The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 9. Oceania: Tasmania, and New Caledonia

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

This “Garland” series tends toward refraining from covering the world’s better-known, better-documented, and physically larger islands. Tasmania was for the author, initially a little threatened, as under that heading – but with its being a place which has enchanted me virtually lifelong, as regards its railways and all other features: deciding to give it a spot in the series, did not take long – and after all, “I write this stuff, I make and break the rules as I like”. Many thanks are owed for local information, to Wilson Lythgoe.

Tasmania, tucked underneath the Australian continent near its south-eastern corner, is roughly triangular in shape; the longest side measuring about four hundred kilometres, and the other two sides a little shorter. It is the smallest State in the Commonwealth of Australia, and the southernmost; it bears much resemblance to the rest of Australia, except for being -- that slight bit more south and further from the Equator -- more cool, green and lush throughout. It has gentle plains and wolds, and rugged mountains; and plentiful natural forest cover, though now much depleted by man; and wondrously varied and sometimes unique, fauna and flora. The author on sailing-ship topics Alan Villiers, who lived for a while in the 1920s in the island’s capital Hobart in its south, wrote of the area as being then “a wonderland, a rolling forest land of beautiful wooded hills, fern-lined gulleys, and high mountains”. The description holds good, to a fair extent, for the whole island today – plus of course, magnificent coastal scenes and seascapes.

In so far as there were any rules to Australia’s strange and wayward way, in the formative times, with railway gauges, things for Tasmania followed “standard practice”. That is, railways serving Australia’s more marginal and outlying areas were developed on the “Cape Gauge” – 1067mm / 3ft. 6in. Thus it was for Tasmania, whose first public lines opened in the early 1870s (initially on the 1600mm / 5ft. 3in. gauge; but so little, and for such a short space of time, that the episode basically rates as ephemeral). A simple description of the island’s network at maximum extent could be; a quite straightforward framework, 1067mm gauge with a few minor “feeder” lines of 610mm / 2ft.width, starting in the south at Hobart: main route running due north to Tasmania’ s second city of Launceston, near the north coast; and proceeding from there essentially north-westward, en route joining the coast and running closely parallel with it, to points not far from the island’s north-western corner. Plus assorted lines / mini-systems branching off in various directions from this main stem. (Incidentally, pronunciation of Launceston is with three syllables – “Lorn-sess-ton”; whereas I gather that the folk of its Cornish original, pronounce their town as “Lanson”.)

In several ways, parallels of a kind can be seen between Tasmania, and Newfoundland on the other side of the planet. In a fairly similar league as regards size, though Tasmania is slightly smaller. Also, Tasmania tends to appear to the people of the sun-baked Australian mainland, as something of a chilly and rugged outpost. As with metropolitan Canada and Newfoundland, mainland Aussies have a long-standing and essentially libellous jesting tradition of classing Tasmanians as “country cousins”, lacking in polish and sometimes not very bright. And both islands were long served by fairly comprehensive 1067mm gauge public railway systems. The difference with this last, is that Newfoundland’s rail system is totally defunct; whereas that of Tasmania, though much diminished from its fullest extent, has its main “spine” and a couple of offshoots still in commercial freight action today (passenger services ended some decades ago). The map at the end of the page shows, as best known to the author, the situation at the time of writing.

From early days up to the late twentieth century, most of Tasmania’s trackage belonged to the Tasmanian Government Railways. The principal exception was a concentrated cluster (at peak) of largely private lines, taking off from the TGR north-coast line at Burnie, and running south-westward from there to serve large tracts of the island’s wild, mountainous, densely-forested north-west – the prize being the mineral wealth of various kinds located in those parts. The Government Railways system reached a maximum route length of 1040km, almost all of it 1067mm gauge; the north-western “bundle” of private lines adding another two-hundred-and-some kilometres. Throughout, less busy and vigorous traffic than anticipated for some lines, and road competition, raised their heads early -- some branches were distinctly short-lived, with abandonments beginning in the 1920s. The main lines and more substantial branches remained well-used, however.

