The Mount Lyell Railway Journey

Labour Omnia Vincit is the motto of the West Coast’s Mount Lyell railway: we find a way or we make it. And on 5 January 2013 the railway chugged to life again with a limited service following its closure in April 2013 when its operator pulled out of its lease with the State Government.

Prior to this and at two other times in its chequered history, the railway has managed to get up and running against great odds and become an integral part of the history and success of the Mount Lyell mine

The State Government have provided funds for the railway’s current operation, but will be seeking external funding to ensure its future.

The Tasmanian Minerals Council’s Communications Officer, Natalie Johnston, enjoyed a trip on the railway prior to its closure in 2013.

It is not easy to digest the involved history of the Mount Lyell Mining Company and railway.  There are feuding Irishmen, bitter corporate rivalry and takeovers and the rise and fall of mining towns, just to name a few things.  The West Coast Wilderness Railway, formerly known as the Mt Lyell railway, provides some insight and glimpses into its volatile past.

The locals are fond of telling you that it rains at least 300 days a year on the West Coast.  So it seems fitting that it is bucketing down in Queenstown on a cold day in August for the start of my trip on the railway.  The mining town of Queenstown seems like the rough diamond sister compared to its charming and more sanitised counterpart, the tourist hub of Strahan and the destination of today’s train trip.  Queenstown is a survivor like the Mt Lyell mine, now called Copper Mines of Tasmania.  In its prime Queenstown had a population of 5,000 people and the mine employed 2,500 and was regarded as the biggest copper mine in the British empire.  These days Queenstown has a population of around 2,000 and in 2014 the mine went into care and maintenance.

The population of the West Coast in its heyday reached 25,000 in 1901 compared to its current population of around 5,000.  These days about sixty to seventy per cent of mining families now live on Tasmania’s North West coast, basing themselves temporarily in towns such as Queenstown and Zeehan for work and moving back to the North West Coast to be with their families on their days off.  This shift is a result of greater mobility with working shifts and new highways opening up.

The barren Queenstown hills are a legacy of its mining past.  The hills were cleared for its timber leaving the fragile top soil exposed so it washed away with the heavy rainfall.  It was then further damaged with the advent of smelters.  Perhaps it is something of a miracle then that the green, lush trees and vegetation have determinedly been growing back on  Queenstown’s hills for the past 20 years or so, leaving traces of the lunar landscape instead of totally dominating it. By way of interest, the grass has still not grown back on Queenstown’s gravel sporting oval.

Some of the older locals tell you that it is shame that the trees are growing back on the hills as they believe that Queenstown loses its uniqueness and one of its major tourist drawcards.  They are not kidding.  In 1996 for instance 3,000 locals signed a petition banning revegetation of the barren hills.  But as it sometimes the case, there is no holding back nature. 

Sitting snugly in my train carriage, a duplicate of the original and fitted out in a range of Tasmanian timbers, I am lulled by sound of the heavy rain hitting the roof as the train slowly chugs up and down gullies, gorges and rivers, giving a sense of this wet and rugged landscape on the 34.5 kilometre journey.  The original railway was a 48 kilometre line.

Some have claimed that parts of the soggy soil never see the sun.   It gives some insight into concerns that the weather and terrain were deemed too challenging for the railway’s completion.  Though sitting warm and dry in the carriage listening to our guide unravelling the involved history of the making of the Mt Lyell railway it is somewhat hard to relate to the hardship that went into building it. 

The West Coast people are renowned as hardy, independent people, as recognised in the Lyell railway’s motto, Labor Omnia Vincit: we find a way or we make it.  This was certainly the case with the completion of the railway against great odds on two occasions.

The West Coast Wilderness Railway website states that the original railway took 19 months to construct from Teepookana to Queenstown and a further 11 months from Teepookana to Regatta Point at Strahan, a total of two and a half years.  There were 48 bridges required between Teepookana and Queenstown alone, validating claims that the completion of the original railway was an engineering masterpiece.

“The Mt Lyell railway was Tasmania’s largest construction job in this time of the depression and it became a Mecca for the unemployed from all over the island,” renowned Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote in his book, The Peaks of Lyell.  “Many landed at Strahan without a penny to their names … Axeman, labourers, butchers, clerks, caters – they built the Mt Lyell railway.”  Blainey writes of bush settlements that housed 500 men for this purpose.

It was first completed in 1897 and launched with much fanfare.  Geoffrey Blainey tells of an exclusive event in Strahan attended by 70, including the Governor of Tasmania, Lord Gormanston.  The guests listened to an orchestra while feasting on a French menu served by waiters and cooks from Melbourne.  It could not have been more of a contrast than the agony that went into building the railway by a lot of poor men battling to make a living.

