If you are a train enthusiast, a history buff, looking for a fun family day out or want something memorable to occupy the kids, a heritage train ride offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of rail travel in Australia.
Australia’s rail history dates back more than 160 years. As a result of newer construction materials and methods that conquered past engineering difficulties, some of the early railway lines have been bypassed, made obsolete by tunnels and new routes, or were never connected into the main rail network.
Many of these have been given new life as heritage railways and reopened as popular tourist attractions that allow their passengers to experience the smell of steam, the sound of the whistle blowing as the locomotive chugs along, and the sights and stories of bygone days. Using a restored steam locomotive or an early diesel or electric engine, they recreate the authenticity and elegance of the train journeys of yesteryear, with original rolling stock and a specialist carriage fleet of immaculate sitting, sleeping and dining cars completing the experience.
Regardless of the type of locomotive taking you on your journey, there is usually spectacular scenery to enjoy – most heritage tracks wind their way through fern gullies, rainforests, gumtree covered mountains, farmland or picturesque coastal and country vistas before arriving photo-worthy historic stations.
Here’s a selection of ten of the best heritage and tourist railways in Australia. Climb aboard for a fascinating glimpse of the working history and golden age of rail travel.
1. The Puffing Billy, Victoria
One of the most famous steam train journeys in Australia, the Puffing Billy is also one of the finest preserved steam railways in the world. Built in the early 1900s as a low cost 2’6” gauge line, its purpose was to open up the remote area between Victoria’s Belgrave and Gembrook townships.
This century-old steam train and its iconic open-sided carriages run along a 24 kilometre track through lush rainforest, fern gullies and farmlands, before offering a close up view of the spectacular mountain scenery of Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges.
Learn more: http://puffingbilly.com.au
2. The Great Zig Zag Railway, New South Wales
Departing from Clarence, ten kilometres east of Lithgow, this historic railway takes you back in time along a track that was originally built in 1860.
A feast for the eye, heart and mind, it climbs for 7 kilometres along the western flank of the Blue Mountains using zig zags to gain height. The journey is filled with the sights, sounds and smells of the bygone steam era. The line was severely damaged by bushfire and torrential rain in 2013 but is expected to reopen this year.
Learn more: https://www.zigzagrailway.com.au
3. Richmond Vale, New South Wales
Running along the former passenger line through the Sugarloaf Range from Richmond Main Colliery to Pelaw Main near Kurri Kurri, this heritage railway offers a glimpse into the Hunter Valley’s historic mining operations. Originally used to transport coal from the Minmi, Stockrington, Pelaw Main and Richmond Main mines to the Hunter River wharves, it was the last commercially operated railway in Australia to use steam locomotives.
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The line was damaged by bushfire in 2017 but is due to reopen soon, so check with Railway Museum staff before you head there.
4. Thirlmere-Buxton Tourist Rail, New South Wales
Thirlmere is rich in colonial history. It was once a booming town of tents that housed the workers who created the Great Southern Railway from 1863 to 1867. On most Sundays until the end of November, a steam train operates on the old Picton-Mittagong railway line, from historic Thirlmere station to Picton and Buxton.
A firsthand experience of the past in operation, the return journey is along the Thirlmere Heritage Railway.
5. Kuranda Scenic Railway, Queensland
Originally built to service the mining industry between Kuranda and Herberton in 1891, the world famous Kuranda Scenic Railway is an incredible engineering feat of 15 tunnels, 93 curves and 55 bridges.
It departs from Cairns railway station, winds through a hinterland of dense world-heritage rainforest and offers spectacular views of rugged mountains, stunning waterfalls and the deep ravines of the Barron Gorge, before arriving at historic Kuranda Station (one of the most photographed railway stations in the world).
Learn more: http://www.ksr.com.au/Pages/Defaulth.aspx
6. The Gulflander, Queensland
Travelling across the Gulf of Carpentaria’s remote wetlands, grasslands and arid Savannah territory, the Gulflander is a rail-motor journey unlike any other.
Originally built to connect the once bustling river port of Normanton with the Croydon goldfields, this legendary, heritage-listed railway is also rich in historical and scenic wonders. It offers a fascinating insight into pioneering history, passing the old digs from the Croydon gold rush to Station 119, the most northern camp of Burke and Wills.
Learn more: www.gulflander.com.au
7. Pichi Richi Railway South Australia
Located in South Australia’s beautiful Flinders Ranges, the Pichi Richi railway opened in 1879 and runs along the historic remains of the old narrow gauge Ghan rail line between Quorn and Port Augusta. It was part of the first stage of the Great Northern Railway intended to link Port Augusta with Darwin.
Once the East-West Transcontinental railway across the Nullarbor Plain was completed in 1917, the Pichi Richi route became part of it for the next 20 years.
Today, this timeless journey uses a historic steam or diesel train and immaculately restored, century old timber carriages to travel past the gum-tree lined creeks, hills of blue bush, deep rock cuttings and ancient rocky outcrops of the Pichi Richi Pass.
Learn more: https://www.pichirichirailway.org.au
8. The SteamRanger Heritage Railway, South Australia
The SteamRanger Heritage Railway operates a number of different steam and diesel-hauled tourist trains between various locations in South Australia.
The Cockle Train travels along the oldest steel railway in Australia, dating back to 1887 when it was constructed to provide a link between the Murray River and the wharf at Victor Harbour. It features some of the most picturesque coastal scenery on the Fleurieu Peninsula.
The Southern Encounter departs from Mt Barker and winds down the eastern escarpment of the southern Mt Lofty ranges. It travels through the plains and bushland of the stunning Adelaide Hills before crossing the towering Currency Creek viaduct and on to Goolwa.
The Highlander offers a short journey on a heritage “Redhen” rail car or a heritage steam locomotive between Mt Barker in the Adelaide Hills and the Scottish settlement of Strathalbyn. Another “Redhen” rail car, the Finniss Flyer departs from Goolwa and travels through mallee scrub and rolling farm lands to the tiny hamlet of Finniss.
Learn more: www.steamrangerheritagerailway.org
9. West Coast Wilderness Railway, Tasmania
Situated on the west coast of Tasmania, this formidable steam train journey chugs along 30 kilometres of century-old tracks, including an iconic ABT Rack and Pinion section – the first of its kind in Australia – which enabled the steam locomotives to traverse the steep slopes.
Travelling through ancient rainforests and plunging gorges, the railway line was originally used to transport copper from the mines in Queenstown to the harbour at Strahan. For many years, it was the only transport link between Queenstown and the rest of Tasmania. The journey brings to life the harsh demands of mining life and the resilience of the people who lived along the steep King River Gorge.
Learn more: www.wcwr.com.au
10. The Victorian Goldfields Railway
This steam railway was built to link the gold mining towns of Castlemaine and Maddon in central Victoria. Castlemaine, the site of the famous Mt Alexander diggings, was the location of the richest alluvial goldfield in the world.
The 45-minute ride on authentic steam era carriages, with their luxurious interior woodwork and pressed metal ceilings, travels through locations used in the film The Dressmaker and the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries TV series.
Learn more: http://www.vgr.com.au
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