Monday, 19 November 2012

Lismore: The Late Night Limited

Lismore Railway Station has seen no trains since May 16, 2004. When the 131 km Casino to Murwillumbah branch line was officially closed, it began a decade long debate over the line's future that is still being waged today at local government level. And following a NSW Government feasibility report that stated it would cost $953 million to reopen the once popular line, it seems that the 27,474 residents of Lismore will need to continue catching the bus to Casino Railway Station if they wish to board a train to Sydney.

Lismore Railway Station shortly after the station received an upgraded Countrylink booking office, 1993.

Situated 836 kilometres by rail from Sydney, the line was first opened on May 15, 1894 and officially closed on May 16, 2004. The nearby town of Casino some 30 kilometres away on the Brisbane-Sydney North Coast Line by contrast boasts a population of only 9,400 people. By the time the decision was made to close the Murwillumbah branch line east of Casino in 2004, the daily XPT passenger service to and from Sydney was the only train travelling on the rails. The overnight train south to Sydney would always pass through Lismore late in the evening. Sadly now, it has long since passed into history.

Before the line's closure I had the chance to travel the rails of the Murwillumbah branch line on several occasions. In 1991 I was living in Brisbane, Queensland, and I remember my first visit to Lismore was to call in on some distant relatives. The short drive across the border called for an overnight stay in town. Only recently I discovered a forgotten piece of writing from that visit more than twenty years back, simply dated The Murwillumbah XPT, 25.11.1991. Although it is hardly a story in its own right. I'm glad I found it, because it paints a beautiful picture of a now forgotten part of Lismore's history. Which goes to show that sometimes a picture isn't necesarily worth a thousand words, you still need a caption to explain the story behind it. It went like this;

The Murwillumbah XPT was six minutes late into Lismore that November night, so we stood at the station watching the cockroaches scurry across the century old platform. A young girl suddenly squealed as a cockroach darted for shelter under her bag. Her boyfriend calmly picked up the bag and stomped on the intruder several times as it tried to crawl away.
"It's dead." He said proudly, and kicked the dead creature over the edge of the platform. There the grass grew around the sleepers, and the dead roach simply disappeared between the ballast in a scene never to be remembered in railway history. Perhaps never to be remembered at all.
The air was moist, but growing cooler by the minute. The Station Master's voice crackled sharply from the loud speaker hanging beneath a beam holding up the roof. The white paint peeling from the weight of age and grime.
"Attention all passengers. The train will be arriving soon. As it will be stopping briefly, passengers only are advised to board the train."
Flaked orange paint clung desperately to the station canopy, held together by tiny threads of spider-web. How often had this building witnessed the scene below? Once in days gone by, steam engines would have formed a passing parade of trains. Now thirty years later, the traffic on the line may be limited to a daily XPT and local freight, but its importance remains.
The Station Master emerged from his office pulling a luggage trolley. His silver-white hair neatly slicked back, wearing blue shorts, knee socks and a white button front shirt that blends nicely with the cream-coloured weather board station building. Waiting passengers talk casually, with suitcases ready by their sides. The lights of town shine brightly from across the river. Not like this side of town, an almost gothic, forgotten haunt. I gaze out over the couple of remaining sidings, staring absently at the milk factory and listening to the gentle purr of its generators floating in the night air.
At first there could be heard a distant drone from the far end of town, growing louder with each passing second. Conversation then reached fever pitch as those saying their goodbyes suddenly realised the moment to board the train was about to befall them. The headlight flood-lit the small station yard as the train coasted into Lismore and glided to a halt. A string of luminous, pale green windows filled with slumbering travellers lined up behind the lead power car the 'City of Newcastle'.
Passengers hurriedly made their final goodbyes and marched on board to the hum of the diesel. The guard blew his whistle and a wave of silence washed over the station as the train hummed to life and quietly accelerated away without as much as a horn blast. Emptiness wrapped the scene like a wet blanket, cold and heavy. People disappeared quietly into the darkness beyond the station building. The lights of the last carriage rushed past me and I watch the tail lights fade off into the night. I walk slowly up the platform to the gentleman's toilets, listening to the sound of the crossing bells from a short distance away pierce through the silence. They stop before I reach the entrance to the rest room and there is nothing left for me here but to do my business and leave. Tomorrow morning, they will all be in Sydney.

Lismore Railway Station entrance as seen from the parking lot. July 2014.

A decade after the Murwillumbah Line had closed, I found myself passing through Lismore shortly before nightfall on my way back from a family vacation in New South Wales. With just enough light remaining to shoot off a few quick photos, I thought I would update this post with the following images to show how Lismore Railway Station still looks as though it is ready for the next train to arrive.

Lismore Railway Station a decade after the last XPT left town, July 2014.

Whether something becomes of the push to reopen the former Murwillumbah branch line or not remains to be seen. I however believe that reopening the railway line from Casino, but only as far as Lismore, remains the best political option on the table. The city of Lismore lies well to the west of both the Pacific Highway and Ballina-Byron airport. Perhaps it is time to assess a rail service to Lismore on its own merits. Especially given that Lismore Railway Station is situated just 30 km east of Casino on the North Coast Line.

10 years of no trains has rusted the rails into silence. Photo taken from the up end of Lismore Railway Station, July 2014.

Beyond Lismore, maybe it is time to consider alternative uses for the rail line through the Northern Rivers. Key sections of the line could be refurbished for light rail activities such as the Railcruising experience that I enjoyed so much in Rotorua, while the remainder could be opened up as a Rail Trail for horse riding and mountain biking.

Apart from the moss covered platform and the grass growing through the rails, Lismore Station still looks like it is ready for the next train to arrive, despite the line closing in 2004. Photo taken July 2014.

I for one would love to see the XPT arrive at Lismore Railway Station once again, and I'm sure it would be a more convenient option for locals who have received no benefit from the money spent upgrading the Pacific Highway. But I guess it seems that Lismore Station is destined to quietly fade away into yet another railway station where it was once possible to board a train to Sydney. Lismore is of course one of the many towns I have paid tribute to both in poem and with accompanying photographs in my full colour book Last Train to Grafton.

Available now through my Books page

See also: Byron Bay: cold beer, no trains and Casino: like Mother, like Son

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