The Government Railways had in their service over basically a century, steam locomotives from a variety of British and Australian / New Zealand (and a couple of German) builders, clocking up a total of some 170 machines of 35-odd different classes. A preponderance of 4-4-0s and 2-6-0s in the 19th and early 20th centuries (some of the latter type continuing to be built for the TGR up to 1937), were joined in the First World War era and after, by two small-in-numbers Garratt classes, a 4-8-0 class, and a 4-8-2 ditto, plus a few 4-6-2s in 1923; and a new Pacific type, class M, introduced surprisingly late – the start of the 1950s – plus at the same time, the new H class of 4-8-2.

Oddly, TGR’s first big orders of diesel locos entered service at that identical time. The eclipse of steam traction by diesel in Tasmania conformed fairly much to the time-pattern for that process, in Australia generally. Internal-combustion railmotors were introduced around the World War II period or before; diesel locomotives came on the scene in some strength shortly after WWII, but the modern power was slower to oust steam, than in some parts of the world. Regular steam working on TGR came to an end in 1965.

The indefatigable railfan Peter Allen – a British counterpart of C.S. Small, in that between the 1940s and 1960s, his work took him all over the globe with opportunities to “check out” the railway scene in very numerous locations – published an article telling of a brief visit to Tasmania in 1960. This gives a fascinating “snapshot” of more or less the last moment when there was active steam in fair plenty on the island, and when multiple members of the bunch of private and other lines in the north-west were still in commercial action. On the TGR, Allen found a modicum of steam working on the north coast around Burnie, but apparent total dieselisation at the Hobart end. The private outfits gave him steam in abundance – as dealt with in more detail below.

TGR still had some steam locos in going order, or repairable, as at 1971; eight were roped in for the commemoration in February that year, of the centenary of railways in Tasmania, involving some thirty steam specials being worked over northerly parts of the TGR system (Tasmania’s first line to open was in the north, from Launceston to Deloraine). The locos were a veteran Beyer Peacock 2-6-0 of 1902, considerably rebuilt over time (class CCS no. 23); and an assortment from the last generation of TGR steam – Vulcan Foundry class H 4-8-2s, and Robert Stephenson & Hawthorn 4-6-2s of class M or its subsequently modified MA version.

Provision of passenger services by TGR declined after the century’s mid-point (various lesser branches had gone earlier than that), and the very last regular passenger service – the “Tasman Limited” train over the main lines between Hobart, Launceston and Wynyard – was withdrawn in July 1978. This occurred concurrently with the winding-up of the long-standing state Government Railways administration. The thirty-five years since, have featured the island’s railways as the object of a kind of game of “pass the parcel” (with a number of bits of the system falling into disuse in the process) between a variety of successive owners / operators – some of them, private entrepreneurs. This began with the TGR’s taking-over in 1978 by the Australian National Railways – long-standing proprietor of various railways on the mainland which were not in the remit of individual State governments. Total rail abandonment in Tasmania has been contemplated at various times during these vicissitudes -- but, rather against the odds, “the main-line backbone and a bit more” are, as recounted earlier, still there, carrying assorted freight; and at the time of writing, once again in the hands of a branch of the Tasmanian state government. In 2004 the hitherto private Emu Bay Railway, the “trunk line” of the assorted-railways complex in the north-west, and long the only part of that left in commercial use, was merged with the rest of the island’s system as regards ownership and operation; and is still vigorously in freight action. (The Emu Bay continued to offer vestigial passenger accommodation on its freight trains, for a few years after the 1978 end of passenger services elsewhere on the island.)

Fresh diesel locomotives – both new, and second-hand from assorted venues on the mainland – have been brought copiously into service in Tasmania since 1978. Occasional special passenger workings of various sorts have been run during the decades since then, some hauled by the several steam locos – chiefly 1950s-vintage M/MA Pacifics and H Mountains – kept in working order by private preservation ventures.

