Tablelands railway line, Queensland

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Cairns Railway Station ~1890
Works train in the Barron Gorge section
Stoney Creek bridge
Biboohra bridge ~1895
Stoney Creek trestle bridge in the Barron gorge, September 1989
QR loco 1760 hauls a special train on the Mareeba-Almaden section of the Mungana line, September 1989
Arrival of the train at Atherton station, 1928
View from a loco cab on the Mungana line, September 1989
Train at Yungaburra, 1929
1760 and special train crossing a low level bridge on the Forsayth line, September 1989. Note the short, steep approaches to the bridge, as steep as 1 in 15, known as 'momentum' grades. The bridge is designed so floodwaters pass over it and minimise the risk of damage.

The Tablelands line is a railway line in North Queensland, Australia. It was opened in a series of sections between 1887 and 1916. It commences at Cairns and at its maximum extent, reached Ravenshoe at the southern end of the Atherton Tableland. The rail system served by this line was unusual for Queensland in that the majority of lines that connected to it were built by private companies and later purchased by the Queensland Government.


Following the discovery of tin at Herberton in 1879, the ports of Cairns and Port Douglas were established, competing for the role of dominant settlement in the area. The summer tropical rainfall in the region made roads virtually impassable in the wet season, leading to calls for improved land transportation in the region. The region to the west of this section of the Queensland coast was relatively rugged, being mountainous rainforest.

Three potential routes were investigated to reach Herberton, via Port Douglas, Cairns and Geraldton (now Innisfail). The shortest route was from Innisfail, but it was the steepest and through very rugged country. The Port Douglas route was the easiest but longest. Cairns had the best port, and the unstable geology of the Barron Gorge wasn’t known at the time.

After extensive debate, the Queensland Government selected Cairns as the starting point of the line, and the first section opened to Redlynch, at the base of the range, 11.6 km from Cairns in 1887.

Climbing the Kuranda Range[edit]

The next section climbed the Barron River Gorge reaching 317m asl using 1 in 50 grades and 4 chain (~88m) radius curves (the tightest used on the system) involving 15 tunnels and several major bridges. The Redlynch section was built with 21 kg/m (42 lb/yd) rails, but in recognition of the high wear the sharp curves would cause, the Gorge section was laid with 30 kg/m (60 lb/yd) rails.[1] This section opened to Myola in 1891, and the line reached Mareeba in 1893. The Barron Gorge section had cost nearly 3 times the original estimate, and the government, reluctant to commit to any further public expenditure on extending the Tablelands rail network, sought alternative options.[2]

Private railways[edit]

The area west of Mareeba was known to be mineralised, and mining pioneer John Moffat received government approval to build a copper mine at Chillagoe, smelter at Barron Falls and railway to connect the mine to the QR line, to be the same gauge and standard as the QR line. The Chillagoe Railway & Mining Co. was created for the project, but the public outcry over the site of the smelter forced its relocation to Chillagoe, the railway then becoming vital to ship coal and coke for the smelter from the wharf at Cairns.

The 164 km line opened to Mungana, 16 km beyond Chillagoe in 1901, built with 1 in 50 grades, 30 kg/m (60 lb/yd) rail and 5 chain curves, with its own locomotives but hiring rolling stock from QR. A travelling post office was provided between Cairns and Almaden from 1911-18.

Another smelter was built at Mount Garnet and a 50 km line from Lappa Junction was opened in 1902 with 1 in 40 (2.5%) grades and 4 chain (~88m) radius curves. The Queensland government purchased the line in 1915, and contracted the Chillagoe Railway to run the line. Traffic was significantly boosted from 1938 when a tin mine was opened.

A 610mm (2’) gauge tramway was opened from Boonmoo to Rocky Bluffs in 1902 to serve a further mining field, and a branch built from Stannary Hills to Irvinebank in 1907, closing in 1937.

Another copper smelter was built at Mount Molloy, and a 32 km line with 1 in 40 grades opened in 1908 from Biboohra to serve it and a sawmill. This line was purchased by the Queensland government in 1917 so it could be extended to a potential agricultural area, but construction was delayed for 5 years and an 11 km extension to Rumula finally opened in 1926.

A 229 km line from Almaden to Forsayth (the Etheridge railway) opened between 1909-1910 to provide additional ore for the Chillagoe smelter. It was built with 21 kg/m (42 lb/yd) rails, 1 in 40 grades, 4 chain (~88m) radius curves and low level bridges.

The discovery of coal at Mount Mulligan was a significant development for the mining fields, which were finding the cost of shipping coal and coke from the Cairns wharf a major impediment. A 48 km line was opened from Dimbulah in 1915 using 1 in 30 (3.3%) grades in the uphill direction (1 in 40 for the grade against loaded trains).

The collapse of the world copper price at the end of World War I led to the Queensland Government purchasing all the privately owned 1.067m (3’6”) lines in 1919.

The section of the Etheridge line west of Mount Surprise was badly damaged by cyclonic rainfall in 1927, and from that time until 1939 the only service was provided by a railmotor which could haul 2 small goods wagons. The first diesel locomotive used by QR was introduced that year to enable the return of locomotive hauled trains to Forsyth.

To the southern Atherton Tableland[edit]

Although it received an offer for a private line to be built south of Mareeba, the government considered that to be prime agricultural land, and constructed the line itself, reaching Atherton in 1903. By the time the railway reached Herberton in 1910 the tin mining boom was long over, and the line was being built to facilitate development. Construction continued, reaching the timber milling town of Ravenshoe in 1916. The line used grades as steep as 1 in 33 (3%) and a tunnel at the summit to cross the Herberton Range, and Tumoulin railway station, south of Herberton, was Queensland’s highest railway station at 965m asl.

Millaa Millaa branch line[edit]

The Queensland government also built a branch line from Tolga, the first section opening in 1910, and opening to Millaa Millaa in 1921, using grades of 1 in 44 (2.27%) and 5 chain (100m) radius curves. The line facilitated the transport of significant volumes of logs for sawmilling in its early years, but once all-weather roads were provided, traffic declined, although the grain silos at Kairi provide significant if seasonal loadings. An 18 km branch line from Peeramon (situated between Yungaburra and Malanda) south east to Boonjee was proposed in 1920 but never constructed.


  • Dimbulah – Mt Mulligan 1958
  • Lappa Junction – Mt Garnet 1961
  • Biboohra – Rumula, Millaa Millaa – Kairi 1964
  • Tolga – Kairi 1987
  • Atherton – Ravenshoe 1988
  • Almaden – Mungana 1992
  • Mareeba - Atherton 15 March 2013[3]

Passenger Services[edit]

In 1936 demand from tourists wanting to travel through the Barron River gorge section resulted in the introduction of what is today known as the Kuranda Scenic Railway service.

A daily railmotor ran from Cairns to Ravenshoe and return.[4]

A twice weekly mixed train ran from Cairns to Forsayth until 1995, when it was replaced by the Savannahlander tourist service.

Suburban services[edit]

Frequent daily passenger services were provided between Cairns and Redlynch from 1927-69.

Rail Ambulance[edit]

One of the last Rail ambulances in Queensland was based at Mareeba until 1990.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ellis, R.F. 'Rails to the Tableland' ARHS 1976
  2. ^ Kerr, J. 'Triumph of Narrow Gauge' Boolarong Publications 1990
  3. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 April 2014. Retrieved 24 April 2014.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ "2000 CLASS RAILMOTORS" (PDF). Queensland Museum. Retrieved 22 November 2015.

External links[edit]