South Maitland Railways attracts growing interest for its heritage significance, in essence a perfectly preserved Victorian railway, seemingly immune to the new electronic age. It was the last railway in Australia engaged in the complete restoration and operation of steam locomotives for commercial purposes. The SMR steam locomotive workshop at East Greta Junction is now protected by a Permanent Conservation Order under the NSW Heritage Act.
When the South Maitland Railway Line closed to steam operations in 1983 it generated considerable interest as this was the last operating steam haulage service in Australia. The NSW Government operated steam train passenger services had already ended some 20 years earlier and this latest closure marked the end of commercial steam operations. The last day of steam freight train haulage was on June 1983. This event was of immense interest to steam and rail enthusiasts around Australia. The realisation that steam was now officially dead led to a great deal of nostalgia and a desire to preserve this important part of our historic past.
The inaugural Steamfest took place only three years after the cessation of steam operations on the locally based South Maitland Railways, Australia’s last fully commercial steam railway. The event was organised through the efforts of the National Trust of Australia, The State Rail Authority and the Heritage Office as the Grand Finale to Heritage Week 1986. Steamfest is still going strong to this date.
The Maitland Rail Museum has been formed to preserve, restore and display, materials and records that interpret the part played by the SMR in the settlement and transformation of the Maitland – Cessnock region to become one of the most important coal producing areas in the World of the mid 20th century. The museum itself has interpretive displays as well equipment, tools and other artefacts used by the railway.