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1550 Class locomotive 1556 and a 1720 Class haul The Sunlander northbound through Yabulu, around 1991. Photo: Ellis 678, Wikimedia Commons.

2202 and 2212 lead The Sunlander southbound departing Townsville with Castle Hill prominent in the background, 1 January 2013.

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Train Services on the Sunshine Route

David Matheson

 19 May 2024

Queensland’s North Coast line has been known as the ‘Sunshine Route’ by many passengers over the years. Various trains have plied the route, taking tourists north from Brisbane to Cairns and return, but also catering for local travellers.


Early services

The Sunshine Route was completed over a lengthy period of time. A number of local railways served various communities and also reached further inland. It was not until 1910 that a decision was made to complete the route between Brisbane and Cairns, and the line was finally completed in December 1924.


Prior to the completion of the Sunshine Route, trains operated on the various isolated sections after they were opened. The line from Brisbane was completed as far as Gympie and Bundaberg in 1891, allowing services to operate north from the capital to those towns. In 1903 Rockhampton was also connected with Brisbane. The Rockhampton Mail was introduced, initially operating three times a week between Brisbane and Rockhampton. By 1923 Townsville was linked with Brisbane and the Townsville Mail was introduced on 3 December.


Train services were typically slow, with steam locomotives hauling basic wooden carriages. As technology advanced, locomotives became faster and more powerful, and carriages were improved. Services were reduced during the Great Depression, but as the economy improved the need emerged for better train services on the Sunshine Route.


Sunshine Express

The Sunshine Express was introduced primarily as a tourist service, but also carried local passengers. It began its first run on 27 May 1935. Six services each week operated between Brisbane and Townsville, with three of them continuing to Cairns. A rail motor connected with the Sunshine Express at Townsville on the other days. Services were reduced to four per week during the summer months when passenger numbers were lower, while additional services were added during peak times. During the Second World War services were curtailed, but reintroduced six days each week in 1946.


Between Brisbane and Rockhampton the Sunshine Express was hauled by B18¼ Class 4-6-2 locomotives. From Rockhampton to Innisfail C17 Class 4-8-0 locomotives hauled the train. PB15 Class 4-6-0 locomotives operated between Innisfail and Cairns because track limitations prevented the heavier axle loads of other engines. Track upgrades eventually enabled B18¼ engines to operate as far north as Bowen and the C17 Class to run through to Cairns. Beyer Garratt locomotives were used between Bundaberg and Rockhampton for a short amount of time in the early 1950s.


At the time of its introduction, the Sunshine Express was one of the most luxurious trains in Australia. A journey on the Sunshine Route was a grand experience. Its carriages had wooden bodies that were built on steel underframes. They featured a varnished exterior and a polished interior. Natural Queensland timber was used for the internal panelling. Electric lighting and electric fans were included. All of the vehicles were mounted on roller bearings, which was a significant innovation at the time. From 1946 the carriages were painted in a Tuscan red colour scheme.


The Sunlander

Following the end of the Second World War, Australian railways sought to rebuild and upgrade their railway systems and services, which were rundown after many years of limited maintenance. Queensland Railways had discussions regarding what features would be incorporated into new passenger carriages that it wanted to order. An offer was accepted from Commonwealth Engineering in December 1949 for 99 air-conditioned carriages for long distance trains. This would provide eight sets of trains, which would operate on various services throughout Queensland. The detailed design work was carried out by Commonwealth Engineering and carriages were built at Rocklea in Brisbane before entering service from 1953 to 1955. The contract for 99 carriages consisted of:

8 MPC power vans

8 MMV guard/mail vans

14 MBC baggage vans

6 MDC dining cars

10 MAL first class sitting cars

14 MBL second class sitting cars

3 MCL composite sleeping cars

15 MAS first class sleeping cars

15 MBS second class sleeping cars

6 MCS composite sleeping cars.


The Comeng rolling stock would form a series of ‘Lander’ trains introduced by Queensland Railways, including The Sunlander from Brisbane to Cairns, The Inlander from Townsville to Mount Isa, The Midlander from Rockhampton Winton, and The Westlander from Brisbane to Charleville.


