Experiencing the rail travel of yesterday - today
Although unified by the North Coast Line in 1924, the history of the QR network has really been the growth of separate systems. It was not until the North Coast Railway Act of 1910 that a decision was made to connect them.
The section between Brisbane and Bundaberg was a good example of this policy of separate lines to satisfy economics and politics.
The Maryborough Railway
The Maryborough railway had its beginning in the discovery of gold at Gympie in 1867. Political and economic pressure for construction of a railway was intense.
Both Brisbane and Maryborough had fought to be the major port for Gympie, but Maryborough interests won out. The line from Maryborough to Gympie was approved by Parliament on 7 August 1877, some 10 years after James Nash's discovery of gold.
At this time, economy was uppermost in the minds of the parliamentarians and the line was built to cheap, experimental standards including 35 pound rails instead of 42 pound and centre couplings instead of twin buffer stock.
Construction started on 23 March 1878 and the line was officially opened through to Gympie on 6 August 1881.
The major work involved was a large bridge over the Mary River at Antigua.
The original station at Gympie was constructed as a dead end terminus. Prior to completion of the southern route, travellers from Brisbane were required to travel by coastal steamer either to Maryborough, then by train to Gympie, or by stagecoach to Noosa, and steamer to Brisbane. Otherwise, the travellers could face up to the long coach ride from Brisbane.
The first Bundaberg railway, also authorised by parliament in 1877, ran some 120km inland to the copper mining town of Mt Perry.
Construction began at the same time as the Maryborough railway. However, the copper traffic for which this line was built petered out by the time the railway came to town in Mt Perry. The first section of the line was opened from Nth Bundaberg to Moolboolaman on 19 July 1881 and the entire line was in operation from 20 May 1884.
The Burrum coalfields, north of Maryborough, had their own private railway planned by the New South Wales businessman, John Hurley. In 1878-9, he imported locomotives and rollingstock, however the bill for the Burrum Railway was withdrawn by parliament in 1879 before it received assent.
A government railway was approved by parliament to run from Croydon Junction (Baddow) to Howard, and opened to traffic in 1883. A further northward extension of the line beyond Howard to Bundaberg was approved in 1884, and opened to Bundaberg on 20 February 1888. However, the Burnett River separated the line from the North Bundaberg terminus of the Bundaberg Railway until the bridge was built in 1891.
From Howard to Bundaberg, most of the anticipated traffic was expected to be coal shipments from the nearby Burrum coalfields.
Brisbane to Gympie
The first railway north from Brisbane was a line from Roma Street to Sandgate that was opened in May 1882.
In December 1884, a railway running from Brisbane to Gympie was approved by parliament. Gympie at this time was linked by rail to a coastal port at Maryborough.
Previously a line had been surveyed to run via the Brisbane and Stanley River valleys, but the coastal route won the day. Brisbane business interests wanted to have reliable transport access to the Gympie gold workings.
The Maryborough railway captured much of the traffic centred on its town and more importantly its port. With its growing sugar industry and ship building industry, as well as having been a major port of immigration, the business community of Maryborough did not welcome the prospect of a rail connection between Brisbane and Gympie.
The construction of the Caboolture-Gympie connection was started simultaneously from both railheads in 1888 - the same year that Bundaberg and Maryborough were connected by rail.
The tender for the railway northwards from a junction on the Sandgate railway (Northgate) was awarded to John Robb in February 1886. Robb was to become known within a few years as the builder of the Barron Gorge railway from Cairns to Kuranda.
Robb distinguished himself on this contract and began work on the bridges over the South and North Pine Rivers and the Caboolture Rivers. The first section of Robb's contract to North Pine (now Petrie) was opened to traffic on I March 1888 and was further extended to Caboolture in June of 1889. For the journey north to the goldfields of Gympie, a coordinated coach service was provided over roads that were rough and impassable in wet weather.
Sections 2 & 3 of the North Coast Line from Caboolture to Yandina were approved in November 1887, before the opening of the line to Petrie. In December 1888, both contracts, totalling 39 miles in length, were awarded to T. Jesser and Co.
Some of the most difficult terrain to be faced by the railway builders lay to the north of Caboolture. The major obstacles included the boring of two tunnels near Mooloolah and Eudlo (the only examples on the whole North Coast Line).
