Monday, November 24, 2014

Mackay: The Sunlander by night

Mackay is 970 km north of Brisbane, and if you're checking the train timetable on your trip to or from Cairns, it is roughly the halfway point of your journey. Under the cover of darkness while most of the passengers are soundly sleeping, the train will also refuel here in both directions. So when The Sunlander made its 40 minute scheduled stop at Mackay on my journey south from Cairns, it gave me the opportunity to photograph The Sunlander by night.

The Sunlander would make a 40 minute stop at Mackay for refueling on the trip south from Cairns. Photo taken August 2014.

Mackay has a population of 166,811 people making it the second largest city north of Brisbane. As such, the city has grown considerably since the city's first council-owned railway line opened in 1885. When the Mackay rail bypass opened in 1994, a modern concrete and glass railway station was built to the west of the city centre in the suburb of Paget to replace the 1924 built Boddington Street Station that the city had outgrown. The present station still goes by the name Mackay Railway Station and sits opposite a sprawling rail yard.

A station this big when only 10 trains per week call at Mackay? You'd better believe it. Photo taken August 2014.

Mackay Railway Station can only be described as massive. The platform can fully accommodate a train 18 cars long with 2 locomotives at the head, and the station foyer entrance resembles a small airport rather than a train station that sees only 5 trains in each direction between Brisbane and Cairns per week.

At quarter past eight on a Tuesday night, Mackay Railway Station is left to slumber in the silence of an industrial area on the edge of the city. If there was a pub nearby, I might have been tempted to cross the road for a quiet drink before boarding the train once more for the overnight run to Brisbane. Instead, the passengers, like myself, who had stepped from the train to stretch their legs were only able to walk the length of the platform and admire the train. Standing on Mackay's platform in the still evening, it occurred to me that this was a scene that would soon fade into history. When The Sunlander makes its final night time stop at Mackay on December 31, 2014, gone will be the sight of a locomotive hauled passenger train at the station on the outskirts of town. Its replacement, the Spirit of Queensland, is a sleek, bullet-like train set that is still scheduled to stop at Mackay for refueling, but for only 20 minutes, and of course minus the traditional locomotives up front.

A scene set to disappear at the end of 2014, two locomotives at the head of The Sunlander by night at Mackay Railway Station. Photo taken August 2014.

Mackay is an important railway town that produces a third of Australia's sugar production, and the nearby harbour is used mainly for receiving train loads of bulk sugar for export overseas. Despite coal from the Blackwater Coal System to the west being railed direct to the coal loaders at Hay Point, the railway yard is a key supply point for equipment being sent west to the mines. The railway yard in front of the station was a hive of activity while our train was stopped. As our train occupied the entire length of the platform however, it was impossible to photograph any of the freight trains being marshaled in the rail yard.

Boarding the train once more, I settled back in my seat to enjoy the overnight trip south. With train travel in Queensland undergoing somewhat of a renaissance lately, it is comforting to know that there will still be a nightly parade of trains passing through Mackay for many years to come. And the best way to fully appreciate the rail journey from Brisbane to Cairns, is by downloading my book Train Tripping Coastal Queensland onto your iPad, smart phone or tablet before boarding the train. My window seat guide will turn your train trip into a real railway adventure of your own.

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Ingham: North Queensland's Sweet Spot

Ingham is 1,437 km north of Brisbane and is home to Australia's largest sugar mill, the giant Victoria Mill that is located a few k's to the east of town. The railway line first reached Ingham from Townsville to the south in 1919, and being a scheduled stop for the Spirit of Queensland train, along with the passing procession of cane trains making their way to the Victoria Mill, makes Ingham a sweet spot for watching trains in North Queensland.

The Sunlander at Ingham Railway Station, August 2014.

I passed through Ingham in August 2014 while making the journey to and from Cairns on The Sunlander, shortly before the train was due to be retired. On the northbound trip, an announcement was made that the train would be waiting at Ingham Station for a few minutes if anyone should wish to stretch their legs. That was all the incentive I needed to step onto the platform armed with my camera.

Ingham Railway Station signal box, 2014.

