History slowly eroded at Benalla’s lost rail yards: Alan and Graham tell their story
“It was a pretty magic sight going down at night, seeing all the engines lit up, ready to go out.”
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Ten-year-old Graham Pickering was in awe of Benalla station and the rail yards, where his dad worked.
Now retired and still living in the Rose City, Graham’s eyes light up as he reminisces about the place he would end up spending the majority of his working life.
For decades, Benalla was known as a railway town. Before the north-east line came through, it wasn’t much more than a settlement.
With the railway came employment, goods and visitors. It created an economy that relied on the hard work of hundreds of local people.
Graham was one of those, as was Benalla’s Alan Riley. Both still reside in town.
When they talk about the rail yards, it takes them back to a job they loved and the friendships they forged. Many of which continue to this day.
Looking at the area surrounding the station in 2023, it’s difficult to comprehend how busy it once was.
It was dirty. It was loud. It was dangerous. To Graham and Alan, it was heaven.
Most of it’s now gone. Part of the old turntable remains. One signal box is gone, another is earmarked for demolition. Some old sheds are still in use by local groups.
But essentially, it’s a wasteland.
Even the station is a shadow of its former glory. Its historic tea rooms and tower were demolished under false pretence in the 1970s and replaced with a car park.
When discussing the topic of the removal of Benalla’s remaining signal box, built in 1888, their sadness and disappointment is clear.
“My father worked on the railways for 49 years, and I was a bit lost after leaving school, so he got me a job,” Graham said.
“I worked with some really great characters in those days. A lot had come out from Europe after the war.
“They used to try and fix me up by giving me food with lots of chillies on it.”
Graham laughs as he reminisces. He jumps from story to story. Each one leads to another. It seems it was always great times working on the rail yards in Benalla.
Graham, who worked his way through the ranks, ultimately becoming a signalman, said people might not realise that around 200 locals were working there at one point.
“It was huge,” he said.
“I remember seeing the signal boxes when I went down there to visit Dad when I was about 10. You could see the signalmen’s faces through the windows.
“Then you’d see all the steam engines. It was a pretty magic sight going down at night, seeing all the engines lit up, ready to go out.
“You’d walk past the coal stage and see the size of the shovels the men were using.
“When you’re that age, it was a pretty amazing place to see.”
Alan Riley worked with Graham, starting on the railway in 1973. He never envisioned a time when the yard would fall silent.
He started in the depot until it was closed, was transferred to be a shunter, and ultimately ended up in the signal boxes.
“I got in the signal boxes in 1985,” he said.
“The training was full on.
“You had to learn the points, the crossovers, locking bars, then all the levers.”
Each lever was physically connected to points around the yard and line.
“And some were very heavy,” Alan said.
“Pulling the points at Arundel St, it was one wire, but it was a long wire.
“It took some effort.
“And we had to keep the levers spotless. You had some emery paper, and you had to have them shiny. If you worked in the signal box, you looked after it.
“We thought we’d be working on the railway in Benalla for the rest of our lives.
“We’d never imagine how they’d tear the yard up, and pull out the building.”
Alan said by the late 1990s, the workforce of more than 200 had been reduced to five.
“And then they decided to close the boxes,” he said.
“I was the last bloke to work in A Box on a Saturday night.
“And that was it. I closed it at 10.30pm. I think it was May 8, 1999.
“I locked the door, walked down the stairs and handed the keys in.”
Alan said it was a sad day, which marked the end of the Benalla rail yards he knew and loved.
“You’d been there for so long and met a lot of people. Good people,” he said.
“Right through the whole yard, they were terrific. No backstabbing in those days. Everyone worked hard. Everyone got on good.
“You had great mateship. On the gangs, we had guys like Charlie Mead and Mick Danson and all these blokes we’d come to know.
“We were a family.”
It was a family Graham Pickering also loved to be a part of.
“The signal box was such a good job,” he said.
“You’d see the world going by.
“A great time of year was Christmas.
“You’d look over to the North Eastern, and all the boys from the yard would be there having some drinks.
“The guys from the Country Roads Board would be having their Christmas drinks too. Everyone blind drunk outside on the footpath.
“No wonder everyone was broke in the ’70s and ’80s. The place would be packed. You couldn’t move in there.
“And it would be the same down at the Vic and over at the Farmers.”
Graham said you could get a bit jealous seeing everyone having a Friday drink.
“Of course, after the shift, you’d go and join them,” he said with a smile.
While those days are long gone, Alan said he’d love to see Benalla A Box saved, but doesn’t hold out much hope.
“I know there’s a report saying it’s dangerous. But A Box is never going to fall down. It’s been there for more than 100 years,” he said.
“And it’s always moved. When the down-trains (heading north) came through Benalla, that signal box would move about a foot, then come back once the train had passed.
“It will be a shame when it’s gone. But it’s what they call progress.
“But is it really? Look at what was there compared to now. If that’s progress, maybe it’s not such a good thing.”
Benalla Station’s tower and tea rooms destroyed
The decision to demolish Benalla Station’s former refreshment rooms and tower, which were constructed in 1889, was an excellent example of how bad planning and short-sighted decision-making can have a negative effect on a town for decades.
In late November 1974, the Benalla Ensign included a short article on page one confirming that demolition of the station had begun.
There had been major community objections, but by this stage all there was to report was that the station would soon be a shadow of its former glory.
The Victorian Railways said the building was too costly to maintain in its present state. The estimated cost of renovation was at least $40,000.
And the Victorian Railways Board wanted it demolished to provide space for a new car park.
By December, the building was gone, the bricks acquired by council for other projects, the cellars back-filled and a shiny new car park in its place.
One of the parties pushing for the station to be saved was R.A. Bourke, managing director of R.A. Burke Proprietary Limited, Master Builders and Contractors.
Mr Burke had inspected the building and sent a letter to the Benalla Tourist Association, which was fighting the demolition.
I am extremely concerned to hear of the proposed demolition of the Benalla Railway Station Refreshment Rooms. During a recent inspection of this portion of the railway station, I was amazed by the soundness of the structure, and was agreeably surprised at the fine craftmanship throughout the building...
But he was ignored and the powers that be, at the time, pushed on with a rhetoric that it was structurally unsound and being destroyed by white ants.
None of which was true.