On 4 June 1953 the Sunshine Express was replaced with a new train when The Sunlander departed from Brisbane’s Roma Street station for its first journey along the Sunshine Route to Cairns. It was hauled by 1200 Class English Electric diesel locomotive 1201. The Sunlander was intended mostly for tourists like its predecessor, the Sunshine Express, and this was assisted with the imposition of a surcharge encouraging local passengers to use the mail trains. The northbound run completed the journey in 41 hours and 10 minutes, which was 2 hours and 40 minutes faster than the steam-hauled Sunshine Express.


The Sunlander was hauled throughout by diesel locomotives, with Queensland’s first mainline diesel locomotives having commenced service in November 1952. Double heading was typical between Brisbane and Rockhampton. When delivery of all the ‘Lander’ cars from Comeng was completed, it provided enough carriages to form five sets of The Sunlander, which enabled the running of five services per week from 9 December 1955. More cars were built at Ipswich Workshops, providing an additional set that was commissioned on 10 May 1961, so that six trains per week could run.


Over the coming decades The Sunlander provided reliable service. Its six services each week were reduced to five services from 8 November 1970, enabling one train set to form a new service between Brisbane and Rockhampton. The introduction of The Queenslander, a new luxury train service between Brisbane and Cairns, from 20 April 1986, led to a further reduction in The Sunlander’s services. Motorail was attached from 29 February 1992.


A range of motive power hauled The Sunlander during its years of operation. The progressive introduction of new and updated diesel locomotives saw them allocated to service on the train. Between 1989 and 2005 electric locomotives hauled The Sunlander between Brisbane and Rockhampton, with diesels continuing to work the train the rest of the way.


Diesel Tilt Trains were introduced on the Brisbane to Cairns run in 2003. The Sunlander continued to operate, and while it was slower than the Tilt trains, it provided sleeping accommodation as an option, which the new trains initially did not. By 2013 a new service with upgraded Tilt trains was introduced and the days of The Sunlander were coming to an end. The last northbound run of The Sunlander departed from Roma Street station in Brisbane on 28 December 2014, and the last southbound service departed from Cairns on 31 December, arriving at Roma Street at 1.10 pm on 1 January 2015.


Spirit of Queensland

The introduction of Diesel Tilt Trains between Brisbane and Cairns in 2003 provided a reduced journey time. Passengers could still ride on The Sunlander, which continued to run. In 2010 it was announced that the two existing diesel Tilt Train sets would be upgraded and that a new set would also be ordered. The upgraded trains formed a new service, Spirit of Queensland, which began running on 28 October 2013.


Two accommodation options are provided on the Spirit of Queensland: Railbeds and Premium Economy seating. Railbeds function as seats during the day and are then converted to a bed for night time travel, with linen and pillows provided. Premium Economy provides a set for both day and night travel. The layout in Railbed sections is 2 + 1 and in Premium Economy is 2 + 2.


The Spirit of Queensland runs between Brisbane and Cairns five times a week in each direction. The journey is 24 hours and 45 minutes in duration for both northbound and southbound travel.


Services on Queensland’s Sunshine Route have evolved over almost a century since the line was completed. Trains are now more luxurious and the overall journey is considerably faster. For passengers who enjoy the relaxation of train travel and the attraction of passing scenery, a train journey between Brisbane and Cairns continues to be a delight.



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.

Dunn, J, A history of Commonwealth Engineering, volume 1: 1921–1955, Rosenberg, Sydney, 2006.

Hallam, G, The Sunshine Express: a brief history of 75 years of the North Coast Line, Brisbane to Cairns, QR Heritage, Brisbane, 1999.

Hoyle, ‘Spirit of Queensland tilt train service commences’, Railway Digest, vol. 51, no. 12, December 2013, p. 16.

Hoyle, J, ‘Sunlander bows out in style’, Railway Digest, vol. 53, no. 2, February 2014, pp. 14–15.

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

Malone, C, ‘A brief history of The Sunlander: a Queensland icon for 61 years’, Motive Power, issue 96, November/December 2014, pp. 33–46.


The last northbound run of The Sunlander prepares to depart Roma Street station, 27 December 2014. The train was hauled by 2471, 2410 and 2152.


DTD5404 leading Brisbane-bound Spirit of Queensland approaching Northgate in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, 15 January 2018.

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