Australia's most famous locomotive


3801 shunting at Thirlmere station during the NSWRTM gala of 6 March 2005.


The Clyde Engineering Co Ltd,

Granville NSW

Build Year


Wheel Arrangement


No. in class

30 comprising:

- 5 streamlined (3801 – 3805)

- 25 semi-streamlined (3806 – 3830)


Many detailed articles and publications have been written about 3801 and the (C) 38 class locomotives; rather than repeat these sources, the text below is offered as an overview and some personal reflections on 3801's significance.

Design & Construction

3801 was built by Sydney company The Clyde Engineering Co. Ltd., Granville in 1943 as the first of five streamlined (C) 38-class locomotives for the New South Wales Government Railways’ (NSWGR) top-link express passenger duties. The design included elements of contemporary American practice, such as a cast-steel frame with integral cast cylinders, rather than the more-common British practice of a plate steel frame. A striking feature of the design was shark-nose streamlining and boiler-top cowling; the class bore some resemblance to the famous I-5 class 4-6-4 locos of the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad, built by Baldwin in 1937. It would be an interesting research topic to explore the apparent inspiration provided by American locomotives and construction practice to the NSWGR team in charge of designing the (C) 38 class locomotives.

The delivery of 3801 and her four streamlined sisters was much delayed due to wartime labour & material shortages, together with competing wartime construction priorities. These five locomotives ran for the first few years in wartime austerity livery of workshop grey, attracting the nickname ‘Grey Nurse’, the name being taken from a local shark species and hence presumably also a reference to the distinctive streamlined nose cone.

Streamlined locomotives 3801 - 3805 were joined in the post-war years by 25 semi-streamlined sisters 3806 - 3830, with even-numbered locos being built by the NSWGR Eveleigh Workshops, and odd numbered locomotives by the NSWGR Cardiff (Newcastle) Workshops. They were issued to traffic in lined green livery, however all but 3813 subsequently received lined black livery during the 1950's.

Initial Preservation

The first five streamlined (C) 38 class locomotives were heavily worn by mid-1960's, at a time when steam traction was being phased out. 3801 had been scheduled for withdrawal in 1962 due to deteriorating mechanical condition, but rail enthusiasts raised sufficient funds to cover the cost difference between the overhaul of 3801 and a less worn member of the class. 3801 thus went on to outlive its 4 streamlined sisters in NSWGR service.

3801 joined the collection of the New South Wales Rail Transport Museum (NSWRTM), Enfield on withdrawal from NSWGR service and continued in operation as a tour locomotive. (One of the webmaster's earliest memories is of 3801 on a tour train at Hornsby station... unfortunately I was standing a little too close to the cylinder drain-cocks at departure time!)

A particularly significant tour began on 22 August 1970 when 3801 and 3813 departed Sydney on the ‘Western Endeavour’ train in celebration of the newly completed trans-continental standard-gauge railway. 3813 assisted 3801 as far as Port Augusta, while 3801 & the Western Endeavour continued on to Perth.

3801 hauled a train of exhibits from NSWRTM Enfield to the new Thirlmere site in 1975 but by 1976 had been withdrawn from service due to poor boiler condition. The locomotive was then placed on static display at Thirlmere, with many hoping that funds would one day be found to cover overhaul costs to allow a return to operation.

1986 Overhaul

After nearly a decade of static display at Thirlmere, 3801 was transferred to the care of the newly-established entity '3801 Limited' under a 20-year lease and received a heavy overhaul by apprentices at the Hunter Valley Training Company, Newcastle. This overhaul was a major achievement and broke new ground for Australian railway preservation, including the construction of a new inner firebox for the existing boiler (Tab 3819). Unfortunately the overhaul did introduce a number of non-authentic modifications to 3801, notably a reduction in boiler pressure from 245psi to 215psi and the replacement of the original riveted tender tank with a plain welded version. (38 class locos never had welded tender tanks in NSWGR service.)

One of the most memorable rail tours the webmaster has ever enjoyed was 3801's ‘Return to the Main South’ in 1986 from Sydney Central to Moss Vale & return, 3801’s first run on the South line following overhaul. 3801 and crew delivered a sparkling performance on the grades & curves of the Main South and the mood on the train was ecstatic. Photo run-pasts were held on the Bargo Viaduct on the morning run to Moss Vale, and Spaniards Hill on the afternoon return to Sydney.

3801 Limited

3801 Limited successfully operated 3801 and suitable heritage rollingstock from their Eveleigh Workshops base in central Sydney for 20 years until late 2006. 3801 travelled throughout Australia during this period, including a significant role in the Australian Bicentennial celebrations of 1988. The locomotive mainly wore lined green livery, but did feature 1950's -style black livery with red lining for a period around 1999 - 2000 and ‘Grey Nurse’ livery around 2006.