Turning full attention on to the long-private Emu Bay Railway (1067mm gauge) and its lesser neighbours; the EBR line makes physical connection with the “classic” Government system at Burnie. The railway had its beginnings in the 1880s; but inauguration under the Emu Bay name, and opening throughout of its 142km south-west from Burnie to Zeehan, took place in 1897. The EBR also had a 17km-odd branch from Guildford 61km out of Burnie, to Waratah -- abandoned around the beginning of World War II. At the zenith of rail activity in this remote, mountainous region in the very early twentieth century, the EBR made connection with a variety (running into double figures) of lesser rail undertakings – some purely industrial, but a number offering common-carrier services in some sort, including some for passengers. The reason for this being such a “happening” place, was minerals in plenty -- copper first in order of importance; but also gold, zinc, lead, silver, tin and galena. This must have been a wonderful time and place railfan-wise for the fortunate few who both experienced it, and were inclined to appreciate it. Some half a century later, a small handful of lines out of this complex of same, remained active -- recent, rather unlikely, developments, have caused this also to be the case nowadays.

Some of the lines – common-carrier, or mineral -- connecting with the EBR, and its approximate contemporaries as to opening date, were of 1067mm gauge; others 610mm. Rather oddly, there was centred on Zeehan a small bunch of Tasmanian Government Railways lines of both gauges – linked to the rest of the TGR system, only over independent Emu Bay track. One of these Government lines ran, on 1067mm gauge, 46km southward from Zeehan to “tidewater” at Strahan. It connected there with the Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Company’s 1067mm gauge line running 35km tortuously eastward to the “copper capital” Queenstown, including an 8km Abt rack section over a mountain saddle. Rack lines have always been very rare in Australia; though the Rockhampton – Mount Morgan line of the Queensland 1067mm gauge system used to have a rack section (replaced in the 1950s, by a deviation with ordinary adhesion running). Until the mid-20th century it was possible for a rail vehicle to run, very circuitously, all the way from Hobart to Queenstown; although this did not happen much – most of the Queenstown mines’ output was processed at source, and shipped out by sea from Strahan. The Hobart – Queenstown direct road route, some 175km, is perhaps a third of the distance of the abovementioned run by rail. The copper smelters in Queenstown, and the open-cast mines whose product they attended to, caused a scene for many decades of a lunar landscape, with virtually all vegetation killed, for a considerable distance around the town. Nowadays, with less stuff to mine and stricter regulations on the processing, the local environment is reported to be recovering by degrees.

Other members of the railway cast in the boom-time of this remote region some hundred years ago: the Government Railways sections radiating from Zeehan -- initiated in the closing years of the 19th century -- comprised, as well as the Strahan route, a 1067mm gauge line Zeehan – Dundas, 10km (ownership and operation of which in fact underwent various fluctuations between the Government, and Emu Bay, Railways); and a 610mm line – the North-East Dundas Tramway – from Zeehan to Williamsford, 29km. The NEDT will have a “forever” footnote in steam annals, for having been the line served by the world’s first Beyer-Garratt locomotives: an 0-4-0 + 0-4-0 pair by Beyer Peacock, entered service 1909 – TGR class K, numbers 1 and 2. Abandonment came about for the North-East Dundas Tramway (also for the Zeehan -- Dundas line) in 1932. As for the Garrattts: no.2 was scrapped, no. 1 was saved for its historical interest, returned to Britain and long preserved static by its makers, and is now enjoying a fairly lively “second youth” on the Welsh Highland Railway.

The NEDT – exceedingly scenic, tortuous and steeply-graded and difficult to work, began life with a number of four-coupled tank locos – by Sharp Stewart, and Krauss – which were clearly inadequate for the job at hand. A large articulated tank loco of a curious patent design was ordered from the German firm of Hagans, and seemingly entered service in 1901. One source states that this machine was a success on the line; another, that it was too heavy for the track, which it tended to spread, even after track-strengthening work – whereby the loco finished up spending most of its time shunting at Zeehan. At all events, the need was seen to acquire the Garratts in 1909.

