In 1899, the Victorian Railways imported from the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, USA, a pattern locomotive for a new design of all-lines heavy goods engine. This was a large and handsome locomotive, the largest that the VR system had seen at that time, and was typically American in design. It had a 2-8-0 wheel arrangement (2 leading wheels, 8 driving wheels and 0 trailing wheels) with four cylinders arranged on the Vauclain system of compound propulsion.
The maker’s number was 17396 and it entered service on the 30th May 1900 as V Class number 499. Test runs were made with coal trains in South Gippsland between Melbourne and Nyora, where it quickly demonstrated its worth. The locomotive also made a test run to Upper Ferntree Gully where it suffered damage to the low pressure cylinder cleading and lagging after striking the platform, which in those days had an inside curve.
Resulting from the success of these tests, tenders were called for the provision of another 14 consolidation locomotives. 8 were to be built as simple expansion and the remaining 6 were to be compound. Offers were received from Baldwin, the Phoenix Foundry Co. Ltd. and Robinson Bros. & Co. Ltd. After much deliberation and negotiation, the Phoenix Foundry was awarded the contract to build an additional 15 V class 2-8-0s, and all to be built as Vauclain compounds. These 15 locomotives were delivered in monthly intervals between late 1901 and the end of 1902. These locomotives were given the road numbers 501 to 529 (odds only) and carried the Phoenix builder’s numbers 325 to 339.
The adoption of the 2-8-0 wheel arrangement was a very dramatic departure from the standard 0-6-0 goods type, so commonly used. With an engine weight of over 50 tons, the V class was 30% heavier than the previously largest goods locomotive, the X class, yet the axle load of 12 tons 12 hundredweight allowed them to travel on all lines around Victoria.
The V class was soon to be seen on many parts of the VR system. Described as “Comfortable engines to crew due to their generous cabs”, the class was a favored power source in the colder parts of the state, the heavily-graded South Gippsland line and the lines radiating from Maryborough and Bendigo. They were also employed during the holiday periods on excursion trains to the hills, and Upper Ferntree Gully would always have a fair proportion of the class running there. They were also seen in the Yarra Valley, indeed it was a V class that hauled the official train on the opening of the Warburton branch line in 1901.
These locomotives were typical in their American design and construction, with bar frames, overhead equalized springing and very spacious steel cabs. They had an elegant look brought about by the flared copper-top chimney and large brass steam dome cover. When build they were painted in the then standard green livery and were kept in immaculate condition, in accordance with standards of the era. During the mid 1900s they were gradually painted in Canadian Pacific Red, and then in the 1920s the entire class went the standard colour of those times – all over black.
With their wheel 2-8-0 arrangement, the V class were Victoria’s first eight-coupled locomotives, antedating the much larger C class 2-8-0s by some 18 years. The 2 feet 6 inch diameter leading wheels were arranged in a Bissel truck, the springs of which were compensated to the heading pair of driving wheels. The 4 feet 6 inch driving wheels were coupled to two outside 22 inch diameter and 26 inch stroke low pressure cylinders, with two 13 inch diameter by 26 inch stroke high pressure cylinders.
The V class continued to operate until their boilers were condemned. V513 was the first to be scrapped in June 1924 and the last to be cut up, ironically, was the class leader V499 (later V200). Most of the V class lasted until the 1923 renumbering and were given the consecutive numbers 200-215.
The V class had many excellent American design features, and their short existence shows the pro-British conservatism of the Victorian Railways Department in the early 1900s. Even though in 1875 Thomas Higinbotham, the Engineer-in-Chief, had recognised the many good features of American designed locomotives, these were never widely adopted. Improved front end performance, bar frames, flexible suspensions and leading wheels to ‘steer’ locomotives around curves were only taken up many years after the introduction of the American imports.