Just to the south of the platform there is a 90 degree crossing with a sugar cane railway that serves the nearby Victoria Mill, and behind the platform fencing there is a neat little interlocking tower that is still used to facilitate train movements across the North Coast Line. I can just picture myself sitting beneath a nearby shady tree at the height of the sugar crushing season. Armed with my camera and an esky full of cold-ones while waiting to photograph a meet between a tiny cane train and a double-headed freight rolling through town on the North Coast mainline. For train watching enthusiasts, the crossing at Ingham would have to be as sweet as they come.

The tail end of The Sunlander sits at Ingham Railway Station. The cane tramway crossing is just beyond the baggage car while downtown Ingham can be seen in the background. 2014

Although Ingham Railway Station itself is nothing spectacular, (the station has an awning that appears larger than the building itself), it is located right in the heart of town. As the train slows to make a stop at this North Queensland sugar town, you are treated to a window view of life in the north, including the sight of the 1925 Station Hotel that stands in front of the level crossing. On my return trip south, I knew just where to look to shoot this picture of the crossing lights and hotel from my window seat.

Ingham's Station Hotel (built in 1925) can be seen from the eastern windows as the train departs south from the Ingham Station. 2014.

While I only spent a grand total of 3 minutes in Ingham, I did manage to unearth a lot of interesting information about this town of 4,605 people. For instance, did you know that the first person to establish a sugar plantation in Ingham was later eaten by a tribe of cannibals? Well, its all in my book Train Tripping Coastal Queensland, a window seat guide to appreciating one of the world's greatest rail journeys, from Brisbane to Cairns.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tully: trains tougher than nails

Tully sure is one tough little railway station in Queensland's north. Situated 1,565 km north of Brisbane, Tully's railway station was one of many buildings in town damaged by Tropical Cyclone Yasi in 2011. A popular stop for backpackers and whitewater rafting adventurers on the train journey to Cairns, the station building was still showing the scars from Cyclone Yasi when I passed through on The Sunlander in August 2014.

The Sunlander making a stop at Tully Railway Station in North Queensland, August 2014.

With The Sunlander making a generous 10 minute stop on my journey south to Brisbane, there was enough time for me to step from the train and take some photos of Tully's station building. Despite a new roof and fresh coat of paint to the side of the building that faces the train, Tully Railway Station is still showing the scars from Yasi three years after the cyclone tore through town.

Tully Railway Station as seen from the road. The station building has a new roof while the windows are still boarded up and the adjoining former Station Master's house looks worn out. 2014

When Cyclone Yasi made landfall at nearby Mission Beach, it packed wind speeds of up to 290 kph. When it passed inland through Tully a short while later, it still punched out wind speeds of more than 200 kph. It also punched out all the windows of Tully Railway Station. The station building can be thankful however that it is still standing. Other homes in town were completely destroyed, and the local banana industry was completely flattened. More than 3 years later, the railway station windows are still boarded up and the station looks as though it is still waiting for the green light to restore its tired and battered look.

Water damage to the rear of Tully Railway Station is still visible 3 years after Cyclone Yasi passed through town in 2011.

Once the conductor blew his whistle, it was time to hurry back to the platform and board the train. At half past ten in the morning, there was still plenty more of Queensland's coast to be seen from the window of my train on the journey south. Perhaps next time I pass through Tully the station will be restored back to its original condition once more. Then again, with cyclones a regular part of life in the tropics, the locals will be praying that the next big one will steer well clear of town.

Tully Railway Station's windows are all boarded up as The Sunlander prepares to depart, August 2014.

Tully Railway Station must have been built as tough as nails however. After all, it has occupied the site on the edge of town since 1924. With the nearby sugar mill still sending plumes of sickly-sweet steam into the air during sugar crushing season, trains are going to be calling at this town of 2,500 residents for a good while yet.

To fully appreciate the 1,681 km train journey from Brisbane to Cairns, simply download my Number One Bestselling book Train Tripping Coastal Queensland onto your iPad, tablet or smartphone before boarding the train. My window seat guide will provide you with enough humour and information to turn your train trip into a real railway adventure of your own. Oh, and by the way. Does the cover photo on my book look familiar? That's because its a close up of the train stopped at Tully Railway Station. That sure was one great railway adventure!

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