Re-Visit 4: The Tasmanian West Coast steam train, from Strahan to Dubbil Barril.

By the way, the reason there is a rush of re-visits is that the last few days here in Canberra have been like the snowy days of late July. Maximum 6ish, but with the wind feels like minus a couple. A very useful 55mm (over 2 inches) of steady deep rain.

This fantastic trip is on the other side of the planet to north Western Australia, on the mid west coast of Tasmania. This trip was in March 2017, late February/March being the best time to visit Tassie.

No sane person would visit Tassie without consulting me. I can honestly claim to have  driven on every sealed road (pretty much) and many reasonable gravel roads. There are still plenty of 4WD-only roads for the future. So before your next trip, ask for my dossier on touring that wonderful island.

There are two critical things to know before taking this trip, well three. The three critical things to know are:

First, it is a trip worth travelling a long way to do;

Secondly, the Strahan to Dubbil Barril (that is the third thing, yes that is the correct spelling) leg, is the one you have to do;

Thirdly, no wait;  with apologies to those not expecting the Spanish Inquisition –

Amongst the many critical things to know are:

First, Secondly  blah blah

Fourthly, you have to book the Wilderness Carriage, not just because you get a large chocolate steam train, but you are at the back of the two carriages going up and there is a little balcony out back so you get a great view of the impossibility of building this railway – that might be the fifth criticality, this railway is impossible.

The story behind the building of the railway is nearly as amazing as the railway itself.

The restoration has also been great achievement.

Put briefly, when, in around 1890, one James Crotty, already having experience in the  Victorian gold mines, bought into an area of Mt Lyell, he did so believing it was full of gold. Indeed he found plenty of gold, initially. His advertisements for financial backers enticed Anthony Edwin Bowes Kelly, a director of BHP, to come down and check it out. He knew a lot about gold, but he knew even more about copper.

Kelly quickly concluded that there was gold, but it was just the tip of a goldmine, and the gold to mine was copper. His apparent lack of enthusiasm led to the financial ruin of Crotty, leading him to sell to Kelly at a bargain basement price. The richer Kelly got, the less Crotty felt like forgiving him. Did I mention Kelly knew a lot about copper?

Having saved a motsa on the purchase price, and knowing there was copper in them there hills, Kelly could afford to invest in dramatic infrastructure.

So he hired engineers to advise him on the best route for the railway down to Macquarie Harbour, no doubt ruing the absence of convicts on Sarah Island to build it for free. The engineers quite professionally advised him it was impossible. Wrong answer! So he hired some new engineers, who also advised him it was impossible. Wrong answer! So he hired some new engineers, who professionally realised the correct answer was “Sure, no worries there” as they covered over their code of ethics. Did I say it was impossible?

You have to go to realise it was impossible. Hopefully the photos give a taste of that realisation. Amongst the minor issues were:

It rains like more than 365 days a year, I mean it rains and rains and rains, night and day, day and night, and even on weekends and public holidays. The rain takes no time off to rest.

The workers had no accommodation, and over 500 at a time worked all day in the rain, and slept outside, in the rain. Saved money on a shower I guess.

The geography is diabolical:

the King River floods treacherously and often;

the tributary creeks flood treacherously and often;

it is so steep, the first two consultant engineers (incorrectly then, and indeed now, it seems) said it was too steep for an engine to get up;

the rock is mainly shale and slate – so blasting it with dynamite has all sorts of fascinating side effects, likely to lead to there being far fewer than 500 workers all of a sudden – so all the cuttings, some 4 metres high, had to be done by hand;

it is dense rainforest, designed to stop convicts escaping from Sarah Island unless they ate eat other, and where it isn’t dense, it is denser;


it is worth repeating, it rains all the time.

No-one, except Kelly, had ever seen a steam engine or a railway – the engine and carriages arrived in a flat pack and they put it together informed by the picture on the front – luckily there was no user manual, because then it really would have been impossible.


No-one, not even Kelly, had ever seen a rack and pinion railway, only recently invented by, of course, a Swiss engineer, Dr Roman Abt. The technology is often called abt railway.

No-one, not even Kelly, had ever put a railway bridge together before, let alone got one into position over turblent flood waters. One original bridge remains, with the tortured remains of many other attempts ominously evident in the raging waters.


Getting the bridge in place was impossible.

It was near impossible to get beer up there, let alone a crane (if they had been invented). The big crossing is the bridge which survives. This alone is worth the extra for the back carriage.

From an access point they brought the bridge down on the already laid track. Then a couple of likely lads got the barge around under the far side of the crossing. Building up the height of the barge with bits of 2 be 4, they then pulled the barge over to under the leading lip of the bridge. Picture the barge loaded up with bits of 2 be 4 to the bottom of the bridge to be. The likely lads on the far shore, then pulled the barge by rope across the river crossing at the SAME pace as some more likely lads pushed the bridge from behind along the rails.

I mean, what could possibly go wrong.

Stunningly, not only did nothing go wrong, the bridge is still there.  And it is not just a hop, step and oops in length.


When you get to Dubbil Barril, probably an early misspelling, in the rain, you meet the train coming down from Queenstown, also in the rain.

IMG_1491Working on the trains requires being big and burly, because you have to turn the train by hand on a turntable, in the rain.

Another benefit of the Wilderness Carriage is that you get an expert guide who can explain much, including the many inspired attempts to clean the copper remnants out of the King River. I recall when asked how long it would take, she replied: maybe a few years, orrr maybe a few hundred!


It was a lovely spot for all that,

and the afternoon tea was pretty good too, especially if there were a couple of dozen of you, just the thing for a wet afternoon (it was raining!).



Michael Monaghan

May 2020







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