Ding, ding! All aboard! Callout for passengers wanting to explore Australia’s iconic scenery riding the rails back in time.
When you search for Australian train journeys online, Google always throws up the luxury Ghan and the Indian Pacific.
I’ve taken these iconic trips and shared my experiences on TravelAwaits. But these big-ticket items shouldn’t eclipse Australia’s other historic rail trips. The ones international tourists miss out on because they never hear about them. So here they are!
1. Aurora Australis By Vintage Rail Journeys, Sydney, NSW
Not all travelers want train journeys stretching to the far side of the continent. An alternative is Vintage Rail Journeys that leaves and returns to Sydney’s Central Station via roughly circular routes.
The Aurora Australis moves only during daylight hours. After dark, the train stables so guests can sleep onboard without jolts in the night.
The company offers various tours. The Golden West Rail Tour to the Blue Mountains, the Hunter Valley Wine Region, and the regional city of Dubbo. Board the Riverboat Postman visit Emeri De Bortoli’s Private Garden; and experience an Aussie bush dance in Kandos. The Riverina Tour visits Australia’s food bowl, with its fresh produce, incredible wines, and spectacular scenery. The North Coast Tour coasts its way to Byron Bay before crossing the border to Brisbane in Queensland.
The train is called Aurora Australis, but the carriages are from the Southern Aurora, a first-class overnight sleeper service between Sydney and Melbourne from 1962 until 1986. The 1960s vintage cabins were built in 1950s American style and fitted with original 1930s Art Deco-style light fixtures.
In 2017, retirees Simon Mitchell and Danielle Smith acquired 16 of these classic carriages and have painstakingly restored nine of them to date for their business. The trips aren’t purely commercial, with part of the proceeds going to Transport Heritage NSW.
Pro Tip: The brochure is here. Trains accommodate 156 guests but are limited to 12 departures per year. Tours sell out quickly.
2. Puffing Billy, Melbourne, Victoria
Puffing Billy is a century-old steam train chugging through the fern gullies and forests of the Dandenong Ranges. Once serving the local farming community, today this is a much-loved tourist railway, thanks to the efforts of hundreds of volunteers.
Seating is in open-sided carriages. The views are incredible, and the excitement is palpable as Puffing Billy crosses over trestle bridges, brushes past towering ferns, billows smoke, and toots his whistle. Everyone who sees him waves.
Stops include walking tracks in the area’s temperate rainforest. Picnic, or visit one of the English or German-style tea shops the area is famous for.
Puffing Billy Railway was one of four low-cost 2 feet, 6-inch gauge lines constructed in Victoria in the early 1900s to open up remote areas. The locomotives have cowcatchers like the steam locos of early America. Locomotives, rolling stock, buildings, fencing, signs, and even staff clothing represent the Victorian Railways as it operated between 1900–1930.
Pro Tip: Puffing Billy is in the Dandenong Ranges, an hour east of Melbourne. The train runs every day except Christmas day.
3. Walhalla Goldfields Railway, Walhalla, Victoria
Walhalla is a 2-hour drive east of Melbourne. During the 1860s, this was one of Australia’s richest towns and home to thousands of miners. Today, tourists outnumber the clutch of residents. Tourists visit the Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine or wander the Victorian-era town with its band rotunda, Mechanics Institute, and hillside cemetery so steep it’s rumored some of the 1,100 corpses were buried standing up.
The Walhalla Goldfields Railways is part of this heritage experience. The route traverses six trestle bridges following Swingler Creek cascading below. The track is amazingly steep, but the little diesel locomotive manages with ease. The return trip takes an hour.
Walhalla Goldfields Railway opened on 3 May 1910. Walhalla’s last major gold mine closed the following year. A mass exodus of the population saw miners using the railway to move their wooden cottages.
Bush grew over the abandoned track. In 1993, a group of enthusiasts began rebuilding the most spectacular section of the line.
4. Gulflander, Normanton, Queensland
Much loved by train buffs, the Gulflander is an experience of the shake, rattle, and roll variety. Reached by a 10-hour bus trip or a short flight from Cairns, passengers travel through frontier country from Normanton, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, to the inland town of Croydon.
The train advertises itself as going from “nowhere to nowhere” as there are no connections with the rest of Queensland’s rail system.
The five-hour journey takes in coolabah trees, kangaroos, huge cattle stations, wooded savannah, grassland, and creek crossings with alarming floodwater markers. The Guflander stops to drop off mail and waits patiently for cattle herds to cross the track.
