End of line marks new beginning – How an Ipswich group gave iconic rail carriages a new lease on life

Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway member Robert Shearer.

When the Sunlander train made its final trip from Brisbane to Cairns almost three years ago it could have meant the end of the line for some of the state’s most iconic rail carriages.

That was until the Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway  at Ipswich jumped aboard with a vision to set up a new tourism attraction and give some of the train’s carriages a new lease on life.

Painstakingly restored to their former glory, the carriages are now being used as part of a monthly dinner train on the Bundamba to Swanbank heritage branch line.

The carriages before restoration works were completed.

An opportunity too good to miss

The group had kicked around the idea of running a dinner train for more than a decade but a lack of suitable rolling stock meant it never got off the ground.

“We could have taken a sitting carriage and turned it into a dining car but we’re a heritage railway so anything we operate is as close as we can get it to how it was back in the grand old days,” railway member Robert Shearer said.

“When we found out the Sunlander cars were coming up for disposal that changed everything and so we did some ringing around and put a submission in thinking ‘hey if it happens, it happens’.”

Fate smiled on the group and it was gifted six carriages – three dining cars, a first-class sleeper, a club coach and a power car.

Although it had overcome its first hurdle in securing the carriages, the real work was yet to begin.

One of the carriages during restoration.

The Limestone carriage, restored to its former glory.

A bigger challenge than expected

“When they first got here we were all very excited right up until we got inside them and then our faces fell as we thought ‘okay, this is a much bigger job that we thought’,” Mr Shearer said.

The carriages were a mess. Ravaged for spare parts while at Queensland Rail’s Bowen Hills yard, they were also riddled with rust. Inside was no better, with vandals having scrawled graffiti throughout and bar tops and seats left damaged or missing.

Rattled but not deterred, the group started the painstaking task of restoring the carriages. They drew on old blueprints, historic photographs, a book called Lookout for Landers and personal accounts to help return them to their former glory.

Matching the paint to an original blue and white livery from 1953 proved particularly challenging because, “we were working from old photographs which tend to be washed out, but we think we have got it pretty much spot on”.

Eighteen months and thousands of volunteer hours later, not to mention a mountain of paperwork to convince authorities they were safe to run on the group’s 9km scenic railway track, three carriages and the power car rolled back to life.

It was a moment the group’s members will never forget.

“The first day we rolled these coaches out onto the line it wasn’t a cheer or a wave, it was a stunned silence from everyone on board, we just sat there shaking our heads that they went out – that we had done it,” Mr Shearer said.

“There was a real mentality that no heritage group could successfully get them up and running again and successfully operate them. The pleasing thing is it has worked. Our murder mystery dinners have proven extremely successful.”

Window into the past

In restoring the carriages, the Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway has not only established a new tourism drawcard for Ipswich but also preserved a significant part of the state’s railway heritage.

Mr Shearer said he was not surprised it had been so well received by people of all ages.

“The Sunlander was a massive institution. For a certain generation of Queenslanders it was a part of their education to learn the route of the Sunlander,” Mr Shearer said.

“As technology keeps speeding up it’s really nice to keep one eye on the past. I think Australians in particular are quite sentimental about the past, we like knowing where we came from.

“The nice thing is because all three carriages are so different you can go through the train and each one has its own personality – one is Art Deco, one has a western theme and the other has an American diner style.”

In restoring the carriages the group has also given a nod to Ipswich’s heritage renaming the three up and running coaches after local suburbs – Blackstone, Silkstone and Limestone. Photos of pioneer families have also been included in the Blackstone carriage.

The sleeper car, which was the final M class car put into service, will be the last to be restored.

Not done yet

Despite their wins – including a recent Ipswich City Council heritage award – the job is not yet done for members of the Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway.

They are still hard at work on a fourth carriage, a club car called the Tropics, which they hope to have on track by Christmas. Restoring the first-class sleeper, the final M class carriage put into service, will be last.

“It will be a big undertaking to get that one back up and running because the entire electrical system has been ripped out of it and parts were borrowed to get the other carriages up and running,” Mr Shearer said.

“We’re probably looking at a cost of about $20,000 so we’ll probably be looking for community support with that project.”

The group is also looking for support, particularly from the business community, to fund a major track refurbishment.

“In the not too distant future we need to replace the sleepers on the line so we can future proof the track to keep the railway running for the next 20 plus years,” Mr Shearer said.

“To replace the timber sleepers with steel sleepers, which would give us about another 25 years, we are looking at about $25,000.”

For more information or to support the railway visit www.qpsr.net

A train like no other

The iconic Sunlander was a train of firsts. It was the first air-conditioned train in Australia, had a wide body carriage and the first train with shock absorbed suspension.

It had taller and wider carriages than its predecessors, its carriages were the first in Queensland with a steel construction and heralded the start of the diesel era.

The Sunlander travelled between Brisbane and Cairns from 1953 to 2014.

Keep on track with what's happening around Ipswich


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