1720 Class locomotives 1771 and 1774 with Kuranda Scenic Railway train crossing Stoney Creek Viaduct, 31 December 2012.

Kuranda Scenic Railway trains at Kuranda, 31 December 2012.

Kuranda Scenic Railway

David Matheson

20 October 2019

Kuranda Scenic Railway is one of Australia’s most popular tourist trains. It provides a spectacular 33.2 km railway journey between Cairns and Kuranda. The line climbs from sea level to an altitude of 330 metres. It passes waterfalls and rainforest scenery, with views of the Cairns area, the Pacific Ocean and the rugged Barron Gorge.

 

Construction

Cairns and Port Douglas had both been established as townships in the 1870s. In 1882 a railway was promised from the coast to the inland town of Herberton. Cairns and Port Douglas engaged in a struggle over which port the railway should commence from. Eventually Cairns was selected.

 

Construction of the railway between Cairns and Kuranda commenced in 1886 when the first sod was turned by Queensland Premier, Samuel Griffiths, on 10 May. The first section of the line between Cairns and Redlynch was opened on 8 October 1887.

 

John Robb submitted a tender of £290,094 for building the second part of the line from Redlynch to Myola (4.9 km beyond Kuranda). Robb won the tender and supervised the work until its completion. Because of the extensive nature of the work, Robb was eventually paid £880,406 plus £20,807 resulting from arbitration. Construction was difficult because of the steep terrain, unstable rock and thick vegetation. Over 1500 men were involved in the work. Navvies’ camps were established, and stores and hotels commenced trading. 244 metres of steel bridges and 1894 metres of wooden bridges were constructed on the line. Fifteen tunnels were built, ranging in length from 51 metres to 430 metres. There were also numerous curves.

 

The Governor of Queensland, Sir Henry Norman, inspected the construction work on 28 April 1890. A locomotive pushed the Governor’s carriage, along with wagons containing seats for journalists and other guests, along the line as far as Stoney Creek Bridge. A reception was held on the bridge, although there were no speeches because of the noise from the waterfall. By the end of 1890 the line was nearing completion, but a heavy wet season at the start of 1891 caused a landslide, which delayed work. At least 23 men died during construction of the railway, but there may have been others that were not recorded. Some died from accidents, but others from malaria, dysentery, snake bites and scrub ticks.

 

The line through Kuranda and on to Myola was officially opened by Mr A Johnston, one of the Railway Commissioners, on 15 June 1891. Goods traffic commenced on this date, while passenger services began ten days later. The line beyond Myola was completed to Mareeba in 1893, Atherton in 1903, Herberton in 1910 and Ravenshoe in 1916.

 

A journey on the line

Trains on the line were hauled by steam locomotives from its opening until 1959, when an 1170 Class diesel-electric locomotive began to operate from Cairns to Kuranda. Rail motors have also operated on the line.

 

The first section between Cairns and Redlynch is 11.6 km in length and is relatively flat. Redlynch is located 1.6 km beyond the current Freshwater station. From Redlynch the line begins to climb up the Macalister Range, with lengthy steep gradients. Shortly after Redlynch it heads in a southerly direction and passes the site of Jungara (13.8 km from Cairns), then traverses a sharp horseshoe curve before heading in a northerly direction again. The line then enters the first of 15 tunnels on the line, with the first 13 passed within the next 5.5 km. As the train climbs a scenic view can be seen of the farming areas below and the coastline. North Peak Mountain is on the western side of the line. Many curves are encountered, some with a radius as sharp as 80 metres. The line passes above the Barron River and along Stoney Creek Gorge, passing the site of Stoney Creek station (22.8 km from Cairns). It then reaches the bridge over Stoney Creek, with Stoney Creek Falls on the western side. The bridge is a steel lattice construction with seven spans and a total length of 88.4 metres.

