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An Unusual & Unique Train Trip
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An Unusual & Unique Train Trip
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« on: Jun 5th, 2016, 3:02am »
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The following report is of a 4 Day tour to the hinterland from the coastal city of Cairns in Far North Queensland. It is a journey from a tourist oriented city of over 150,000 people situated deep in the tropics to an area of sparse population and remote access. The whole area is situated around the 16th degree latitude, about the same south as Vietnam is north, and traverses through vegetation ranging from wet tropical rainforest to dry savannah. The train runs between March and December to avoid most of the tropical wet season.  
All of the towns mentioned can be found on any reasonably detailed map of Queensland and on Google Maps. The distances may not be long but the variety of experiences is considerable. I have attempted to adjust the various references to American terminology and imperial measurements. Please excuse any oversights.  
I will be happy to answer any questions or supply any explanations the report may give rise to.
The lines from Cairns over the Range to the Atherton Tableland and beyond into the savannah country were constructed from the 1880s onward partly by the Queensland Government and partly by private mining companies; each to meet their own purpose. Different track standards were employed by each with noticeable differences today as the train progresses over each section.
The section up the Cairns Range (the McAlister Range) to a point 3 miles beyond Kuranda at Myola was undertaken by the Queensland Government. The working conditions were appalling due to climate, ground conditions, disease and worse. During this time the mining industry had established itself on the Atherton Tableland at several locations including Herberton & Ravenshoe. Further west mining was underway at Chillagoe and Mungana. The interests at Chillagoe continued further mining development near Einasleigh. They subsequently built lines from Myola to Chillagoe & Mungana as well as to Einasleigh. The mines were eventually worked out and the company collapsed in a mire of financial and political scandal around 1919. They handed over the assets, including the railway, to the Queensland Government, who proceeded to extend the railway to Forsayth.
Traffic over the lines redeveloped with the transport of cattle but this too has now ceased. The only train to regularly work past Kuranda today is the weekly Savannahlander service.
The Journey:
The Savannahlander departs on Wednesday mornings at 6.30am from Cairns station. At this uncivilised hour the city is very quiet. Happily, there is a mobile coffee vendor at the station to supply some very welcome cappuccinos and flat whites.
Our train consists of a 2000 class rail motor set. Lead unit is 2028 having been built by Commonwealth Engineering at Rocklea around 1959. The second unit is a mid-train car, 2053 having been built at Townsville workshops in 1963. Both cars are fitted with 249hp Cummins diesel engines. The top and bottom gears of the transmission system have been disabled.
Passengers are given opportunities to travel in the seat next to the driver during the course of the trip.
The track to Redlynch; 7 miles; is almost flat with only a few broad curves. Once clear of the city area some reasonable speeds are possible. It is from Redlynch that the climb begins.
The ground conditions on the Range comprise a loose sedimentary material which becomes sloppy when wet resulting in mudslides. The vegetation is rainforest. Consequently the track must be inspected before each train is permitted over it. This is carried out by a road-railer vehicle. We will not be permitted past Redlynch until the inspection is complete and the road-railer as arrived at Kuranda. This vehicle must then return to Redlynch and complete another inspection before the first Kuranda Tourist train leaves Cairns at 8.30am and do it again before the second train leaves at 9.30am. The whole process is repeated in reverse of an afternoon before the return Tourist trains depart from Kuranda.
We receive authority from Train Control in Townsville through the DTC system (Direct Train Control). Using the radio network Train Control issue a 9 digit number which the driver keys into his screen. This generates another 9 digit number which he reads back to Train Control who key it into their screen. Another 9 digit code is generated and read to the driver who keys it in to generate a fourth 9 digit number which he reads to Train Control. Successful completion results in the train order being displayed on screen in front of the driver who reads it back to Train Control. We are then authorised to continue to the limit of the order.
The climb from Redlynch at 34ft to Kuranda 1081ft has spectacular features. This is a climb of 1047ft in 14miles. The line winds around the escarpment on a steady climb averaging 1.4%. There are 15 tunnels and many bridges of various sizes. In the Stoney Creek valley there is an old passing loop which is now decommissioned although the track remains in place and presumably capable of use in an emergency. At this point the line crosses Stoney Creek immediately in front of a large waterfall. The crossing is on a spidery steel bridge on a curve of 300ft radius with the roar of the falls as backdrop and sometimes sending its spray over the train. A brief stop at the Barron Falls viewing station precedes our arrival in Kuranda where there is time for a brief inspection of the station with its huge collection of rainforest plants and ferns.
