Section of rack rail being laid between Rinadeena and Halls Creek in late 1896. Image: The Abt railway: Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway, p. 19.

Railway station, Queenstown, Tasmania, Monday, 28 December 2015.

West Coast Wilderness Railway

David Matheson

6 January 2019

West Coast Wilderness Railway operates a tourist railway over 35 km of line between Queenstown and Regatta Point, near Strahan, in the west coast region of Tasmania. Tasmania’s west coast is a region characterised by small isolated communities. It has extensive wilderness areas with rugged terrain. The west coast was not connected by road with the Tasmanian capital of Hobart until 1932. The railway is one of Australia’s most scenic train journeys. It traverses rugged mountainous terrain and includes an Abt rack and pinion section of track. The line is built to narrow (1067 mm) gauge, and restored steam locomotives operate train services.

 

Mining

Rich deposits of tin were discovered on the west coast of Tasmania by Philosopher Smith in 1871. Gold findings in 1881 renewed interest in the area. A number of diggers headed to the west coast in search of fortune and the Mount Lyell Mining Company was formed in 1892. Efforts were concentrated on copper ore bodies that had also been found.

 

The rugged terrain of Tasmania’s west coast made transport difficult and the Mount Lyell Mining Company decided to build a railway line between Queenstown and the port at Strahan. Various routes were explored but ruled out because of the steepness of the terrain. Eventually it was realised that a conventional railway was not possible and it was decided that the Abt rack and pinion system would enable the railway to negotiate the steep gradients that were required. In an effort to attract funds the Mount Lyell Mining Company was liquidated, and the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company was formed in 1893. The discovery of high grade silver brought publicity and investment money soon followed.

 

The Railway

Construction work on the first section of railway line between Teepookana and Dubbil Barril commenced in November 1894. Materials were brought up the King River by steamship from Strahan to Teepookana, where a construction depot was established and a town soon developed. Nineteen bridges were built on this section including the ‘Quarter Mile Bridge’, which was 244 metres in length and needed piles to be driven 18 metres through silt before reaching solid ground. When it was completed the bridge required regular maintenance. Work on the line continued, with construction also beginning on the section from Dubbil Barril to Lynchford, and eventually to Queenstown.

 

The railway opened between Queenstown and Teepookana on 18 March 1897. Tasmania’s Governor, Lord Gormanston, had intended to travel from Hobart for the opening, but a storm forced his ship to return to port. The line was around 14.5 miles (23.3 km) in length. There were 48 bridges, with a combined length of around 1300 metres. It also included 4.5 miles (7.2 km) of rack railway to assist trains over 1 in 16 and 1 in 20 gradients.

 

Rack railways use a toothed rail laid between the rails, and the locomotives or powered vehicles that run on the railway have one or more cog wheels. The toothed rail is referred to as the rack and the cog wheel is referred to as the pinion. In operation the cog wheel meshes with the rack rail, enabling the train to operate on much steeper gradients than conventional railways.

 

The Abt rack system was designed by Roman Abt, a Swiss engineer. It was first used in Germany in 1885 and became the most widely used rack railway system in the world. His system used a rack formed by solid bars with vertical teeth. Two or three bars with staggered teeth were laid between the rails. Its lower weight compared to earlier rack railways enabled the Abt system to be manufactured more cheaply. The Mount Lyell Company was criticised for the route chosen and the use of the Abt system, but the railway proved to be successful.

 

The railway was extended from Teepookana to Regatta Point, near Strahan, on 1 November 1899, completing the line between Queenstown and Regatta Point, which had a total length of 21.5 miles (34.6 km). On 16 October 1900 the Tasmanian Government Railways line between Regatta Point and Strahan was opened. Although this railway was only 3 km long, it completed the link between Queenstown and Strahan by railway. The opening of the railway between Ulverstone and Burnie in northern Tasmania on 15 April 1901 completed the railway between Hobart, Launceston and Burnie. It was from then possible to make a train journey between Hobart and Queenstown via Western Junction (near Launceston), Burnie and Strahan, although it was a long and indirect journey.

 

Five Abt locomotives saw service on the railway between Queenstown and Regatta Point. Number 1 was built in 1896, Nos. 2 and 3 in 1898, No. 4 in 1901 and No. 5 in 1938. Numbers 1–4 were built by Dübs and Company in Glasgow and No. 5 was built by North British Locomotive Company, which had been formed by the amalgamation of Dübs and Company with other locomotive builders. All five of the Abt locomotives were tank engines with an 0-4-2 wheel arrangement. Although other locomotives were also used, the Abt locomotives were able to haul heavier loads and worked most trains on the line. Throughout its existence the railway had regular train operations. At times traffic was heavier than at others, depending on the output and profitability of the mining industry.

