Friday, 12 February 2010

Tasmania I: Choo choo

IN June 2009, Simon and Rachel flew to Australia on the Big Plane. They stayed with Rachel’s sister Julia and brother-in-law Alex in Sydney for two weeks, where they saw the sights, ate too much Thai food and bought a ring. They then took a longer-than-expected flight to Perth in Western Australia, hired a bigger-than-expected camper van and drove a further-than-planned 2,000 miles. With two weeks left and no plan, they quickly revisited Sydney before taking a further flight to Hobart, Tasmania. Here they drove around mountains and through rainforest, they befriended a wombat and Simon climbed a very big hill. This is their story.

THE West Coast Wilderness Railway, which spans from Queenstown to Regatta Point near Strahan in western Tasmania, is a truly remarkable piece of engineering and one of the greatest train journeys in the world today. It was built to service the copper mines of the Mount Lyell region, providing a means to get to market. Before the railway, all incoming plant and equipment was shipped to Strahan, where it would be loaded on to lighters and ferried as far as possible up the King River. Once landed, this gear would be dragged on sleds or packed on to mules for the 18 hour journey inland to the mine.

But this is the Tasmanian wilderness, with services and lifelines few and far between. It is the 1890s. Strahan, a tiny fishing village, is situated on Macquarie Harbour, an inlet accessed only by Hells Gates, which opens on to the cold, southern Indian Ocean and is named as such because it once welcomed prisoners to the infamous Sarah Island penal settlement that lay within the harbour. Hells Gates has been observed, in modern times, to have 25 metre-high swell and has claimed many victims – this after defences were constructed to tame it. The King River is unpredictable and regularly floods. The terrain, once on foot, is mountainous and coated in thick, temperate rainforest. Stray a few metres off today’s roads and you will be lost: what it must have been like to transport plant through this we can only imagine. Tracks were often boggy, and goods prone to damage. It was, to many people, impossible terrain to traverse.

The Government had recently built a railway from Strahan to Zeehan, and talks to build a railway from Strahan to Queenstown for the use of the Mount Lyell Mining Company began. Finances were tight, but the discovery of silver in 1893 added further incentive, and the decision was made to build as far as “The Bar Rock” (Teepookana) at the highest navigable point of the King River, 17km from Strahan.

The first section to be built was from Teepookana to Dubbil Barril. This required, for just 7km of track, the construction of 19 bridges, one of which became known as the Quarter Mile Bridge, spanning 244m over 18m deep water. The work force for this came from the state of Victoria, as Tasmanians had deliberately declined the job. Dubbil Barril station was situated at the foot of a 1 in 16 incline, for which the German-patented ABT railway system had to be adopted. This was the only system in the world at that time that could cope with such gradient, up to two and a half times the steepness of any other railway system. This limited the tonnage carried on the railway but was, until 1932, the only access through to Queenstown.

The 10km from Dubbil Barril to Lynchford was built in simultaneous stages, with a change of staff and management, and in November 1896, the railway was finally ready to take goods. In total, the line ran for only 22km and had 48 bridges. Bridges amounted to 1.3km, 6% of the total line length.

But still lighters had to navigate the treacherous King River, so in 1899 the line was extended to Regatta Point where it was met by an extension to the government’s Strahan to Zeehan line. This required a further 11km of line and 11 bridges, including a 43m, 110 tonne iron bridge constructed in London. Queenstown and the Mount Lyell mines were finally connected to the rest of the state. Now Burnie, Launceston and Hobart wanted to build railways to Queenstown too. Prospects were looking good.

Meanwhile, rival companies and mines were building railways. James Crotty’s North Mount Lyell Copper Company constructed its own railway from Kelly Basin, deeper within Macquarie Harbour, to Linda via Darwin and Pillinger. It was longer but a far more efficient line, built over more viable terrain with shallower gradients and greater tonnage capacity. It threatened to ruin the efforts of the ABT rail, but Crotty died in 1898 and the company merged with the Mount Lyell Mining Company. The Linda line was closed in 1929, the settlements along its route abandoned. Today, these are ghost towns that are very difficult to access. With the exception of Linda, which now contains only one burnt out building, you won’t find them on maps. The township of Crotty was permanently flooded in the 1980s because of dam construction and the creation of the artificial Lake Burbury. This slice of engineering history was reclaimed by nature.

Teepookana could not compete with the port city of Burnie. Finances and reserves dwindled and, though mining activity continued, on Saturday 29th June, 1963, the Queenstown to Regatta Point ABT railway closed. The track was ripped up and sold. By 1972, much of the Quarter Mile Bridge had been washed away by floods. Teepookana, Dubbil Barril, Rinadeena and Lynchford dwindled.

In 2000, work began to restore, as much as possible, the Mount Lyell Mining Company’s line. It was to become the West Coast Wilderness Railway, a lifeline tourist attraction to the isolated Queenstown and Strahan. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of engineering in the world and regularly voted one the greatest railway journeys on Earth.

When Rachel and I arrived in Strahan, the story of the railway mesmerised me, and we immediately drove to Regatta Point and to the terminal. We had been driving all day around and through the wilderness and I was in love with the countryside. I couldn’t wait to see more of it, and what better way than over the Quarter Mile bridge in a century-old steam train?

The West Coast Wilderness Railway costs $118 each for a one-way journey, which is a ridiculous amount of money. So we never caught the train. We got on a boat and went into the depths of the wilderness instead.

Source: The Abt Railway and Railways of the Lyell region by Lou Rae

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