Cane train near Mackay, 12 August 2006. Photo: Wollombi, Wikimedia Commons.
Sugar cane train at Mossman, 9 August 2005. Photo: Thomas Schoch, Wikimedia Commons.
Sugar Cane Railways
12 August 2019
Over 90 per cent of Australia’s sugar cane is grown in Queensland. Although some is transported by road, the vast majority reaches sugar mills by rail. Queensland has extensive sugar cane railways, most of which use 610 mm (2 feet) gauge. Sugar milling companies operate freight trains for the transportation of sugar cane to processing mills along networks owned by the mills. Around 30 million tonnes of sugar cane are transported each season. Trains are operated by Bundaberg Sugar, Isis Central Sugar Mill, Mackay Sugar, MSF Sugar, Tully Sugar and Wilmar Sugar. The combined fleets of the sugar milling companies consist of around 250 diesel-hydraulic locomotives and approximately 52,000 cane bins (sugar cane railway wagons). During the crushing season, mills and railways may operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Cane railways usually operate from around June to December.
Sugar cane railways
Sugar cane railways are a series of networks that involve a series of tracks servicing cane growers within an area that are connected to a processing mill. Transportation of cane is planned so that particular growers are not advantaged over others. The sugar content of cane begins to decline when it has been cut, so it is important that it transported to the mill within 12 to 24 hours. A Traffic Officer from the mill allocates a number of bins to be delivered to various sidings and the grower will harvest according to capacity. Once the bins have been filled the Traffic Officer arranges for them to be collected in priority order. Sufficient cane must be delivered to keep the mill operating efficiently, but not an excess that may delay processing. Train crews signing on for duty receive a run sheet from the Traffic Officer that advises them how many empty bins to deliver to various locations, and how many full bins to collect and return to the mill. Locomotives are fitted with GPS trackers so that the Traffic Officer knows where they are at all times. A busy mill at the beginning of a shift can see trains departing every few minutes. Sugar cane trains operate at speeds of up to 40 km/h. They can weigh up to 2000 tonnes and have a length of up to one km.
Queensland has approximately 4000 route kilometres of sugar cane railways across various networks. All of these networks are 610 mm (2 feet) gauge, with the exception of the lines servicing Pioneer Mill at Brandon, which use 1067 mm (3 feet, 6 inch) gauge, and a dual gauge line connecting Kalamia Mill at Ayr and Invicta Mill at Giru. The railways are all owned, operated and maintained by the sugar milling companies. Some additional sugar mills are not serviced by railways. The furthest railway distance from loading point to mill is 119 km, with most cane being transported a distance of between 13 and 35 kilometres. At numerous locations the sugar cane railways cross the Queensland Rail North Coast line. A drawbridge crossing exists in some locations, where a section of 610 mm gauge track is lowered across the main railway line to enable sugar cane trains to pass. The sugar mills served by railway lines and their owners are indicated in order from south to north:
Isis Central Mill, Cordalba: Isis Central Sugar Mill
Bingera Mill, South Kolan: Bundaberg Sugar
Millaquin Mill, Bundaberg: Bundaberg Sugar
Plane Creek Mill, Sarina: Wilmar Sugar
Racecourse Mill, Mackay: Mackay Sugar
Marian Mill, Marian: Mackay Sugar
Farleigh Mill, Farleigh: Mackay Sugar
Proserpine Mill, Proserpine: Wilmar Sugar
Inkerman Mill, Home Hill: Wilmar Sugar
Pioneer Mill, Brandon: Wilmar Sugar
Kalamia Mill, Ayr: Wilmar Sugar
Invicta Mill, Giru: Wilmar Sugar
Victoria Mill, Ingham: Wilmar Sugar
Macknade Mill, Macknade: Wilmar Sugar
Tully Mill, Tully: Tully Sugar
South Johnstone Mill, South Johnstone: MSF Sugar
Mulgrave Mill, Gordonvale: MSF Sugar;
Mossman Mill, Mosman: Mackay Sugar.
Sugar Cane Companies
Bundaberg Sugar operates Bingera Mill at South Kolan and Millaquin Mill at Bundaberg. The company has a sugar cane railway network comprising approximately 330 route kilometres. During the crushing season around 15 cane trains operate continually.
Isis Central Sugar Mill
Isis Central Sugar Mill is the company that operates Isis Central Mill at Cordalba. The company has a sugar cane railway network comprising 153 route kilometres. The mill crushes over 1.4 million tonnes of sugar cane each season, which is transported by its network of sugar cane railways.