 

The demise of the railway between Queenstown and Regatta Point arose because of escalating operating costs and the need to replace or upgrade ageing locomotives, rolling stock and infrastructure. With the upgrading of the road by the Tasmanian Government, the Mount Lyell Company made the decision that it was no longer viable to keep the railway open. The last passenger train on the line was a special run from Queenstown to Regatta Point and return on 29 June 1963. It was hauled throughout by Abt locomotive No. 1, which had also hauled the official train for the opening of the line to Regatta Point in 1899. Many people gathered to watch the last train on its journey. The line remained open for some final freight workings, as well as locomotive and rolling stock transfers. Operations ceased on 10 August when Abt locomotive No. 3 hauled three wagons into Queenstown.

 

After the line’s closure the rails were removed. Although the bridges were left in place they eventually began to deteriorate. Four of the Abt locomotives were preserved: No. 1 became an exhibit at the Zeehan Pioneers Museum; no. 2 was obtained by the Tasmanian Transport Museum at Glenorchy in Hobart, where it remains today; no. 3 was displayed at Miner’s Siding, near the former railway station in Queenstown; and no. 5 was obtained by Victoria’s Puffing Billy Railway and stored at Menzies Creek.

 

Rebuilding the Line

In the years after the closure of the railway between Queenstown and Regatta Point there were various proposals to rebuild it. Eventually, on 24 July 1998 the Australian Government announced $20.45 million funding for the rebuilding of the line. Further funding was granted by the Tasmanian Government and private investment. Work included rebuilding bridges, laying track, and erecting new station buildings. Three of the original Abt rack and pinion locomotives that operated on the line were restored to working condition for hauling tourist trains on the line: Nos. 1, 3 and 5. Two Vulcan Drewry diesel shunting locomotives that had formerly been used by the Mount Lyell Company were also restored. New passenger carriages were manufactured, similar to carriages that had seen service on the original line.

 

Limited services on the restored line commenced from Regatta Point in December 2001, but a number of minor derailments led to the suspension of operations. Work continued on the line and the first train to run on the restored line from Queenstown to Regatta Point operated on 27 December 2002. The official re-opening of the railway took place on 3 April 2003. Services were operated by the Federal Group, a tourism and hospitality company, until 2013, and then in 2014 the West Coast Wilderness Railway came under the responsibility of the Tasmanian Government through the Abt Ministerial Corporation.

 

West Coast Wilderness Railway Tours

Tours available on the West Coast Wilderness Railway are outlined below.

  • Queenstown Explorer: a nine-hour steam train journey from Regatta Point to Queenstown and return. The tour includes a 90-minute lunch stop at Queenstown with optional walking tour of the town.

  • Rack and Gorge: a four-hour steam train journey from Queenstown to Dubbil Barril and return. The tour includes the opportunity to pan for gold at Lynchford and an optional walk in the rainforest at Dubbil Barril.

  • River and Rainforest: a four-hour steam train journey from Regatta Point to Dubbil Barril and return. The tour includes an optional walk in the rainforest at Dubbil Barril.

  • Footplate Experience: a six-hour experience including a steam train journey from Queenstown to Dubbil Barril and return. The experience includes helping to prepare the locomotive at the beginning of the day, working alongside the crew on the locomotive, morning tea, lunch and souvenirs.

  • Raft and Steam: a six-hour experience including a guided white water raft trip on the King River followed by a steam train journey from Dubbil Barril to Queenstown. Transport is provided from Queenstown to the starting point of the rafting journey and all equipment is provided. The tour includes the opportunity to pan for gold at Lynchford.

  • Steam and Hydro: a four-hour steam train journey from Queenstown to Dubbil Barril and return, followed by a tour of Lake Margaret Hydro Power Station and heritage village.

  • Heli-steam: a three-hour experience including a steam train journey from Regatta Point to Dubbil Barril followed by a scenic helicopter flight back to Regatta Point. The tour includes honey tasting at Lower Landing and an optional walk in the rainforest at Dubbil Barril.

 

Various tours are available on different days. The Queenstown Explorer, Rack and Gorge, and River and Rainforest tours have a choice of carriage: Heritage or Wilderness. Passengers in the Wilderness carriage receive a glass of wine upon boarding, snacks and hot beverages during the journey. They also have access to an open balcony. Passengers in the Heritage carriage are able to purchase drinks and snacks during the journey. Interpretive commentary is provided for passengers regarding the railway and history of the local area. A museum displaying photographs and historical items is located at Queenstown station.

 

Queenstown is approximately 260 km north-west of Hobart, while Strahan is approximately 300 km north-west of Hobart.

 

References

Cooper, I, Mount Lyell Abt Railway Tasmania: Nomination for Engineers Australia Engineering Heritage Recognition, Abt Railway Ministerial

        Corporation & Engineering Heritage Tasmania, 2015.

Jehan, D, Rack railways of Australia, 2nd ed., Illawarra Light Railway Museum Society, Albion Park, 2003.

Rae, L, The Abt railway: Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway, Lou Rae, Sandy Bay, Tas, 2008.

West Coast Wilderness Railway <www.wcwr.com.au>.

Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Company locomotive No. 1 and train shortly after departing Queenstown, Tasmania, 28 December 2015.

Section of the Abt railway on display showing how the rack and pinion mesh together, Rinadeena, Tasmania, 28 December 2015.