Politics, Community & Society > Heritage Rail: Still Rattling on in Gympie

Heritage Rail: Still Rattling on in Gympie

Published: March 10, 2009

When a railway branch line closes the towns it supports usually goes to sleep. This was the case for the Mary Valley when Queensland Railways closed its branch in 1995. Now the towns of Dagun, Amamoor, Kandanga and Imbil have been reawakened by the Valley Rattler as it pulls tourists down the line as it has done for the past six years.

Reviving the line was like putting a dismantled train set back together, if only it was that easy. With No. 45 sitting in a local park, 42 kilometres of track in existence needing some repair and a beautiful old station at Gympie it did not take long for people to put all the pieces back together and for their imaginations to see the branch running again in a different purpose.

If charm alone was to keep the line open then it would never have closed, but it was the economic reality of keeping a line that only ran freight and pineapples when they were in season that closed it.

In 1995 a public meeting elected a steering committee called the Mary Valley Heritage Railway Museum Association (MVHRMA). Their job was to talk with Queensland Railway (QR) about turning the line into a tourist steam train. After much negotiation the association agreed to lease the track from the Queensland Department of Transport.

The station and infrastructure along the line were bought from QR with a government grant. There was also a founding committee of local businesses and people that donated sums of money to get things started. Things eventually started taking shape and there was a huge response from a call for volunteers. The passenger trains stopped running in the 1970s and the stations had been neglected. Sleepers had to be replaced, the corridors had to be cleared of scrub and most importantly the steam engine had to be restored.

Fortunately No. 45, which originally worked the line, was close by and in fairly good condition. This 1927, C17 class loco was built by Evans Anderson Phelan in Brisbane. After being taken out of service it was placed in a park. Then in 1982 it was moved to the Gympie Historical Society museum where it was restored and steamed up. This previous work assisted the MVHR even more because it now had an operational locomotive. In 1996 No. 45 was transferred to the MVHR workshops for full restoration work.

While the loco was being restored the track was being fixed, bridges mended and the little stations along the line were painted and fixed by volunteers. One major job was repairing the big Gympie station that had been turned into a shed by QR staff after it was by-passed in 1988 when electrification went through.

Mary Valley marketing manager Chris Zillman recalled the state the station was in when work began.

“There was garbage everywhere, the windows were painted black and walls had been knocked down. When we got here we only had a small back room at the end of the station to work out of. It was just a mess”.

The MVHR did the best they could with what they had, still working from a small back office for ticketing, bookings and business operations they gradually turned the ‘junk room’ into a refreshments room, souvenirs shop and a fully functional station. Recently a grant has helped to repaint the station exterior to its original brown and later on when funding is available the tin roof will be replaced with tiles as it was in the 1920s. Gympie station is now back to its glorious state which is a credit to the volunteers. Much of the labour is carried out by work for the dole and skills share participants. Everyone in the MVHR agree that a lot more could be done with more funding.

“We’ve had support from local, state, and federal governments but we have not been too fortunate with grants, the grants we have had we’ve had to work hard for and have met dollar for dollar. So we are working on a shoe string budget”. Chris said.

Many people are deceived by the outward appearances. They see the crowds; the magnificent station and they believe the MVHR is rolling in money. It has been the co-operation of QR to sell locos at scrap prices, finding spare parts, turntables and expertise that have made major differences.

“Ever since day one we’ve had a good working relationship with Queensland Rail.” Chris said. “At times they ask to use our line for special trains and we work well with their heritage section. They even helped us to find a turntable which we bought at scrap prices so now we can do half day runs to Amamoor on Saturday”.

In the book Rock and Rails by Pat Towner the author tells how the line began. It was the daunting four day return trip to Brisbane for the farmers to sell their goods that prompted the move to build the line. The line originated from Maryborough north of Gympie, which had a shipping port. This port gave the farmers an advantage; it had less competition so it gave them higher prices than Brisbane. In 1911 the construction of the branch line between Gympie and Kadanga had begun. On February 13, 1914 the first train carried 50 passengers to a welcoming party at Kandanga. Queensland Govenor Sir William Mc Gregor officially opened the line on February 26, 1914. Two special trains carried 1,000 passengers to the festivities. The second section was built down to Brooloo and opened on April 29, 2004.On this occasion 2,000 people were carried on the three special trains to the celebrations.

