Kuranda Scenic Railway (KSR Queensland) - Australia

Kuranda Scenic Railway (Cairns Kuranda Steam)


Queensland Tourism Award 2015 Bronze Winner

Far North Queensland’s World Heritage-Listed rainforest, The Wet Tropics, are amongst the oldest on earth and home to an incredible array of plants and animals.

Twelve hundred species of flowering plants, eight hundred different rainforest trees, spectacular orchids, strangler figs, exotic palms and hundreds of unique creatures inhabit this lush green world.

Now imagine all that natural wonder so close that you can almost touch it, your senses alive with the heady organic fragrance and untamed sounds of the dense rainforest. That’s what it’s like aboard Kuranda Scenic Railway as you unwind your way through a tropical paradise framed by rugged mountains with waterfalls tumbling forever into deep ravines.

Being one with the rainforest as you undertake an unforgettable journey is what makes Kuranda Scenic Railway such a must-do experience.

This famous railway winds its way on a journey from Cairns to Kuranda, the village in the rainforest, with Freshwater situated along the line with views of the surrounding mountains. Rising from sea level to 328m, the journey to Kuranda passes spectacular waterfalls and into the stunning Barron Gorge. The journey includes an English commentary and all passengers receive a commentary companion which includes information on the history of the railways construction, a trip map and a map of Kuranda. Upon reaching the village of Kuranda a rich assortment of interesting attractions and unique shopping experiences awaits you.

Kuranda Scenic Railway History

Desperate Calls For A Railway To The Coast

The setting was the prolonged North Queensland wet season of 1882. Desperate tin miners on the Wild River near Herberton were unable to obtain supplies and were on the verge of famine. The boggy road leading inland from Port Douglas was proving impossible. As a result, the settlers at Herberton raised loud and angry voices and began agitation for a railway to the coast.

Coming general elections and increasing cold weather in the south saw visits to the north by leading politicians. All promising a railway. In March, 1882, the Minister for Works and Mines, Mr Macrossan announced the search for a route from the Atherton Tablelands to the coast. He commissioned Christie Palmerston, an expert bushman and a most colourful pioneering character, to find a suitable route.
In February 1882, both Port Douglas and Cairns formed Railway Leagues and engaged in a long and bitter fight for the right to the railway. Not long after, Geraldton, later named Innisfail, entered the competition boasting the sound virtues of Mourilyan Harbour.
During that year Palmerston marked several possible routes from the coast, inland along the Mossman River, the Barron Valley from Cairns and the Mulgrave Valley. In November 1882 Palmerston made the trip from Mourilyan to Herberton in 9 days and repeatedly came across the track which had been marked by an inspector named Douglas in May of that year. On arrival, Inspector Douglas had wired the Colonial Secretary: “Arrived Mourilyan 28th May. Fearful trip. No chance of road. 20 days without rations, living on roots principally. 19 days rain without intermission.”

Cairns Win the Railway Bid

In March 1884, a surveyor named Monk submitted reports from investigations carried out on all the routes marked by Christie Palmerston. This culminated in a decision that would shape the future of North Queensland. The Barron Valley gorge route was chosen. The storm of indignation which followed from Port Douglas and Geraldton was as enormous as the jubilant celebrations from the people in Cairns.

Kuranda Scenic Railway An Incredible Engineering Feat

Construction of the Cairns-Kuranda Railway was, and still is, an engineering feat of tremendous magnitude. This enthralling chapter in the history of North Queensland, stands as testimony to the splendid ambitions, fortitude and suffering of the hundreds of men engaged in its construction. It also stands as a monument to the many men who lost their lives on this amazing project.
On May 10th 1886, the then Premier of Queensland Sir Samuel Griffith, used a silver spade to turn the first sod. Celebrations involving almost the entire population of Cairns lasted all that day and long into the night.  Construction was by three separate contracts for lengths of 13.2km, 24.5 km, and 37.4km. The line was to total 75.1km and surmounts the vast Atherton tablelands leading to Mareeba. Sections One and Three were relatively easy to locate and construct. But the ascent of Section Two was extremely arduous and dangerous due to steep grades, dense jungle and aboriginals defending their territory.
The climb began near Redlynch 5.5m above sea level, and continued to the summit at Myola with an altitude of 327.1 m. In all, this section included 15 tunnels, 93 curves and dozens of difficult bridges mounted many meters above ravines and waterfalls.

