I began my journey on the Gulflander in 1983, when I first read a little book called Lonely Rails in the Gulf Country, a history of the now legendary Normanton to Croydon railway – the route of the Gulflander – told in painstaking detail by one J.W. Knowles. I was given it a couple of months after I had taken myself on a tour of the Queensland railway network. I travelled over most of the system in about three weeks but geography and time conspired to prevent me getting to the Normanton-Croydon line.
This railway is a leftover from the goldrush days out the back of north Queensland, a line that was never connected to the state system – and never will be. Lonely Rails has been for the past 33 years as far as I was able to go on it. I felt a certain amount of frustration though. It was like the itch I have in my left leg from a minor childhood accident, and over the years I intermittently sought ways of scratching it, especially as the mystique of the Gulflander began to be built into what it is today. And there was something else, too – something connected with John (for that is the “J” in J.W.) Knowles. I felt I owed him.
The opportunity to un-itch myself finally arose, as I wrote in a previous piece on this trip, A right Burke, when the Queensland division of the Australian Railway Historical Society put together a tour to celebrate the Normanton-Croydon railway’s 125th anniversary. I booked the last place in the tour party, packed my copy of Lonely Rails and headed to Cairns to join 36 other train-lovers of varying intensities to ride the last piece of operating track isolated from the Queensland system.
We were not the only tour group aboard when we took our seats at Normanton. The three cars were packed to capacity with 100 expectant faces, nearly all of them belonging to people like me, Australian, of a certain age, with time on our hands. The weekly jog of 94 miles (about 150km) to Croydon takes five-or-so hours, including a smoke-oh at a whistle-stop called Blackbull a bit more than halfway along.
A nicely produced and informative little guide book was distributed to help us enjoy ourselves. It’s worth reading the introduction (verbatim and uncorrected):
Welcome aboard the legendary Gulflander for a rail journey unlike any other. Affectionately known as the ‘Tin Hare’, this legendary rail motor is one of the last great characters of the rail world. This Heritage-listed railway line from Normanton to Croydon, which is said to go from ‘nowhere to nowhere’ was never connected to the state rail network and remains the only line in Queensland still measured in miles. Opened in 1891, the railway line was originally built to connect the once bustling river port of Normanton with the rich gold fields of Croydon. Today, your Savannah Guide accredited driver, Ken Fairbairn, will provide you with unique insight into this train and the journey through the Gulf Savannah. So sit back, take in the passing scenery and learn about the diverse Gulf landscapes, it’s [sic, disappointingly] flora and fauna, rich history, plus hear some tales of colourful characters along the way.
And that is what you get, although it was more than a little surprising to hear in the commentary from the personable Ken, who introduced himself as “Kenneth”, that he wasn’t managing a museum. He thinks he’s running a railway, although he must have doubts or he wouldn’t have mentioned it.
In 1983, John Knowles captioned a picture of the track thus: “Probably the least busy rails in the world, carrying about 100 tons of goods and 750 passengers per year.” He noted: “It now has only one railcar per week, and one man does almost everything but look after the track . . . Since its heyday, its story has been of less and less, and even less – so little traffic, so few staff, such little rolling stock, seen and used by very few.” He resisted what must have been, even then, a considerable temptation to call the line completely redundant.
Three decades later, the Normanton-Croydon line is a major attraction in the Gulf’s growing tourist industry. But as a service to the people of the region and their farming and fishing industries, it is irrelevant. Oh, the non-museum manager-cum-train driver claims to do a mail drop and pickup for regional cattle stations at Haydon, 32 miles along, on the weekly run but, well, let’s just say I saw no evidence of bulls at the time. The now fully sealed Gulf Development Road runs parallel to the railway for much of its length and I feel fairly safe in assuming that’s how the mail really gets through, given that cars race ahead of the train so tourists can snap pictures of it as it ambles along at speeds never exceeding 40kmh and/or pick up many of its passengers at Croydon, either to head further east or go back to Normanton as the train does not return until the next day.
Ken/Kenneth told us that as many as 10,000 people a year now travel on the Gulflander. This story may be somewhat tallish, too. The service does not operate every week – indeed it cannot, since in the Wet the land and the line are usually flooded. It is closed before Christmas and usually re-opens in about March, depending on the floods. It has been known to be shut down until May. But say it runs for 40 weeks at its 100 capacity both ways. That’s 8000 people tops – not taking into account the normal fluctuations in the tourist trade and double counting the hardy souls who travel both ways. There are photographs of the train with only one trailing car, meaning that at least sometimes it runs at below capacity. Nevertheless, the thousands of passengers today represent a remarkable advance on the hundreds John Knowles recorded 30-odd years ago.