At Kuranda there is a turntable routinely used by the Tourist train locomotives. From Kuranda the line continues through rainforest and is less demanding than the climb up the Range, consequently we can make reasonable speed. Approaching Koah the vegetation makes an abrupt change from rainforest to woodlands and from Koah we enter the agricultural areas of the Atherton Tableland. With reasonably level track and few broad curves some high speed running is achieved to Mareeba. Several miles before Mareeba at Bookham we pass the site of the junction for the long closed branch to Mt Molly. There is little sign of its previous existence.
We pick up some passengers at Mareeba and proceed on. Just past the station is the site of the junction for the line to Herberton and Ravenshoe. This has been removed and the track for most of the distance to Ravenshoe has been lifted. Mareeba was a busy railway place in steam days with a large allotment of locomotives and servicing facilities all of which has been removed. From here the track is more undulating until we reach Arriga Junction.
This junction was constructed to serve the Arriga Sugar Mill a few miles away to the south. The mill is sometimes referred to as the Highlands Mill. The purpose of the line was to permit the transport of bulk sugar to Mourilyan Harbour for shipment. The removal of a freight subsidy together with an increase in freight rates has seen this traffic move to road haulage. The last train operated about 5 years ago. The switch however remains set for the Mill branch and we have to stop and reset it to allow us onto the main line.
From Cairns to Arriga Junction the track has been 90lb welded rail. From here it becomes 60lb jointed rail so we begin to experience more clicketty-clack from the wheels. The intensity of the farming is clear as we proceed. Mangoes, TeaTree, citrus, as well as sugar cane, tea and coffee are main crops but there are many others as well. The farms in the region to Dimbulah are serviced by irrigation channels.
There is a major timber bridge over Emu Creek which has heritage significance and is in need of major repair. Sadly there is a conflict of heritage issues preventing the work. It is presently unclear whether it will remain safe for the passage of trains past the end of 2016.
At Mutchilba we pause for morning tea at the local store. Our train stops in front of a large sign indicating that we can only proceed with possession of the Staff for the section Mutchilba to Almaden. There are no facilities at Mutchilba to allow trains to cross or overtake.
Steady running ensues to Dimbulah through varied and interesting agricultural lands. The station buildings survive at Dimbulah and have been converted for use as a museum devoted mainly to the railway and mining history of the region. There were several railway sidings at Dimbulah but these have now been lifted.
Shortly after leaving Dimbulah the farming gives way to savannah (lightly timbered grassland). The irrigation extends only this far. We are now in cattle country.
We are traversing what is known as the Chillagoe/Mungana line. This was built by the mining company to their mines as cheaply as possible. The track undulates over the land with little by way of ballast and a mixture of steel and timber ties. It is officially class 3 track. We are able to maintain reasonable speeds into Almaden arriving shortly before 1.30pm and the end of the day’s travel, 121 miles from Cairns.
Lunch is available from the Railway Hotel. A large touring party leave the train here and join their bus. Most of our other passengers also take a bus to Chillagoe to inspect the caves and the considerable mining relics which decorate that town. They will stay overnight in Chillagoe returning to Almaden in the morning. A few of us remain in Almaden to enjoy the town’s bright lights staying overnight at the Railway Hotel. The town has an estimated population of 28 give or take the odd dog or two. There are many more roaming cattle. Perhaps this is why it is also known as “cowpat town”.
Almaden is the junction for the line to Chillagoe and Mungana, which is now closed and the Etheridge railway to Forsayth. The switch is clipped for passage to Forsayth. Track exists along the right of way towards Chillagoe and much of the rail remains in the old sidings. These are largely unusable due to lengths of rail having been removed. The old barracks building survives although in poor condition. The original water tank and tankstand survive as does a lever frame which worked the old junction switch. The frame appears to have been mounted on the platform for display purposes. A local railfan maintains a small museum in the station building.
The Etheridge Railway commences from Almaden and the mile posts are renumbered from 1. The line was built as far as Einasleigh by the mining company as cheaply as possible. Earthworks are minimal with the track rolling up and down the contours. Railweight is 41Ľ lbs jointed, with many of the lengths being no more than 22ft. Ballast is minimal. The track remains as class 3.
