Railway Mokes

From its inception, the Moke showed itself as an ideal platform for a myriad of uses. Perhaps one of the more unusual, though, was that of inspection vehicle for the railways, also known as Section Cars, Gang Cars or Inspection Trolleys, where Mokes were converted to run on the rails themselves.

Mokes certainly weren’t the first cars to be converted for such use, but they did prove to be very suitable and filled the role in at least three states for around a decade.

Perhaps the biggest problem confronting railways in Australia throughout their history, has been the lack of a standardized gauge – the width between the rails. When railways were first mooted for the Australian colonies, in 1848, authorities from NSW, Victoria and South Australia came together to ensure that all would use the same gauge. An agreement was reached to use what was termed Broad Gauge (5’ 3”, 1600mm), rather than the British Standard Gauge (4’ 8 ½”, 1435mm).

However, NSW reneged on the deal and changed to Standard Gauge – the reasons for which were basically political. Victoria and South Australia had already placed orders for Broad Gauge rolling stock – engines and carriages – and were not in a position to make the change to Standard Gauge. This decision by NSW has plagued Australia ever since, with the national rail network only being connected by Standard Gauge from 1997.

To complicate the issue, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland decided when establishing their respective railways to use Narrow Gauge (3’ 6”, 1067mm) – mainly to save costs, and in the more arid areas of WA to also save timber. South Australia also opted for Narrow Gauge on branch lines, while retaining Broad Gauge on main lines, and Victoria chose a 2’ 6” ultra-narrow gauge for some of its mountain branch lines – still famously in use with the Puffing Billy Railway in the Dandenong Ranges, near Melbourne.

When the Moke was released in Australia in 1966, some enterprising engineers quickly realized that its front track of 3’ 11 7/16” (1200mm) and rear track of 3’ 9 7/8” (1165mm) was almost ideal for use as Section Cars on the Narrow Gauge railways, provided a suitable method could be developed to keep the wheels on the rails.

Probably the first to recognise this was the Tasmanian Government Railways, TGR, which bought ten Mokes in mid-1967, probably through the Launceston BMC agents, Mitchell Motors. These were modified in the Way and Works Plant Depot, within the Railways Workshops, in Launceston.

Basically, this required the fitting of metal flanges behind the wheels, to keep the wheels on the rails. However, it was not as simple a modification as would first appear.

In order to fit the cast steel flanges in the very limited space under the Moke’s wheel arches, a few more changes were needed.

The front end required only the mounting points of the shock-absorber on the upper control arm to be moved inboard by about 2” (50mm), but much more work was required for the rear end.

The rear subframe was narrowed by 3 ¼” (82.5mm) by simply cutting through the centre, placing it in a jig then welding it back together. This meant that the upper shock absorber mounts had to be moved inboard by an inch (25mm), and the mounting points for the subframe to the body were modified.

In order to then bring the wheels back out to the original track width, 1 27/32” (29mm) spacers were fitted to the rear drums. These attached to the drums with nuts, then had the wheels attached to the outer part of the spacer, with standard studs and wheel nuts.

According to the Railway Transportation magazine, October 1967; “The Mini-Moke was chosen for a number of reasons including suitable dimensions, price, utility value, availability of spares, and the fact that it is Australian made.”

The Mokes were used for inspection duties of tracks, bridges, etc, and could be driven on the road at normal road speeds to an inspection area, then driven on the rails at up to 25 mph (40 kmh).

Naturally, the wheels with the steel flanges fitted could not be used on the road, so all four wheels had to be changed. To facilitate this, a special steel channel was attached to the body of the Moke, at the balance point – under the front pannier.

This allowed jacking up each side of the Moke to change two wheels at a time.

Railway Transportation explained the head of the small hydraulic bottle jack could be pushed into position without the operator needing to crawl underneath the Moke. “The car can be pivoted and lowered onto the track with the minimum of effort by one man”, the magazine explained.

Although changing all four wheels could be done in around ten minutes, the magazine optimistically said; “When he is familiar with the process, the operator can make the change from road to rail or vice-versa in about eight minutes.”

This combination of normal road wheel with a steel locating flange was found to be the best combination, according to the magazine. “Experiments were made with all metal wheels but due to excess weight, vibrations and shock transfer, these were abandoned. Likewise, were metal wheels incorporating a shock absorbing rubber insert between the rim and the hub, because of their weight and complicated nature.”