Another 610mm gauge common-carrier line hereabouts was the 10km Tullah Tramway, running from Farrell on the EBR to Tullah, where galena was mined. This Tramway enjoyed a long life, by virtue of useable roads tending to come late to this part of the world. On the coast roughly west of Queenstown there is a large inlet of the sea, useful for “harbour” purposes, at the northernmost point of which Strahan is situated. At the peak of the mining-and-railway fever hereabouts 100+ years ago, the Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Company actually had a rival concern, doing the same things but conveying the mine output to a different port – Pillinger further south on the inlet. This was not in fact a case of quite such “certifiable” railway-mania as it might at first seem. The Mount Lyell company, and its adversary the North Mount Lyell Railway, had potential for being evenly matched, with different advantages and handicaps. They handled copper ore from basically the same mountain mass, but from different sides of it – the NMLR, though 1067mm gauge, was not physically connected with the ML, or with any other railway. The Mount Lyell had access to poorer-quality ore, shipped it out on a railway which was difficult to operate, but had a smelter that worked well. The North Mount Lyell had better ore, a well-constructed and easily-worked railway (no messing around with racks), but a smelter which performed poorly when it worked at all. Victory in the end, went to the Mount Lyell; the North Lyell was abandoned in the 1920s, with its rival outliving it by some four decades. After the North Lyell’s closure, an Avonside 4-6-0 from its stock was acquired by the Emu Bay Railway.

Guildford and its branch to Waratah were the focal point on the Emu Bay, for a cluster of mineral lines; one of them the 610mm Magnet Tramway. This line was almost unique in Australia, in using articulated locos of the Mallet type. It had two 0-4-4-0T Mallets, nos. 1 and 3, built by Orenstein and Koppel in 1901 and 1907 respectively. At the Tramway’s abandonment – concurrently with the EBR branch – around 1940, the Mallets were bought by a mining undertaking in Western Australia. In fact by then, no. 1 was no longer operational, and was progressively cannibalised to keep her sister running. No. 3 is now at the Bennett Brook Railway preservation site in W.A., near Perth; loco is under restoration there, with plans for an eventual return to working order.

The Emu Bay Railway owned over the years a total of twenty-two steam locomotives, from a variety of British and Australian builders. Starting like the TGR with 4-4-0s and 2-6-0s, it then brought into service a quartet of handsome 4-8-0s: three by Dübs in 1900, with a fourth from North British in 1911. The EBR made its Garratt-user début in 1929, with three 4-8-2 + 2-8-4s from Beyer Peacock. From 1950 on, the line became the owner of five more “double Mountain” Garratts, of a very different kind. These were of the “Australian Standard Garratt” type – an Australian-designed and -built machine, hastily mass-produced to meet heavy World War II traffic demands on Australia’s 1067mm gauge systems. The “ASG” proved to be a design with many faults, usually found to perform poorly and to be inconvenient and troublesome to operate. Railwaymen who were forced to have to do with this loco type, hated it nearly everywhere that it ran. (And the ASG was ugly in appearance, even by Garratt standards.) The Tasmanian Government system had some ASGs, but did not use them for very long. It would seem that uniquely, the Emu Bay’s management and operating staff actually liked their Standard Garratts, and got good use from them for a decade and a half. As indicated earlier, the people of Australia’s mainland tend to think of Tasmanians as a bit weird...

The EBR was very early in the field with the use of internal-combustion railcars, making its first experiments with them around the time of World War I. By the mid-1920s, the railway’s Burnie – Guildford – Waratah passenger service was regularly railcar; in the following decade, railcars took over the main-line passenger to Zeehan as well. The EBR purchased over time an assortment of railcars and trailers, of various dates; also bought new in 1953 a North British diesel loco, which was joined by a Drewry diesel second-hand from the Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co.’s line on its 1963 closure. Several new diesel locos from the firm of Walkers were purchased in 1963, plus a larger batch of the same type in 1970; EBR steam working is thought to have finished in 1966. The Mount Lyell line was worked for the majority of its life by five rack-and-adhesion four-cylinder 0-4-2Ts -- the first four, by Dübs, acquired more or less concurrent with the line’s opening; no.5, of the same design but by North British, came much later in 1938. The line purchased new in 1953, two Drewry 0-6-0 diesel locos – purely adhesion machines, used basically on the western 20km of the line between Strahan and the start of the rack section at Dubbil Barril. The railway also acquired at some point, a diesel railcar. Post-closure of the line, one Drewry loco was sold, as above, to the EBR; the other, to the TGR.

