Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway attracts your everyday tourist, as well as a certain type of enthusiast. “You’ve got your ‘bonkers’ as we like to call them,” says Andrew Wiles, Heritage Steam Train Supervisor and Customer Experience Guide, as we return to the lunar landscape of Queenstown – a legacy of the mining, toxic fumes and logging. In 2021, the train is so popular with travelers stuck in Australia that you need to book weeks in advance. I’m on a half-day trip to Dubbil Barril, the beautifully spelled stop tucked away in the rainforest covered in velvety moss.
“These are the people who love steam trains,” says Wiles. “Then you get the people who like the historical side of things. People who want to know more about the cities – Queenstown, Strahan, Zeehan. There are people who love the rainforest and the rivers. It appeals to so many different people. “
Speaking with Wiles, I suspect some puffer nut is standing in front of me. “They have a certain romantic quality,” he says. “You have all the nice moving parts and the steam. They are living beings. They have their own different personalities and moods – good and bad. They are simply adorable.
The train has also become the perfect place to ask the question. Wiles saw three marriage proposals on the train. “I met my partner on the railroad,” he adds, “it’s almost the love train in some ways. There are at least three or four couples who met on the railroad. “
The steepest steam transport in the Southern Hemisphere, helped up and down the track’s most extreme slopes by the Swiss-designed Abt rack-and-pinion system, is Tasmania’s most luxurious rail experience. Those passing in the wild horse-drawn carriage have access to the open-air viewing balcony, receive welcome sparkling wine, and get food along the way. We are all equal, however, when we stack up to watch the locomotive spin on Dubbil Barril’s turntable. This means that our car, a replica of the original now at Victoria’s Puffing Billy Railway, shifts from the caboose position to just behind the locomotive, where we see the drivers at work. Commentaries on board recognize the good, bad and ugly of the area: after leaving the drama of the King River Gorge, for example, we learn that the rust-orange-colored Queen River flowing next to us is a legacy of the wildest days of copper mining.
The Mount Lyell Mining and Railroad Company is the reason this railroad exists. Hundreds of workers waved picks – in heavy rain and deep mud – to make a route through rainforest and rock, first to a river port, then to the coast. When completed at Strahan in 1899, the line was not only a magnificent feat of engineering, it also connected the west coast of Tasmania to Melbourne so much more directly that women living in remote areas could dress in it too. fashion than their big city friends.
Roads eventually made the line redundant and it closed in 1963. After passengers returned in 2000, it became the West Coast Wilderness Railway in 2002. The 28-ton locomotives that carried these riches to port in Canada 19th century are the same as today. .
The site of the Queen Victoria Launceston Museum and Art Gallery in Inveresk is built around the Launceston Railway Workshops, once one of the state’s largest industrial sites. Unsurprisingly, the museum dedicates a permanent exhibition to the state’s railway history. He describes Tasmania’s once extensive rail network as having an impact “as deep as the internet is to us today”, as it was not until 1964 that roads connected the settlements on the west coast to the north. of State. From 1954, a prestigious passenger train – the Tasman Limited – commuted between Hobart and Wynyard in the northwest. The glory days did not last, with Tasmania’s last passenger train service in 1978. Today, thanks to the dedication of enthusiasts who work hard in workshops and sheds to restore and maintain rolling stock, people can still ride fragments of state rail lines.
A fifty-minute drive north of Queenstown (if you don’t stop in Zeehan to admire the decommissioned locomotives of the West Coast Heritage Center) is Tullah, a former mining community redeveloped into a Hydroelectric Commission village. It is also another steam train town. Wee Georgie Wood is a six ton ‘midget locomotive’ built in Leeds in 1924 and named after a small British music hall artist. It operates on a two-foot (60-centimeter) gauge – a measurement that allowed trains to squeal around tighter curves made necessary by rough terrain. Wee Georgie was powered by coal when it was put into service on the North Mount Farrell Mine Streetcar, carrying ore to the Emu Bay Line connecting Zeehan and Burnie. Today, wood is thrown into the combustion chamber to produce enough heat to turn up to 200 liters of water into steam. I board the 15-passenger dinky for a little ride punctuated by whistling toots.
From Tullah, the next stop for puffer lovers is Sheffield, 101 kilometers away. The Tasmanian City of Murals is also home to the Sheffield Steam and Heritage Center. Here, the Redwater Creek Steam and Heritage Society runs a steam train along another two-foot track. It also hosts SteamFest, an annual event that draws thousands of visitors.
I pass through Sheffield on the festival weekend: the joint is skipping and the queue for train rides is long. As I’m finding out, it’s a push to bundle multiple heritage train experiences into a single weekend, given the distances and race times. For me, taking the train from Sheffield will have to wait another time.
Near Devonport on Sheffield’s north coast is the Don River Railway, which offers 30-minute round trips along the namesake tidal river. At the junction near Coles Beach, passengers descend onto the grassy platform, take a few photos, and jump on board to return to Don. I visit on a day without a steam locomotive, so the conductor just walks around the car to change direction. Travel always channels an old-fashioned vibe, especially when a driver comes to click on tickets and sit on armrests to chat with passengers. None of the children on board are looking at their phones.
Not all Tasmanian rail experiences are the sit and relax type. Maydena is a former logging and commercial town located along a dead end road to Franklin National Park – Gordon Wild Rivers. It follows Derby’s lead in the northeast by becoming a hot destination for mountain biking. Many homes are now vacation rentals. The permanent population is approximately 50 inhabitants.
Some locals help lead a quieter chase for visitors. Maydena Railtrack Riders use part of a historic railway line (when arriving in Maydena you will pass several “Level crossing not used” signs). The pilot in this attraction is not you but rather the two- to four-seater wheeled vehicle that pedals along the tracks. It’s tough work – the trail to the Florentine station is not flat – but an all-terrain quad can push those signaling.
“A lot of people who are interested in rail want to give it a try,” says experiment creator Geoff Williams. “We try to make sure that it doesn’t matter if you’re in good shape or not.” I’m happy with that, because I’m blowing and blowing as hard as Wee Georgie Wood when that push finally comes to push.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 under the title “Back on track”.
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