Rail in Queensland

Rail transport has been very important to the economic development of Queensland.

The first section of railway opened between Ipswich and Bigge’s Camp on 31 July 1865. A railway gauge of 3 feet 6 inches was chosen. This was one of the earliest uses of such a narrow gauge for a public railway. It was cheaper to build and the government had little financial resources.

The railways in Queensland stretched from coastal ports inland. This allowed the transport of farming produce for export. These goods were important for our economy. In 1865 it took a dray load of wool about seven days to travel from Toowoomba to Ipswich. When the railway reached Toowoomba in 1867 it reduced the same journey to only five hours.

Isolated railways were built from Maryborough, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Townsville and Cairns. The railway system continued to grow and gradually these isolated systems were linked together. However, it was not until 1924 that the final connection was made at Innisfail to join the Cairns district rail lines with those along the coast to Brisbane.

The discovery and development of major reserves of export quality coal in central Queensland resulted in a number of new rail lines and major port facilities being built by the Queensland Government.

The railways have been an important part of Queensland’s economic growth in agricultural produce and then mineral development since the first railway was built in 1865. Coal exports continue to contribute significantly to the financial development of Queensland.  

Early train crossing the Bremer River Bridge in 1867 Early train crossing the Bremer River Bridge in 1867 (Source: QR)

Might and Muscle

Track construction c.1880 Track construction c.1880 (Source: QR) A railway cutting under construction c.1890 A railway cutting under construction c.1890 (Source: QR) A modern diesel locomotive hauls a load of containers near Sarina on the North Coast Line. A modern diesel locomotive hauls a load of containers near Sarina on the North Coast Line. (Source: David Mewes)

Constructing the railway network in Queensland was a major task. It took money, equipment, know-how and especially hard physical work. Construction teams overcame obstacles such as mountain ranges, creeks and rivers to build the track.

They used their special skills to build even and gentle gradients, carefully constructed curves and solid foundations. The railway lines had to be laid out precisely; always with the same gauge.

Torres Strait Islanders came to the mainland in the 1960s following the decline of the trochus and pearling industry. Many became exceptionally skilled as track workers. One Torres Strait Islander gang holds the world record for laying track by hand. On the 8 May 1968 they laid 7¼ miles of track in 12 hours. This took 910 tons of rail and 13,000 sleepers. 


Diesel Revolution

Locomotives have changed dramatically since the first prototypes were built early in the 19th century. Engineers and designers have been constantly striving to make locomotives that can travel faster and pull heavier loads.

During the second half of the 18th century, James Watt, made improvements to Newcomen’s design for stationary steam engines used for more than 50 years to pump water from mines.. Watt’s improvements made the steam engine a practical proposition to power machinery in factories and led the way for the engine to be used in the development of the steam locomotive.  Steam has been the main source of power on railways for almost a century. Steam locomotives have been replaced by diesel or electric powered trains. Diesel locomotives were more efficient and needed less servicing than steam locomotives as they did not require extra stops for water and coal. The diesels were cleaner than the steam locomotives and did not require the additional infrastructure of overhead wiring and electricity supply that electric trains needed.



Each year hundreds of thousands of freight containers are transported by rail to and from Queensland’s coastal ports. Large gantries are used to lift containers to and from trains and ships.

Containers are an efficient means of moving goods between rail, road and sea. They are used to transport all types of goods including cars, machinery, groceries, furniture and fruit and vegetables.

Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.