Aiming for the legendary Tassi railway to gain national heritage status

Robert Smith can enjoy some of the best views in Tasmania.

He worked as a machinist on the West Coast Desert Railway for 16 years, and his family’s connection to the railway spans several generations.

“My father worked on the original line as a trackman, then came me and my son, who eventually became machinists,” he said.

On the nearly 35-kilometre journey from Queenstown to Strachan, Mr Smith often marvels at the remarkable engineering feat.

The rails were built in 1899 to transport copper from the wilderness

The trains run over steep sections, over old wooden bridges and use a cogwheel system – the only one in the southern hemisphere.

“You always think about [history], especially when you look at the quality of workmanship,” Mr Smith said.

There is now an aspiration to list the railway heritage so that the train will continue to run for years to come.

“It should have been listed as a heritage from day one.”

Ongoing maintenance costs

The railway reopened in 2002 as a tourist attraction, but keeping the trains on the tracks is no easy task.

One of the steam locomotives is 125 years old.

The cost of maintaining the railway was one of the reasons why its previous owner, the Federal Group, terminated the contract in 2013.

The train had not made a full journey from Queenstown to Strachan for two years.

Neil Holliday, manager of the railway’s railway division, said maintaining the trains was a dying art.

“It’s because of their age and changes in technology – maintenance goes on every single day,” he said.

Repairs are constantly on the rails too.

“We also have 40 bridges – a mix of wood and steel – so that’s another problem you face. Wooden bridges are another thing that is dying in history,” he said.

“It’s always difficult to plan for the future because of the environment in which the railway operates.

“You have to be prepared for anything.”

The railway depends on funding

The railroad hopes to become self-sustaining within a decade, but in the meantime still relies on state government funding .

This is the third year of a four-year, $16 million funding agreement.

Reservations Manager Ashley Robson said she hopes the heritage listing will allow the railroad to plan for the future, as well as pave the way for federal funding.

“A lot of [maintenance needs] are huge projects, they take years to complete, and having funding for four years is not enough,” Ms. Robson said.

The local people, when we first reopened, they worked very hard to make everything work, and all this work has to be done by something like a heritage list.”

It is also a priority for local business owners.

Strahan landlord and Destination West Coast vice-president Ann McKay said knowledge of the railway would allow her to invest in her business in the coming years.

“We’ve already seen it go out of business and it’s so important, not just for the tourism industry, but for the community,” she said.

“It’s such a part of our history and just as it would be devastating [if it stopped again] for a Strachan resident, it would leave such a hole.”

Posted in News RailWay Australia, Travel.