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Stream train in countryside West Coast Wilderness Railway

West Coast Wilderness Railway - 28 Tonnes of Special

It is an engineering marvel, the world's steepest steam-operated railway. This is Tasmania's West Coast Wilderness Railway, and it is 28 tonnes of special.

Today, passengers are moved by the same locomotives that began the run from Queenstown back in 1896. They take a comfortable 16-kilometre run through the wildlands, uphill through spectacular landscapes and down to a place called Dubbil Barril, with stops for a little gold panning and sightseeing.

These 28-tonne locos were originally built to move copper ore for the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, delivering the mine's deep riches out of a massive, landlocked deposit at Queenstown to the port of Strahan, and from there, to the world.

The railway was critical to Mt. Lyell's success. In its first century, the mine produced more than a million tonnes of copper, 750 tonnes of silver and 45 tonnes of gold – valued at well over $4 billion. The mine still produces about 30,000 tonnes of copper a year.

Famously mountainous and frequently drenched by rain, this coast was considered inaccessible. Surveyors had said it was not possible to drive a railway through the terrain: trains would have to climb impossible gradients, the worst rising one metre for every 15 metres horizontally.

But the steep grade was conquered with a Swiss-engineered ABT cog-and-rack system, in which a central cog under the locomotive engaged the teeth of a 'rack' – a third rail below. That mechanical engagement enabled trains to drag themselves up sections two and a half times steeper than normal.

Forming the track itself was another story. Without bulldozers and with few explosives, the work -- including cutting through rock up to 20 metres -- was done with pick and shovel. But Mt. Lyell's railway, just 3 ft 6 in (just over one metre) wide, was completed to Strahan in 1896, one of the greatest engineering feats of the day.

The railway's industrial purpose lasted some 67 years after it first opened, before roads took over from rail and the rolling stock was dispersed to various museums.

Restored as a heritage tourist attraction in 2002, today's passengers are offered comfortable year-round trips from a new terminus, café and museum in the West Coast's major centre, Queenstown.

And every passenger is greeted by one of the line's original workhorses, a 28 tonne steam locomotive that's ready to roll -- and guaranteed to raise a smile.