The International Steam Pages

The Mount Lyell Abt Railway 2013 (West Coast Wilderness Railway)

James Waite visited this rack railway (and also three Tasmanian railway museums) in March 2013 before its expected suspension during the winter season. 

(News from the line is that it will re-open on 6th January 2014 but will only run between Queenstown and Dubbil Barril, i.e., including the rack section but only about one half of the total length of the line. The rest of the route to Strahan will be refurbished over the next few months.) See for current information.

He reports:

I got back from my brief trip to Tasmania on Wednesday afternoon. I reckoned I did pretty well in the short time I was there and was more than usually lucky with the weather considering that this is a rainforest in the mountains on the west coast which is on the receiving end of the Roaring Forties and where, as one of the drivers told me, they reckon it rains on 350 days every year except for leap years when they have one extra rainy day!

The person in charge of the locos is Nigel Day, a talented British steam engineer in the Porta and Wardale mould whose previous appointments include the Snowdon Mountain Railway until about 18 months ago and before that the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire. Initially he was on a temporary appointment to improve the standard of maintenance and the performance of the locos, something in which he has certainly succeeded. As I say he is very much into radical methods of improving the locos' efficiency in the Porta and Wardale fashion and has been given a free hand to experiment on no. 3, the black loco which was running on the first day I was there. You can see the latest version of its blast pipe below which incorporates ideas which Porta had been working on up to the time of his death. This necessitates the wide stovepipe-type chimney in place of the old copper-capped one. Nigel's current project is to try to replicate its improved performance with the other locos. They currently carry an older form of improved draughting of his design while keeping the outside dimensions of their old chimneys. This design has previously been fitted to all the working locos on the W&L amongst other railways. There's a long and detailed article by Martyn Bane about the work he is doing in issue 84 of Locomotives International, one of the most worthwhile articles it has carried for quite a long time in my view.

This 1067mm (3'6") gauge  line is adhesion-only for roughly the first 10 of its 22 miles starting at the coastal end and this stretch is usually worked by one of two diesels - narrow gauge versions of the BR Drewry diesel shunters - class 04 if I remember rightly. Quite a number of these were built for the Tasmanian Government Railway from the late 1940's onwards and the Mount Lyell company also bought two of them direct from Drewry in the 1950's. They are both now back on the line having been sold off after it closed in 1963 and work trains from Strahan, the port, as far as the start of the rack section. I started the trip by riding on the train from Strahan having told Nigel that I'd be doing this. I hadn't expected to be grabbed at Dubbil Barril, the changeover point, by Tristan McMahon, the driver, and told that I was invited to make the rest of the journey on the footplate! Quite a trip and it was most impressive that the boiler pressure never fell more than 10 psi below its 200psi max at any stage of the climb to the summit which is nearly 3 miles long. The loco was impressively silent when pottering along the level stretches of the line and produced a monumentally sharp exhaust when climbing the rack. Altogether most impressive.

The following day no. 1, the light green loco in these photos, was rostered to work the service train as Nigel had called in no. 3 to instal a system for pre-heating the fuel oil. The day started with heavy rain but I took a chance on the clouds clearing to drive up to the only spot on the rack section where there is road access and luckily the sun made a brief appearance to coincide with the train. I'd been told that no. 5, the dark green loco, would probably be making a test run later on as work was finishing on servicing the rack mechanism and I might like to make sure I was around to check this out. I duly headed back to the depot (at Queenstown, the eastern end of the line) to find the loco in steam and I was treated to another footplate ride on it up to the summit of the line at Rinadeena. On the way back down we made a photo stop at one of the numerous trestle bridges on the rack section.

The 5 rack locos are or were as follows:

1 Dubs 3369/1896 - operational 2013
2 Dubs 3594/1898 - Tasmanian Transport Museum at Glenorchy, Hobart
3 Dubs 3730/1898 - operational 2013
4 Dubs 4085/1901 - see below
5 NBL 24418/1938 - operational 2013

The railway originally had a number of adhesion-only locos, mostly Baldwins, but the last of them went many years ago. There was also an extensive 600mm gauge system around the mines north of Queenstown and which ran into Queenstown station. Most of its steam locos were Krauss-built and at least 4 of these are preserved in various places around the island. I saw one of them in the West Coast Pioneers Museum at Zeehan, another old mining town around 20 miles north of Queenstown and Strahan. Zeehan is perhaps best known as being at one end of the North East Dundas Tramway where the pioneer Garratt now on the Welsh Highland (TGR K1) spent its working days.

