Friday, 2 November 2012

Devonport: The Don River Railway

Across Bass Strait from mainland Australia lies the island state of Tasmania. Now Bass Strait is twice as wide as the English Channel. There is no bridge and there is no tunnel, so getting there by train is impossible. That leaves you only with the option to fly, or for the more adventurous who really want to explore everything that Tassie, as it is affectionately known by Australians, has to offer, then you'll want to put your car aboard the 194 metre long Spirit of Tasmania and set sail across Bass Strait by ship on one of Australia's truly great journeys. The first place where the rubber hits the road after setting sail from Melbourne is Devonport. And for the railfan, this is also the first place you can hit the rails and take a ride on a train, at the Don River Railway.

The Don River Railway in Devonport has been hauling tourists along the Don River in Tasmania since 1976. I first became aware of the Don River Railway after watching a 1987 video put out by ABC called Tracks and Trains of Australia. So to finally get to ride on the Don River Railway almost 25 years later was a real treat.

Ten minutes by car from the Spirit of Tasmania terminal lies the suburb of Don, the starting point for this short but still magical train journey. Now a ride on a steam train is an essential experience for any writer wanting to set his or her story in a bygone era. But I am also a self-confessed and unashamed train nut, so I didn't need any extra prompting to stick my head out of a train window and breathe in the fresh smell of steam wafting from the locomotive up front. My wife had another problem on her hands, trying to convince me not to take too long admiring the museum after our train ride had finished so that we could begin the rest of our Tasmanian holiday.

The Don River Railway uses a section of line originally built in 1916 to carry limestone from the BHP quarries near Melrose, some 10 km up the Don Valley. Originally a bush tramway was established here in 1854 on the opposite side of the river to haul timber to supply a mill and wharf, and even this was later replaced with a new line that extended some 21 km to a town called Barrington. But this mostly horse drawn tramway had faded into history by the late 1880's. When BHP needed to ship large quantities of limestone to supply its steelworks in Newcastle, the government agreed to build a new branch line along the east bank of the Don River to the quarry site near Melrose. The line to Melrose opened in 1916 and by 1923 the rails once again extended as far as Barrington, largely using the original route of the tramway beyond Melrose. But soon after, traffic on the line began to decline. The line beyond Melrose closed in 1935. BHP stopped shipping limestone for their Newcastle steelworks in 1947 and by 1963 the Don Valley line had closed altogether. The Don River Railway came about because of the hard work of the volunteer Van Diemen Light Railway Society in 1973, and they secured the remaining 3.5 km section of track between Don Township and Don Junction.

Former TGR locomotive Y6 was built by the Launceston railway workshops in 1970. Only eight of these 800 hp Y class Bo-Bo electrics were built and Y6 is one of only two that remain in operational service.

Today the Don River Railway takes visitors on a scenic ride along the banks of the Don River to Coles Beach. The half hour return trip operates 7 days a week and is hauled by a vintage 1944 railcar, except for Sundays when the train is hauled by a restored 1951 M4 type 4-6-2 steam locomotive. Naturally I timed my visit in September of 2011 to arrive in Devonport bright and early on a Sunday morning. Thanks to the kind staff who invited me onto the railway's grounds before they opened to the public at 10 am, I was able to tour the extensive railway museum and workshops free of any crowds and watch the volunteer crew as they prepared the first steam train for the day. The museum itself has the largest preserved collection of vintage Tasmanian Government Railway, Mt Lyell Mining Co and Emu Bay Railway locomotives and rolling stock in the state. Inside the museum's covered workshop display shed are several beautifully restored 6-wheeled passenger carriages that date back to 1869. They were originally built for the Tasmanian Government Railways by the Metropolitan Car & Wagon Co in Birmingham, England.

The signal box and railway station building are the best preserved examples of Tasmanian Government Railway buildings in the state. Originally the railway station building stood at Ulverstone on Tasmania's north west coast.

The journey itself is pleasant and departs from a fully restored railway station that originally stood in Ulverstone before being brought to the museum's site at Don Township. It follows the banks of the Don River, winding through some picturesque parkland before arriving alongside Coles Beach at Don Junction. There is ample time to enjoy a pleasant coastal walk for those who prefer to alight and return on the next train, or you can simply hop off and watch the train uncouple, run-around on the reversing loop and couple to the other end for the return journey. The sight of seeing a live working steam locomotive against the backdrop of Bass Strait on a clear and sunny day, became a feature in my book 30 Years Chasing Trains, and the book is available exclusively through the links below.

100 pages. Full colour print & eBook version available exclusively through

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