The section from Caboolture was opened on 1 February 1890, with stations at Beerburrum, Beerwah and Landsborough. The section north of Landsborough to Yandina was opened to public traffic on 1 January 1891.
Since its opening the line has been relaid on different routes to ease grades and curves. The area near the Mooloolah tunnel is a good example of this, with the 1890's trackbed visible from the western side of the train.
Landsborough station was once a refreshment room stop on the journey north and in 1942, was provided with an air-raid shelter. The shelter can still be seen today at the south end of the station. The shelter is a reminder of how important the North Coast Line was during the defence of Australia in World War 2.
On the section between Landsborough and Nambour, several small stations are passed. Palmwoods station is one of the more interesting stations as it was from here that the former Buderim tram (actually a narrow gauge railway) ran to serve the Buderim Plateau. The Buderim tram was constructed by the Maroochy Shire Council, on a gauge of 2 feet 6 inches (760mm). The 12km long line opened in 1913 and acted as a feeder line to the North Coast Line. Competition from road transport and the delays in transhipping goods to the government line saw its closure in 1935.
As well as this, the Shire Council also built a 2 feet gauge (610mm) tramway to Mapleton inland from Nambour. The Mapleton tramway operated until 1944 and was worked by small Shay locomotives. The Moreton Sugar Mill has preserved one of these unusual geared locomotives at Nambour.
The contract for Section 4, Yandina to Cooran, was awarded to G C Willcocks on 21 August 1890, completion date set down as 11 October 1891. Willcocks was noted as a contractor who was able to complete the job ahead of time and he handed over the Cooran to Cooroy section on 1 April 1891. The final section from Cooran to Yandina included the difficult Blackall Range with its heavy earthworks, 1 in 40 grades and 4 chain curves. The entire section was opened on 17 July 1891, some 3 months early.
The material from the cuttings on the Blackall Range turned out much softer than anticipated from the trial pit dug in advance, being a marly clay mixed with loose rock of the most treacherous description. Heavy rains caused heavy slips and increased the cost of earthworks.
The slips may not have been to Willcocks detriment as the schedule of prices meant that he was compensated, perhaps generously, but it was not a good portent for the stability of the railway. In 1927-28, a costly deviation had to be provided quickly when practically the whole hillside threatened to engulf the railway after abnormal rain. The speed of trains had to be reduced and only light-weight engines used until the deviation was constructed. The deviation actually shortened the distance by 9 chains (180m).
Section 5, from Gympie to Cooran, was assented to by parliament on 17 November 1886. The contract was awarded to G C Wilcocks in August 1887 and the section opened on 10 June 1889. With completion of the line over the Blackall Range in 1891, through train travel was possible between Bundaberg and Brisbane.
Substantial work on the regrading and realigning of the line from Caboolture to Gympie began in 1928 and continued until 1932. Part of the work was undertaken as depression labour relief, especially on the Eudlo tunnel. The work between Landsborough and Mooloolah was substantial and included a new tunnel along with the improvement to the grades. The original Mooloolah tunnel is now situated in a National Park not far from the present line.
Yandina was the terminus for some passenger services from Brisbane, as well as local services. During the steam era, it was a busy country station. Crew quarters were built to house crews on banking and local duties. North of Yandina, steam trains faced the steep 1 in 40 climb of the Blackall Range near Eumundi. Extra steam locomotives were provided from Yandina to bank goods trains over the climb. At times even diesel-electric hauled trains required assistance.
Gympie was the northern limit of crew workings from Mayne, whilst Maryborough crews worked south to Gympie and north to Bundaberg.
Most of the railway centres featured their own workshops and running sheds, with the major one being centred on Maryborough.
Maryborough remains a dead end terminus station. With the reconstruction and electrification of the North Coast Line in 1986-89, a new line was built from Oakhurst to Colton and today, Maryborough is entirely bypassed by mainline passenger and goods trains. A new station was built at Oakhurst and is called Maryborough West.
At Maryborough, the workshops and locomotive depot have also been demolished.
Maryborough is widely known as the home of Walkers Limited, builders of much of the motive power of QR since 1899. Walkers No. 1, B15 converted No. 299, is preserved at Maryborough station.
