In December last year, my husband and I visited the Gayndah Railway Complex where we were surprised to discover four M Class Series carriages of the former Sunlander.
Do you remember The Sunlander?
It was a long distance air-conditioned passenger train operated by Queensland Rail (QR) on the North Coast line between Brisbane and Cairns. The service commenced on 4 June 1953 and ended on 31 December 2014. During that time (almost 61 years), The Sunlander made approximately 3.5 million passenger journeys.
The diesel-powered “luxury” Sunlander eventually replaced its predecessor, the Sunshine Express. The Sunshine Express, a steam-driven non air-conditioned train with wooden carriages, commenced on the North Coast line in 1935. For a number of years after introduction of The Sunlander, the Sunshine Express service continued, in a limited capacity, diesel locomotives replacing its former steam-powered engines.
My husband Tony fondly remembers The Sunlander and the long journey he and his mother and brother made soon after they arrived in Australia in November 1958:
Our train trip on The Sunlander from Brisbane to Cairns, a distance of 1042 miles (nearly 1700 kilometres), took almost two days. It wasn’t so bad, because the train was air-conditioned, there was hot and cold water, and we had a cabin with sleepers (bunk beds) and meal tickets.
The attendants were patient with us and most of our communication was done using sign-language. My mother and I, it seems, constantly thought about this strange new language (English). For example, we wondered how we should pronounce “Cairns”. We tried to copy the locals, but all we could manage was the old Serbo-Croatian phonetic version: “Ts-aaa-e-rrr-ne-ss”.
The family arrived in Sydney just days before, after a 4-5 week sea voyage from Croatia. From Brisbane they took The Sunlander to Cairns, where they were reunited with Tony’s father, who came to Australia 2½ years earlier. Tony’s account of The Sunlander trip, and the long sea voyage, is recorded in From Korčula my island home to the canefields of Fishery Falls (September 6, 2017).
Like me, you may be wondering why carriages of the former Sunlander ended up at Gayndah. After all, Gayndah is not a coastal town. It’s located in Queensland’s North Burnett Region, 149 km west of Maryborough (near the coast) and 327 km northwest of Brisbane. The Sunlander never travelled through Gayndah. So, why are they here – at Gayndah?
Gayndah’s not a big town (at the 2016 Australian census its population was 1,981) but it’s one with a long and proud history. In fact, in 1852, Gayndah was the first town in Queensland to be gazetted, seven years before Brisbane! Today Gayndah is located at the heart of Queensland’s citrus growing area and is known as “The Orange Capital of Queensland”.
Gayndah’s railway history
The railway line from Maryborough to Gayndah opened for traffic on 16 December 1907. It was officially opened in a lack-lustre ceremony several months later, on 28 April 1908. Interestingly, the railway station was built on the northern side of the Burnett River despite the town being on the southern side of the river. According to a report of the railway’s opening ceremony, officials had to drive across the stream through water tip to the floors of their buggies to gain access to the town! That was before there was a road bridge over the Burnett River.
Today the railway line is still there but (sadly) there are no trains.
The familiar sights, sounds and smells of steam or diesel trains have long gone, but the original railway buildings remain. The buildings are maintained by members of the Gayndah Heritage Railway, an organisation formed in 2014 to ensure that Gayndah’s railway history is not forgotten.
The buildings comprise part of the Gayndah Railway Complex. They are neat timber and galvanized iron structures with gable roof typical of the standard Queensland Rail design employed early last century. There are a station building with ticket office, refreshment room and amenities, goods shed with loading ramp and crane and a small ancillary building. The former railway station is now a museum.
The complex also boasts a number of former QR railway wagons. These include a ventilated van (a former Rockhampton heritage fleet transport wagon) and an old cattle wagon.
Nowadays, this State-owned land, old railway buildings and associated rail corridor are leased to the Isis Sugar Mill (near Childers). The complex at Gayndah is sub-leased to the North Burnett Regional Council and, in turn, to the Gayndah Heritage Railway.