After the Emu Bay’s passenger services having been solidly railcar for between two and three decades, that era (though not the line’s catering for passenger traffic ) ended. Initially, in a most surprising way – occasioned by the combination of growth in tourist activity in the island’s north-west, and increased motor-vehicle use in the area; but for the time being, inadequate roads or in places none. With potential tourist demand being in a fair way to swamping the railcars, the EBR enhanced their passenger capacity by reconditioning a pair of steam locos which had been lying out of use, and several coaches. The locos brought back to life for this purpose were 1900 Dübs 4-8-0s nos. 6 and 8. They were converted to oil firing, painted in Caledonian Railway-type blue livery -- the coaches were painted blue to match -- and named (for the first time) respectively Murchison and Heemskirk, after local mountains. The region’s main obstacle to road travel was the 53km stretch from Guildford to Rosebery, traversed by the EBR line but with no road link at all between the two towns. The steam passenger workings -- commencing in 1960, given the title of the “West Coaster” – were put into service between Burnie, Guildford and Rosebery, tied in with regular round-the-island coach tours without road for their coaches between the latter two points. It is understood that the road coaches were put onto flat wagons included in the train, and hauled thus over the roadless section, while the tour participants travelled in the rail passenger stock. In this era, the EBR was able to do quite big business in ferrying private motor-cars across the gap in the road system: there are accounts of the “West Coaster” making a brave sight, with at times maybe three tourist road coaches, and some thirty private cars, on flat wagons in the consist.

Peter Allen’s 1960 Tasmania trip, mentioned above, featured an action-packed day on the lines in the north-west. He managed travel on the footplate of an EBR Australian Standard Garratt working the Burnie – Zeehan daily general freight (which, as above, included several private motors on flat wagons, bridging the road gap); and likewise on that of 4-8-0 no. 6 Murchison on the southbound “West Coaster”. The interval between these two footplating spells was spent at Farrell, to witness the 610mm gauge Tullah Tramway’s in-and-out working, headed by one of the line’s tiny Fowler 0-4-0Ts. With the road network rejoined at Rosebery, the assistance of car-owning friends got him to Strahan for a journey – on the footplate once more – with a Mount Lyell “freight with passenger accommodation”, 0-4-2 rack-tank-worked throughout, to Queenstown. Allen mentions in his article that at the time of his visit, the Government Railways’ Zeehan – Strahan line (which had never been very busy) was reckoned to be on its last legs – its only quasi-regular traffic as of then, being (steam) timber trains over part of its length; the passenger service had been withdrawn. Final abandonment for this line occurred in the early 1960s – sources differ as to the date, with 1960 (round about the time of Allen’s visit) most favoured.

Curiously, Nick Anchen's book on the "Railways of Tasmania's Wild West" quotes an engineman’s reminiscence which included bumping into Mr. Allen - “Sometimes we’d cook up a feed on the footplate. I remember one time a well-dressed man came up at Boco and spoke to us. I was busily cooking a feed on the firing shovel – steak, sausages and eggs. I told him to climb up, and up he came. He introduced himself, and he was some big wig from the chemical business from England. He said, ‘I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around the world on railways, but I’ve never smelt anything as good as that.” I said, ‘Would you like a piece of steak?’ ‘No thanks,’ he said, ‘the guard’s already put an order in at Guildford, but oh God that smells good’.” 50 years on it's impossible and not really worth too much time to decide whether Mr. Allen also travelled north or someone's memory had been less than perfect!

