores van VPA1340 entered service on 14.12.1955 having cost the Commonwealth Railway £28,889 to construct. When the first van entered service it was painted with "PROVISION C.R. STORE" on the side. The Commissioner ordered that the van immediately be withdrawn and the lettering changed so that the "CR" appeared above the words "PROVISION STORE". The other van VPA1340 entered service correctly painted.

Both vans were recoded from "VPA" to "OPA" on 30.11.1984 and officially written off on 3.5.1986 with VPA1340 being transported to Port Dock Station Museum on 2.8.1988. Both vans had become surplus due to Pullman sleeping cars 'Macedon' and 'Mount Lofty' being converted to new provisions store cars VPB74 and VPB328 respectively. The 'Macedon' and 'Mount Lofty' cars had originally been imported from America in 1928 for use as sleeping cars on the Adelaide to Melbourne Express (later named 'The Overland'). 'Macedon' was sold to the Commonwealth by the Victorian Railways and entered service as twinette sleeping car ARC74 for use on the TAR on 21.7.1950. Initially painted chocolate and cream, it was repainted maroon and silver in 1964 and stayed that way until being withdrawn in 1973. 'Mount Lofty' was purchased from the South Australian Railways on 25.8.1964 along with several surplus wooden cars. It was never used by the Commonwealth, instead being stored until earmarked for conversion in 1973. 'Mount Lofty' re-entered service on 1.6.1979 as VPB328, the interior having been completely stripped and fitted with shelves, a staff sleeping compartment and full air conditioning. The exterior was repainted grey and almost all windows sealed over. 'Macedon' was converted similarly and re-entered service on 29.10.1979 as VPB74. Both vehicles were recoded from "VPB" to "OPB" in 1984 and can still be seen in regular service each week on the Tea and Sugar.

Apart from the vehicles I have mentioned above, the Tea and Sugar train regularly used old wooden Trans-Australian passenger cars for the transportation of employees. In later years these vehicles were replaced with several ex SAR steel cars and NSW cars specially obtained for the service.

What is the future of the remaining vehicles? With the reduction in the number of staffed sites on the TAR and a rationalisation of work gangs it is possible that the Retail Stores vans will be removed sometime in the next few years. If, on the other hand, it is decided to retain the service, it is possible that the two "OPB" cars will, in the longer term, be replaced by surplus stainless steel rollingstock.