The Gayndah Heritage Railway’s windfall
Given the demise of The Sunlander service in December 2014, the Gayndah Heritage Railway saw an opportunity to further develop the Gayndah Railway Complex by seeking to add a number of these iconic passenger carriages to the site.
The aim? To attract locals and tourists to the complex and help visitors learn about and appreciate Queensland’s and the region’s significant railway heritage.
In 2015, the group’s vision was realised. As part of QR’s 150th anniversary celebrations that year, QR gifted four M Class Series Sunlander carriages to the Gayndah Heritage Railway.
In April 2016, the carriages were brought by rail from Brisbane to Bundaberg. At Bundaberg they were lifted by two 80 tonne cranes one by one onto prime movers, then transported by road to Gayndah. This was necessary because there was no longer a passable rail link between Maryborough and Gayndah.
During our visit to the complex we met a number of local folk, plainly train and railway enthusiasts.
One was Des Randall. Des was Gayndah’s last station master (actually Acting Station Master). Another was Peter Hickey. Peter, a retired refrigeration engineer, has worked to restore the refrigerators and air-conditioning of The Sunlander dining and club cars.
Members of the Gayndah Heritage Railway (like Des) and volunteers (like Peter) maintain the site and rail corridor, operate the museum and oversee (or carry out) restoration work on the old wagons and carriages. We learnt that the site also includes a free camping area, popular with “grey nomads”.
Inside the Sunlander
Peter Hickey offered to take us on a tour of the complex, including an inspection of two of The Sunlander passenger carriages: the renovated MDC 1462 dining car and MCC 1519 club car.
A tour guide par excellence, Peter was a source of much information about the carriages. He told us they were built at Ipswich in 1962 and, up until the time they were decommissioned in December 2014, they’d travelled more than 8 million miles (about 13 million kilometres)!
Not surprisingly, the dining (or buffet) car was the busiest carriage on The Sunlander. Four railway staff worked in the kitchen, which served up to 300 meals per day. The silver service “restaurant”, in which guests were seated at tables and waited upon, had three sittings each day: breakfast, lunch, dinner. First class passengers were seated first, followed by second class passengers. All passengers, whether first or second class, had the same menu. There was no “class” distinction.
The dining car included a fully-equipped top-of-the-range kitchen, with stainless steel benches, stove tops and ovens, refrigerators and appliances. A qualified chef was in charge of the kitchen and the daily menus.
Passengers who didn’t want a full meal could purchase and consume light snacks (take-away food) and drinks in the club car. The club car was outfitted with stools and benches and lounge chairs and tables. It was a popular place to relax and meet fellow travellers during the long train journey.
Remembering The Sunlander and Gayndah’s railway history
Clearly, The Sunlander carriages add another dimension to the Gayndah Railway Complex. The Gayndah Heritage Railway plans to use The Sunlander dining and club cars as a restaurant and cafe, open to the public. No doubt, having light refreshments or dining in style “on a train” will be a novelty for many patrons. At the time of our visit, restoration work on the other two Sunlander carriages was still in progress.
The Gayndah Railway Complex is an important vestige of the region’s early history. Erected in the early 1900s during the construction of the Burnett Railway, it’s the best surviving example of an intact Queensland railway complex in the North Burnett Region.
The Gayndah Railway Complex is a credit to members of the Gayndah Heritage Railway, the North Burnett Regional Council and the residents of Gayndah.
It’s well worth a visit!
- ‘Farewell the beloved Sunlander and welcome a new era in rail travel’. (2014). Queensland Rail media release, 22 December. Retrieved on March 26, 2019.
- Opening of Gayndah Railway. (1908, April 30). Gympie Times and Mary River Mining Gazette (Qld. : 1868 – 1919), p. 3. Retrieved March 27, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article188295734
- ‘Gayndah Railway Complex’ (pdf document). North Burnett Regional Council (website). Online: Retrieved on March 27, 2019.
- Gayndah Heritage Railway Rail Trail. (2016). Video-recording: ‘The carriages are coming to Gayndah as a part of the process to establish the railway precinct.’ Published on YouTube, 13 June 2016.