On the Queensland Railway Lines

We’re travelling north from Bowen on the Bruce Highway. The road follows the railway line.

Road trips provide lots of opportunities for reminiscing, and as I drive, we talk about our train trips of the past.

At school I learned off by heart the towns along the “Sunshine Route”, the railway trip from Brisbane to Cairns: Brisbane, Nambour, Gympie, Maryborough, Bundaberg, and onwards. One thousand, seven hundred kilometres: promoted by Queensland’s developing tourism industry as a great, romantic train journey, from the city in the south, through pineapple fields, cattle country and sleepy towns to the green mountains and purple-tipped cane fields of the far north.

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Poster for the Sunshine Route

This railway line was not built just for tourists. Until the main north-south railway line was finally completed in 1924 with the opening of the Daradgee Bridge north of Innisfail, Cairns was isolated from the rest of the country except by sea. There was no highway. In a state dependent on farming and mining, the railway was vital.

Like everyone over a certain age who grew up in North Queensland, Con has lots of stories about trains.

“When I was eleven, the old man took me to Brisbane by Sunlander. It was new, diesel, and air-conditioned – the wonder of the ages. We had a second-class sleeper and ate in the dining car. I’d always been second-class sitting on the trains before. None of our family ever went first-class. We’d have gone third class if there was one.”

My first long train trip was a Y.A.L. trip from Brisbane to Cairns. The Young Australia League was founded early last century with the aim of promoting national pride in young people and educating them through travel. I tell Con about it as we drive.

“They took us to Kuranda and Ellis Beach. That was the first time I’d seen coconut palms. We went to Green Island, and I bought a piece of coloured coral set in plaster with ‘Cairns’ written on it.”

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I slept on a top bunk, and I recall the clicketty-clack of the wheels at night, and the sight of embankment gravel rushing past below the toilet bowl.

“I had a bit of coral like that, too!” says Con. “I was proud of it, and I gave it to Mum. She put it in the china cabinet with the good cups. I don’t know where it ended up.”

He continues as we pass the Abbot Point turnoff.

“My next trip was by myself. I was seventeen, and I went to Brisbane, to Teachers’ College. I had a rail voucher for a first-class sleeping berth. I was hoping I’d meet a beautiful girl on the train, and we’d fall madly in love and make good use of the berth. No luck with that.”

“What a disappointment!”

“It wasn’t all wasted, though. When the train pulled in at Tully I went to the railway refreshment rooms and bought my first packet of cigarettes. By the time we got to Townsville I’d made myself sick, but I persevered. I smoked for the next forty years.”

We stop at the roadhouse at Guthalungra for fuel. Back on the road, we pass through Gumlu, still following the train line.

“Each Teachers’ College holiday the trains were bursting with students. Drinking was banned, but that was just a challenge to us. I looked older than my age, twenty-one at least (the legal drinking age), so I’d get off at stations with a blanket wrapped around me and head for the refreshment rooms bar. The hard part was climbing back on to the train without the bottles clinking under the blanket.”

“A thousand teenage students from North Queensland travelled on those trains, drinking, laughing, cuddling, playing cards and singing. You get through a lot of songs on a forty-hour train trip.”

Last century, nearly every country town had trainlines, carrying cattle and sheep, bananas and oranges and mail, and the products of the mines. Most closed as roads improved and road transport took over, but you can sometimes see the line of the old tracks on Google Earth: Rockhampton to Yeppoon, Monto to Gayndah, Dalby to Bell, Cloncurry to Dajarra.

They look like ghost tracks now, or like the outlines of ancient Roman forts as seen from the air in the green English landscape.

Most of the trains live on only in memory, but their comforts and discomforts are celebrated in song –:

On the Queensland railway lines,

There are stations where one dines,

Private individuals

Also run refreshment stalls.

Bogan-Tungan, Rollingstone,

Mungar, Murgon, Marathon,

Garthanungra, Pinkenba,

Wanko, Yaamba; ha, ha, ha!

Males and females, high and dry

Hang around at Durikai;

Boora-Mugga, Djarawong,

Giligulgul, Wonglepong.

Pies and coffees, baths and showers,

Are supplied at Charters Towers;

At Mackay the rule prevails

Of restricting showers to males.

Iron rations come in handy,

On the way to Dirranbandi,

Passengers have died of hunger,

During halts at Garradunga.

Let us toast before we part,

Those who travel stout at heart,

Drunk or sober rain or shine,

On the Queensland railway line.

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Rail Trails

“We power on, trying to sense the walls beside us, ears and eyes straining for anyone coming from the other direction. It’s like holding your breath with your eyes.”