Departure was 8.30am after arrival of passengers from Chillagoe and exchanging the Staff from Mutchilba to the Almaden-Mt Surprise Staff. The country is savannah all the way. The soil type changes from granite to basalt and with the change the vegetation changes also. The trees thin out in favour of grassland. Several hours of looking at this country can become monotonous. There are subtle changes for those with an eye to notice. My overriding feeling is that it is not a place where I would want to become lost. One develops considerably higher respect for the early European explorers who were the first to come through the area.
There are a number of “pop-up” cafes along this section and we will have morning tea at one of them. The long established one is the Bullock Creek Cafe.  Which one we will patronise depends on the train crew and this day we stop at Rocky Tate Creek. All passengers having coffee or tea get to keep the mug which is from the Bullock Creek Cafe.
The section to Einasleigh features many river crossings, too many to list them all. The biggest is the Lynd River. The approach to the Lynd River Bridge is over a deviation. The old formation can be seen with a shallow embankment and cutting leading to the bridge. The reason for the deviation was to ease the grade for northbound trains climbing off of the bridge. The track runs down to a low level crossing then rises steeply up the opposite bank. Grades on some of these bridges can be as steep as 6.25%. All of the bridges are well maintained to a high standard and are typical of Queensland construction.
We arrive at Mt Surprise in time for lunch. The Staff is exchanged for Mt Surprise – Einasleigh and we proceed. The country remains a continuation of savannah.
At Einasleigh we stop for afternoon tea at the Einasleigh pub and a brief inspection of the Copperfield Gorge. We exchange the Staff for Einasleigh-Forsayth.
The line from Einasleigh to Forsayth was constructed by the Queensland Government after taking over in 1919. There are considerably more earthworks with cuttings and embankments. This section involves a climb over the Newcastle Range with some steep grades. The descent towards Forsayth follows Cobbold Creek, mainly on a ledge above the creek, but sometimes slipping down lower. The section abounds in reverse curves. Train speed is slowed considerably. We arrive in Forsayth around 5.30pm, 142 miles from Almaden and 263 miles from Cairns.
The train is met by a group of local children. As soon as we have alighted they board. The train is to be reversed around the wye and they are on for a free ride. It is probably one of their few chances to see and ride a train.
Some of our passengers proceed by bus to Cobbold Gorge while others remain at Forsayth overnight. We are joined by a large touring group who have come via Karumba and “The Gulflander” through Croydon and Georgetown. Dinner at Finnergan’s Rest becomes one big well organised barbecue. Breakfast next morning is a repeat of the previous evening’s arrangements.
Next morning there is a slow climb through the reverse curves to climb the Newcastle Range. At the top; at a place called Wirra Wirra, 2164ft above sea level and the highest point between Cairns and Forsayth, we stop for morning tea. An early lunch is had at the Einasleigh pub. We are joined here by those who stayed at Cobbold Gorge overnight. Einasleigh is another town of about 30 people; give or take the odd dog; but it is difficult to tell as the buildings are spread over a wide area. An early afternoon arrival at Mt Surprise allows those of us staying there to take an afternoon visit to the Undarra Lava Tubes. Many of the combined group stay out at Undarra.
The Staff is exchanged from Einasleigh-Mt Surprise to Mt Surprise-Almaden and we set out again next morning. We make a stop at the Rocky Tate River Bridge for a photo stop. This is a traditional railfan type stop with the train doing the usual backups and run forwards. Very little was missed. The stop was complete with trees and vegetation in the way as well as people getting in the way of others photographs and just as bad, we were on the wrong side from the sun so that the whole subject was in shadow. With the relatively small numbers, passengers could have been organised into a single line or lines so that all could obtain clear images.
We had an early lunch at the Railway Hotel, Almaden and final inspection of the railway relics. The Staff was exchanged and we departed.  
About 15 minutes before Dimbulah we were held up by some Ned Kelly wannabees complete with helmets and shotguns. They proceeded through the train relieving passengers of money and valuables. All for charity. On arrival at Dimbulah this left passengers short of change to buy afternoon tea from the museum on the station.
At Mutchilba the Staff was deposited and we proceeded to Arriga Junction. The switch is set for us at the Junction and on passing through automatically resets for the branch.
The closer we came to Mareeba the rain set in. Very fast running ensued from Arriga into Kuranda. The rain by this time had set in at a steady rate. We were authorised to proceed to Camp Oven just beyond Barron Falls. The second Tourist train from Kuranda at that time had not yet arrived at Freshwater and the track inspection was not complete. The Barron River Gorge was filled with mist and very little could be seen through it.
