What’s so special about the Ida Bay Train?

The Ida Bay Railway has been a vital part of Tasmania’s industrial and cultural heritage for over 100 years. It is the last remaining bush tramway in Australia, and the country’s most southerly.

Around 1919, an abandoned timber tramway of the Lune River sawmill was improved and extended to transport limestone from Marble Hill just south of Hastings Cave to a jetty at Brick Point, Ida Bay. The limestone was then loaded onto river ships, taken to Electrona in North West Bay and used in the preparation of calcium carbide. The railway became a busy and vital employer in a growing community. 

The line was later extended to Deep Hole just outside the Southport Narrows to allow shipping by deeper draft vessels.

After industrial operations ended in 1974, the Far South community campaigned to keep the railway operating. As a result, it was bought by the Tasmanian government and ever since it has been owned by the people of Tasmania. The tramway was converted to a tourist attraction in 1977, and ran until recently as a narrow-gauge tourist railway leased from the government. Managed well by the community, the railway has huge potential to contribute to tourism and employment in the Far South. 

The full two-hour round trip provides a unique experience for visitors, both historic and scenic. The train travels over buttongrass plains, through tea-tree woodlands and forests, and along beautiful coastline to a deserted beach. The tracks run through endangered swift parrot habitat, and it is common to spot wallabies and other local wildlife along the way. 

Visitors pass by cultural heritage sites of the Lyluequonny people, and glimpse remnants of days gone by when timber-getters used horse-drawn tramways to cart timber, convicts were sent from Port Arthur to work as loggers, and European migrants laboured in the limestone quarry.

Those looking for a bit of adventure can follow the marked bushwalking tracks to Southport Lagoon and catch a later train back, or even camp overnight, making this a unique attraction with the potential to cater to diverse audiences. Barbecue facilities and toilets are available at Deep Hole.

Passengers ride behind one of the last Malcolm Moore engines, built for the War Department in World War II for use in the Pacific theatre of war. After the war, five of these unused engines came to the Ida Bay Railway between 1948 and 1951. Some parts of the passenger carriages are built on bogies that date back to the 1890s and were retrieved from the Zeehan and Dundas Railway.

So what’s the problem?

The Ida Bay Railway operated as a tourist venture under commercial lease arrangements. Over successive leases, this has proven unsuccessful.  The demands of complying with safety regulations, maintaining site conservation, paying wages and meeting expenses mean there is little financial return from operations. Lease holders have found it difficult to turn a profit and ‘make a go of it’ as a business. As a result, the site has been degraded and it has now returned to government hands. 

The railway has been closed for nearly two years and the rail-line and buildings need urgent maintenance and restoration if the railway is to survive. The site’s heritage values and its potential to contribute to the regional economy are at risk of being lost – forever.
Over many years, volunteers through the Friends of Ida Bay Historical Society supported commercial operators in an attempt to keep the railway going. The volunteers who have worked so hard to help keep the railway on track are dismayed at the current state of the site, the line, the engines and the rolling stock. Now they have been advised by the government that they cannot enter the site to continue work to preserve and protect the assets of the railway.

What do we plan to do?

We believe the most viable option for this heritage-listed site is for it to be managed, operated and maintained by a volunteer-run, community-based not-for-profit organisation whose members genuinely care and are committed to preserving this iconic railway for generations to come. The Ida Bay Railway Preservation Society Inc is made up of and has the support of committed volunteers, donors and sponsors and has the passion to see this through. 

We first need approval from the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service to restore and operate the railway. We have put a clear proposal of our intentions to the government, which you can read here.

Once approval is gained, we plan to restore and reopen the track in a staged approach. The aim is to start by restoring a third of the track to the Ida Bay town site and cemetery so that limited operations can begin by peak tourist season in the summer of 2020. We have secured sufficient seed capital from within the group to carry out this part of the work and will be exploring further grant funding and support as we progress.

The society has already undertaken an initial track-work inspection, specification and estimates. Engineering qualification and rail safety accreditation procedures have been prepared. A business plan to achieve the desired goals is under development.

The project is considerable and it will take some years to bring the railway to a self-sustainable standard. We are under no illusions as to the size of the tasks ahead. But the response to the proposal from the community, business, and interest groups has been positive, and support has been offered in the way of equipment, materials and labour. 

As a non-profit organisation, the Society can direct all effort, revenue and donations to the restoration of the railway and historic site. We will pay our way throughout the restoration of the railway and wherever possible will engage, support and promote local employment, business services and the regional economy.  

We believe we have the skills and experience to see the railway returned to safe use by visitors and the Tasmanian community in a range of activities. The local and regional economy will be supported and the site conserved for future generations.

Here’s how you can help

Our plan will only work with the dedicated support of the community and volunteers. Join us in rescuing this important piece of our heritage and unique tourist icon. 

Join the society, become a volunteer, or write to the Minister for Environment and Parks to let him know you support the full restoration of a community-run Ida Bay Railway.