Kuranda Scenic Railway A Railway Constructed by Hand

Section one of the line ran from Cairns to just beyond Redlynch. The contract won by Mr. P.C. Smith for $40,000. However, work was dogged by bad luck and a possible lack of supervision. Sickness and prevalent amongst the navvies and the working conditions in the swamps and jungles were approaching unbearable.
In November 1886, P.C.Smith relinquished his contract for Section One. It was taken over by McBride and Co., but they too had packed it in by January 1887. Section one was finally completed by the Queensland Government.
On January 21st 1887, John Robb's tender of $580,188 was accepted for section two. He and his men tackled the jungle and mountains not with bulldozers, jackhammers and other modern equipment, but with strategy, fortitude, hand tools, dynamite, buckets and bare hands. Great escarpments were removed from the mountains above the line and every loose rock and overhanging tree had to be removed by hand. It was during this type of work that the first fatal accident occurred. At Beard's Cutting, a man named Gavin Hamilton stood on the wrong side of a log as it was being rolled into a fire, and was killed.
Earthworks proved particularly difficult. The deep cuttings and extensive embankments that were removed totalled a volume of just over 2.3 million cubic metres of earthworks. The Barron Valley earth was especially treacherous. Slopes averaged 45 degrees and the entire surface was covered with a 4.6 m - 7.60m layer of disjointed rock, rotting vegetation, mould and soil.

During construction, navvies' camps mushroomed at every tunnel and cutting. Even comparatively narrow ledges supported stores - some even catering for the men's need for groceries and clothes! Small townships were thriving at Number 3 Tunnel, Stoney Creek, Glacier Rock, Camp Oven Creek and Rainbow Creek. Kamerunga, at the foot of the range, boasted no fewer than five hotels. At one stage, 1500 men, mainly Irish and Italian, were involved in the project.
Faced with poor working conditions, on April 20th 1888 a meeting of predominantly Irish workers at Kamerunga resulted in the formation of the Victorian Labour League. Even so, relationships between workers and contractors remained harmonious as all realised the magnitude of the task before them. In August 1890, the great maritime strike spread to the railway workers and they formed The United Sons of Toil. They made a demand for 90c per day. By September differences had been resolved and the navvies' wages were increased from 80c per day to 85c per day.

Kuranda Scenic Railway Nears Completion

By April 1890, Stoney Creek Bridge was almost complete and the project was paid a vice-regal visit by the Governor of Queensland, general Sir Henry Wiley Norman. To His Excellency's astonishment, John Robb prepared a full banquet atop Stoney Creek Bridge with tables, food and wine dizzily suspended may metres over the gorge. History records that there were no speeches that day due to the roar from the waterfalls.
By May 13th 1891, rail was laid to the end of the second section at Myola. On June 15th 1891, Mr Johnstone, one of three Railway Commissioners at that time opened the line for goods traffic only. Just ten days later, the Cairns- Kuranda Railway line was opened to passenger travel.

Trade at Port Douglas died off rapidly and the town became a quiet little retreat. However, today it is a popular holiday destination. Geraldton (Innisfail) prospered in its own right because of the growing sugar industry. With a reliable supply of goods and freight, the Tablelands bloomed into a wealth of rich grazing land. And Cairns was destined to become the modern, international tourist centre it is today, still expanding in leaps and bounds.

Kuranda Scenic Railway KSR Rollingstock

Kuranda Scenic Railway Carriages

Both consists comprise of heritage style carriages. The first and last carriage on each service has a Guards' compartment fitted.  This style of coach was well known because of their vintage appearance. Such things as open-end verandas, sun shades over the windows and short wheelbases were common place. As you can imagine they have been modified and up graded at various times during workshop maintenance and rebuild programs.

Before leaving the rolling stock, mention must be made of four special carriages that were unique to the Cairns area and may have been the only vehicles of their type to operate in Australia. They were known as “Grandstand” cars and were provided specifically for the use by tourists on the train to Kuranda, highlighting the importance placed on this fast growing industry in the North.

The carriages were first class and had a capacity of 42 passengers. They were numbered 506, 507, 533 and 534. Nos 506 and 507 had originally been built at Ipswich in 1909 - 1910. Nos 533 and 534 were built at Ipswich in 1909. They had identical exterior design but different internal seating classes being of first and second-class arrangements.

In 1936 Nos 506, 507 and 533 were completely rebuilt at the Ipswich Workshops. During the rebuild large 3'6 scenic glass windows along one side of the carriage, a lavatory at one end and two rows of longitudinal tiered seating were fitted allowing passengers an unrestricted view of the rainforest, gorge and coastal plains skirted by the Coral Seas' of the South Pacific Ocean on the climb up the Kuranda Range.

Carriage no 507 was fitted with a small commentary cabinet at one end combined with a public address system throughout the other carriages. A running commentary of the surrounding attractions was provided on the journey.The carriages were normally run in a three car set combination with an additional conventional carriage, normally No 440 attached. The train was known as the “Grandstand Train” and proved so popular that in 1938, a further “Grandstand” carriage No 534 was provided.

There was a change in the wind with the declaration of WW II. The war stopped all tourist activities in the area. These carriages were changed to suit the needs of nation for WW II. They were converted into much needed ambulances carriages that formed part of the Australian Ambulance Trains that ran in Queensland.

