Abt time: Catching the West Coast Wilderness Railway

There are no commercial passenger train services running in Tasmania and haven’t been for forty years. The only way to ride the rails is on heritage services scattered over the island. The most popular of these is the West Coast Wilderness Railway (WCWR), an isolated 1067 mm service running between Queenstown and Strahan on the West Coast.

Before roads reached the region rail was the only way to transport goods and people between the rugged mountainous interior and the coast. A myriad of private railway lines eventually fed into the Emu Bay Line to Burnie on the northern coast of the island.

The WCWR began its operation life in 1897 as the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company as a tool for transporting copper from the Mount Lyell mine in Queenstown to the coastal port, closing operations in 1963. In 2002 it was brought back to life as a tourist operation. Naturally I wanted to catch it!

Alex left his favourite soft toy back in the hotel in Launceston and the night before was pretty rough. We check out and Alex remarks that we have our fastest served Tasmanian meal yet at the Serenade Cafe.

The Queenstown terminus of the WCWR is impressively large from the outside, though it only covers a couple of short lines beneath its arched tin covered roof. We exchange our voucher for tickets and board the first of the three custom built wooden carriages.

Hauling us today is Mount Lyell Number 1, a green oil fired steam tank engine, the first of the locomotives and 120 years old. It started off as a coal fired locomotive, but was converted by the mine to oil in the 1950s.

The benches are two by two. B and Alex sit in the direction of travel, I face back towards them and a Dutchman who seems more focussed on his phone than the trip completes the set.

The whistle sounds and we slowly roll out into the cloudy, rainy skies.

Along the journey the train staff tell the story of the train and the two feuding Irishmen, James Crotty and Bowes Kelly, that built the mines and the train line.

The track initially follows the Queen River, which runs a muddy brown, full of toxic sediment from the bare slopes of mountains mined for copper and silver over a hundred years.

However, it was gold that first brought an influx settlers, including James Crotty, to the area. At our first stop of Lynchford we try our hand at panning for gold. A couple of people find some and we think we see a speck of shiny yellow that Alex manages to wash away.

Then we reboard the train and the story continues.

Crotty didn’t find much gold, despite sinking a lot of funds into his holding on Mount Lyell and sought investors. One, another Irishman named Bowes Kelly, recognised that Mount Lyells true wealth lay in copper and seized control of the company.

Crotty felt cheated and eventually set up a rival company, but I won’t spoil the tale for anyone else who wants to ride the WCWR as its telling is a lot of fun on the train.

Kelly’s problem was transporting the ore out from Mount Lyell to port and thus the railway was born. Initially surveyors could not find a route, but a second group proposed the use of the newly invented Abt rack to conquor the steep gradients.

Labourers hacked out the path from the steep slopes and wet rainforest entirely by hand without any machinery or explosives. The lines snakes its way through the forest through narrow cuttings, the fronds of the giant tree ferns reaching out as if to caress the train as it runs past.

The effort is so great to climb the slopes, the highest gradient 1 in 15, that train needs replenishment of water at each stop. We grab snacks at Rinadeena before the train enters the King River Gorge where there are spectacular views of the river below and mountains above, the train slowing yet further to let us take it in.

Our journey ends at the summit of Dubbil Barril, where we watch the locomotive direction being reversed on a human powered turntable. The line itself continues down to Strahan, but we don’t have time for the full service today.

While the engine is replenished we take a walk through the pretty rainforest. Then its back down the way we came. Near the end we reach our maximum speed of 25 kilometres an hour.

Then we arrive back in Queenstown where our journey started.

We eat a lunch of soup and bolognese at the train cafe and the food is great, yet more evidence of the quality of operation of the railway. The WCWR really is worth the visit and I hope to do the entire line one day.

We now have to drive to Hobart. Our journey out of Queenstown begins with a steep and winding ride up the treeless mountains around the town, their sides like shattered shale blasted with the sulphur dioxide from the smelters that once processed the copper ore. Horsetail falls cascades down one slope and I regret not stopping to take the boardwalk to the lookout, but the grey of showers reaches down from the close skies.

The green returns on the other side of the range as we pass the start of the hydroelectric dams that power this state. There is one area where all the trees (beech?) have died, their bare branches reaching up to the sky. The route passes through the fields of the most famous of the battles against the flooding and habitat destruction caused by their construction: The Franklin-Gordon World Heritage Area.

The views seem less spectacular than on the other routes we have so far traversed, but perhaps that is because we tire of the constantly winding roads. What is interesting is the changes of vegetation along the entire journey, from bare slopes to alpine meadows, tall rainforests, then back to eucalypt woodlands.

As we leave the national park areas we move into hills of yellow agriculture, grasslands then black shadecloth covered cherry orchards. We stop by one to buy more cherries, though they seem not as sweet as those of the Tamar Valley.

An abandoned railway line runs besides us and it saddens me that travellers will not have an opportunity to admire this beautiful countryside from the comfort of the train.

We are utterly exhausted by the time we reach Hobart, navigating the car down to Constitution Dock where our hotel sits overlooking the MONA catamarans we rode last time we were here.

Dinner is at Mures, which somehow tastes less special than on all our previous visits. Perhaps we are just tired of fried fish and chips.

Outside our window lies a tarred over train track on the pier. Another example of Tasmania’s railway heritage discarded. I dream of the day the trains will run again.