Arrival at Cairns was around 6.00pm concluding a very enjoyable 4 day trip.
Railfans should find this an interesting 4 days. It must be remembered that you are entering hostile territory although it is only a few hundred miles from major towns. After leaving Mareeba there is no cell phone reception until Forsayth and then from only one carrier. Most of the roads are unsealed. The accommodation providers are operating under remote area conditions so do not expect 5 star facilities. Generally the facilities are good and the food service typical Australian country. It is usual to be invited for seconds at buffet style presentations.
The train crew of 2 are not career railwaymen. They come from other disciplines and are principally “people oriented”. Your expectations of them should be accordingly.
The Savannahlander is operated by Cairns Kuranda Steam Railway under contract to the Queensland Government.
I found this a very enjoyable 4 day excursion and it is my hope to be able to repeat the experience again in a few years.
The image is of the train crossing the Rocky Tate River bridge.

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« Last Edit: Jun 5th, 2016, 11:07am by Henry » Logged

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Re: An Unusual & Unique Train Trip
« Reply #1 on: Jun 5th, 2016, 11:09am »
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That's quite a trip and on a great looking train!

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Re: An Unusual & Unique Train Trip
« Reply #2 on: Jun 5th, 2016, 5:02pm »
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Sounds like it would a right enjoyable excursion. Though I'm not sure we'd be able to devote that much time to it if we ever manage to get Down Under. Bet I'd like to, though.

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Re: An Unusual & Unique Train Trip
« Reply #3 on: Jun 6th, 2016, 9:59pm »
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Les, thank you so much for taking the time to share in such detail.  I called up my "Google Maps" program and was able to follow along, and also enjoy many ground level views.  I think I would very much enjoy overnighting in the Big City of Almaden.  This sounds like a thoroughly delightful trip, and I'm glad I was able to vicariously tag along.
Two quick questions-- Is this route Meter-gauge?  And, Is the line beyond Kuranda recently reopened?  The ground level photos I saw on Google Maps date to 2008, and the rails look virtually unused in those photos.
P.S.  Thanks, too, for taking the trouble to convert to Imperial units.  Maybe, someday, the US will catch up to the rest of the world . . .

« Last Edit: Jun 6th, 2016, 10:12pm by Norm_Anderson » Logged
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Re: An Unusual & Unique Train Trip
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« Reply #4 on: Jun 11th, 2016, 6:16am »
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The gauge is 3'6"
The first section from Cairns to just beyond Kuranda was built in the 1880's. It was all pick & shovel work. The workmen faced the most appalling conditions. There were several deaths from accidental explosions digging the tunnels; scrub ticks, typhus, snake bites and mosquito born diseases were bad but the summer monsoon rains which produced washaways and the never ending high temperatures and humidity also took their toll. Many workmen simply walked off of the job.
Beyond, the mining companies built the lines through the 1890's. A railway was the only way they could carry the ores down to the coast for shipping. Prior to the railway, prospectors would make their may to Mareeba where they would purchase a wheelbarrow and other necessities and proceed to push it to the mines at Chillagoe and Mungana. The event is celebrated each year with a race which takes several days. I have difficulty imagining how difficult it would have been for the prospectors over rough tracks through the bush. Even today over sealed roads it is not something to be undertaken lightly.
The final section from Einasleigh to Forsayth was  built  by the Queensland Government after taking over the mining company assets in 1919.
The line beyond Kuranda has never been closed. The section from Almaden to Mungana is closed. There was a weekly mixed train from Cairns to Forsayth until the late 1990's but with improving road conditions this ceased along with the livestock traffic. By this time the Savannahlander had commenced. The track is generally well maintained and the bridges exceptionally so. Occasionally work trains have to be crossed or overtaken otherwise there is  no other traffic. The Queensland Government consider that the loss incurred on the service is manageable for the tourism it creates.
It is worth noting that the Kuranda Tourist  trains are 12 to 14 cars long and there are 2 of them each day. The fare is $49 and they are the most profitable passenger services in Queensland.
I am attaching an image of the train standing at Kuranda station. This station maintains a manual signal box on the platform. The switch bars and signal wires are visible on the extreme left of the image. The signals are also lower quadrant. All very 19th century.

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