Thursday, 22 January 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 more than two decades after I shot the photo of Murwillumbah Railway Station above in 1993.


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

Back 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. In '93, 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. 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.



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