 

After crossing the bridge the line then proceeds on the northern side of Stoney Creek Gorge and passes through Tunnel 14 before entering the Barron Gorge. It passes through Tunnel 15, the last and also the longest tunnel on the line. The 72.5 metre steel lattice bridge over Surprise Creek (28.7 km from Cairns) is crossed, before reaching Robb’s Monument, a large rock outcrop named after John Robb, who built the railway, which is on the eastern side. Barron Falls station (30.7 km from Cairns) has spectacular views over the gorge below. Kuranda Scenic Railway trains stop at the station to enable passengers to alight and enjoy the views. The last section of the line is relatively flat before it reaches Kuranda (33.2 km from Cairns), where Kuranda Scenic Railway trains terminate. Kuranda is an attractive station that is decorated with numerous ferns.

 

Between Cairns and Kuranda the railway is single track, with crossing loops at Cairns, Redlynch, Stoney Creek and Kuranda. The steepest gradient on the line is 1 in 48, with lengthy sections of 1 in 50 and 1 in 60. Services between Cairns and Kuranda operate to a maximum speed of 70 km/h. Between distances 16.0 km from Cairns and 32.9 km from Cairns trains are restricted to a maximum speed of 30 km/h.

 

Kuranda Scenic Railway Services

Dedicated tourist service commenced operating between Cairns and Kuranda in 1936. Kuranda Scenic Railway trains today are hauled by Queensland Railways 1720 Class locomotives. 56 of the 1720 Class units entered service from 1966, and have traction power of 746 kW. They were built for use on Brisbane suburban services, but were eventually used in a range of light duties throughout Queensland. 1720 Class units 1734D, 1771D and 1774D have a colour scheme with an indigenous design for use on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Various passenger carriages are used, many of which formerly operated on the Sunshine Express passenger train between Brisbane and Cairns. They have since been refurbished.

 

Kuranda Scenic Railway trains operate every day of the year, except Christmas Day. Two services depart Cairns each morning: one at 8.30 am and the other at 9.30 am. The total journey time to Kuranda is 1 hour, 55 minutes. Trains return from Kuranda at 2.00 pm and 3.30 pm. Two classes of travel are available to most passengers: Heritage Class and Gold Class. Royal Class is available to groups of 15 or more. A commentary is provided on the journey. Travel on the railway can be combined with visits to other local attractions. Passengers have the option of travelling on the Kuranda Scenic Railway in one direction only or both ways. Tour options can include a journey by train in one direction and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in the other direction. Attractions in Kuranda include rainforest walks, local markets, river cruises, Birdworld Kuranda, Australian Butterfly Sanctuary and Kuranda Koala Gardens. Around 400,000 passengers travel on the Kuranda Scenic Railway every year.

References

Ellis, RF, Rails to the tableland, Australian Railway Historical Society, Queensland Division, Brisbane, 1976.

Kerr, J, Triumph of narrow gauge: a history of Queensland Railways, Boolarong, Brisbane, 1990.

Kuranda Scenic Railway <www.ksr.com.au>.

Queensland Heritage Register, Queensland Government, ‘Cairns Railway, Section from Redlynch to Crooked Creek Bridge’

     <www.environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600755>.

Queensland Rail, Annual and financial report 2018–19, Brisbane, 2019.

Queensland Rail, ‘Tablelands System Information Pack’, October 2016

     <https://www.queenslandrail.com.au/business/acccess/Documents/Tablelands%20System%20Information%20Pack%20-%20Issue%203%20- %20October%202016.pdf>.

Singleton, CC, ‘Railways of the Cairns district’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 234, April 1957, pp. 55–60.

Singleton, CC, ‘Railways of the Cairns district’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 239, September 1957, pp. 129–141.

Webber, W, Exploring the railways of Far North Queensland, Australian Railway Historical Society, Queensland Division, Brisbane, 2004.

Kuranda Scenic Railway trains at Kuranda, 31 December 2012.

1771 and 1774 in Kuranda Scenic Railway livery with Kuranda Scenic Railway train departing Cairns, Tuesday, 1 January 2013.