Monday, January 26, 2015

Mullumbimby: Iggy Azalea's Hometown Station

Mullumbimby lies 898 km by train from Sydney's Central Railway Station. The only problem is, that trains haven't called at Mullumbimby Railway Station since 2004. As for Mullumbimby's most famous export, rapper Iggy Azalea, she would have been just 14 and only starting out in her music career when the last train pulled away from Mullumbimby Railway Station on Sunday 16th May, 2004.

The Murwillumbah bound XPT arriving at Mullumbimby Railway Station in pouring rain, 2000.

Born with the real name Amethyst Amelia Kelly, Iggy Azalea moved to the tiny Northern New South Wales town from Sydney with her parents while she was still an infant. And while Iggy Azalea is now slaying the music charts in the USA with her brash style of hip-hop music, the tiny railway station in her former hometown of Mullum' (as the locals refer to it), has been sitting idle for the past decade. Instead of the once obligatory Murwillumbah XPT train calling at Mullumbimby Railway Station each night, a connecting bus service now transports Mullumbimby locals 77 km to the nearest railway station at Casino, from where they can board a train to Sydney.

The connecting bus service with the Casino XPT arrives at Mullumbimby Railway Station, 2014.

Located only 20 minutes from the shores of Byron Bay, Mullumbimby has a thriving alternate lifestyle community that attracts artists of all kinds. Perhaps that was what attracted Iggy's father, painter and comic artists Brendan Kelly to move to Mullumbimby in 1990. But while Mullimbimby left an impression on Iggy Azalea to the point she took her stage name from the name of the family dog "Iggy" and the street she grew up on as a child, Azalea Street, Mullumbimby's railway station itself was nothing "fancy".

An old 35mm shot I came across of Mullumbimby Railway Station that I photographed way back in 1993.

Originally opened in 1894 when the original North Coast Line was built between the river towns of Murwillumbah and Lismore, the station building was replaced in the Inter-war years with the 1930's style brick building that still stands idle beside the former Murwillumbah Line more than a decade after the line closed. I had the pleasure of travelling this line to Sydney onboard the XPT many times during the 1990's to early 2000's, and often would call in to photograph the station, passing trains and banana wagons waiting to be loaded in the sidings. By the time the line had closed however, the banana sidings had long been removed. When I called into Mullumbimby to photograph the station in December 2014, only a simple passing loop remained beside the station platform while a modern corrugated steel and concrete office building facing Station Street stands opposite the station where bananas were once loaded by the train load for the markets in Sydney.

A very quiet Mullumbimby Railway Station, ten years after the last train left town, 2014.

While Mullumbimby Railway Station is still standing, waiting for word on whether or not it is to be revitalised as a part of any heritage rail trail project, it is impossible for me not to reminisce about the times I would pass through town in the dark of night onboard the Sydney bound XPT. Which makes me wonder if a young Iggy Azalea would also have traveled to Sydney with her parents onboard the train in the not-so-distant days when the XPT once stopped at Mullumbimby. Who knows, I may have once shared a carriage with an International hip-hop star.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Byron Bay: cold beer, no trains!

There aren't many railway stations in the world where it's easier to find a beer than a train. Byron Bay however still manages to draw a crowd to the railway station more than a decade after the last train left town.

Best railway station in Australia to grab a cold beer! Byron Bay, photo taken 2006.

Opened on the 15th May 1894, the last train to Sydney departed Byron Bay Railway Station on the 16th May 2004. Long before the line's closure however, it seems the former railway refreshment rooms had found a second lease of life when a pub was established on the platform. Today, The Rails boasts the only activity on the former 131 km Murwillumbah Railway Line, where bands, beers and great food have replaced the humble railway pie.

Byron Bay Railway Station entrance, photo taken 2006.

I've passed through Byron Bay plenty of times when taking the train from Murwillumbah to Sydney, and while the XPT is now considered a piece of history in a town voted as Australia's best beach getaway, it seems a crying shame that nothing has been done to turn the quietly rusting railway line into a tourist venture.

Byron Bay Railway Station as I photographed it back in 1993.

Byron has a lot of railway history, and the decision to link the town by rail when the original North Coast Line was opened between Murwillumbah and Lismore in 1894, was to link the Tweed and Richmond Rivers with the steamship trade at Byron Bay. A co-operative cold storage established by the railway line in 1895 soon became the largest butter factory in the southern hemisphere, and the town once boasted an abattoir, piggery and a whaling station.