The interest has meant an assistant for Kenneth, smart renovations at Normanton station and its surrounds, a new station at Croydon (as termites ate the previous one into the ground), additional rolling stock, more regular track maintenance and, no small thing this for city-based tourists, a proper dunny at Blackbull. Kenneth, a fitter by trade, and his mate, whose name I can’t remember (sorry, if you come across this), spend the off months doing essential repairs on their antique train, an even older railmotor in their care and other equipment.
What persuades Ken he is not in charge of a museum is that the Gulflander is still operated by the State-owned Queensland Rail, it runs to a timetable and QR regulations, and he and his offsider are QR employees. He’s been chief cook and bottle-washer on the Gulflander for nine years and I must say shows no sign of wanting to move on. But look, Ken or Kenneth notwithstanding, the whole show really is a museum. It wasn’t even called the Gulflander until about 1987.
The train nowadays consists of a single-car railmotor (RM 93) and two trailing cars. RM 93 was built at Ipswich Workshops in 1950 and was sent to Normanton in 1982. It has a four-wheel bogie at the front and two larger wheels at the rear driven through a four-speed crash gearbox by a tailshaft from the front-mounted Gardner diesel engine. Like all its predecessors, RM 93 is essentially a truck on rail wheels. The trailing cars are railmotor equipment of slightly younger vintage – one being the de-motored Queensland Commissioners car of the 1980s and the other a trailing car of the same type. The polished interiors, fitted out with leather upholstery, lavatories and fold-out steps (essential as most of the passengers are less than agile), are beautifully kept and the exterior of the whole ensemble has been smartly painted in vintage ochre with a white roof, a longitudinal yellow stripe and the name “Gulflander” with the QR logo in the same yellow. These are the colours I remember on railmotors of the RM 93 type when I was boy.
Ken and his mate also have charge of the resurrected RM 60, built in 1931, essentially replaced in 1964 and not much in use for 30 years afterwards. It is available for short-trip charters and our group, being officially rail buffs, had a run in it to the Four-Mile the day before our trip to Croydon. Making up the complement is a lightweight diesel engine (ca 1961), once used on the line between Mt Surprise and Forsayth, where we’ll be venturing on the next leg of my northern odyssey.
The renovated Normanton station, with its typical north Queensland arched train shed, is well maintained and has a blooming garden in front. One room houses a small collection of curios and ephemera from days gone by. Another serves as the souvenir shop, without which no tourist trap is complete. A couple of the steam locomotives which operated the line until 1922 are on static display. Croydon station, as mentioned, is new but done with steel in the style of the old wooden buildings. Another of the old steamers stands forlornly in its foreground.
The real star of the show, though, is the track. Very little is unique in the world but this truly is – although most travellers probably don’t realise it as they endure its bumps and jolts and eccentric swaying through the scrubby savannah bush and vast cleared paddocks that cover an utterly flat land profile. But it is precisely this landscape that has made the track a true one-off.
Back in the 1880s Croydon gold boom, the requirement was to build quickly and cheaply a railway that could cope with being a long way from anywhere for the supply of materials, with a Wet season where the rivers always broke their banks and swept widely across the flats, and with the termites that loved imported wood.
The line’s builder, George Phillips, had an idea. John Knowles relates: “As Inspecting Surveyor [for Queensland Government Railways], he appreciated the development value of railways but realised the lightly populated Colony could afford them only if construction could be cheapened. Existing lines had light rails and often steep gradients, but had heavy earthworks to keep them away from floods. Phillips rejected this tradition and in 1884 patented a steel sleeper, the major constituent of his cheaper system. He recommended there be no earthworks, the line be laid directly on the surface, and that floods be allowed to wash over it.”
Phillips sleepers, still in use today, are U-shaped, rather than solid. Inverted and without ballast, they become packed with mud as they are pressed into the ground. The AHRS (Qld) leaflet for our tour remarks: “That George Phillips was on the right track (so to speak) is evident in the fact that the line is still in existence today. As the rails are bolted to the sleepers the track never gets out of gauge, although the whole line does move sideways at times. During floods the waters flow harmlessly over the rails and about the only thing to be done when waters fall is to extract the small crocodiles that have become trapped under the rails!” Of course.
I noticed at Normanton stacks of rusty steel sleepers similar to the Phillips in design but of a somewhat different shape and it appears the original Philips sleepers are being replaced with the others as needed. John Knowles wrote in 1983 that the Normanton-Croydon line turned out to be the only one Q(Government)R built with Phillips steel sleepers, as steel had become too expensive compared with timber. Where these “new” steel sleepers are coming from, I couldn’t say; it doesn’t seem likely they’ve been manufactured especially.