There are two carriages, and the railmotor runs on a narrow-gauge, 3-foot 6-inch track on the original sleepers laid between 1888 and 1891. This ingenious steel sleeper system allows floodwaters to flow gently over the line to prevent flood damage during the wet season.
The impressive Normanton station has a small museum set up from the 1930s. Excellent commentary onboard covers the area’s pioneering history — no meals beyond a stop at a siding for a cup of tea and a muffin. Latch windows rather than air-conditioning.
Pro Tip: The Guflander can be combined with a trip on the Savannahlander.
5. The Savannahlander, Cairns, Queensland
The Savannahlander is a 1960s classic railmotor. The first part of the journey from Cairns uses the famous Kuranda Scenic Railway track, winding through the rainforest past waterfalls before moving onto the Gulf Savannah region — “The Outback.” The 4-day itinerary includes excursions to the Chillagoe Caves, Cobbold Gorge, and the Undara Lava Tubes. The endpoint is the old gold mining town of Forsayth.
The Savannallander has an art deco muzzle and plain round lines reminiscent of a silver bullet. The carriage interior offers first-class period glamour: dark polished wood, green leather seats, windows that open casement-style, and antique-style baggage racks. Great views through the huge windows. True to the period, there is no air-conditioning.
This authentic outback experience is a far cry from a formal tour. There’s no set seating, and the motorail picks up locals who may travel to a couple of stations. There are two carriages and no divide between the driver and passengers. He sits in the front at the controls but within chatting distance. Passengers can take turns riding shotgun next to him.
The drivers are characters and fantastic storytellers. If you want to know what you are getting yourself in for, click here. The late Steve Irwin comes to mind as they also point out unique wildlife and might stop the train, leap off and wrestle/rescue a pig or a snake. To gain some idea of the wildlife, meet the Olive python.
Pro Tip: The prices are reasonable given the trip includes most meals and accommodation in classic outback hotels.
6. West Coast Wilderness Railway, Queenstown, Tasmania
West Coast Wilderness Railway is a reconstruction of the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company built in the late 19th century to cart ore from Queenstown to the coast at Strahan.
This unique railway journey through ancient rainforest offers gold panning, rainforest walks, and one of the southern hemisphere’s steepest tracks. Guides tell stories of the hardships of the railway’s construction.
The tourist railway has garnered multiple awards, including Tasmania’s Best Tourist Attraction and an Engineering Heritage International Marker for its global engineering significance. While not cheap, the Wilderness Package provides guests with train balcony access, sparkling wine, and a scrumptious and continuous array of snacks and lunch. The less expensive carriages give you the same scenery. Tourists often claim this rail trip is one of the highlights of their trip to Tasmania.
7. Pichi Richi, Quorn, South Australia
Experience this timeless beauty aboard the Pichi Richi Railway, a historic railway line operating as a working museum since 1973.
There are full or half-day trips over the last operating section of the “Old Ghan” railway line, the 1800s railway, named after the Afghan camel train drivers (Ghan for short) who opened up the outback. The luxury tourist train that runs from Adelaide to Darwin also uses the name.
The Pichi Richi Railway offers The Afghan Express: A steam-hauled train using timber-bodied carriages built in the late 1920s from the original Ghan. Or the Pichi Richi Explorer: A steam train using South Australian railways carriages, some dating from the 19th century.
Train enthusiasts relish a ride on the Coffee Pot, an ornate Edwardian-era steam railcar — the last operating example of its type worldwide. This grand old lady only ventures out five times a year to transport 22 (adults only) to a 3-course silver service luncheon at Woolshed Flat. Book this popular service well in advance.
8. The Cockle Train, Goolwa, South Australia
The Cockle Train is a heritage railway running from Goolwa to Victor Harbor in South Australia. The name comes from the early days of settlement when locals would take a horse-drawn train to Goolwa to collect cockles. They would do the “cockle shuffle,” swishing their feet in the sand to bring the small mollusks to the surface.
Today the Cockle Train is a half-hour heritage railway journey from the Goolwa Station, in the historic Wharf Precinct alongside the River Murray. It reaches the Encounter Bay coast, where the local National Trust operates the station. Then climbs to the top of the cliffs, where passengers experience some of the most picturesque coastal scenery on the Fleurieu Peninsula.
Unlike many tourist railways, the Cockle Train mostly uses diesel locomotives pulling a fleet of heritage Redhen and Brill railcars. When the train reaches Victor Harbor, the locomotive is detached and turned on an electric turntable for the return journey.
Pro Tip: Collect cockles with the locals or try them in Goolwa prepared by local chefs.
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