Road & Rail

Tas tourism rail keeps driver dream alive

Andrew Drummond - AAP

A day at the office for James Smith is the envy of many people: sounding the whistle, easing off the throttle and slouching an arm proudly out of the engine car.

The 33-year-old is standing strong in a dying profession as a senior driver for Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway.

“I reckon I’m one of only three full-time, paid puffing billy steam drivers left in Australia,” Smith tells AAP after bringing a shiny green locomotive to a stop at Lower Landing platform, about an hour after setting off from the west coast centre of Strahan.

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Smith, who lives at nearby Queenstown, has spent his professional life working on the century-old railway.

“I started right at the bottom, walking the track and making sure there were no loose bulbs,” Smith said.

But these days he is at the helm, taking scores of tourists a day twisting and chuffing through spectacular rainforest for what is a most palatable history lesson.

Back in the day when Smith’s grandfather worked on the railway, it served as the sole means of access to Queenstown’s Mt Lyell copper mine from Strahan’s Macquarie Harbour port.

The stunning scenery wraps around steep gorges that tumble down to the King River in a landscape that gets rain more often than not, and proved a ghastly challenge for those who spent years carving out the railway line in the 1890s.

Their sweat and toil means visitors can still experience the unique cool-temperate rainforest, but these days in the lap of luxury.

The 35-kilometre track, which includes 40 bridges, has undergone an extensive $30 million-plus restoration.

Each of the refurbished original carriages that service the railway are lined with a range of native local timbers including Tasmanian oak, sassafras and blackwood.

Even the locomotives used by the tourism venture were part of the original story, including a 119-year-old Glasgow-built model.

In a neat twist, the engines have been converted to run on used motor oil.

They still produce the same much-loved puffing billy steam hiss, and go clickety-clack along the track, all the while leaving a smaller carbon footprint.

Smith does not wind up the speed too much: 25km/h is about the maximum.

At some points the train relies on a Swiss-designed rack and pinion system (teeth underneath the engine locking into grooves on the track) to aid its climb up steep ascents, which reach up to 240 metres above sea level.

Passengers feel only a few bumps, but not enough for those in first class to spill their complimentary glass of Josef Chromy sparkling wine.

The passing scenery needs to be experienced to be believed.

The train threads itself through narrow rock faces, over bridges across plunging gorges, and passes beneath stunning canopies of native forest.

The surface of the dark and gentle-looking nearby King River is broken only by a few raindrops and the soft foliage of Huon pine trees along the bank droop like parched creatures craning their necks for a drink.

This region is also the home to the leatherwood tree, famous for the production of honey by the same name.

A knowledgeable commentator, speaking live during the rail journey, recounts tales of how rail workers in the 1800s used honey as a “bushman’s bandage” to seal cuts and grazes.

There’s not an endless commentary, just the occasional useful snippet of information.

It’s all very relaxing. And with no mobile phone reception, there are no interruptions.

And while many passengers busy themselves taking photos from the tail of the train, snapping landscapes framed by the thinning engine steam, just as many are up the front keeping a close eye on Smith at the controls.

IF YOU GO:

Trips on the West Coast Wilderness Railway leave from Queenstown and Strahan.

Half-day journeys start from $95 an adult and $40 a child.

Full-day trips start from $149 an adult and $65 a child.

Family package deals are available.

For more information visit www.wcwr.com.au

* The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Tasmania and West Coast Wilderness Railway.

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