Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Cairns: Trains in The Tropics

Since its introduction in June 1953, The Sunlander has made the 1,681 km trek from Brisbane to the North Queensland city of Cairns. For the past 61 years, passengers have been treated to the sights of Queensland's coast aboard a train that was named in the World's Best 25 Rail Journeys. On December 31, 2014 all that changed as The Sunlander departed Cairns Railway Station for the very last time.

Half past six in the morning, and The Sunlander is counting down the days to retirement as it waits at Cairns Railway Station for its 7.15 am departure. 2014.

I've long wanted to make the trip north to Cairns by train. I guess when you've been busy for the past two decades raising kids, the prospect of getting them to sit still for 31 hours on a train squashed any ideas of that ever happening. So when I heard that Queensland Rail was retiring The Sunlander train after 61 years of faithful service, I jumped at their offer of a $61 each way fare to finally ride this train before she disappeared into the annals of railway history forever. After joining the train at Nambour on the Sunshine Coast at a little past 11 am, I settled back in my economy class seat and made myself comfortable for the 29 hour trip north to Cairns. The Sunlander ran to a lazy timetable, with leisurely stops at Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville and Tully. At each of these stops there was plenty of time for passengers to alight to stretch their legs, have a cigarette, or in my case, take as many photographs as possible or the train and station buildings. By 3.45 pm the next day, The Sunlander arrived in Cairns.

Cairns Railway Station is hidden beneath the parking lot of the Cairns Central Shopping Centre, but still makes for an impressive entrance. 2014.

The railway station at Cairns adjoins the Cairns Central Shopping Centre which opened in 1997, and replaced an orange brick two-storied station building that was demolished in 1995. The railway line from Brisbane first arrived in 1924, and today Cairns is a thriving tourist city of more than 142,000 people, and countless more visitors from around the globe who flock here each year to experience all that the Great Barrier Reef has to offer. Cairns is also the starting point for another favourite Australian train journey, the Kuranda Scenic Railway. But that's a story for another day.

A scene never to be repeated again. The baggage car of The Sunlander being loaded at Cairns Railway Station, 2014.

Some might think I'm crazy, but I gave myself only one night in Cairns before I arrived back at the station at 6.30 am the next morning to take some photos of the train before we departed. I've visited Cairns before with my wife and kids, so this trip was purely for me to enjoy on my own. I've always loved travelling by train, and although The Sunlander's replacement the Spirit of Queensland has cut the journey time to an even 24 hours, the slower pace of this grand old lady of the rails gave me some added time to take photos and notes for my new book. As I watched the QR staff loading the baggage car for the trip south, it occurred to me that this was a moment in time that I was taking a ride through history itself. But nostalgia aside, the journey to Cairns by train is spectacular, and one that will keep passengers returning for many years to come.

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