Screenshot of amateur black and white footage showing train passing in Newcastle, circa 1970s.


Trainspotting: The railway films of Roger McKenzie

The railway films of Roger McKenzie
 Jeff Wray

Trains and film have a close association and not just because they both take you on a journey. Prior to becoming a Film Curatorial Officer at the NFSA, I worked as a railway signaller and assistant station master. So I was naturally drawn to the railway films of Roger McKenzie in the NFSA collection.

The rail footage shot by McKenzie combines his access to areas restricted to the public and his professional background in film and television. What he shot between 1965 and the early 1980s contains much unique content which is framed and composed in a professional way.

This excerpt from one of McKenzie’s films focuses on the work and operation of the 60 class Garratt steam locomotive. A Beyer-Garratt locomotive (6029) recently returned to service in Canberra (learn more on the Canberra Railway Museum website).

Railway footage shot by Roger McKenzie, 1970. Please note: this clip is silent. NFSA title: 806482

McKenzie’s footage captures not only the trains and people who work on them but station buildings and railway infrastructure as well as everyday scenes along the railway line as we head north. The images captured are very clear and steady considering the amount of movement that must occur when travelling on a steam locomotive and the close-ups of the crew working give us a sense of the conditions they experienced.

Although McKenzie’s films, in colour or black-and-white like the one above, are silent with no ambient or recorded soundtrack, his sympathetic filming allows our imagination to ‘hear’ the sounds we associate with locomotives. We can access our personal experience of the trains we travelled on, worked on and lived with from the the late 1960s into the early 70s. Although there is much footage of trains from this period Roger McKenzie’s films are significant because of their quality and the unique perspective they give of people, machines and places.

Roger McKenzie (d. 1992) worked as a film editor for television’s ATN 7 in Sydney. Roger, along with his good friend Bernie Kent, was a film collector who also captured his personal interests on film including his love for trains and other transport such as buses and ferries. They were able to acquire a pass from the New South Wales Railways allowing access to places from which the general public were otherwise restricted such as workshops and depots. Bernie Kent recalled in an interview in 1992 that they would often leave home in North Sydney at 4 am to get into position to record the early morning trains passing; at other times they would stay overnight. Their favourite locations for filming trains included Hawkmount, Fassifern, around Maitland, Darling Harbour and the Macdonaldtown car sheds.

Want more trains?

Among the many other train-related films in the NFSA collection is the classic A Steam Train Passes (Film Australia, 1974), shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler and one of only a few examples where actual train trips and operations are documented. The film is included on the compilation Just Australian Trains which is available from the NFSA online shop.