Byron Bay Railway Station in December 2014 with the mainline now fenced off in the background.

While the town today may be a haven of alternate living and a nursery of environmentally friendly ideas, between 1954 and 1962 there were 1,146 whales slaughtered off the coast of Byron, and the railways handled this large amount of traffic from the jetty to the station yards and the markets of Sydney with ease. Today, you may not be able to catch a train from Byron Bay Railway Station, but it sure makes an interesting location to stop and have a beer!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Murwillumbah: Going bananas over Trains

Murwillumbah Railway Station is one of those places that conjures up memories of train travel to the far north of New South Wales and the doorstep of Australia's Gold Coast, yet still sends train fans bananas with stories of Alcos, banana wagons and XPT's. I should know. More than 10 years after the Murwillumbah branch line closed, it still remains one of my favourite lines to trace. Yet there is something else that has been sending locals bananas over this long closed former NSWGR line, the thought of the line reopening as a rail trail.

Murwillumbah Railway Station 1993, back when I took my wife train chasing in our first year of marriage.

In 1993, my newly married wife and I set off on a day trip from our home in Brisbane to Byron Bay. I was just 21, yet fluid on the operations of the Murwillumbah Line from a lifetime of reading Railway Digest magazine on the toilet, (a habit I have fortunately managed to give up). Finally at last, I was going to get to see Murwillumbah Railway Station for the first time in person. Back in 1993, the station was freshly painted in brilliant aqua with white posts and window sills. While in the nearby railway sidings, bananas were busy being loaded for the markets in Sydney into a string of waiting wagons. The stretch of railway line between Murwillumbah and Casino which was the original North Coast Line when it opened in 1894, was a hive of activity.

Bananas being loaded at the up end of Murwillumbah Railway Station, 1993.

The most peculiar thing rail fans will tell you about Murwillumbah Station, is that the platform is built along a continual curve, making it look like a long banana. At the "up" end of the platform, that's the direction facing towards Sydney, there was a banana packing shed and covered awning for loading banana wagons, more commonly referred to by train nuts like me as NLBX louvered vans. Beyond the "down" end of the station precinct, the line trailed away towards the Sunstate Cement silo which was another main source of rail traffic on the line. 

Bananas were a key traffic source on the Murwillumbah Line in 1993.

Murwillumbah Railway Station is a surprising 935 km from Sydney's Central Station, and from 1973 had the famous Pacific Coast Motorail train travel overnight with both sleeping carriages and an attached car transporter for holiday makers to bring their cars along for the ride too. Despite the town only having a population of 8,500 people, just 13 km north of the border lies Australia's premier holiday destination, the Gold Coast. For all intents and purposes, the Murwillumbah Line should have been the jewel in the New South Wales Railway's crown. But sadly, the banana traffic disappeared, followed soon after by the cement trains once the Pacific Highway upgrade was finished a few miles further to the east. By 2004, rail traffic on the 131 km long Murwillumbah branch line was down to a sole daily each way XPT passenger train to Sydney. And 158 bridges along the length of the line in urgent need of repair. Sadly on Sunday 16th May 2004, the last XPT train to Sydney pulled away from Murwillumbah Railway Station.

Compare this 2014 photo of the Murwillumbah banana sheds to the one above.

More than a decade after the line's closure, I found myself driving through the Tweed Valley once more, this time retracing the now closed line along the former stretch of Pacific Highway with my wife of 22 years still beside me. Once more we pulled up at Murwillumbah Railway Station and I got out armed with my camera to see what remained of this former station at the end of the line. Nostalgic wasn't the word for it. I think saddened was a better fit to describe what remains to be seen. While the Countrylink booking office is still in use and attended, the clean appearance of the road side of the station building for the now customary road coach to call at, belies the fact that on the other side of the platform the comatose railway line has long since had its life support turned off. And for every year the debate rages on over whether the line should be re-opened, turned into a rail trail, a tourist railroad or tramway, the condition of the tracks, bridges, tunnels and embankments along the 131 km line only further deteriorate.

Murwillumbah Railway Station as photographed in December 2014.

Perhaps something will come from the re-use of the railway line, or just like the talks that have raged over the re-opening of the line, maybe nothing will happen at all. Visiting Murwillumbah a decade after the railway line had closed was like stepping into a town that had lost a part of itself. But while the government continues to monkey around trying to make a decision that keeps all of the community activist groups happy, one thing remains the same. True rail enthusiasts like myself, will always go bananas over a train line.