As the main line from Brisbane headed north to include Gympie, which was a thriving gold mining town at the time it was realised that they had built Gympie station on a steep hill. It was too late re-route the track so they endured the steep grade until the electrification by-pass.

“When the line was in use they would branch off the main line just south of Gympie and come up the big hill to Gympie station. When they connected from Cooroy to Gympie to complete the south coast line they learned that the grade from the Mary Valley flats to station was actually the second steepest in Queensland”. Chris said.

This caused heavy freight trains to struggle up the hill. To remedy this situation they would either break the train in two or run a diesel out to help pull the heavy loads.

In 1988 electrification came through and by-passed Gympie to the east. This solved the problem permanently but it also meant that the old Gympie Station would be used as a storage shed by QR which is how the MVHR found it.

The MVHR has stuck to the same stable of C17 class locomotives because of their robustness, ability to handle the grades and available spare parts. It now has three in the shed. No 45 is being rested while it has work done on its boiler and axle box. No. 802 is currently pulling the Rattler after its recent restoration work. Not much was needed as it as it arrived in fairly good condition from Roma in the south west of Queensland. No. 45 and 802 caused a big stir when they joined together to pull the first double header ever up the valley line. The event pulled steam buffs from all over Queensland and Australia. No one was more excited then the operations manager Ted who had the idea to welcome 802 into service.

“There were lots of rumours flying around that the timber bridges won’t hold the load. They told us that we would crash into the river”. Chris said.

When Ted was asked if there would ever be a triple header the answer was a definite no!

“Too much work, but good fun though”. Something says not to be too surprised to see a triple-header when No. 253 is ready to run. This is the latest acquisition that the restorers and Chris are excited about. It has travelled over 1.58 million kilometres so it deserved the major rebuild in 1967, but then in 1968 it was retired still with good working parts. This gave the MVHR an advantage to fast track the restoration. Also in the fleet is a Rolls-Royce motored Silver bullet rail motor which is used for charters, weddings and family reunions. .

There is a steady supply of drivers which are coming through the MVHR’s rigorous accreditation system. An inspector comes down from Mackay every few months to examine guards, firemen and drivers. It is a lengthy process with a rolling roster of two trips a month and hundreds of hours to be built up.

The railway has 7 carriages to carry the 20,000 visitors a year and a club car. The cars have been fitted with speakers for running commentary, the club will be licenced and has an air conditioner installed, it is waiting to be connected to the 240 volt generator car that has been purchased. “When we are all wired up we plan to run twilight tours. Our next car to be restored will be a dining car, that coupled up with the club car and two other coaches will compile our night train”. Chris said.

All that is needed is a willing electrician to do the hazardous wiring work. The group have not purchased carriages in two years as some are waiting to be restored. Most carriages come down simply as sub frames as the actual cabins are beyond repair. The most important parts are the steel sub-frames as the department of transport will not allow timber sub-frames to be used anymore.

“Its not restoration.” Chris said. ”It is a re-building. You salvage what you can and put it back together. We have all the cladding milled locally. This is truly a heritage workshop. We don’t have any modern tools”.

Following the train during fire season is a 2000 litre water carrying unit with a hydraulic pump and water cannon. The odd rust hole and flying cinders has actually caused a few fires in the valley. Fortunately ‘The Rattler’ has not been stopped due to fire danger and the new water tank has reduced the risk even more.

It is a real testimony to the team at the Mary Valley Heritage Railway Association to have completed so much, in such little time. It is partly due to their ‘make do’ attitude, their ability to find help when it is needed and to keep pushing on and their solid self reliance. Chris claims that a large part of the railway’s success is due to the strong management committee that is still present today, "The management committee had the fore-sight and business acumen to put the feasibility study together in a very professional way. The Apex club has been with us all along. That with the extensive business experience of a number of business people on the committee has helped us make the right decisions and kept us in the right direction”.

It is evidently clear that the railway is on a solid footing and has a strong future ahead. There is still so much to do but that is the way they like it. The Mary Valley is awake now with a new purpose. The Rattler is bringing an experience to generations who have never travelled by steam before. The Rattler is now running three days a week. Sunday and Wednesday make the full 80 kilometre round trip and on Saturday there are two trains down to Amamoor.

For more information go to www.thevalleyrattler.com.

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