The Sunlander (Retired)

The Sunlander (Retired)

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 It has been replaced by the Spirit of Queensland.

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

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.

In December 1949, Queensland Railways 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 North Ipswich Railway Workshops built a train. The carriages were designed to travel to all parts of the system with a maximum axle load of nine 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.

The Sunlander commenced service on 4 June 1953, replacing the Sunshine Express. 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.

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.

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.

In 2014, the service was gradually replaced by the Spirit of Queensland using extra Diesel 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.

The Sunlander Route

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.

The Sunlander Rolling Stock

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

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.

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.

The Sunlander Passenger Facilities

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


Some of the former carriages have been preserved.

The Queensland Pioneer Steam Railway at Swanbank were gifted six M-class cars following their retirement. Of those, three had been formerly used on The Sunlander

  • Sleeping car MAS 1540 (the final M car)
  • Dining car MDC 1461
  • Tropics club car 1502 (in its 1990s configuration)
  • Four of the M-class cars (including two of those listed above) have now undergone work to return them to traffic as the Queensland Pioneer Dinner train over the seven kilometres scenic railway outside Ipswich, and are sporting the blue and white livery they first wore in 1953. These cars had their first trip as the Queensland Pioneer Dinner Train on 22 July 2017.
The Bellarine Railway in Victoria also collected a number of Sunlander coaches for its Q Train dining experience.

The Sunlander Overview

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
Route Used Start: Brisbane
Route Used 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)

The Sunlander Route
  • Brisbane
  • Caboolture
  • Nambour
  • Cooroy
  • Gympie
  • Maryborough West
  • Bundaberg
  • Miriam Vale
  • Gladstone
  • Mount Larcom
  • Rockhampton
  • St Lawrence
  • Carmila
  • Sarina
  • Mackay
  • Proserpine
  • Bowen
  • Home Hill
  • Ayr
  • Giru
  • Townsville
  • Ingham
  • Cardwell
  • Tully
  • Innisfail
  • Babinda
  • Gordonvale
  • Cairns


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