Getting steamed up over rail history

Tour guide and conductor Michael Feldman with the Purrey Steam Tram at Archer Park Rail Museum.

By Matthew Pearce

Michael Feldman is too young to have experienced the era of steam engines – but his eyes light up when he talks of the golden days of rail.

Michael started volunteering at Rockhampton’s Archer Park Rail Museum in January 2015 and has been a fixture there ever since.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the olden days of railway and wanted to follow my dreams of learning everything there is to know about rail,” he said.

“I was still in high school when I started here so I had to wait a while before I could work my way up the ladder a bit.”

These days, he’s a qualified tour guide and conductor. Next step is becoming a qualified driver for the station’s famous Purrey Steam Tram.

The restored Rockhampton tram dates back to the early 1990s and was among nine trams and six trailers dumped in the bush after they finished service, having carried nearly 40 million passengers between them.

Driving the tram is a dream come true for Michael, who’s been hooked on steam trains since getting his first train set.

“Our steam tram is the only working one of its type in the whole world and it’s a real thrill to be able to learn how to drive it, it’s a wonderful machine,” he said.

“My mother used to read Thomas the Tank Engine books to me before I was born and my grandparents would take me to all the railways and museums.

“I’ve always loved the smell of steam, when it gets in you it doesn’t leave you and I reckon I’ve got it in my blood.”

Archer Park coordinator Janice Seymour said the rail museum was in dire need of new volunteers like Michael.

“We lost $16,000 during Covid lockdowns last year, although we were were lucky to get JobKeeper and tax relief which is what kept us going. Covid also contributed to the downturn in volunteers, as some just didn’t come back when we reopened,” she said.

“We previously had around 1000 volunteer hours a month. We were lucky that we had a 10-person Work for the Dole program, which has since been ceased by the government.

“So now we’re operating at only 700 hours and those missing 300 hours a month mean the people that are here have to work twice or three times as hard.”

Janice said sharing the burden would give the volunteers more time to enjoy the social side of things.

“When they come to Archer Park, its not just hard work, it’s a social experience, they’re making new friends,” she said.

“Hopefully our volunteers go home feeling they’ve done something positive not just for themselves but for the community at this very important heritage site in Rockhampton.”

Built in 1899, Archer Park was Rockhampton’s main railway station until the 1970s and remained a Queensland Rail facility until it was donated to the Rockhampton City Council in the 1990s.

The council operated the facility as a museum until 2014 when they approached the Friends of Archer Park volunteer group to take over its operation.

“That was a big decision for the mature people in the Friends group to take on the contract and run the facility,” Janice said.

“A lot of people don’t know that we aren’t just a museum, we’re an operational train station – everything that the Rockhampton Railway Station has to do, we have to do for our compliance and safety.

“We’re required by the Office of the Rail Safety Regular to have set positions including a safety officer, track supervisor and rolling stock supervisor, as well as a passenger supervisor and a platform supervisor.”

Archer Park is looking for volunteers to take on a range of jobs, including Purrey Steam Tram driver and conductor, tour guide, exhibit restoration, office work, manning the ticket office, working in the kitchen, cleaning and yard work.

“Reading through some of the historic documents here is so exciting,” Janice said.

“One of our volunteers spent 12 months here with a laptop collating all of our paperwork, we had boxes and boxes of it. We’re starting a process where we’re going to design and build an exhibit in the camp wagon that will hold many of our artifacts and the paperwork collection – which will most likely be copies to keep the original documents safe from the elements.

“We’d love people to help take care of our library, as well as our Facebook and Instragam and all those modern things that the young people are good at.

“We also really need people for garden work as at the moment we only have one main person who does the mowing and our vice-president John Kennedy is often out there himself with the whipper snipper and poisoning weeds.”

Janice said volunteers could choose the activity they were most interested in as well as their own hours.

“When you’re a volunteer you’re choosing to be here and support your community, so it’s up to you when and how you work, barring things like the availability of computers on certain days.”

Michael said the best part of being a volunteer was keeping history alive and sharing his knowledge with younger generations.

“When see young children enjoy themselves, that’s what makes me makes the job worthwhile because you think ‘that was me once’,” he said.

“Without people like me and Janice and all the other volunteers the museum wouldn’t be here and young children would miss out because there’s not a lot places where you can see steam in action.”

Nearly 6000 people pass through Archer Park Rail Museum every year, with the tram operational every Sunday from February until the end of November, as well as on Wednesdays during the school holidays.

If you’d like to volunteer, call 4922 2774, email archerpark@bigpond.com or drop into the museum at 87 Denision St, Rockhampton.