Gympie was bypassed as a mainline station in 1989, when Stage 4 of the mainline electrification project between Brisbane and Rockhampton was completed. A 8km long deviation to the east was approved by parliament in 1986 to replace the long climb from Monkland.
A new station (Gympie North) was built on the deviation to service the Gympie area. Although a rail connection was provided both near Monkland and at Gympie North, mainline passenger trains no longer used Gympie station.
Since the removal of the southern main line connection, the line south from Gympie was kept to serve the Mary Valley branch line.
Recently, the whole of Gympie station and the line to Imbil have been taken over by the Mary Valley Heritage Railway for preservation as a steam tourist railway.
Gympie - A Mainline Station and Depot
There is a tendency on the part of new mining centres to regard themselves as being merely ephemeral creations to be abandoned next month, next year or somewhere in the not too far distant future. The result is that little attention is paid to railway construction for future developments, provided it meets immediate wants. Gympie, generally is well served by trains, and being on the main North Coast Line has the advantage of mail trains. Recently very important alterations have been made at the Gympie railway station and an extensive network of lines laid down, which will be capable of dealing with the heavy traffic that the local railway staff is now called upon to handle. The connecting of the North Coast line with Townsville and Cairns has greatly increased the through trains, whilst the district traffic shows improvement year by year.
The line surveyed to Gympie was originally to terminate at Commissioner's Hill, which local people considered to be a location not central enough for the business people of Gympie. In 1880, parliament opted to shift the location of the station to Caledonia Hill, a site free from the flooding which has plagued the town at various times in its history.
This decision was to mean, however, that when the connection to Brisbane was finally built, trains from the south would face a long and difficult climb from Monkland (109 feet in the last mile - the heaviest grade on the North Coast Line). As a result goods trains would need to be banked into Gympie. The original station building was demolished in 1911-12 and a new station building, platform and subway were built and brought into use in 1913. A 24 hour Railway Refreshment Room, to cater for overnight mail trains, was included as part of the design. The new station was part of a major redevelopment of the Gympie railway yards, including new signalling, signal box and new quarters for the train crews, all of which was completed by 1914. The Refreshment Rooms closed in 1975 and the high signal cabin at the northern of the station was placed out of use in 1980 when Centralised Traffic Control (coloured light signalling etc.) was introduced on the North Coast Line.
An Accident at Traveston
Near Traveston, on a high timber trestle bridge at 95 miles 30 chains from Brisbane, was the site of the worst accident to happen on QR since the Macallister derailment of 1909.
On 8 June 1925, the Rockhampton Mail train, also known as 21A for many years, left Brisbane hauled by B17 class locomotive No. 683, with PB15 388 attached. The train comprised 11 vehicles including a covered goods wagon, travelling post office car, 3 sleeping cars, a goods wagon used for luggage and mail brake van.
Sitting car No. 353, derailed at 93 miles 72 chains apparently when it struck part of a brakeshoe which had fallen from the leading goods vehicle. Passengers noticed rough conditions inside the coach but were reluctant to pull the emergency brake for fear of a £5 fine (then approximately a week's wages).
By the time it was pulled, the effect was disastrous. The train was approaching the bridge at 95 miles 30 chains, a standard timber trestle of ten 20-feet spans on a 10 chain radius curve. Car 353 and the luggage van plunged off the bridge and car 951 was pulled on its side. 9 of the 10 passengers killed were in car 353 which was reduced to matchwood.
The accident was the worst accident on Queensland Railways until the Camp Mountain accident in 1947. It resulted in baggage cars being specially built for passenger trains and ended, for a time, the use of goods vehicles on passenger trains.
The Fast Mail - Gympie to Brisbane
Fast speeds and fast drivers were a legendary part of the working lives of crews on the North Coast Line. The following account is from an interview that the author conducted in 1995 with Noel Condon, the son of John Condon.
Noel Condon retired from Queensland Rail in 1995 having finished his career as a Train Operations Inspector in charge of steam operations for Queensland Rail. Whilst Noel's account is of a return trip from Gympie to Brisbane, the story is a good account of the old spirit of Mail Train running on the North Coast Line.
