Cairns Railway Station, c. 1890. Photo: John Oxley Library, Wikimedia Commons.
Opening of the Daradgee Bridge over the Johnstone River completing the railway link between Brisbane and Cairns, 8 December 1924. Photo: John Oxley Library, Wikimedia Commons.
Construction of Queensland’s North Coast Line
22 May 2021
Queensland’s North Coast line was constructed over a lengthy period of time. Sections were built that were disconnected from the rest of the network and created various isolated railways. Some railways which opened to the inland included sections that would eventually become part of the North Coast line. The line between Gympie and Maryborough was the first dedicated part of the North Coast line when it opened in 1881. It was not until 1924, with the opening of the Daradgee Bridge, that the line between Brisbane and Cairns was completed. Although the line is close to the coast for the whole journey, there are only four locations where train passengers can view the sea: Gladstone, Clairview, Bowen and Cardwell, although it is close to the sea at other locations.
First sections opened
The first section of what would become the North Coast line was actually opened as part of another line. On 17 September 1867 a 52-km line opened from Rockhampton to Westwood, which was later extended to Longreach and Winton. It was one of Queensland’s first railways, coming two years after the first railway in the colony. It included an 8-km section between Rockhampton and Rocklands, which many years later was connected to and became part of the North Coast line. Similar to the line from Rockhampton, a 10-km section between Townsville and Stuart, opened on 20 December 1880, was part of the line opened to Reid River, a line that would eventually extend to Mount Isa. The section between Townsville and Stuart also later became part of the North Coast line.
The first section of the North Coast line to be completed that was not part of another railway was the 99 km line between Gympie and Maryborough, which was opened on 6 August 1881. Gympie had developed as a mining town following the discovery of gold in the 1860s, and the construction of the railway linked it with the river port at Maryborough.
In 1885 the Queensland Government approved the construction of further sections of what would become the North Coast line. Authorisation was given for the building of a railway between Brisbane and Gympie, and three contracts were awarded. John Robb was given the contract for the line from Northgate, a suburb of Brisbane, where the railway had already reached, through to Caboolture. Tom Jesser and George Willcocks received contracts for the remaining sections through to Gympie, which included two tunnels and a challenging climb of the Blackall Range between Eumundi and Cooroy. The line was completed in 1891, with the first trains running on 17 July and an official opening on 18 July. A special train ran from Brisbane’s Central station for Gympie consisting of two engines, five saloon carriages and a sleeping carriage, conveyed the Queensland Governor, Henry Norman, the Queensland Premier, Samuel Griffiths, and numerous members of parliament and other guests. The railway from Maryborough had been extended to Bundaberg by 1888, so with the opening to Gympie it was now possible to travel by train from Brisbane as far as Bundaberg.
Further extensions were built north from Bundaberg, although not always in order from south to north, resulting in various isolated railways along the Queensland coast. Gladstone was connected to Brisbane by October 1897. Drought and recession created delays for further construction, but Rockhampton was finally linked with Brisbane on 18 December 1903. Many isolated sections of railway were built to cater for local interests, and gradually over a long period of time the isolated sections were connected. Around 60 different sections would be built before the North Coast line between Brisbane and Cairns was completed.
The North Coast Railway Act was passed by Queensland’s parliament in 1910. This act authorised the construction of the further 731 km of railways required to complete the North Coast Line between Brisbane and Cairns. It would take 14 years before the final link was finished. Part of the reason for the long length of time was that there were numerous streams and rivers that the line needed to cross, and the construction of bridges was expensive and time consuming.
Following the passing of the North Coast Railway Act, work began in several locations in 1911. It commenced in Mackay in July 1911 and proceeded south. Services began between Mackay and Sarina on 1 July 1913. Construction continued and reached Koumala two years later. Meanwhile work had also begun at North Rockhampton in 1911. The bridge across the Fitzroy River between Rockhampton and North Rockhampton had previously been completed in 1899, and lines connected Rockhampton with Emu Park and Yeppoon. Construction began at North Rockhampton and headed north, reaching Jardine (later renamed Milman) on 1 July 1913, the same day that regular trains commenced between Mackay and Sarina. More sections opened in following years as the line continued northwards and southwards from the two railheads. Rockhampton and Mackay were connected on 24 September 1921 when the line between these locations was officially opened by Minister for Railways, James Larcombe.
