RM60 at Normanton, 8 July 2008.

The Gulflander at Normanton, 9 July 2008.

The Gulflander

David Matheson

2 June 2018

 

The 152 km railway line between Normanton and Croydon in north Queensland has been described as the line from nowhere to nowhere. It joins two remote small towns and it is remarkable that it has survived to continue in operation. The Gulflander passenger train operates one day per week in each direction along the line.

 

Construction

Gold was discovered in the Croydon region in 1885 and during 1887 the town of Croydon had a population of around 6000. Difficulties obtaining supplies during the wet season increased momentum for a railway linking Croydon with Normanton, where a port had been established. A railway had earlier proposed from Normanton to Cloncurry. Long-term plans were for Cloncurry to be connected to the coastal port of Townsville. The pressing need to provide transport for Croydon resulted in the line being diverted to Croydon instead of Cloncurry.

 

Construction of the railway began in 1888. The line was surveyed by George Phillips, who also supervised construction. Phillips believed that steel sleepers embedded into the ground would make them less susceptible to movement, thus reducing damage during floods. Over time Phillips was shown to be correct. Most of the line was built with steel sleepers, although wooden sleepers were used when there was insufficient supply of steel sleepers. Work began at Normanton, the first stage being from the station to a landing on the Norman River. A temporary terminus was opened at Haydon on 7 May 1989, by which time construction had extended 58 km. Three mixed trains operated weekly between Normanton and Haydon, where they connected with coaches to Croydon.

 

The railway was completed to Croydon in 1891 and opened to light traffic on 20 July. Work continued on bridges and an excursion train ran the full length of the line on 7 October. Normanton station building is made of corrugated iron and has verandahs on three sides. Attached to it is a large train shed measuring 31 metres long, 13 metres wide and 9 metres high. It is an imposing building, reflecting the original intention that it would be the terminus of a trunk railway line. The original station buildings at Croydon were destroyed by a severe storm in 1969. A new station building, also including a large train shed, was opened in 2005.

 

Gold output from Croydon declined from 1905. In 1920 the population had dropped to 469, which was around the same as Normanton. There was a downturn in traffic on the railway so staff numbers and train services were reduced. Consideration was given to closing the line, but it continued to operate.

 

Train services

Initial services on the line were hauled by A10 Class locomotives, with four services operating each week. B13 Class engines began operating on the line from December 1892, and in 1901 a B12 Class was also sent to work the Normanton–Croydon line.

 

In October 1922 a small rail motor, No. 23 (later RM14), arrived at Normanton. It had been converted from a Panhard Levassor road wagon and was powered by a petrol engine. There were three open-sided passenger compartments with canvas blinds. A four-wheel goods trailer was hauled behind the rail motor. The Panhard rail motor experienced mechanical difficulties and was replaced by a larger rail motor, No. 79 (later RM31), in 1929. Nevertheless, the Panhard was overhauled as a backup for the newer rail motor. It continued to be used intermittently until 1936. RM14 is now an exhibit at the Workshops Railway Museum in Brisbane.

 

The last steam-hauled train on the line operated on 26 May 1929. RM31 settled in to providing a weekly service between Normanton and Croydon. It was replaced in 1944 by RM32, which continued running until 1960 when RM60 took over. RM60 operated until it too was replaced in 1964; it has been restored and remains at Normanton.

 

RM74 began operating on the Normanton–Croydon line in May 1964. It was fully enclosed and was considerably larger and heavier than earlier rail motors. RM74 provided reliable service and remained working on the line until 1982. Today it is an exhibit at the Redland Museum in Cleveland. RM93 arrived in Normanton in November 1982 and continues to run on the line today.

 

During the 1970s very little goods traffic was carried on the line. It was threatened with closure, but was retained as the only means of transport during wet season floods. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s the unusual line gained publicity and began to grow in popularity as a tourist attraction. Passenger trailers were sent to the line to supplement the rail motor in 1980 and 1992.

 

RM93 was one of ten rail motors built by Queensland Railways at Ipswich Workshops in Brisbane from 1937. It entered service in November 1950 and is powered by a 76 kW Gardner diesel engine. All were withdrawn in 1970 and 1971, except RM93, which was converted to become the General Manager’s inspection car at Rockhampton in 1972, and then returned to rail motor seating and was transferred to Normanton in 1982. From 1987 it has carried ‘Gulflander’ painted on its sides.

 

The 1800 Class are aluminium-body rail motors that were introduced in November 1952. Number 1811 was built as a power car but became a motor inspection car in 1982. In 1992 it was converted to a trailer car for service on the Gulflander, along with 1809, which was built as a trailer car.

 

RM93 was sent to Townsville for overhaul in 1988. Diesel locomotive DL4 arrived in Normanton to haul services on the line while RM93 was away. It has been retained for service when required.

 

The Gulflander

Today the Gulflander runs between Normanton and Croydon once a week in each direction, departing Normanton on Wednesdays and returning from Croydon on Thursdays. Journey time in each direction is five hours. A stop is made at Blackbull (91 km from Normanton) in both directions for morning tea. The Gulflander typically operates with rail motor RM93 hauling two 1800 Class trailer carriages. It is operated by Queensland Rail as a passenger service, but has become a tourist attraction as a unique outback railway experience. Trains on the line are restricted to a maximum speed of 40 km/h.

 

The line between Normanton and Croydon is generally flat, with the steepest grade being 1 in 66. It has 17 bridges, the largest crossing the Norman River at Glenore, 22 km from Normanton, and consisting of 33 six-metre steel spans.

 

Apart from the Gulflander between Normanton and Croydon, some short-distance local excursions also operate from Normanton and Croydon. A two-hour return trip runs from Normanton to Critters Camp (26 km from Normanton), according to demand. The Billy Tea and Damper Tour train also operates to Critters Camp and return over three hours on Saturdays, according to demand. Forty minute excursions are also available from Normanton using vintage rail motor RM60. On Wednesdays from June to August a tour runs from Croydon to Golden Gate (12 km from Croydon) for an evening meal before returning to Croydon.

 

Normanton is located approximately 2060 km north-west of Brisbane and 680 west of Cairns. Trans North Bus and Coach Service operates a service from Cairns to Karumba via Croydon and Normanton on three days a week in each direction. Package tours are available combining travel on the Gulflander and the Savannahlander, along with visits to local attractions. More than 8000 passengers travelled on the Gulflander in 2016–17.

 

References

Gulflander <www.gulflander.com.au>.

Hanlon, P & B Webber, Rail motors, railcars, EMUs and tilt trains of Queensland, Australian Railway Historical Society, Queensland Division,

          Brisbane 2011.

Knowles, JW, Lonely rails in the gulf country, 2nd ed., John Knowles, Brisbane, 1993.

Queensland Rail, Annual and financial report 2016–17, Brisbane, 2017.

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>.

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

The Gulflander stopped for morning tea at Blackbull, 9 July 2008.

On board the Gulflander between Normanton and Croydon, Queensland, 9 July 2008.