A roll-call of western-line train stations comes over the station announcement: Lidcombe, Auburn, Clyde, Granville. The pace of the list is familiar, with one-syllable Clyde a pause between the longer names before and after it. I’ve been through Clyde station many a time but don’t know that I’ve ever actually alighted there. I’ve had little reason to visit this small industrial suburb between Granville and Auburn, its boundaries the Duck River to one side, and the railway line to Carlingford on the other.
It is this Carlingford railway line that I have come to make a journey on, before it closes on January 5h. It’s Sydney’s least-used line, running on a single track for most of the way, north through the industrial and then suburban landscape. I know it best from the level crossing that brings Parramatta Road to a stop every half hour, as the alarms sound out, the gates come down, and the traffic waits for the train to go by.
No one lives in Clyde. It is entirely made up of factories and warehouses, its streets lined with granite and marble businesses, smash repairers, and mechanics. Turn out onto Parramatta Road and there’s a large factory with a long, grey wall that up until recently was a Mitsubishi distribution centre, but now is an auction house. I’d often noticed this long grey factory wall, devoid of doorways or windows, and in front of it, an expanse of lawn. It looked as if it was waiting for something. Well, something arrived.
I had never considered the scenario of watching the Parramatta Road traffic go by from the cockpit of a plane. The aircraft is marooned in the middle of the lawn, its engines stripped out and windows blocked off by real-estate signs. I climb inside it. The seats are gone from the cockpit but the control panel is still mostly intact, and I flick some of the switches as I watch the traffic, peering out through the grimy window. Behind me is a brown vinyl folding screen with a filigree pattern, the kind that I can better imagine in a 1970s rumpus room, but here separates the cockpit from the cabin.
To return to the station I pass the bottle recycling centre with its sour stink, and then turn to follow the river along a pathway underneath the casuarina trees. Their Gadigal name is guman, these trees with rough bark and thin, dark green-grey foliage. Underfoot there is a thick, dry mat of their fallen leaves. This area around the waterways had been a forest – and, being a meeting point of rivers, a meeting place for the Dharug clans of the west and east – before the colonists cut down its ironbarks, floating the logs down the creek and then the Parramatta river and into the harbour.
It’s a different kind of forest now, strewn with trash and abandoned tyres in between the trees. It hasn’t rained for many months; there’s a dry, cracking feeling to everything as I walk through, in between the mangroves and the trash heaps. On the other side of the trees is an industrial estate, with piles of wooden pallets and empty parking lots. A man steps off from a forklift and comes up to me with a curious expression, wondering what someone like me, wearing pink heart-shaped sunglasses and a patchwork dress that looks like something Holly Hobbie might have worn, is doing in this grim industrial scene. I say I’m looking for the station, and he points me in the direction of the gate, at the end of a long, shade-less concrete driveway.
The train is waiting at the platform, the departure time ticking down on the indicator board. When it sets out, the track veers off from the main line, following the path of the creek up to Parramatta Road. Here it glides through the level crossing, the scene I previously knew only from the other side, from being in a car behind the gate. To the side of the tracks is the signal box, a hut by the side of the tracks (see Lyndal Irons’ fantastic On Parramatta Road project for a look inside the signal box, and interview with the signal operator).
The train passes under motorway overpasses and the horse-racing track, and the branch line that used to extend to another railway line for the factories that lined the Parramatta River. The stations were named for the factories: Hardies, Goodyear, Cream of Tartar Works and Sandown, and this area of land is still poisoned from these industries, which also included an oil refinery, paint factory, and meatworks. Asbestos was used as landfill at Hardies, and at other factory sites heavy metals have leached into the soil. It is thought to be a promising area for future development.
Soon the scene changes to a row of 1950s houses, fibro and weatherboard with red-tile roofs. The land is steeper, dropping down into a valley beside the train line. To one side the view down below is a suburban patchwork of houses and streets and stretches of bushland. On the other, is a wide stretch of parched, yellow grass, striped with the lines from a lawnmower. Under one tree is a bright orange plastic chair, and I wonder who might sometimes sit there to watch the trains go by.
The track curves around and I can see Carlingford up ahead, the tall apartment buildings around the railway station. When the train stops a few passengers alight: some residents and a few trainspotters, who take photos with the indicator board – still the old, wooden kind, with the stations on wooden pins that can be flipped like abacus beads – and talk to the station attendant. The driver gets out from the cabin and walks down to the other end of the train, to set up for the return journey. A few metres on from the platform is the end of the line, two horizontal beams of wood, marking the end of the tracks.
The railway was first built to Carlingford in 1896 as a private line, then planned to extend to the fruit farms of Dural, although this extension never came to be. The line was bought by the government and has ever-since operated as part of the state rail network. Now in January 2020 it will be closed, to be replaced by light rail. It already feels like an experience from the past, stepping out from the short, four-carriage train at the small platform, having taken the journey from Clyde along the single track of railway, taking just twelve minutes in all.
Carlingford is a place I mostly know from drives my family made through it decades ago, when I was a child. I’d look out for certain details, wondering what they were, knowing that any request to stop to inspect them further would be denied. One of these details was the park beside the highway which featured a pond with three large white figures at the centre of it.
K13, I can now tell you, was a submarine, and the park is a memorial to submarine crews and officers who died during the first and second world wars. The white letters are stark against the brown pond underneath. When I approach it I see there are dozens of tadpoles swimming in it, and dragonflies hovering over the surface, with bright blue and bright red bodies. Everything is so hot and dry and still, and the traffic surges so relentlessly on the highway behind me, that it is a relief to watch the darting movements of the creatures around and within the water.
This part of Sydney is Burramattagal country, and in the distance I can see the place that has been named after it: the newly high-rise skyline of Parramatta. Pennant Hills Road runs along the ridge, and from here there is a view across the low, flat plains of the west and south west. I follow the road further up the hill, as trucks shudder by. The houses I am passing are empty, awaiting demolition. It’s difficult to walk here, and no one else is. The only other person I see is a man in a uniform with a device that looks like a microphone, pointed at the road, recording something on a clipboard.
The other place I remember seeing from the car and being curious about was a feature that appeared around Christmastime: the nativity display outside the Mormon temple. This, like K13, intrigued me as an out-of-the-ordinary detail in the otherwise familiar suburban pattern. I keep walking past the two shopping centres and sure enough, soon see the mannequins of camels and the three wise men, set up underneath a tree in the gardens of the temple. They are as I remember them having been when I saw them from the car as a child, and it is strange to be standing beside them now as an adult, like I am visiting a memory in a dream.
Things have changed in Carlingford since I pondered these details in passing, decades ago, the kinds of changes that have occurred across the suburbs – more apartment buildings, a larger shopping centre, the video store becoming a discount chemist – but in many ways it is much the same. The traffic continues, surging along the highway; the streets of houses lead off from it, down into the valley and the quiet, and the respite of the bushland.
As I sit at Carlingford station, waiting for the train back to Clyde and then the city, I can see across to Carlingford Produce, a store that’s been there as long as the railway has, over 100 years. It sells hardware, garden supplies, pet food, and stock feed, from a sprawling warehouse with a rusty corrugated-iron roof. Behind it are new apartment buildings, grey and white and square. As I wait, a rooster starts crowing from inside the warehouse, although it is mid-afternoon. It calls out once, then again. A moment later, the train appears, pulling in at the station slowly, then stopping at the end of the line.