Bob Anderson was a driver at Mayne and he was known as the Flying Scotchman. He used to wear his hat like a cap; he'd pull all the lining out of the inside of it and just leave the outer covering shaped around his head. The engine crew cap had an outer cloth cover, a padding and an inner cover to keep the shape. To keep the shape a wire ring was fitted. Bob would pull the wire ring, the inner lining and the padding out, leaving the outer cover. When Bob put the cap on, the top outer cover would shape over his head. He used to like to be behind time so he could run the time off. One Christmas morning was a Sunday, and I worked 268 with Bob. It was the Second Division of the Cairns- Brisbane Mail, B18¼ 868. The engine worked in from Maryborough.
Bob said, " We'll fill the lubricator, with a little bit of oil". 10 minutes was allowed. The cleaners came over and trimmed the coal forward and took water. The coal was Bulgowan; it was the best coal I ever fired. Big shiny lumps, which broke up easy when struck with a hammer. It had a white fret through it and was known to the men as "chicken shit coal". It had tremendous heat. I fired it with the firehole door opened 6 inches. Using a haystack fire method, the heavy lumps under the door, sloping to the front and sides and to the tube plate. Bob gave the engine plenty of draught with steam. The haystack would lift up and down. The Mail was 2hrs late off Gympie and this suited Bob. He set about running off time.
When daylight came I could look back along the train, and I could see along the roofs of the coaches, lashed on 4 rowing skiffs. These were lashed on to the top, because they were too long for the baggage cars. The rowers were going to Victoria for championship races. 64 minutes was the allowed running time from Gympie to Cooroy, with plenty of switchback 25 mph check rail curves. Bob kept the pace above that, and I could hear the wheel flanges howling around the corner. He ran to Cooroy in 57 minutes. We took water at Palmwoods, Bob oiling up. I did not touch the fire. 20mph was the regulation speed through staff stations, and I used to take the staff hoops. I used to ride a motorbike, and I wore a leather jacket.
On the straight platform station yards at Eumundi, North Arm and Beerburrum the platforms were on Bob's side. I came over and Bob threw his staff off, and I squatted down hanging one arm out, hanging on with one hand, and I extended my arm out taking the hoop on my right arm. Elimbah was a long straight on my side, and Bob looked over, hand on the brake valve, and I said, "It'll be right Bob." We were doing 40mph when I took the hoop. Both my arms had red weals after I took the jacket off. The second I got the staff Bob had the regulator open. The engine was leaping over the long trestle bridge over Elimbah Creek, and up the long straight and down towards Caboolture. On the Bruce Highway running beside the line, a white van in front as we ran along. Bob wound the engine up passed this van, which had Scanlan's Butchery on the side.
The train increased pace, and then the engine began to shudder. It was always said when the engine was shuddering the speed of the train was 60mph. We passed the van with the train, and ran into Caboolture. The Refreshment Rooms would be open and the engine would stop at the platform, and the engine would have to be cut off and run to the hydrant. I was on the tender taking water when the Butcher's van came into the yard, and I see the driver get out. He spoke to Bob who was oiling up. He told Bob by his speedo we were doing 60mph. I finished the water and got back on the tender steps and waved Bob back. The stationmaster rang the bell to call the passengers out of the rooms as soon as we moved back.
Usually a paper would be in the drawer. The local paper shop came over and sold papers, but being Christmas there was no free paper that morning. After hooking on and pumping up Bob started off, usually there were two shut-offs between Caboolture and Narangba, down through Morayfield was one, and over Burpengary Creek was the second. Bob never closed the regulator. We cleared Narangba in 11 minutes, with 16 roller bearing vehicles. Bob shut off at Dakabin and ran down Petrie Bank, not touching the brake, until outside of Petrie to check the train round the 30mph curves to stop at Zillmere. A stop was made at Zillmere, Northgate, Wooloowin, and I broke the long haystack fire going up Normanby Bank, we arrived at Roma Street a little before 8.00 am, in 3 hours and 23 minutes for the journey. (Noel Condon)
An example of how fast this run was can be found in reading the working timetable for the North Coast Line. In 1967, diesel electric hauled trains such as the Sunlander took 4 hours to complete the section from Gympie to Brisbane. Noel's firing turn with Bob Anderson took off over half an hour on the journey.
© Copyright Greg Hallam 1999. All rights reserved.