1960 in these parts must have been wonderful; but things soon started to go downhill. The Tullah Tramway closed at the end of 1961, with the Mount Lyell following suit – as mentioned above -- in August 1963. The “West Coaster” years – resplendent Indian summer for the EBR – were sadly few. As from mid-December 1963, the road link was no longer “missing”: the Murchison Highway had opened throughout from Rosebery to the north coast, and tourist traffic by rail, immediately dwindled to almost nothing – at the peak of the summer season. Seemingly, no “steam nostalgia for its own sake” market in Tasmania fifty years ago. In the first days of 1964, the “West Coaster” was withdrawn for good; from then on, the EBR’s only provision for passengers took the form of a couple of coaches hooked on, twice weekly, to the general freight working out of Burnie early in the morning, and its return. This meagre passenger service continued, remarkably, until 1983 – though the trains’ outer terminating point receded over time. It is understood that the last passenger working beyond Rosebery, to Zeehan, ran in April 1964; Rosebery – Zeehan was closed completely the following year. From then on, the vicissitudes of the mining industry have caused various ups-and-downs concerning the EBR’s doings. Freight workings (with as above, minimal passenger accommodation till 1983) long ran only as far as Primrose, where copper is mined, a little way short of Rosebery. Later on, mineral traffic was reinstated on the EBR through to Melba Flats, most of the way to Zeehan; it is understood that material mined further afield, began to be brought to that point for loading onto rail. This situation is understood to obtain at the time of writing, with loading activity at both Primrose and Melba Flats.

Tasmania has an active, working rail preservation movement – save for one venue, this is on a smallish scale, as would be expected of an island with a less-than-huge population (some 500,000). The premier and most long-established Tasmanian preservation venture would have to be reckoned the Don River Railway (earlier known as the Van Diemen Light Railway); which runs trains on a four-kilometre stretch of the former Devonport – Melrose branch near its seaward end, and also hosts the island’s biggest collection of preserved steam locomotives in working order, plus a number of diesels. The operable steam collection – members of which have been used at times on “main-line” specials on wider reaches of the island’s rail system – comprises largely, TGR “last-steam-generation” 4-6-2s and 4-8-2s, plus centenarians TGR 2-6-0 CCS no. 25, and Emu Bay 4-8-0 no. 8 Heemskirk of “West Coaster” fame, the latter restored to working order in 1996 after lengthy repairs. (Sister engine no. 6 Murchison is also still in existence, preserved static at a museum at Zeehan.) The “working order, or not” status of locos at Don River, of course fluctuates over time: data above is as per most recent impressions gained.

A preservation scene also obtains, located on the Tasmanian State system’s 60km-odd branch running west from Bridgewater near Hobart into beautiful mountain country, terminating at Maydena. This undertaking, the Derwent Valley Railway – owner of several, mostly non-operational, specimens of TGR 4-6-2 and 4-8-2, and with train haulage basically by its diesel locos – has undergone difficult times in recent years, in fact rendering it inactive, because of legal / administrative use-of-track disputes with the main-line railway operators. (Previously, the preservationists ran their trains over parts of the branch, under a leasing arrangement.) The problems are be regretted: from the map and from videos, this would appear to be a finely scenic route. For the past few years, all and any passenger specials – irrespective of motive power – have indeed been forbidden from running over any of the State system’s lines; it is understood that negotiations are going on, in the hope of getting this ban lifted.

Surprisingly, the little 610mm Tullah Tramway underwent a modest renaissance long after its end as a commercial operation. One of its pair of minute Fowler 0-4-0Ts, Wee Georgie Wood (built in the 1920s – different authorities give different construction accounts, with details that vary; at all events, the loco which Allen encountered in 1960), was preserved static at Tullah: local railway enthusiasts were able, in the 1980s, to get this locomotive back into working order and to relay a few kilometres of track at the Tullah end of the route, on which run the loco and such passenger vehicles as could be contrived. This venue has continued to operate in season, up to the present day. With original route length from Tullah to the Emu Bay Railway at Farrell, having been only ten kilometres, it is pleasant to dream about the line’s reopening in its entirety; but local manpower and resources will be only what they are, and after half a century’s abandonment, there could well be great obstacles along the former right-of-way. The author would not be disposed to undertake a journey to Tullah specifically to experience this contribution to the railway-preservation field; but feels at least as happy about its existence, as not. In addition to the Tullah “WGW” outfit, Tasmania has a couple of other short 610mm preserved operations, using ex-industrial motive power.

