Monday, 24 November 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.

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