“Tests since conducted with the radial ply tyres on both front and rear wheels are satisfactory, but for the time being, top rail speed has been restricted to 25 mph for safety reasons. However, the test vehicle was taken to speeds of 45 mph on straight lengths of track without any dangerous lurching or swaying”, the magazine said.

Although Mokes came standard with cross-ply tyres at the time, radials were chosen because of their improved durability on the steel rails. However, it was not known at the time if the tyres would suffer abnormal wear, due to the rails being narrower than the tyres. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, due to the limited amount of time the Mokes were used on the rails, the tyres lasted for a satisfactory period.

In order to be highly visible when on the railway lines, the Mokes were painted bright yellow, including the soft-top canopies.

One problem that became apparent fairly early was the danger of travelling with a set of spare wheels in the back of the Moke. According to one source, a TGR Moke was involved in a road crash, while carrying the heavy rail wheels in the back. Apparently the driver was seriously injured by the wheels coming forward, but I have not been able to find any evidence to confirm this.

On 22 July 1968, Crees & Faulkner Pty Ltd was contracted by the Transport Commission of Tasmania to supply nine steel canopies for the TGR Mokes, at a cost of $256 each. This quote included an additional cost of $9 each to extend the roof height slightly.

A search through the records of the Hobart office of the National Archives has turned up the original contract, as well as a series of technical drawings for a number of the modifications used on the Mokes.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find drawings for the canopies, but one photo has recently surfaced (below).

The canopies were made of sheet steel over a tube steel frame, with sliding front doors, Perspex windows (a sliding window for the driver) and a lift-up rear door.

Inside was a special cage, bolted to the floor, that held the spare wheels in an upright position, preventing them from moving around in the back of the Moke.

Many of the drawings found are identified as being for the Mini Van and Moke, raising the question of whether Mini Vans were actually used on the railways as well. While many of the people I have spoken to in relation to this story could remember the Mokes, none was able to recall the Vans.

The use of the Mini Van would have been a logical step, particularly after 1968 when the big-wheel Moke was introduced, with a wider front and rear wheel track. After all, by this time the Mokes were fitted with hard-tops and rear cargo screens, and the Van’s low floor and no step up, like at the back of the Moke, would have provided easier access.

Despite this, I have been unable to find any other reference to Mini Vans used by the railways. If any of our readers can help in this regard, please let us know.

In 1978, ANR (Australian National Railways) took over TGR, and a comprehensive report on its assets, including the road fleet, was tabled on 30 June that year. ANR also ran the railways in SA, NT and part of WA.

Some 16 Mokes were listed for Tasmania, with fleet numbers – stencilled on the top left of the windscreen – from 475 to 491.

According to Tasmanian railway enthusiast Michael Dix, these Mokes were allocated to Track Supervisors and Permanent Way Inspectors. “489 was allocated to Chief Traffic Manager’s Fleet, 488 was listed as spare, and 490 was allocated to the Erecting Shop for some reason”, Dix wrote. “Only 487 doesn’t seem to have been around at this time.”

476, 480, 481 and 482 all appear in photos of the original group, so it would seem that perhaps only an additional six Mokes had been added in subsequent purchases.

However, values for the Mokes varied from $6,900 for 477 down to $501 for 489. This suggests a range of ages that is not consistent with original fleet allocations.

A couple of photos exist of Mokes on Narrow Gauge lines in South Australia – identified by Commonwealth number plates. One of these was at Deep Well, 48 miles (78km) from Alice Springs. The other appears in two photos, one of which is at Verran, on the Eyre Peninsula, while the other was apparently taken nearby.

To confuse the issue slightly, though, both cars are white, not yellow like the Tasmanian Mokes; both have soft canopies; both are big-wheel Mokes; neither has a safety cage behind the seats; but both have the same wheels as the Tassie Mokes, with the steel locating flanges.

The South Australian Mokes do not have fleet numbers on the windscreens, and only the one at Deep Well has a fleet number – painted on the bonnet – of 2525. It would therefore be logical to assume the ANR list only includes the TGR Mokes and not those photographed in South Australia.

We can only surmise from this that the Mokes used in South Australia were not from Tasmania, as had previously been thought, but were bought by Commonwealth Railways – forerunner to ANR – some time before 1978, when ANR took control.

If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 25 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>42</plumshop> <plumshop>43</plumshop>

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