As has been widely reported the operating company announced that it will give up its lease of the railway at the end of April. The current position is that the state government (which owns the railway) has bowed to local pressure and much lobbying from further afield and will fund most of the staff staying on in their jobs from May onwards while they try over the Australian winter to find a new operator. The line will still close over the winter, the first time this has happened since it reopened in 2003, but with luck it should reopen in due course rather than closing permanently as seemed likely a few weeks ago. There has been much talk about the track needing major refurbishment. The state government now says it will carry out at least some of this at its own expense.

Everyone I met at the railway was exceptionally kind and friendly and I was treated very much as an honoured guest. Most of the shed staff are very much gricers - Tristan McMahon who drove the test train was supposed to be having his weekend off but didn't want to miss the chance of enjoying an extra day's driving. Allie, the firelady on no. 3 was also working on her day off.

Tasmania is not the easiest place to reach and Queenstown is a long drive from the nearest airport but I rated this as one of the most enjoyable railways I've ever visited. It was a really worthwhile trip. Wilson Lythgoe, Martyn Bane and Iain McCall were all very helpful at the planning stage and Nigel, Tristan and many others were equally helpful while I was at the railway. A big thank you goes to all of them.

Itís early in the morning at Queenstown loco shed and works. In the foreground are no. 5 to the left and no. 1 to the right. Between them is the bunker of no. 3 and to the right is ex-Tasmanian Government Railways Drewry-type diesel no. V9. It was the first of the class to have been built at the TGRís shops in Launceston rather than being imported from the UK. It started life working on the Strahan-Zeehan railway and so is very much a local machine. It was sold to the Puffing Billy line in Victoria as a source of supply for spare parts and bought from there by the WCWR. Itís now been restored to its original TGR red paint scheme as is used as the depot shunter at Queenstown.

Allie oils round no. 3 at Dubbil Barril station. Some say that this is an aboriginal name and others that itís named after a shotgun by someone with limited literacy skills.

Tristan admires the view up the King River Gorge as no. 3 climbs up the 1 in 20 rack section from Dubbil Barril to Rinadeena.

Allie adds a shovelful of sand to no. 3ís oil fire to help keep the tubes clear of tar residue.

No. 3 approaches one of the many bridges crossing streams running into the King River between Dubbil Barril and Rinadeena.

Journeyís end. No. 3 and its train rest at Queenstown station. This must be one of the grandest narrow gauge stations anywhere. The overall roof provides much-needed shelter on the frequent days of heavy rain which characterise the west of the island. The original station included a much smaller overall roof. It survived the 1963 closure but was destroyed by fire in 1998 shortly before the reconstruction effort began.

Inside no. 3ís smokebox and the rack mechanism of no. 3. The banded wheels next to the pinions are relics of the old Abt braking system but are no longer used. The locoís driving wheels now carry the Porta profile, designed to restrict the build-up of gunge at the junction of the flange and the tread and so to minimize loss of traction and the risk of slipping.

No. 1 climbs through the rainforest between Dubbil Barril and Rinadeena.

No. 1 on the turntable at Queenstown. To the left is the Empire Hotel, one of several buildings in the town centre which remain from the Edwardian era. Its staircase is a magnificent and ornate structure made from Tasmanian blackwood which was sent to the UK for machining and finishing before being returned for assembly in the hotel. Queenstown is still a mining community. While many historic buildings survive theyíre still treated in a workaday fashion. Thereís no hint of preservation in aspic here.

No. 1 stands at the south end of the station alongside the old railway storeroom, the only part of the original station to survive the 1998 fire. In the background is Mount Owen which dominates the view from the town towards the east.

No. 1 with its train alongside the watering point at Rinadeena station.

No. 5ís trial run in the loco yard during its first steaming after its overhaul.

No. 5 poses for its photo on bridge 5 on its way back down the hill from Rinadeena to Hallís Creek. There are turntables at each end of the line and at Dubbil Barril but not at Rinadeena, hence the bunker-first running.

No. 5 with its test train passing Quarry Siding near Hallís Creek. This is one of the few points outside Queenstown on the route to Dubbil Barril where there is easy road access to the line.

This is no. 2, the only other surviving loco, which has lived in the Tasmanian Transport Museum at Glenorchy in the northern outskirts of Hobart since the 1963 closure and where I called in on my way back to the airport. There used to be a fifth one (no. 4) which was dismantled after the closure and buried in an quarry in Queenstown which was later flooded and which lies immediately behind what is now the town's motel where I stayed. I resisted the temptation to dive in to try to find it!

Rob Dickinson