In 1911 work also began further north to link Bobawaba and Ayr, a distance of 36 km. The last part of the railway to connect these locations was the bridge over the Burdekin River just south of Ayr, which was opened on 1 September 1913. Completion of this section meant that Townsville was now connected to Bowen by a Queensland Railways line. Heading southwards, the Bowen Proserpine Joint Tramway Board had opened a line between Bowen and Proserpine in 1910, so Townsville was linked by rail as for south as Proserpine. The Bowen–Proserpine Tramway was taken over by Queensland Railways on 1 July 1917.
Although it was possible to travel between Townsville and Proserpine by train from 1913, a gap of 122 km remained between Proserpine and Mackay. Obstacles to the completion of this link included the need for a large bridge over the Pioneer River and a very deep cutting at the Leap, both near Mackay. The river had been bridged and the line opened from Mackay to Farleigh by April 1918, but it was not until December 1923 that the line from the south reached Proserpine. Trains commenced running on 1 December, but were initially restricted to daylight hours because parts of the line had been laid quickly and remained unballasted.
The focus now shifted to the last remaining sections of the North Coast line to be completed, which were between Townsville and Cairns. Like other areas of the North Coast, construction from Townsville to the north had begun in 1911. Opening in various sections, the line reached Lilypond on 10 January 1921. Construction also continued further north with more sections being completed, including an isolated section from Innisfail, which reached south to Feluga on 3 December 1923. By the end of 1923 the only sections reaming to be completed were between Lilypond and Feluga, and between Innisfail and Daradgee. The railhead was extended north from Lilypond and south from Feluga, both meeting at Cardwell, while the section between Innisfail and Daradgee required a bridge over the North Johnstone River.
These final sections were completed in December 1924. An official opening was held on 8 December, with Premier Ted Theodore driving C17 Class locomotive No. 253 hauling the first train across the Daradgee Bridge. Special trains arrived from Cairns, Townsville and the Atherton Tableland, and thousands of people were present to witness the historic event. It was finally possible to make an uninterrupted train journey between Brisbane and Cairns.
Regular traffic commenced on 10 December 1924.
The significance of the North Coast line can be seen in the words of the Premier and Minister for Railways. In his speech to the crowd gathered for the official opening, the Premier said,
The linking up of the southern part of Australia is indeed one of the big milestones in the history of the State. Everybody in North Queensland must recognise the significance and importance of it, as it is an event which will have a decided bearing on the future of the North. 588 miles of railway line, including tramway lines, was taken over for the North Coast Line, of which 470 miles is new construction. (‘Daradgee bridge’, Northern Herald, 10 December 1924, p. 6.)
The Minister for Railways, James Larcombe, added,
Now all expectations for the future of the North should be exceeded and great progress should follow in North Queensland now that the line is open for public traffic. The line is not only of State importance, but also of national importance, as it will enable the Government to further develop the policy of decentralisation. (‘Daradgee bridge’, Northern Herald, 10 December 1924, p. 6.)
In December 1924 the population of Queensland was 800,000, whereas today it is over five million. The completion of the North Coast line was indeed an important factor in the development of North Queensland, the state and the nation.
Armstrong, J & J Kerr, Sunshine route jubilee, Australian Railway Historical Society, Queensland Division, Brisbane, 1975.
Burke, D, Chasing the sunshine: the story of Queensland’s Sunshine Express, Queensland Museum, Brisbane, 2009.
‘Daradgee bridge’, Northern Herald, 10 December 1924, p. 6.
Kerr, J, Triumph of narrow gauge: a history of Queensland railways, Boolarong, Brisbane, 1990.
North Coast line, Queensland chronological opening dates
North Coast line, Queensland sectional opening dates <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Coast_line, Queensland_sectional_opening_dates>.
Quinlan, H & JH Newland, Australian railway routes 1854 to 2000, Australian Railway Historical Society, New South Wales Division, Sydney, 2000.
‘To Gympie by rail’, The Telegraph, 20 July 1891, p. 7.
Townsville station, 1952. Photo: Queensland State Archives, Wikimedia Commons.
The Sunlander arriving at Cairns, Queensland, led by 2800 Class locomotive 2818, July 1997.