What has to be reckoned Tasmania’s biggest success story in the “preservation” ballpark has come about in decidedly recent times, and involves the one-time Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co.’s 1067mm gauge part-rack line from Strahan to Queenstown. After this line’s abandonment for commercial freight and passenger traffic in 1963, the track was lifted and people saw this, reasonably enough, as the end. Not so, however: three-and-a-half decades later, energetic entrepreneurs with generous financial backing from the Federal and State governments began work to reinstate the railway, throughout its length – complete with Abt rack section -- as a tourist attraction. This was achieved in stages over a few years, with services over the full 35km commencing at the end of 2002 – and the West Coast Wilderness Railway, as the venture has styled itself, was in full glorious action for the succeeding decade.

By what seems a rather amazing stroke of luck, four of the Mount Lyell line’s five rack-and-adhesion 0-4-2Ts had continued to exist, preserved at various venues; three have been restored to working order, and now operate on the WCWR (the fourth is preserved static elsewhere on the island). Also – putting still further strain on an unkind cynic’s “fairy-tale-meter” – the railway’s pair of Drewry diesels, on closure one sold to the TGR and the other to the Emu Bay, were still extant and in reasonable condition at the end of the 20th century; both have been acquired by the WCWR and put back into working order. Passenger coaches have been built new, intended as replicas of the line’s original coaching stock. One of the diesels has been fitted with Abt rack gear; but the picture is got that on the whole – as in commercial-service days – the diesels run on the western 20km adhesion section from Strahan to Dubbil Barril, where the 8km of rack begins; steam works east thereof, with as standard practice, change of power at “DB”. (It is gathered that the curious name of this spot has more than one explanation; the favourite being an association with “swashbuckling life in the bush” and someone’s double-barrelled gun.)

Per available information, trains take between three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half hours, for a one-way journey over the line’s 35km route. This would seem insanely slow, even for a narrow-gauge line with a substantial rack section; it is understood that the journey includes pauses for sightseeing, and a lunch stop. In the era of commercial service, an end-to-end run took about two hours. One gathers that at the time of writing, the line’s basically sparse schedule does not allow for a return rail journey over the whole route, eastbound or westbound, the same day: the run in one direction is covered by road coach, in 45 minutes ! In the early days of the revived line’s running throughout, a day return trip by rail was, at times, possible. To paraphrase Bryan Morgan, a journey to daunt – and to sore – any traveller; the one-way-by-coach deal was available then too, as a “wimps’ option”.

This Strahan to Queenstown line – starting at sea level, climbing up through the forested mountains along the valley of the King River, which it strikingly crosses twice; then surmounting by strenuous rack-assisted climbs / descents, a shoulder of the mountains, and then ascending the Queen River valley to the terminus – is reckoned, together with the Emu Bay Railway main line, the” joint” most magnificently scenic rail journey in Tasmania.

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”: early in 2013 the WCWR announced its having been undergoing financial losses, and a decline in the number of passengers; and made known its intention to cease operation from the end of April 2013. This announcement clearly implies hopes of being financially bailed out by the operation’s Federal / State benefactors; some among the less-trusting of the observers of the scene have wondered whether this might be a play for money, with the line’s operators imaginably exaggerating their difficulties. At all events, time will tell.

It is to hoped that this splendidly scenic line – partly steam-worked, to boot -- might continue in operation. However, should April ‘13 turn out to be the end of the road for it, this author would frankly not be inconsolable. I am a purist about such things, and with a strong feeling that any preservation scene can at the optimum be only second-best -- plus a “gut” aversion to the phenomenon of railways ceasing to be commercially viable, and being abandoned and dismantled; and then being revived by preservationists or commercial interests, decades afterward. Irrational though it may be, my sentiment in such circumstances is, “the line died and was buried; let it rest in peace, don’t try to dig up the corpse.” While not wishing the WCWR ill, I do not expect to lie awake at nights in early 2013 worrying about the outcome for it.

