In 1899, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company of Tasmania opened a 34.5 km steam railway to transport copper from their Queenstown mine to the Port of Strahan. The railway closed in 1963 due to high maintenance costs, and re-opened as a tourist attraction in 2002 as the West Coast Wilderness Railway.
Two of the original five steam locomotives were restored and now pull tourists instead of copper. The locomotive that pulled our train was Mount Lyell No 3 and it was absolutely immaculate. It is original in almost every respect other than we doubt any working engine was ever polished that carefully nor cleaned that well. It’s a beautiful piece of history.
While anchored nearby that morning, we noticed black clouds of smoke billowing out of the storage building beside the station about three hours before our scheduled train departure that morning. We initially thought there might have been a fire in the facility, but shortly thereafter the Mount Lyle No 3 locomotive inched out of the building into the bright sunlight of the morning. It turns out that steam engines, like old sailors, don’t like getting started in the morning.
If the engine has been run the previous day, they give it an hour and a half to get started. In this case, having not run yesterday, they gave it a full three hours to warm up. Those first few minutes are black and sooty ones but, once it’s warmed up, it actually runs remarkably cleanly.
The steepest part of this return trip is 1 in 15 which is to say for every 15m traveled, the train will climb 1m vertically. This is incredibly steep for a metal wheels on metal tracks, so an ingenious system is used where an engine drives two cog wheels that engages in a central third rail to give the engine the purchase it needs to haul the load up the hill. Going down the grade doesn’t require the massive power required when going up, but the same system is used to provide the traction needed to maintain a safe speed. And for extra traction, when not using the central cog rail, sand is sometimes automatically dispensed onto the tracks by the engine.
The railway fell into disrepair after the 1963 closure, and was rebuilt prior to re-opening. The tourist train follows the same route as the original copper transport, except that all but one of the original one mile of bridges were rebuilt. The third picture below is one of the original wooden bridges, no longer in use, near the Dubbil Barril station, and the fourth is the ruins of the Quarter Mile Bridge across the King River, considered an engineering feat for the time. The bridge was 800 feet long, with 84 ft piles that in some cases were driven 60ft deep to obtain a footing.
We stopped at several stations en route to refill the locomotive water tanks, particularly after the steep uphill runs. The stations had have been refurbished and included nature walks, snack bars and interpretive signs.
We had a surprisingly good lunch at the Tracks Cafe in the Queenstown station, and walked around town a bit before returning back to Strahan. An excellent outdoor exhibit was nearby detailing the area’s history, much of it related to mining.
We were lucky to be assigned the back seat in the aft carriage of a balcony car for the run to Queenstown. On the return trip, the locomotive was turned 180 degrees on a railway turntable and the passengers swapped sides. Our aft seat became an equally good front seat of the front carriage, where we could watch the engineers operating the locomotive.
The video below starts with the Mount Lyell No 3 moving into place in front of the train. From just outside the storage building, the locomotive travels away from the station, then backs down onto railway turntable and is turned to face the other direction to be hooked up to the front of the train. After is footage from the run to Queenstown at the back of the train, and the return run to Strahan at the front of the train.