Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Sunlander

Queensland’s iconic Sunlander made its first trip from Brisbane to Cairns in June 1953.  It replaced the steam-powered Sunshine Express, which had been servicing the North Coast line since 1935. 
The Sunlander, delayed by a car parked too close to the railway line, outside the Townsville Showgrounds, July 1976.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
The introduction of the Sunlander immediately cut more than three hours from the previous 45-hour journey, and it provided unparalleled comfort for passengers.  This was Queensland Railway’s second airconditioned train, the first being the Inlander, which serviced the Townsville to Mt Isa line and was introduced just a few months before the Sunlander, in February 1953.
The Sunlander at Mackay.  Photo: Queensland Rail.

Passengers on the Sunlander were excited about the travelling conditions, which compared very favourably against the older steam trains.  No more coal dust, soot and cinders to contend with thanks to the new diesel locomotive.

Along with the air conditioning in the carriages, features such as adjustable seats, individual lighting, carpets, hot and cold water, venetian blinds, shower rooms and a “gleaming dining car” all combined to make the new train a popular one.

Mr A. Anton, a passenger from Toowoomba, said he had travelled the world and he thought the latest Queensland train was “on par” with the best of them, adding that the hot and cold water on the train was “a revelation and a special delight”.

“The Sunlander is like a mobile first-class hotel, incorporating every modern comfort and an almost incredible improvement on the old fashioned trains, which includes practically all of our Queensland trains,” he said.
Sunlander Dining Car, 1978 by Queensland Rail - National museum of Australia
The Sunlander’s first trip to Cairns was met with enthusiastic crowds at stations all along the coast.  In Mackay, 500 people crammed on to the station platform to get a glimpse of the Sunlander, despite the train not being open for inspection at that stop.

In Cairns, 3000 people took advantage of the opportunity to inspect the Sunlander when it was opened to the public the day after its arrival.

Many people had joined the train at stops along the line, including Mr I. MacDonald, who boarded the Sunlander at Townsville.  Mr MacDonald said he was particularly impressed by the comfortable seats, the absence of noise and dirt, the “up-to-the-minute” toilet facilities and the “effortless manner in which the train sped along”.

Mr MacDonald was certain that the new service would attract tourists to the north.

“Putting trains like the Sunlander on the run will do more to attract tourists to Northern Queensland than a whole publishing house full of literature,” he said.

“They will come to the Far North just for the pleasure of riding in the trains.”

In spite of all the fanfare, the Sunlander’s maiden trip was not without a few hitches.  When it arrived in Cairns it was nearly an hour late.  The official reason given was a delay at Townsville’s Stuart station due to a small mechanical failure. 

One other delay hardly rated a mention, though it no doubt contributed to the train’s late arrival.  In Sarina, the train had left the station without its guard, who was still in the Station Master’s office when the train pulled out.  He caught a taxi to Mackay to rejoin the train, which subsequently delayed the train leaving Mackay by half an hour.

After 61 years of loyal service, the iconic passenger train made its last journey north in late December 2014.


  1. Hi, this made for great reading. I lived in Townsville and Cairns in the 1970s, and made a couple of trips on the Sunlander.
    In December 1981, we travelled by train from cairns to Brisbane. When we arrived at the station we were told that floods prevented the Sunlander making it past Townsville. We were put on a bus to Townsville. After waiting an hour at Innisfail, then an hour at Ingham (for floodwaters to recede) we missed our train. QR put us on an alternative-old red wooden carriages with no air conditioning. I distinctly remember the smell arriving at Rockhampton next to a cattle train. When we arrived in Brisbane, the local TV stations were there to interview the passengers.

    1. Thank you for sharing your memories of the Sunlander! Trisha :)