The AAT comprised 13 carriages and operated out of Ipswich. The five Australian Ambulance Trains were use to transport seriously wounded and extremely sick Allied servicemen from the northern tropics of Queensland to the south from 1942. The average trip from Townsville to Brisbane took 48 hours, with the train reaching a top speed of about 35mph (56km/h). More locally it took even longer when from March, 1943, an AAT was operating out of Rocky Creek, Atherton Tablelands, where a group of military hospitals were established to cope with the influx of wounded and diseased Diggers and United States military personal.

It should be noted here that there was no highway from Cairns to Brisbane at this time and medicos faced serious problems when it came to evacuation of thousands of wounded and sick servicemen returning from the battlefields in New Guinea and other islands in the southwest Pacific. After the war all four carriages were converted to conventional carriages.

Kuranda Scenic Railway Locomotives

The locomotive power at the head of the train today is a 1720 Class Diesel Electric Locomotive. This class was introduced to traffic in October 1966 and was built by Clyde Engineering Company under license from General Motors USA and subcontracted to Commonwealth Engineering in Brisbane.

A total of 56 locomotives were built with the last unit entering service by the end of 1969. Each unit was numbered consecutively from 1720 through to 1775.

A 1000 HP is generated by the units' diesel engine, Model 8- 645E. It is a two-stroke V8 General Motors Engine that has solid fuel injection with blower scavenging. The engine operates at speeds from 315 rpm to 900 rpm.
This mechanical power is then converted to electricity by its Main Generator, Model D25E, to high voltage direct current for use in propelling the locomotive.

An Auxiliary Generator converts a small amount of engine power to low voltage power for use in charging the locomotives battery, exciting the main generator, operating the controls, locomotive lights and accessories.

The locomotive is equipped with a Gardner-Denver 3 cylinder, two stage, Model WXE, air compressor that is driven off the main engine. Out put of compressed air is 199 cubic feet per minute at 900 rpm. This air is used for operation of the Westinghouse brake system, sanding equipment, warning horn, windscreen wipers and crew vigilance equipment.

The locomotive is relatively lightweight, a total of approximately 60 ton with an approximate 10-ton axle load. This allowed QR to operate them on lightweight branch line or suburban passenger train services. The 1720s' operate through out most of QR's extensive rail network and with the passing of time, this class of locomotive has truly earned it place in the top performers division, in regards locomotive rolling stock.

The Story of Buda-dji

Buda-dji is the Carpet Snake who, in the dreamtime, carved out the Barron River and the creeks that join onto it, from the coast to the Tablelands.

Buda-dji the Carpet Snake travelled many times along the Barron Gorge with his beautiful Nautilus shells. He bartered these Nautilus shells with different clan groups along the river for dilly bags, eel traps and other useful items. 

Before he started his journey Buda-dji went up along Stoney Creek “Garndal-Garndal” and came to the falls, which he named “Diwunga” where he sang and danced. Buda-dji then went back down to where Stoney Creek meets the Barron River, from there, he began his journey up along the river.

Three bird-men followed Buda-dji, they were after his beautiful shells. They asked Buda-dji for the shells and he replied “ I have to give them to the people up along the river and they will give me dilly bags and eel traps and other things.” Driven by their anger and greed the three bird-men left and made plans to ambush Buda-dji. They waited for him further up along the river. Before Buda-dji could reach the people the three bird-men ambushed him near Barron Falls “Din-Din” and Kuranda “Ngunbay”. They then chopped him up with their stone axe into many pieces. They scattered Buda-dji's pieces in many places throughout the Djabuganydji tribal land and coastal neighbours and far into the Tablelands.

Every place where a body piece of Buda-dji's landed was named after that body part. It is said that it's tail part is on the Tableland and the head is down on the coast which is the dreamtime water at the site known as Grant Hill near Yarrabah. Some notable locations are:
  • Freshwater…”Bubundji”
  • Red Bluff…”Mirimbi”
  • Scrub Hen Mountain-Walsh's Pyramid…”Bunda Djarrugan”
  • Cassowary Mountain-Macalister Range…”Bunda Bundarra”
  • Lamb Range…”Bunda Djarruy Gimbul”
  • The spirit of Buda-dji travelled back to the waters of Double Island "Wangal Dungay” where he rests.
Buda-dji Acknowledgement & Dedication

This version of Buda-dji has been passed onto the artist from his Great Great Grandmother Queen Maggie Donahue, “Nuwarri”, and her people of Djabugay.

The aboriginal people from the Tablelands, Mareeba, Kuranda, Mossman, Cairns and Yarrabah all share affiliation with the dreamtime story of the Carpet Snake “Buda-dji”. The story of the Carpet Snake varies between the different tribes of their region.

Buda-dji Dedication

This story is dedicated to the ancestors and descendants of Queen Maggie Donahue and to all the people of this region who share affiliation with the dreamtime story.


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