The original steam engine is used on the current trains and was major part of the restoration process.  The railway is the only tourist one in Australia using an Abt rack system.  The Abt system was a Swiss invention that was revolutionary technology at the time of the initial Mt Lyell development and it was selected due to the steep sections.

We learn that in 1892 two Adelaide financiers, Bowes Kelly and William Orr, bought the floundering Mount Lyell mine and formed the Mount Lyell Mining Company.  The irrepressible Kelly in particular was confident that there was a fortune to make from copper and recognised the need to transport the copper via rail.  The Mt Lyell Mining Company became Australia’s largest mine over the decade following the railway’s completion in 1897.

The train became peoples’ links to other communities.  There are vivid reminders of this at train stops such as Rinabeena and Dubbil Barrill, with appealing photographs of the rowdy sing-alongs on the annual Mount Lyell Picnic Days between 1897 and 1963, and of three picnic trains that ran at 45 minute intervals, including the last train of the day, the ‘drinker’s special.’  Mt Lyell arranged picnic grounds near the King River Gorge.

The historical significance of the Mt Lyell railway was captured at the Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival in October 2012, held in conjunction with the centenary of the North Lyell mining disaster that killed 42 people, marked in the history books as the biggest hard rock mining accident in Australia.  The remarkable bravery following the disaster was regarded as one of Australia’s most heroic peacetime episodes and there were more medals for bravery handed out after the rescue than for any previous event in the nation’s history.  The train played a crucial part in the rescue effort which was marked at the festival with a shuttle train commemorative service and a rescue run re-enactment.

Today’s journey involves a number of stops geared at fun and education.  Our first stop includes gold mine sampling at Lynchford for example. 

At Rinabeena there is the opportunity for a short walk along the King River after lunch.  The meandering river and rainforest look like pristine environment from the train windows, but are anything but.  It is sobering to hear that the King and Queen River remain dead, tainted from past mining practices where mine water and tailings were discharged from the Mt Lyell mine.  The PH levels are still too low for any growth, although there has been no dumping in the rivers since 1994. 

A tailings dam was built then near Queenstown, our guide explains. Vedanta Copper Mines of Tasmania contributed money towards a remediation project with CSIRO and Forestry Tasmania.  As a result there’s some regrowth at the side of the river.

The King River runs into Macquarie Harbour and we chug beside the harbour as we near our final destination, Regatta Point in Strahan. We are told Macquarie Harbour is the second largest harbour in Australia (Port Phillip Bay is the largest) and it is six and a half times bigger than Sydney Harbour. 

Dubbill Barrill is the final stop before Strahan.  We are told that there was a young man from the area years ago who ordered a double barrel shotgun from the mainland, forgetting to put his address on the paperwork.  Each day the excited young man would come out to meet the train, hoping for the delivery of his gun.  As the months went by he kept checking, but became increasingly dejected.  Finally, a guard recognised a package at the Strahan Post Office with ‘Dubbill Barrill’ written on it and he was able to deliver it.  After this the railway stop was christened Dubbill Barrill.

The train pauses on the 65 metre bridge overlooking the King River Gorge, to give us a moment to savour the view.  As we chug through Teepookana we learn at one time it had a population of 200, had its own school, stores and hotel.  The bridge at Teepookana is one of only two pieces of the original railway track, Ingrid says.  The rock wall after Teepookana was the other original part.

Teepookana is one of a number of West Coast towns that never survived beyond the railway and mining boom.  Another one was Crotty.  Geoffrey Blainey writes that with the merge of the North Lyell and Lyell mines in 1903, Crotty went from a town of 900 to almost being deserted within three weeks.  Blainey also noted that the Mt Lyell co. eventually absorbed the 40 smaller mining companies which either had no ore to mine, or had ore that only the Mt Lyell co. could smelt at a profit.

After 66 years in operation, the Mt Lyell railway made its final trip in 1963.  It was deemed too expensive to upkeep and there were also other options with a road opening in 1932 that linked the West Coast to Hobart, and the opening of the Murchison Highway in 1963 linking the West Coast to Burnie.

The preparation on the reconstructed Mt Lyell railway began in the mid 1990s.  The West Coast Wilderness Railway website states that a local businessman, Viv Crocker, and fellow railway enthusiasts established the Mount Lyell Abt Railway Society and began a campaign of fund-raising.  The restoration work revved up in 2000 with the assistance of $20.45 million from a Federation Fund.  It was launched by the then Premier and Prime Minister in 2002.

The six hour railway adventure comes to an end. I am now considerably more knowledgeable, but full of burning questions, wanting to know more about this part of the world.