For me, though, this is what the Normanton-Croydon railway is all about. The Gulflander is only a name, and a relatively recent one at that, picked up, as I said in A right Burke, from the Q(G)R “Lander” series of long distance trains and designed to attract tourists. It’s succeeded, of that there can be no doubt, providing an adventure that consists of travelling hundreds of kilometres into the Outback to catch a bumpy, slow train from nowhere to nowhere across completely alien country. There are few locals to use it – even if they wanted to. The Shire of Carpentaria is as big as Tasmania and has a population of fewer than 3000. Looked at from one angle, the line is no more than a fairground ride.
But those Phillips sleepers hold the thing together, both literally and metaphorically. They are one of those expressions of human ingenuity that are brilliant in their simplicity, and therefore worth preserving. It’s easy to admire the big human achievements: not so much the little bits and pieces that lack grandeur but are important all the same. I didn’t notice Ken, or anyone for that matter, even among the rail freaks on my trip, pointing out to goggle-eyed tourists that those bits of bent steel represented the whole basis of what they were there to enjoy. Which is a pity. With wooden sleepers, the track long ago would have been deemed too expensive and too futile to maintain and it would have disappeared into an obscure historical footnote. So for anyone from my trip who might read this, that’s what I was doing poking around and pointing my camera at the ground.
Having underpinned the railway in the first place, Phillips sleepers have now transformed a “why are we doing this?” anomaly into a living, breathing museum (pace Kenneth). And as well as allowing me to scratch my itch, they have provided the means for me to redeem my debt to Mr Knowles, and in doing so I’ve gained so much more than I’ve expended.
Back in the second half of 1983 when this yarn started, the literary editor of the Brisbane Courier-Mail, where I was then working, asked me to review the newly published Lonely Rails in the Gulf Country (along with another of Mr Knowles’ small Queensland railway histories). He knew I had an interest in railways since I’d written for the paper a month or two before an account of my circumnavigation of Queensland by rail. So I typed up my review and put the books on my shelves.
Some little while later, a letter found its way to me in Melbourne where I had moved to take up a new job. It was from John Knowles, thanking me for my “very complimentary” review. He was especially glad because, as the self-publisher of the books, it might help him get his money back. “Even railway enthusiast societies think rare subjects are not sufficiently commercial to merit a book,” he wrote, “so I put my money where my mouth is and published it myself. Sales are encouraging.”
I didn’t clip the review, so I don’t know what I said in it – although there’s no doubt I liked the books, especially Lonely Rails – but I did keep the letter. I guess I must have meant to reply. In the event I didn’t and have always regretted this small discourtesy – why that one and not a million others, I have no idea. I learned years later that John Knowles was considered a guru on Queensland railways and so, not having made and maintained the contact, I really was a loser.
The odd thing about his letter that I didn’t appreciate at the time was that it had come from England on an “aerogramme”, which my contemporaries might remember – a blue single sheet of lightweight paper that was folded on itself and stuck together. It was sent by air mail, when that was something special, and cheaper than a conventional letter in an envelope (another small piece of ingenuity now gone).
Then, early last year I came across a letter from a J.W. Knowles in an Australian railway magazine. I was about to head north for QR’s 150th anniversary steam train run from Cairns to Brisbane and so I asked the QR historian, with whom I had been in contact, whether the J.W. in the magazine was the same as the J.W. who wrote Lonely Rails. Of course it was. I acquired his e-mail address – which incorporates the classification of a Queensland workhorse steam locomotive – and, 30-plus years late, I fired off a “Dear John”, inter alia apologising for my discourtesy.
A few days later back came a friendly reply, remembering the review but not the reviewer. [Hmmm, serves me right.] He was still taking an active interest in Queensland rail, even though (as I learned afterwards) he has lived in England for 40 years. I left matters at that until I managed to squeeze into the Gulflander tour. I then wrote again to Mr Knowles and we had a longish exchange about our life stories, mutual concerns and my impending journey. He’s an interesting man – all the rail buffs know him and his work, and I gather he has stirred up a few of them along the way. One day I might compile a piece about him.
He sent me off to the Gulf with: “Normanton now has no transport function, and is properly equipped and maintained for what it does, rather than living off its fat from its early years, so its true eccentricity has gone. It is of course eccentric (as is the whole line west of Kuranda) in being a preserved railway, with virtually no local population to use it or take an interest in it.” He added that the Normanton-Croydon line was currently having its first re-lay in its 125 years, at a place called Golden Gate near Croydon, where leakages from old gold ore treatment plants had attacked the rails and sleepers. Extraordinary. How did he know that, from 17,000km away? Ken didn’t mention it, or at least I didn’t hear it if he did.
I suggested to John that he might like to read The Traveller, and in his latest message he gave me a nice lift: “Nor does my heart hum! Let me know pls when after the trip it appears on your blog.”
So here it is, John – 33 years in the making. I hope you like P.G. Wodehouse, too. My leg still itches.