The Sunlander

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The Sunlander
The Sunlander in 2010
Service type Passenger Train
Status Retired
Predecessor Sunshine Express
First service 4 June 1953
Last service 31 December 2014
Successor Spirit of Queensland
Former operator(s) Queensland Rail
Start Brisbane
End Cairns
Distance travelled 1,681 kilometres
Average journey time 45hrs (Original)
31hrs (Final)
Line used North Coast
Rolling stock M series
L series
Track gauge 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)
Queenslander Class on The Sunlander brand
The Sunlander
Maryborough West
Miriam Vale
Mount Larcom
St Lawrence
Home Hill

The Sunlander was a long distance passenger rail service operated by Queensland Rail on the North Coast line between Brisbane and Cairns in Queensland between June 1953 and December 2014. It has been replaced by the Spirit of Queensland.


1556 and a 1720 class haul the northbound Sunlander through Yabulu in 1991
Lounge car of The Sunlander in 1978

From December 1924, when the North Coast line was completed, a steam hauled non air-conditioned train provided the service.[1]

In 1935, a new train named the Sunshine Express was introduced. This train of wooden carriages featured varnished timber internal panelling made from natural Queensland timbers. Comforts for that period included electric fans, electric lighting, and leather upholstered seating. Accommodation included sleeping berths for first and second class passengers and seating only carriages.[2]

In December 1949, Queensland Railway's placed an order with Commonwealth Engineering for eight M series carriage sets totalling 99 carriages to introduce air-conditioned rolling stock to its long distance services. In addition QR's own Ipswich Workshops were to build a train. The carriages were designed to travel to all parts of the system, meaning a maximum axle load of 9 tons, which was a challenge for the dining cars. New features included showers in the sleeping cars, roomettes in first class and head end power cars, especially necessary where trains may be delayed by floods or other events, as was often the case.[3][4]

The Sunlander commenced service on 4 June 1953, replacing the Sunshine Express.[1] This new air conditioned train was hauled by a diesel locomotive and by eliminating steam locomotive servicing stops, the transit time to Cairns was reduced from 45 to 41¼ hours. By the time it ceased in December 2014, the time had been cut to 31 hours with many infrastructure upgrades having taken place.[1][5]

As further rolling stock was delivered, a second weekly service commenced on 30 November 1953 building up to five on 9 December 1955. The much delayed Ipswich built set was commissioned on 10 May 1961, allowing the service to build up to six services per week, this was reduced back to five on 8 November 1970 to release stock for the Capricornian.[3]

This was further reduced when the luxury Queenslander commenced operating on the Brisbane to Cairns route. On 29 February 1992, a motorail service was introduced.[3]

In 2014, the service was gradually replaced by the Spirit of Queensland using extra Tilt Trains. From 13 October 2014, the number of weekly services was reduced from three to one, with the last service departing Cairns on 31 December 2014.[6][7][8][9]


The route follows the North Coast line from Brisbane in the sub tropical region of South East Queensland through to the tropical north region. The train travels the coastal strip between the beaches and the Great Dividing Range passing diverse country including the Glasshouse Mountains, the sugar cane country of North Queensland and the tropics beyond Townsville.

Rolling stock[edit]

The Sunlander was operated by M series carriage stock. From the early 1980s this was supplemented by L series stock.[4]

Motive power was provided by diesel locomotives throughout until the North Coast line was electrified in 1989 with the 3900 class operating the service south of Rockhampton. Following the cessation of electric locomotive working on the North Coast line, The Sunlander was again diesel hauled throughout.[3]

Following the reorganisation of Queensland Rail's freight operations in preparation for privatisation, the locomotives were provided by QR National. On 1 July 2014, this function was taken over by Queensland Rail.[3]

Passenger facilities[edit]

Facilities on board included two food service cars. A Buffet car provided a full meal service and a refreshment car provides takeaway food service. Two classes of travel were available

  • Queenslander Class – premium service with all meals provided and twin berth accommodation
  • Standard Service – seats and berth accommodation

A motorail service was available on The Sunlander which enabled passengers to load their car onto a special car carrying wagon at the back of the train. This feature has also retired along with The Sunlander, which means that the Spirit of the Outback service can no longer carry cars.


A selection of coaches off the retired Sunlander were preserved by various rail groups, both in Queensland and interstate.

Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway at Swanbank were gifted six coaches upon the retirement of M class from Queensland Rail. Of the above, 3 of the coaches gifted were formally attributed to the Sunlander:[10]

  • Sleeping car MAS 1540 (the final M Car)
  • Dining Car MDC 1461 (from the Sunlander)
  • Tropics club car 1502 (from the Sunlander still in 90's configuration)

Four of these coaches (and two of the above mentioned) have now undergone work to return them to traffic as the Queensland Pioneer Dinner train over the 7 km scenic railway outside of Ipswich and are spotting the original Blue and white livery the coaches first wore in 1953.

Bellarine Peninsular Railway also collected a number of Sunlander coaches for the Q Train dining experience


  1. ^ a b c "Travelling Times by Rail". Queensland Historical Atlas. 2010. Retrieved 16 February 2011. 
  2. ^ Burke, David (2009). Chasing the sunshine : the story of Queensland's sunshine express. South Brisbane, Queensland, Australia: Queensland Museum. p. 154. ISBN 978-0-9805692-3-0. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "A Brief History of the Sunlander" Motive Power issue 96 November 2014 pages 33-41
  4. ^ a b Dunn, John (2006). Comeng A History of Commonwealth Engineering 1921-1955. Rosenberg Publishing. pp. 182–198. ISBN 1877058424. 
  5. ^ Timetable Queensland Rail 16 December 2014
  6. ^ World class trains for Queensland supporting 800 Maryborough jobs Minister for Transport 27 October 2010
  7. ^ Spirit of Queensland Queensland
  8. ^ Spirit of Queensland factsheet Queensland Rail
  9. ^ Sunlander Farewell: Brisbane to Cairns service makes final journey after 61 years and 3.5 million passenger journeys ABC News 30 December 2014
  10. ^ Hartley, Anna. "Queensland Rail's heritage carriage gift to lift spirits". Queensland Times. Retrieved 2017-01-26.