Robert Smith gets to enjoy some of the best views in Tasmania. 

Key points:

  • The tourism industry wants to see the West Coast Wilderness Railway added to the national heritage list
  • The train travels through the west coast using the southern hemisphere’s only rack and pinion system
  • It relies on state government funding, which runs out in less than two years

He has been an engine driver on the West Coast Wilderness Railway for 16 years, and his family’s connection to the railway spans generations. 

“My father worked on the original line as a track layer, then me and my son came along and ended up as engine drivers,” he said. 

During the almost-35 kilometre trip from Queenstown to Strahan, Mr Smith often marvels at the remarkable feat of engineering. 

The tracks were built in 1899 to transport copper out of the wilderness. 

An old train in Tasmania's west coast transporting wood.

The Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company completed the tracks from Queenstown to Strahan in 1899. (

Supplied: Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

)

The trains pass through steep sections, over old timber bridges, and use a rack and pinion system — the only one in the southern hemisphere. 

“You are always thinking about [the history], especially when you look at the workmanship,” Mr Smith said.

Now, there’s a push to have the railway heritage listed, to ensure the train continues for years to come. 

Maintenance costs ongoing 

Old steam train in a workshop in Queenstown on Tasmania's west coast.

The old steam trains are often worked on in this Queenstown workshop.(

ABC News: Sean Wales

)

The railway reopened in 2002 as a tourist railway, but it is not a cheap exercise to keep the trains on the track.

One of the steam trains is 125 years old. 

The cost of maintaining the railway was part of the reason its previous owner, Federal Group, pulled out of its contract in 2013. 

For two years, the train did not complete a full trip from Queenstown to Strahan. 

Neil Halliday is the railway’s rail division manager and said maintaining the trains was a dying art. 

“That’s due to their age and changes in technology — maintenance is ongoing, every single day,” he said.

Old bridge being built in Tasmania's west coast.

Teepookana Bridge under construction on the West Coast Wilderness Railway.(

Supplied: Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

)

Repairs are also constantly done on the tracks. 

“We have 40 bridges, too — a mix of timber and steel — so that’s another thing you have challenges with. Timber bridges are another thing that is dying in history,” he said.

“It’s always hard to try and plan for the future because of the environment the railway works in.

Railway relies on funding  

Steam coming out of a train as it departs a station.

The West Coast Wilderness Railway station at Strahan. (

ABC News: Sean Wales

)

The railway hopes to be self-sufficient within a decade, but in the meantime still relies on state government funding

It is in its third year of a four-year $16 million funding agreement. 

Reservations manager Ashlea Robson said she hoped heritage listing would allow the railway to plan for the future, while also paving the way for federal funding.

“A lot of [the maintenance needs] are huge projects, they take years to complete, and having the funding available for four years isn’t long enough,” Ms Robson said.

It is also a priority for local business owners. 

Woman standing on stairs in front of cabin accomodation.

Strahan accommodation owner Anne McKay says knowing there’s a long-term future in west coast attractions is important for business owners. (

ABC News: Sean Wales

)

Strahan accommodation owner and Destination West Coast vice-president Anne McKay, said knowing the railway would be around for years to come would allow her to invest in her business. 

“We have seen it go off the run previously and it’s so important to not just the tourism industry, but the community as well,” she said.

“It’s such a part of our history and just as a resident of Strahan it would be devastating [if it stopped again], it would leave such a hole.”

This railway is synonymous with Tassie’s west coast, and now there’s a push to have it heritage listed
Source:
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