Following expiry of the 20-year lease to 3801 Limited, the locomotive reverted to the custody of the NSWRTM and was transferred back to Thirlmere in early 2007. 3801 had received significant maintenance throughout its operation by 3801 Limited (including some new tyres) however the boiler had inevitably been ageing after 20-years of rail tour duty. 3801 was finally stopped for major boiler renewal at the end of 2007.

2008 Overhaul & boiler woes

In 2008 a project to overhaul 3801 was initiated by the NSW Office of Rail Heritage. During early 2009 tenders were called for a completely new boiler and the NSW Office of Rail Heritage subsequently announced the new boiler would be built in Germany by the Meiningen Locomotive Works. 3801 moved to the Chullora Workshops (Sydney) for overhaul, and the welded tender tank trucked to Maitland for repair. Repair of the locomotive chassis started at Chullora, with a return to steam in 2010 expected.

Alas, significant issues were found with the new boiler upon its delivery to Sydney, resulting in protracted delays while the situation was assessed. In 2013, management of the project transferred to Transport Heritage NSW and a path forward was developed, resulting in an announcement that the original boiler (Tab 3819) would now be rebuilt in Australia with a new firebox to the original (C) 38 design and operating pressure of 245psi. While the original (Tab 3819) boiler was being remediated, the scope of the chassis overhaul at Chullora was also expanded to provide an extremely thorough rejuvenation, thus making some advantage of the overall delay. (The German-built replacement boiler is now stored at Broadmeadow.) Perhaps there is some parallel in the recent rebuilding of the famous 4472 ‘Flying Scotsman’ in the UK, which also encountered lengthy delays and significant cost increases.

Regular updates for the boiler / firebox rebuild and chassis overhaul can be found on the NSW Transport Heritage website and NSW Rail Museum ‘Roundhouse’ magazine, providing very good visibility of progress. The loco’s return to service is eagerly anticipated by many rail enthusiasts and it is pleasing to see the project is now ‘back on track’.

2020 Re-launch to service

3801 finally returned to operation in early 2020 after 12 years of overhaul. The loco was transferred from Chullora to the Rail Museum, Thirlmere under her own steam on Friday 24 January, still in works undercoat. A number of trial runs followed, including a main line trip from Picton to Moss Vale & return on 6 February. 3801 subsequently received a complete repaint into lined green livery in preparation for its planned re-launch on the weekend of 28 & 29 March 2020. Alas this ceremony had to be postponed amid the COVID-19 pandemic response, but hopefully a suitable re-launch can occur in the future.

In the meantime, I believe the Meiningen-built boiler remains stored at Broadmeadow. Perhaps its best use would be sectioning as a museum display to show the inner workings of a steam locomotive boiler!

3801 in popular culture

The Wikipedia entries for 3801 and 3801 Limited provide good information about this famous locomotive.

3801 also stars in the magnificent railway film ‘A Steam Train Passes’ which can be seen on this link to the National Film & Sound Archive of Australia: http://tinyurl.com/FAC3801

3801 sitting on display at the NSW Rail Museum, Thirlmere on Sunday 5 July 2020, freshly repainted and polished after overhaul.

This photo was kindly contributed by Josh Russell.

3801 & 3830 coasting downgrade on departure from Thirlmere during the NSWRTM gala of 6 March 2005.

3801 in ‘Grey Nurse’ livery (behind 3830) awaiting departure from Thirlmere on 5 March 2006.

3801 stored at the NSWRTM Thirlmere on 23 November 2008, stripped for assessment at the beginning of its overhaul.

This boiler (Tab 3819) was slated for replacement, but was later rebuilt with a new inner firebox and returned to the original working pressure of 245psi.

3801 in black livery with red lining, seen at Unanderra on 5th August 1999 while working a trip combined with the Cockatoo Run.

A second view of 3801 at Unanderra on 5th August 1999; both photos taken by Chris Stratton.

The red nose whiskers certainly stand out against the black livery.

New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad I-5-class 4-6-4 No.1400 in New Haven, Connecticut on August 18, 1937.

The similarity to the (C) 38 class is immediately apparent, including details such as the Boxpok wheels and high-sided tender.

Alas none of these fine machines – or indeed any New Haven steam locomotives – were spared for preservation.



‘Locomotives of Australia’ by Leon Oberg,
published by J. W. Books Pty Ltd


‘A Compendium of New South Wales Steam Locomotives’
compiled by Alex Grunbach,

published by the Australian Railway Historical Society,
New South Wales Division, 1989.


‘Steam Locomotive Data’ July 1974 edition,
compiled by J. H. Forsyth for the

Public Transport Commission of NSW.


‘Roundhouse’ magazine published by the NSWRTM,
Volume XIII No.2 of July 1976, article ‘Museum on the Move’.

Page updated: 19 February 2023

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