An historical look at the North Coast railway Line – Lismore to Murwillumbah, 1892-2004. Article by Gary Austin
Some of the many reasons put forward for building the north coast rail was to open up access to the north-west plains, the New England plateau, and establish an export port in northern New South Wales. Many people also had an aversion to business drifting north to the rival colony of Queensland. The original plan was to build a railway from Grafton to the Tweed but this was altered to a Lismore to Murwillumbah line. The act to construct the line was passed by the NSW parliament on 18 June 1890 and received royal ascent on 19 September the same year. The authorised cost was £867,350, but there were cost overruns (surprise, surprise).
Four contracts were let for the construction of earthworks, bridges and tunnels. Another six contracts were let for construction of stations and other infrastructure. It is interesting to note the deepest cutting was 57 feet and the highest bank was 47 feet high – a lot of work before the days of modern machinery. The cost was £13,716 per mile, a high cost due to the hilly country and the high quality standard of track construction. The turning of the first sod was on 11April 1891 at a gala ceremony attended by 8,000 people in Lismore. The completed line was opened on 15 May 1894. The rail is 61 miles long, 63 if you count the 2 mile extension to the Condong sugar mill.
No doubt, the arrival of the railway accelerated the destruction of the rainforest in the southern section of the line. Forty odd years earlier the valuable timbers on the river flats had been cut out and removed but in the more inaccessible hills, much forest remained. The rail opened up the country and made cutting and removal of this timber much easier.
In the years that followed the railway opening there were many stations constructed at places such as Bexhill, Eltham, Laureldale, Booyong (upgraded in 1925 for the construction of the Ballina line), Nashua, Talofa, St Helena, Halpins, and more. Over the years most were closed and the buildings removed; in most of these places only the remains of the concrete platform show evidence that a station once existed.
Over the years the line carried many types of produce and was essential in moving people around the area. Types of freight carried included sawn timber and logs, dairy produce, sugar cane, maize, livestock, minerals and bananas.
The Norco factory at Byron Bay was once the biggest butter-producing facility in the world. The introduction of refrigerated ships encouraged the world wide distribution of their product. By the 1920’s the Norco factory was producing 30 million pounds of butter annually. Butter was sent by rail from dairy co-ops all over the northern rivers for export from Byron Bay. The production of wooden butter boxes was in itself an important industry.
In the early years sugar cane was grown in the Eltham, Bexhill, and Lismore area and railed north to the Condong mill. Sugar was also grown around Mullumbimby. The finished product was often shipped out of Byron Bay by the North Coast Steam Navigation Company (NCSNC). The sending of cane by rail ceased around 1970. Mechanical harvesting took over from hand cutting and the cane was sent to the mill by road.
From 1909 bananas were sent from Murwillumbah to Byron Bay then by steamer to Sydney. This was a major source of revenue for the railway in the post world war years. In 1924 the line to Sydney from the north coast opened and sea passage was no longer necessary.
The transportation of pigs was a substantial business with processing plants at both Byron Bay and Casino. In the early history of the line maize was grown on the river flats of the Richmond River and thousands of tons were railed to and shipped from Byron Bay.
Sawn timber and log transportation was an important industry. When the Grafton extension to the line first opened its only business was to transport logs to the mills at Lismore. Large quantities of hardwood were cut from areas such as Casino, Kyogle and Burringbar and sent by rail to Lismore, Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah for processing into sawn timber. Logs of timber, such as ironbark, tallowwood, flooded gum and turpentine were railed to Byron Bay and loaded on ships and sent to Sydney, or overseas to places such as South Africa, New Zealand and England.
All the abovementioned industries have diminished in importance in the area with the exception of sugar, leading to the decline in business for the railroad. The last freight business for the line, the transport of flyash to Murwillumbah, ended in 2002.
Passengers – an example, in the 1905 timetable the train departed Lismore 7.10 am, stopped at all stations, arriving Murwillumbah 11.20 am. At 3.20 pm the train turned around and left for Byron Bay in time to catch the 5.52 pm NCSNC steamer to Sydney. The train then returned to Lismore arriving at 7.45 pm. The importance of the connection with the ships to the railway cannot be overstated. Much produce and many passengers came and left by steamer at Byron Bay. In the 1920s special summer excursion trains were run on Sundays from the hinterland to the Byron Bay seaside. Over the years, improvement in roads and the great convenience of private car ownership lead to the demise of passenger traffic. The last passenger train on the line, the XPT, started service in 1990 and ended in 2004.
The Ballina line – Booyong to Ballina – opened in 1930. It was 12 miles in length and built at a cost of £1,547,913. The line was never a success and was closed after land slips in 1948. The line was poorly used and when one considers that passengers had 2 miles to walk to the sea from the station at Ballina, it is no wonder.
I have been prompted to write this brief history of what I am sure was a colourful and interesting period, and many tales could be told. I often walk different sections of the track, my favourite being between Byron Bay and Eltham. The tunnels are a particular interest: I am sure the sleepers are original and in the Bexhill tunnel hand cutting and shaping is evident.
What happens to the rail corridor now –who knows? Its 500 acres are a great wildlife corridor and would make an ideal walking/cycling trail – we could plant trees on it! Perhaps, some day, we may see a light rail tourist train between Bangalow and Byron Bay.