Tasmania’s steam trains
Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway attracts your everyday tourist, along with a certain type of enthusiast. “You have your ‘puffer nutters’, as we like to call them,” says Andrew Wiles, the heritage steam train’s guest experience supervisor and guide, as we chug back towards Queenstown’s moonscape – a legacy of mining, toxic fumes and logging. In 2021, the train is so popular with Australia’s trapped travellers that you have to book weeks in advance. I’m on the half-day trip to Dubbil Barril, the cutely spelled stop snuggled into rainforest upholstered in velvety moss.
“They are the people who love the steam trains,” Wiles explains. “Then you get the people who love the history side of things. People who want to learn more about the towns – 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 a puffer nutter stands before me. “They have a certain romantic quality,” he says. “You’ve got all the lovely moving parts and the steam. They’re living beings. They’ve got their own personalities and their own different moods – good and bad. They’re just loveable.”
The train has also become quite the place to pop the question. Wiles has seen three marriage proposals on the train. “I met my partner on the railway,” he adds, “It’s almost the love train in some ways. There are at least three or four couples who have met on the railway.”
The southern hemisphere’s steepest steam haul, helped up and down the track’s most extreme inclines by the Swiss-engineered Abt rack-and-pinion system, is the most luxurious of Tasmania’s rail experiences. Those who upgrade to the wilderness carriage gain access to the open-air observation balcony, are poured sparkling wine as a welcome and are fed along the way. We’re all equal, though, when we pile out to watch the locomotive being rotated on the turntable at Dubbil Barril. This means our carriage, a replica of the original now at Victoria’s Puffing Billy Railway, switches from caboose position to right behind the locomotive, where we see the drivers at work. Onboard commentary acknowledges the good, the bad and the ugly of the region: after leaving the drama of the King River Gorge, for instance, we learn the Queen River flowing rust-orange beside us is a legacy of copper mining’s wilder days.
The Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company is the reason this railway exists at all. Hundreds of labourers wielded picks – in heavy rain and deep mud – to hack a route through rainforest and rock, first to a river port and then to the coast. When completed through to Strahan in 1899, the line was not only a magnificent engineering feat, it also connected Tasmania’s West Coast to Melbourne so much more directly that women living in remote areas could dress just as fashionably as their friends in the big city.
Roads eventually rendered the line redundant and it closed in 1963. After passengers returned in 2000, it became the West Coast Wilderness Railway in 2002. The 28-tonne locomotives that hauled those riches to port in the 19th century are the same ones at work today.
Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery site at 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 rail history. It describes Tasmania’s once-extensive rail network as having an impact “as profound then as the internet is to us today”, as it wasn’t until 1964 that roads connected West Coast settlements to the state’s north. From 1954, a prestige passenger train – the Tasman Limited – shuttled between Hobart and Wynyard in the north-west. The glory days didn’t last, with Tasmania’s last passenger train service running in 1978. Today, thanks to the dedication of enthusiasts who toil in workshops and sheds to restore and maintain rolling stock, people can still ride fragments of the state’s rail lines.
Fifty minutes’ drive north of Queenstown (if you don’t stop at Zeehan to admire the decommissioned locomotives at the West Coast Heritage Centre) is Tullah, a former mining community redeveloped into a Hydro Electric Commission village. It’s also another steam-train town. Wee Georgie Wood is a six-tonne “midget locomotive”, built in Leeds in 1924 and named after a diminutive British music-hall entertainer. It runs on a two-foot (60-centimetre) gauge – a measurement that allowed trains to squeal around tighter curves necessitated by the rugged terrain. Wee Georgie was powered by coal when it was put to work on the North Mount Farrell Mine tramway, hauling ore to the Emu Bay line running between Zeehan and Burnie. Today, it’s timber that’s thrown into the firebox to build enough heat to turn up to 200 litres of water into steam. I climb aboard the dinky 15-passenger carriage for a short ride punctuated by whistle toots.
From Tullah, the next stop for puffer nutters is Sheffield, 101 kilometres away. Tasmania’s Town of Murals is also home to the Sheffield Steam and Heritage Centre. Here, the Redwater Creek Steam and Heritage Society runs a steam train along another two-foot-gauge track. It also hosts SteamFest, an annual event that attracts thousands of visitors.
I pass through Sheffield on the festival weekend: the joint is jumping and the queue for train rides is long. As I’m discovering, it’s a push to squeeze multiple heritage train experiences into one weekend, given distances and running schedules. For me, riding Sheffield’s train will have to wait for another time.
Near Devonport, on the coast north of Sheffield, is the Don River Railway, which offers 30-minute return trips alongside the namesake tidal river. At the junction near Coles Beach, passengers alight onto the grassed platform, snap a few photos and jump aboard to trundle back to Don. I’m visiting on a non-steam loco day so the driver simply switches from one end of the railcar to the other to change direction. The journey still channels a yesteryear vibe, especially when a conductor comes along to click tickets and settle onto armrests for chats with passengers. Not one of the kids aboard looks at their phone.
Not all of Tasmania’s on-rail experiences are of the sit-back-and-relax variety. Maydena is a one-time forestry and company town located along a dead-end road leading into the Franklin–Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. It’s following the example of Derby in the north-east in becoming a hot mountain-biking destination. Many houses are now holiday rentals. The permanent population numbers about 50 residents.
Some locals help run a more sedate pursuit for visitors. Maydena Railtrack Riders uses part of a historic rail line (driving into Maydena, you’ll pass multiple “Railway crossing not in use” signs). The rider, at this attraction, isn’t you but rather the two-to-four-seat wheeled contraption that’s pedalled along the tracks. It’s hard work – the track to Florentine station isn’t flat – but an all-terrain quad vehicle can push those who flag.
“Lots of people that are interested in rail want to have a bit of a go,” says the experience’s creator, Geoff Williams. “We try to make it so that it doesn’t matter if you’re fit or not.” I’m glad about that, as I’m huffing and puffing just as hard as Wee Georgie Wood when that push finally comes to shove.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Back on track".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.