Victorian Railways J class
J515 on the Victorian Goldfields Railway
in January 2007
The Victorian Railways J class was a branch line steam locomotive operated by the Victorian Railways (VR) between 1954 and 1972. A development of the successful Victorian Railways K class 2-8-0, it was the last new class of steam locomotive introduced on the VR. Introduced almost concurrently with the diesel-electric locomotives that ultimately superseded them, these locomotives were only in service for a relatively short time.
During the early 1950s, Victorian Railways embarked on a massive upgrading of its ageing locomotive fleet as part of 'Operation Phoenix', an £80 million program to rebuild a network badly run down by years of Depression-era underinvestment and wartime overutilisation.
Victoria's branch line railway network, laid with 60 lb/yd (29.8 kg/m) rail and featuring gradients of up to 1 in 30 (3.33%), was still largely served by the D1, D2 and D3 variants of the once 261-strong 1902-era Dd class 4-6-0, which by the early 1950s was at the end of its life. These were supplemented by 53 K class locomotives, some of which had been built as recently as 1946. Although highly successful, the K was unsuitable for potential conversion from 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) to 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge in the event of the Victorian network being standardised, and VR policy was for all new locomotives to be engineered for easy conversion. As such, the building of further K class was not a desirable option.
With mainline electric and diesel-electric locomotives already on order, Victorian Railways' design team opted for an updated, gauge-convertible K class as what would turn out to be their final steam locomotive design.
The key problem with the K class design was the placement of the firebox between the locomotive's frames and rear driving wheels, making conversion to a narrower gauge impossible without radical redesign of the firebox. A previous attempt to develop a gauge convertible K class, the N class, utilised a 2-8-2 wheel arrangement and positioned the firebox above the frames and behind the driving wheels. However, the extra length of these locomotives (they were a total 67 ft or 20.42 m long) made them unsuitable for a number of branch lines where only a 50-or-53-foot (15.24 or 16.15 m) turntable was available.
The J class adopted an alternative approach to the problem by utilising a high-set boiler (with the boiler centre 9 ft 2 1⁄2 in (2.807 m) above rail level, compared with 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m) for the K class) setting the firebox above the frames and driving wheels, and retaining the K class' short wheelbase.
The J class also featured a number of other design advances over the K class. It had a larger grate, enabling grate sections to be compatible with those of the N class and permitting an increase in firebox volume sufficient to allow two arch tubes to be installed. Another innovation was the use of a regulator valve incorporating a centrifugal steam separator (to draw away any water and thus provide the driest steam), rather than the simpler (though extremely reliable) D regulator valve used in the K class. The J class also featured substantially redesigned cylinder porting to improve steam flow and efficiency. The innovative SCOA-P type driving wheel centre developed for the Victorian Railways R class was adapted for the 55 in (1,397 mm) diameter J class drivers.
A total of fifty J class locomotives were initially ordered from the Vulcan Foundry in Lancashire, England. However, VR reassessed its motive power requirements and opted to sell ten of its brand-new, second generation N class locomotives to the South Australian Railways, and increased the J class order to sixty locomotives. At the time of order, the per-unit cost of the locomotives was £36,000 ($72,000) each.
With fluctuating oil prices and an unreliable supply of coal in the early 1950s, the VR appeared to take something of a bet either way, ordering thirty of the class as coal burners and thirty as oil burners.
By the time the contract for the J class had been awarded, the VR had already begun to receive deliveries of the B class mainline diesel-electric locomotives with VR unsuccessfully attempting to cancel the J class contract in favour of an order for branch line diesel locomotives.
The J class was introduced for both passenger and goods traffic on Victoria's branch line network, with a maximum permissible speed of 45 mph (72 km/h), later raised to 50 mph (80 km/h). Dynamometer car tests showed the locomotive developed 930 hp (694 kW) at the drawbar at around 20-25 mph (32–40 km/h), which suited the relatively low speed limits of much of the Victorian branch line network.
