A remarkable era in Tasmania’s history was celebrated recently to mark the 120th birthday of the oldest of the Mount Lyell Railway Abt locomotives, which is still in regular use on what is now known as the West Coast Wilderness Railway.
Abt Locomotive No.1 was built in Glasgow and shipped in pieces to the port of Strahan, arriving in late August 1896. The story goes that she arrived without any assembly instructions so putting her together was a test of the railway workers, most of whom had never seen an Abt locomotive before.
However, in keeping with the motto of the Mount Lyell Railway to ‘’find a way or make a way” to get things done, with trial and error and a deal of perseverance and ingenuity, they managed to put the locomotive and its rack-and-pinion drive mechanism, together. Within a month of arriving, Loco No.1 was being tested on a short section of track at Camp Spur fitted with rack bars.
With the tests successfully completed and with any uncertainty about the ability of Abt System to negotiate the mountainous terrain of the line allayed, the rack was quickly installed over the Rinadeena Saddle, the work being completed by 19th November, 1896. The line was inspected and declared open for traffic, with regular train services commencing on 21st December, 1896.
Eventually the Mount Lyell Railway had five Abt steam locomotives on the line. Of these, Loco’s 1, 3 & 5 are still in service on the West Coast Wilderness Railway today; No 2 is in the Tasmanian Transport Museum in Hobart and No.4 was buried in a quarry in Queenstown. The Railway also has a number of diesel locomotives, which provide a backup to the steam engines.
No.1 remained in service until the line’s closure in 1963, when she was given the honour of pulling the last passenger train in August. She remained on display at the West Coast Heritage Centre in Zeehan until being fully restored and returned to service in 2001 when the Mount Lyell Railway reopened as the West Coast Wilderness Railway.
In 2016, No.1 continues to play a vital role in the daily operation of the railway. On Thursday 24 November, Loco No.1 set off from Queenstown on the Rack and Gorge excursion to Dubbil Barril and back. She pulled two full carriages, the Heritage Carriage with a capacity of 86 and the Wilderness Carriage carrying 26.
Having successfully climbed the steepest rack railway incline in the Southern Hemisphere, the locomotive paused at Rinadeena Station where she was re-watered. Passengers were invited to enjoy a piece of a very special birthday cake, prepared by the team at the Railway’s Tracks Café and decorated with solid chocolate locomotives.
A ceremonial ‘’cake’’ was then presented to No.1, who blew out her birthday candles with a blast of steam from her drain cocks. To complete the celebration, each passenger was presented with a specially produced postcard holding a historic image of Loco No.1.
Historical source: Rack Railways of Australia (Page 17), by David Jehan, 1997