Mackay Sugar is Australia’s second-largest sugar milling company and operates four mills: Farleigh, Marian, Racecourse and Mossman. It produces an average of around 800,000 tonnes of raw sugar each year for the domestic market and for export. The company has two separate cane railway networks: the Mackay network and the Mossman network. The Mackay network has a series of connected lines servicing Farleigh Mill, Marian Mill and Racecourse Mill. It comprises 850 route kilometres, extending from Wagoora (70 km north of Mackay) to Munbura (23 km south of Mackay) and to Finch Hatton (76 km west of Mackay). On the Mackay network Mackay Sugar has a fleet of 46 locomotives and 8100 bins for transporting sugar cane. These bins have capacities of five, six and 15 tonnes. Trains can be up to 800 metres in length. The Mossman network services the Mossman Mill and comprises 87 route kilometres, extending from near Port Douglas (20 km south of Mossman) to Rocky Point (13 km north of Mossman) and west to the edge of the Daintree National Park. On the Mossman network the company has a fleet of six locomotives and 600 bins. These bins have capacities of nine, 11 and 13 tonnes.
MSF (Maryborough Sugar Factory) Sugar is Australia’s largest sugarcane farmer, the second-largest raw sugar exporter and the third-largest sugar miller. It operates four mills: South Johnstone Mill and Mulgrave Mill at Gordonvale, and Tableland and Maryborough Mill; Gordonvale and Maryborough Mills are not serviced by rail. The company has a sugar cane railway network servicing South Johnstone Mill comprising 470 route kilometres, and a network servicing Mulgrave Mill comprising 256 route kilometres.
Tully Sugar operates Tully Mill. The company has a sugar cane railway network comprising over 200 route kilometres. Tully Sugar operates Tully Mill, and also owns and operates various sugar cane farms. The company has a fleet of 15 locomotives, including six former Queensland Railways DH Class units that have been re-gauged to operate on 610 mm gauge tracks. During the crushing season there are nine locomotives operating during the day, and from five to seven locomotives at night. Most of the company’s bins have a capacity of four tonnes and these are usually paired, being only separated for maintenance work. A number of ten-tonne bins are also being introduced.
Wilmar Sugar operates Victoria Mill at Ingham, Macknade Mill, Invicta Mill at Giru, Kalamia Mill at Ayr, Pioneer Mill at Brandon, Plane Creek Mill at Sarina, Proserpine Mill, and Inkerman Mill at Home Hill. These mills manufacture over half of Australia’s raw sugar. The company has a sugar cane railway network comprising over 1500 route kilometres. Lines servicing Pioneer Mill are 1067 mm gauge, while Invicta Mill and Kalamia Mill are connected by a dual gauge (610 mm and 1067 mm) railway over a 25 km section of line that is part of the Pioneer Mill network. A network of connected lines services Victoria Mill and Macknade Mill. Plane Creek Mill, Proserpine Mill and Inkerman Mill are serviced by separate networks. Wilmar Sugar has a fleet of more than 75 locomotives and 16,000 sugar cane bins. These bins range in capacity from four tonnes to ten tonnes.
Australian Sugar Cane Railway
The Australian Sugar Cane Railway operates a 610 mm gauge railway in the Bundaberg Botanic Gardens. It has several steam and diesel locomotives that formerly worked in the Queensland sugar cane industry. Trains operate on Sundays and public holidays, and some additional days during school holidays. Sunday services are typically operated with a steam locomotive. Bundaberg is located approximately 370 km north of Brisbane.
Australian Narrow Gauge Railway Museum Society (ANGRMS)
The Australian Narrow Gauge Railway Museum Society (ANGRMS) operates the Woodford Railway over a short section of the former railway line from Caboolture to Kilcoy. The society has a collection of steam, diesel and petrol locomotives, mostly from the Queensland sugar industry, as well as rolling stock and other heritage items. Train rides operate on the first and third Sunday of each month, mostly using steam locomotives. Woodford is located approximately 80 km north of Brisbane.
Former sugar cane railway locomotives are preserved at other locations, including Bally Hooley Rail at Port Douglas, the Ginger Factory at Yandina on the Sunshine Coast, the Childers Historical Complex, and the Illawarra Light Railway Museum at Albion Park in New South Wales.
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Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, Freightline 3: Australian sugar freight transport, Australian Government: Department
of Infrastructure and Transport, Canberra, 2015.
Gough, B & B Webber, Queensland sugar cane railways album, R Gough & B Webber, Brisbane, 1999.
Isis Central Sugar Mill <>.
Light Railway Research Society of Australia <>.
Mackay Sugar <>.
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Roberts, AK, Wheels in motion, AK Roberts, Eton, Queensland, 1998.
Shaw, A, ‘One sweet conversion, Part Two’, Railway Digest, vol. 56, no. 6, June 2018, pp. 32–7.
Tully Sugar <>.
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Australian Sugar Cane Railway train, Bundaberg Botanic Gardens, 12 January 2018.
Sugar cane railway lines near Bundaberg Mill, Queensland, 12 January 2018.