Coal-fired J class locomotives were the regular engine on the 09:00 Melbourne to Yarram passenger service, with other duties being from Lilydale to Warburton and local services from Spencer Street to Werribee. The oil-fired J was also pressed into service hauling the final leg of The Gippslander express from Sale to Bairnsdale. In their later years J class locomotives also ran the Horsham to Dimboola leg of the morning service from Melbourne, among the last regular steam-hauled passenger trains in Victoria.
Although the J class produced the same nominal tractive effort as the K or N class, they had a slightly higher adhesive weight (and as such a better factor of adhesion) and were permitted to haul heavier loads on gradients. They could be found in goods service on branch lines across the state, but were also found on mainlines running roadside goods services.
However, within a year of the J's introduction, the T class diesel electric locomotive was also introduced. Although VR did not publicly indicate the T was intended to replace the J class, it proved to be such a successful design that further orders of this locomotive class were made during the late 1950s and 1960s, gradually displacing the J class from many of its normal duties.
Together with the K and N classes, the J class had its boiler pressure raised in the early 1960s from 175 to 180 psi (1,207 to 1,241 kPa), which raised their nominal tractive effort to 29,500 lbf (131 kN).
Locomotive J 546 was selected for installation of a Laidlaw Drew oil firing system in place of the convention weir-type burner following recommendations from the 1957 Australian and New Zealand Railway Conference. However, the locomotive was found to steam poorly under load using the system and was converted back to weir burner operation, with no further locomotives converted.
By the late 1960s the J class was largely relegated to shunting at various country yards, with many losing their cowcatchers and gaining shunter's steps on the tender sides. The introduction of the Y class diesel electrics saw the J class superseded in this role, and in November 1967, J523 became the first J class to be scrapped. Scrappings continued until June 1978, with J538 the last to go. J550 holds the distinction of being the very last steam of locomotive in normal revenue service on Victorian Railways, being rostered on the 06:00 Bendigo pilot on 25 May 1972.
The J class lasted as a complete class later than any other VR steam locomotive. By the time that scrapping commenced, interest in railway preservation was sufficient for eleven examples to be preserved.
- J549: Owned and operated by the Victorian Goldfields Railway, the locomotive was out of service between March 2004 and October 2013, undergoing a major overhaul. Underwent load trials along the Maldon branchline on 21 October 2013. Its first public outing was on 26 October 2013. The official re-launch of the engine was held on 27 January 2014.
- J515: Owned by Seymour Railway Heritage Centre, lonaed to Victorian Goldfields Railway in December 2006, returned to service April 2012 after two years out of traffic due to boiler repairs, returned to Seymour Railway Heritage Centre in January 2015 for a overhaul.
- J541: Transferred to Newport Workshops April 2012 after its lease to Victorian Goldfields Railway ended. Whilst at Newport Workshops repairs and maintenance will be carried out by Steamrail Victoria prior to transfer to its new home at Yarra Valley Tourist Railway. Owned by a private syndicate, which includes Yarra Valley Railway members as well as the railway itself.
- J507 is plinthed at Mulwala, New South Wales.
- J512 is owned by Seymour Railway Heritage Centre and is pending restoration. As part of the restoration, it has converted from broad to standard gauge. As of March 2010, the engine frames have been converted.
- J516 is owned by the Yarra Valley Tourist Railway and in June 2009 was being stripped down for a restoration assessment.
- J524 is plinthed at Donald.
- J536 was until 1998 plinthed at Colac station. It was acquired by West Coast Railway for restoration in 1997 and taken to Ballarat East. Following the demise of WCR, the loco was sold to heritage group 707 Operations for eventual restoration to operating service and moved to Newport Workshops.
- J539 is plinthed at Dimboola
- J550 is on public display at Noojee ahead of a planned restoration to working order, was plinthed at Warragul until 24 March 2013.
- J556 (wearing the historically significant plates of scrapped J559, the last steam locomotive to enter service on the VR) is preserved at the Australian Railway Historical Society Museum.
Trainbuilder has released a ready-to-run brass model of the series, featuring numbers J500, 502, 508, 510, 518, 520, 523 as coal burners, and 531, 535, 538, 541, 544, 552, 555 and 558 as oil burners.
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Media related to Victorian Railways J class steam locomotives at Wikimedia Commons