Streamliner CL17 is a locomotive with an interesting story, which is why it now resides in the ownership and protection of Streamliners Australia. But why is it so important?
Our story begins over fifty years ago – it is the late 1960s and the federally-owned Commonwealth Railways (CR) are running trains out into the desert and wilderness to the north and west of Port Augusta. They were in need of more and more locomotive power to move increasing tonnages of freight and coal. CR management was correct in perceiving that the prevailing, albeit 12 year old Clyde/EMD GM12 class design – while certainly robust and reliable – was becoming outdated, even though the last examples were still being delivered. Into the picture came the 3,000hp L class locomotives that Clyde was then building for the Western Australian Government Railways. The L class locomotives were an adaption of the US SD40 model – a longer frame and lower car-body – and while the CR were keenly looking at the capabilities of this design, they also had a list of their own unique requirements, among them a full-width pressurised car-body. In short CR desired an L class in a GM12 body, and working with Clyde, that’s essentially what they got.
Essentially combining the classic streamlined Clyde cab – itself based on the iconic US F series style – with an angled, straight-sided roof, the result was quite unusual. Internally the design was based on the L Class, with equipment adjusted to suit the new body style. They were called the CL class. Over the course of three separate orders, 17 CL class locomotives were built by Clyde Engineering’s Granville (NSW) plant, the first entering service on 9 February 1970.
The final member of the class – and so the last streamliner built anywhere in the world, constructed seven years after the last US example was delivered to Union Pacific – entered service on 16 June 1972. Four months later on 6 October, the locomotive was named after then Australian Prime Minister, William McMahon. The occasion was the official opening of the new standard-gauge branch line from Port Augusta to Whyalla.
The CL class would turn out to be the final locomotives delivered to the CR. Going into the Federal Election in 1972, the Gough Whitlam-led Labor party stated its intent to federalise Australia’s various (mostly state) government owned railways. From 1 July 1975, the CR amalgamated with the South Australian Railways and Tasmanian Government Railways – the only other organisations to take up the offer. The result was the Australian National Railways (ANR), later shortened to Australian National (AN). During 1976 ANR took delivery of locomotives ordered before the amalgamation, the eight-member AL class. These were essentially copies of the CL class, but in a dual-box cab design that highlighted the increasing move to functional, rather than aesthetic considerations. For the next two decades, ANR/AN would routinely expand its roster with modest orders for new power, but still the 17 CLs remained an important asset. In fact, their sphere of operation was increasing. The class were already as far east as Broken Hill following the amalgamation, but in 1980 the new Tarcoola – Alice Springs line saw them running into the Northern Territory, while the standardisation of the former Crystal Brook – Adelaide route in 1982 saw them working into the state capital for the first time.
For the next ten years, little changed for the CL class, other than most of them swapping their weather CR maroon and silver for AN green and yellow. Before getting a repaint, our CL17 became a TV star in the late 1980s when it was featured in a BP fuel commercial shot near Coober Pedy.
Shown storming across the desert with a phalanx of trucks on either side and a Boeing 747 flying overhead, it was one of the more stirring sights to be seen on Australian TV at that time. Eventually CL17 did receive a green and yellow repaint by mid-1989, but by then AN’s haulage task was beginning to change. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, AN had become an organisation of extreme consolidation and pioneering innovation – for while it closed and pulled up uneconomical branch lines it pursued new practices and technologies in its drive to increase efficiency.
One of those unusual turns was a decision in 1992 to sell the complete AL and CL class fleets to Morrison Knudsen Australia (MKA) with the intent that MKA would completely strip and remanufacture the 25 locomotives and then lease them back to AN. The CL class disappeared into MKA’s Whyalla factory and began to emerge in mid-1993. The first seven came out as the CLF (‘F’ for Freight) class, but the final ten were rebuilt as the CLP class. On top of the upgrades made from the CL to CLF, the CLPs were given higher gearing, a larger fuel capacity and head-end power (HEP) generator units. The latter were an indicator of the planned deployment of the CLPs, for the HEP units were intended to provide power to the passenger carriages of the Indian Pacific, The Ghan and The Overland – interstate passenger trains that AN was at that time taking over sole operational accountability for. The ten CLPs thus became dedicated power for these famous passenger trains.
And so on 2 February 1993, CL17 was handed over to MKA for rebuild. Nine months later on 29 October 1993 it was accepted back for service as CLP10 and was named Mirning for a tribe of indigenous peoples whose traditional lands stretch from the Great Australian Bight north into the Nullarbor Plain, straddling the border between Western and South Australia. This was an area CLP10 and its nine sister units would routinely pass through running between Sydney, Adelaide and Perth on the Indian Pacific. And yet this bright new future was to prove short. The formation of the National Rail Corporation (NRC) in 1994 resulted in all standard gauge interstate freight traffic being ceded from the other Government owned systems to NRC, and for AN this meant it lost its core and majority business and thus it set off on a one-way journey into privatisation.