The West Coast Wilderness Railway is Tasmania's rainforest railway, blending history, forest and a deep gorge.
Stretching 35km between Queenstown and the port of Strahan, the steam-powered West Coast Wilderness Railway (WCWR) brings to life the traditions and stories of a line built in the late 19th century to transport Queenstown’s copper riches across some of the state’s toughest terrain.
Surveyors who tried to tell the bosses at Mount Lyell Mining in the 1890s that it was impossible country for a railway were promptly fired. Using only picks and shovels, teams of workers pushed through the mountains against the odds and in terrible conditions.
Every trip is different. It doesn’t matter how many times you do it, everything is different. Train driver Mark Tregoning
At the railway’s heart is a climb that was an engineering marvel of its day. A Swiss-engineered ABT cog-and-rack system, with a central cog under the locomotive engaging the teeth of a “rack”, was installed on the steep slopes of Rinadeena Saddle, allowing trains to drag themselves up and over the 6.25% gradient.
It’s the steepest steam haul in the Southern Hemisphere, and the only operating ABT rack-and-pinion railway in Australia.
“Back in those days, even a horse trail wasn’t an alternative because of the terrain,” says the railway’s supervisor of train drivers, Mark Tregoning. “People had to carry anything they needed, including machinery parts and supplies, in on foot. Although very costly to build, the railway at least gave them good access to the coast for exporting the products they mined.”
If this railway journey remains a challenging labour for its locomotives, it’s anything of the sort for today’s passengers. The ride is a gentle journey through the cool-temperate rainforest that blankets Tasmania’s west coast, with guides on board to recount the stories of hardship from the railway’s construction and the men, women, and children who called the surrounding wilderness home.
The ambition and audacity of the early railway is evident as the train climbs above the deep and wild King River Gorge and crosses historic bridges – the remains of the 244m trestle bridge at Quarter Mile speak volumes about the fierceness of the terrain.
There are remote train stations that have faded into the forest, including Teepookana, a ghost town that was once the fourth-largest port in Tasmania and home to a double-storey pub.
Passengers can stop at these stations for activities including a rainforest walk, the chance to watch the train being turned on a manual turntable, panning for gold, and tastings of wild honey.
“Every trip is different,” says Tregoning. “It doesn’t matter how many times you do it, the weather conditions, the lighting, the way the carriage set behind you is behaving, the wildlife – everything is different.
“As a driver, you certainly don’t have time to get bored. It requires great concentration driving this railway.”
Need to know
- The West Coast Wilderness Railway runs a range of immersive trips, from the half-day Rack & Gorge return journey from Queenstown to the lyrically named Dubbil Barril station, climbing over Rinadeena Saddle, to a Raft and Steam trip combining the train ride with a white-water rafting adventure through King River Gorge.
- Trains run daily from Queenstown, and every day except Tuesday and Sunday from the Regatta Point Station in Strahan. There’s a choice of carriages: heated and air-conditioned heritage carriages, and wilderness carriages, with booth seats and tables and access to the carriage balcony. Fuel up for the journey at Tracks Cafe in Queenstown Station, or Tracks on Point Cafe in the Regatta Point Station, Strahan.