Cycling through a tunnel on the rail trail near Matarraña, Spain. Scary, but exciting, according to Con O’Brien, author of The Ebro Drift blog.

The Matarraña trail is just one of thousands of rail trails all over the world. Rail tracks no longer in use are pulled up, railbeds resurfaced, bridges and tunnels checked for safety. In some places old station buildings are converted to cafes or guesthouses. Railway gradient is perfect for cyclists and walkers, the countryside is interesting, and whether for long journeys or short sections, the trails provide great opportunities to exercise and travel at the same time.

Rail trails are international tourism magnets.

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Railway track just visible through the wildflowers on The High Line, NYC

In New York City, I walked on the High Line, a disused elevated freight railway line converted to almost two and a half spectacular kilometres of wildflower parkland, walkway and art space, stretching above west Manhattan. The line came very close to demolition before concerted pressure by far-seeing activists and the public saved it. Now, ten years later, the High Line is a much-loved public amenity and major tourist attraction.

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The “Rec Trail” through Cannery Row, past bust of Ed Ricketts

In California I visited Monterey’s Cannery Row, the setting for John Steinbeck’s classic novel of off-beat characters living there in the 1940s. The Southern Pacific Railway ran through here, but since the 1980s its track has become the “Rec Trail”, an eighteen-mile-long recreation trail for walkers and cyclists. The Cannery Row section passes depictions of scenes from the famous book, old carriages, items of railway equipment, and the Monterey Aquarium. Beside a road crossing stands a bronze bust of Steinbeck’s friend and collaborator, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, “Doc” in the novel, who was killed by a train on this spot.

There are plenty of rail trails in Australia, and more are appearing all the time. The Rail Trails Australia web site shows, state by state, just how many trails are either in development or in use throughout the country. They range from rough gravel tracks to smooth bitumen with a white line down the middle, from short urban paths to trails hundreds of kilometres long. Many of them have tunnels. In Queensland, Boyne Burnett Inland Rail Trail aims to connect Monto, Eidsvold, Mundubbera and Gayndah and more, and includes heritage listed bridges and numerous tunnels.

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Tunnel on the proposed Boyne Burnett Inland Rail Trail

The hundred-and-sixty-kilometre Brisbane Valley Rail Trail has been popular with cyclists, walkers and horse riders for years. It connects Ipswich and Yarraman, passing through small towns along the way, with their coffee shops, bakeries and quaint country pubs. Watch out for magpies, though. They can be ferocious enough to ruin a cyclist’s helmet.

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Walkers in an old fettlers’ hut on the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail

At the Gold Coast, traces can still be found of the old branch line through Southport to Tweed Heads. The footbridge at Currumbin Creek was once the rail bridge, and Coolangatta’s Lanham Street walking path runs up though a cutting and past the Police Station on a curve that once approached the railway station on Chalk Street.

The trail that interests me most, and which has lots of tourist potential, is the one, currently under consideration, which would link Wallangarra, on the Queensland and New South Wales border, with the fine old city of Armidale, two hundred and ten kilometres to the south. While on the Queensland side the line is still functioning, if only for heritage steam train trips, south of Wallangarra it lies derelict, its standard gauge tracks and infrastructure still in place.

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Wallangarra Station, looking north. Disused NSW tracks on the right hand side

This is heroic country, with steep hills, wide blue vistas, granite boulders piled up and bulging out of hillsides, with an heroic climate to match, ranging from winters of sleet, snow and frost to oven-like summer temperatures. There are golden brown paddocks, kangaroos, sheep, and gum trees.

The railway line follows the New England Highway, over it, under it and alongside, almost all the way. There are villages and towns along the line, bridges and culverts and old railway stations, some of them heritage listed and lovingly preserved by local groups.

Ready for the stream of travellers a rail trail would bring, year-round.

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Old rail bridge beside the New England Highway, north of Tenterfield

Every time I drive the New England Highway, admiring its gorgeous, so-Australian scenery, its old towns and quaint buildings, I’m torn between wishing the railway line (the first to connect Brisbane and Sydney) was still running, and hoping it can be transformed into a new, money-making concern for the future. Some locals are doubtful. “We don’t want the track pulled up. Maybe they’ll bring the trains back some day.”

That’s not going to happen.

Many others are eager for the New England Rail Trail to be established, bringing jobs and tourism dollars to the towns along the way. They lobby the state government, and they have a Facebook page with an engaging title – NERT Inc.

The trail is listed on the Australian Rail Trail web page as “Possible”.

I say good luck to all of the Rail Trail lobbyists, opening up our landscapes to the world.

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From Rail Trails Australia – a cutting on the proposed New England Rail Trail

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