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.”

The Indo-Pacific journey – Australia’s longest train journey

Journey through Australia’s unique cultural, social and political history on the railway, which united the continent.

The Indo-Pacific is an epic railway in every sense of the word. The route winds through some of Australia’s most remote regions and provides a west-to-east link through the heart of the continent, connecting the cities of Perth and Sydney over a staggering 4,352 kilometres.

Ever since the transcontinental railway was first commissioned on these tracks in 1917, it has been hailed as one of the country’s greatest engineering achievements, crossing a vast and beautiful landscape from one ocean coast to the other. Although passenger service to the Indian Pacific didn’t officially begin until 1970, the railway was a bearer of stories and a tangible timeline of Australia’s complex history long before that, and it is this part of its legacy that has been brought to the forefront of The Indian. The Pacific is the longest train journey in Australia .

This slow-moving documentary is roughly divided into four chapters, each focusing on the geography and history of the railway, its impact on Indigenous life, immigrant life, early and modern Australian life and the flora and fauna of the area with the trains crossing. three states and more than a dozen borders with Indigenous peoples.

The Famous Train is a character-driven story about the people and places that played a key role in building this transcontinental route, and the communities whose lives were forever changed by its construction. Director Adam Kaye brings his unparalleled experience to the project, having overseen the success of SBS’s first slow-motion documentary, Gan. With his small team including acclaimed producers and screenwriters Dan Goldberg and Billy Baxter, as well as talented photographer Nathan Barlow, this new and exceptionally challenging venture takes Kay’s attention to detail to a whole new level.

The beauty of the documentary undoubtedly lies in its ability to capture all aspects of the Indian Pacific and its sixty-five-hour journey by rail since its departure from Nungar country in central Perth. Looking at it now, it is hard to believe that Western Australia was once a failed free colony and subsequent penal settlement, and was largely disconnected from the rest of the country before the route was introduced. When the train leaves the station bound for Kalgoorlie, it passes through the thirty-two localities that make up the 600km Central Wheat Belt of Western Australia and moves through the Wajuk, Ballardong, Kaalamai and Wangkat Country, revealing the continued presence of ancient culture along the way.

As the train moves through the outback of Western Australia and reaches the edge of the Nullarbor Plain, it begins a 477.14km journey, once described by Australian astronaut Andy Thomas as ‘a thin line across the desert’. Spectacular and captivating visuals throughout the documentary, particularly the incredible aerial cinematography that places the Indian Ocean in a vast landscape, take in the spectacular views offered by this stretch of track, the longest stretch of straight railway in the world. It was here, on the same treeless plains, that the NASA Skylab space station crashed in 1979, resulting in a local council fine for littering, followed by an apology phone call from US President Jimmy Carter.

Each sunset and sunrise brings with it a new adventure, and as the Indian Pacific approaches Kaurna Country, arriving in Adelaide early in the morning, there’s a sense of scale to the journey already completed. It’s the railway equivalent of a deep breath, but the train soon returns to the centre of the continent’s driest state, where the origins of the colony of South Australia lie. Similarly, the devastating upheaval it has brought to Aboriginal communities has already settled there, and by the time the train reaches Broken Hill in the far west of New South Wales and night falls, stories of injustice, war and division weigh in.

As dawn breaks again, the Indo-Pacific passes through Wirajuri country in central western New South Wales and continues through a section of the route that was a key trading route for the Darug, Wirajuri and Gundungurra tribes. A short descent from the Blue Mountains leads to his arrival in Sydney, completing the last chapter of this particular odyssey.

The combination of almost fifty unique stories with mesmerising images of vast and desolate land is only enhanced by what can be seen in the luxurious interiors of the Indian Ocean’s Pacific Coast. The train itself is a portal to a past that is often forgotten, as locomotives continue to haul thirty cars across the continent every week, making it a journey you definitely don’t want to miss.

Indian Pacific – Australia’s longest train journey will be broadcast on SBS On Demand until 17 August.