As if Tasmania most of a century ago, had not already been rail-transport-geek’s-heaven; both Hobart and Launceston had 1067mm gauge electric tram systems (1893 – 1960 and 1911 – 1952, respectively). Hobart’s was extensive, with a maximum of six routes, and largely featured double-deck tramcars in the British style – not used elsewhere in Australia. One can’t help feeling re this island in transport-at-best days: such an earthly paradise (in all ways) shouldn’t be allowed -- there had to be a huge “catch” somewhere...

Anecdote recalled from someplace; a flyer issued by an earnest evangelical church in Launceston, clearly from 1952 or earlier, telling of a sermon scheduled for a particular date and place -- headed: “Ten Launceston men on the way to hell – take the tram to the door”.

Rather a feeling of --without wishing to seem disrespectful -- “the Lord Mayor’s Show, and what follows after it”: some 1,700 kilometres east of Australia lies the island of New Caledonia ; one of those islands best described as “long (400km) and thin” ; French since 1853, nowadays classed as an Overseas Territory of France. The island had -- essentially over, at best, less than four decades in the earlier part of the 20th century -- a metre-gauge public railway, titled the Chemin de Fer Colonial. Short, and serving – with only one route -- solely the south-eastern corner of the island which includes the capital Nouméa. It is understood that New Caledonia had also, many and varied industrial / agricultural railways (all long defunct); information about “all and any” of the island’s lines seems hard to come by, unless one reads French and is able to access the book by Jean Rolland, on the subject and in that language.

The CFC ran for a modest 29km, on a roughly horseshoe-shaped route north-east and then north-west from Nouméa to Paita. It was intended originally to transport nickel ore, mined in the hinterland, to the capital; and to open up the coast north-west thereof, for settlement. Construction took a good many years – opening throughout, may have been several years either side of 1910: such sources as available at this time, would seem to differ. Locomotive stock was apparently a couple of 0-6-0Ts and a couple of 4-6-0Ts, from French builders.

The CFC seemingly “did its stuff” between the World Wars, but by the late ‘thirties had lost most of its traffic and was no longer found worthwhile – it was abandoned at the beginning of 1940. History intervened, briefly: later that year, the island was co-opted to the Allied / Free French side in World War II; and after the United States’ entering the conflict, the US Army reopened the CFC’s line early in 1942 to help – in a mostly-freight capacity -- in their effort in the Pacific theatre of the war. There were then available for use two of the line’s original locos, plus two “contractors’ “ 0-6-0Ts; these were quickly supplemented by several diesel locos from the US. The line’s wartime renaissance was short: by early 1944, the tides of war had moved on, and there came about a second and permanent abandonment.

New Caledonia’s line would seem to rank high among those rail common-carriers which the fewest interested parties ever got to, during their time of operation. Staying on the “record-holders” theme -- C.S. Small must be reckoned a keen contender for the title of the gricer who “when the going was truly good” globetrotting-wise, managed to visit the greatest number of wildly out-of-the-way places. He clocked-up New Caledonia, in a way – but got there only in the 1950s, when there were left just the CFC’s ruins-and-remains to record – which he duly does in his book “Rails to the Setting Sun”.

Links and Resources:


Comprehensive general information - (Link broken by May 2023)

Video of the March 2010 scene including main line and preservation items- Look for 'more like this' covering the “Don River Railway” and “West Coast Wilderness Railway”, particularly and on the latter. On YouTube these users have much material on the island (look for 1960s material in the latter towards the end of uploads, also videos of the Tasman Limited train).

Using Google Images to search similarly will produce masses of material...

New Caledonia

Perhaps not surprisingly, internet resources are somewhat limited. Googling "Chemin de Fer Colonial Noumea" brings up a few hits but only this is worthwhile., it contains contains old postcards and pictures of other narrow gauge relics and mentions the book, "Les rails calédoniens 1892-1953", but only for serious students at 54 Euros when it was published.

Rob Dickinson