Tasmanian railways


For 150 years, railways have played an important role in the economic and social history of Tasmania. The story of the Tasmanian Railways is one of great successes, but also of hardships, economic failures, and disasters. It is a colourful and dynamic history.

The first stretch of railway in Tasmania was officially opened on Friday 10 February 1871, to great celebration, but also great relief; it had been a difficult and expensive task many years in the making. The Launceston and Western Railway Company railway ran from Launceston to Deloraine, and was constructed to aid in the timely delivery of produce from the rich agricultural lands of Perth and Longford and surrounds to the ports for export to the mainland.

In the years that followed, trainlines were developed around Tasmania. The Mersey and Deloraine Tramway Company was formed in 1864 to link Deloraine with the North West Coast using a line with a 4’6″ gauge. This company also found itself in financial difficulties and when it opened early in 1872 had only 16 3/4 miles (27.9 km) of track. Traffic response was much poorer than anticipated and after only 4 months of operation the company was forced to retire its only engine. Thereafter the line was worked by horses between Latrobe and Railton for seasonal produce traffic. The Mainline Railway, which run from Hobart to Western Junction where it joined with the Launceston and Western Railway, too was developed. Construction began simultaneously from the northern and southern ends of the Mainline Railway in 1873, and was completed by November 1876.

Each of these three railways were developed independently by private companies, although the Tasmanian State Government was involved to varying degrees in providing financial support. As a result, each of these three railways were constructed with a different gauge. For instance, the Mersey and Deloraine Tramway Company was constructed with a 4’6″ gauge; however, when it was eventually taken over by the Tasmanian State Government in 1885, this was eventually replaced with a 3’6″ gauge.

All three of these companies found themselves in financial difficulty, and were eventually absorbed into the Tasmanian Government Railways. As State Government interest increased over the whole railway network, the Tasmanian Government Railways was established under a General Manager for Railways in 1888. In 1978 responsibility for railways passed to the Commonwealth Government. In 1997 The Australian National Railway Commission sold the assets of AN Tasrail to a private consortium, trading as Tasrail Pty Ltd, which began operations in November 1997. The land over which the track is laid reverted to the State Government of Tasmania.

The only truly successful private company was the Emu Bay Railway. The Van Diemen’s Land Company completed the construction of the Emu Bay to Mt Bischoff railway in 1886. In 1897 it contracted management of the line to a separate company, the Emu Bay and Mt Bischoff Railway Co, registered in London. In 1925 the two railway companies merged to become the Emu Bay Railway Co. In November 1966 the shareholders accepted a take-over offer from EZ Industries Ltd (registered in Melbourne) which itself subsequently underwent a series of changes of ownership and name. The line was sold to Australian Transport Network, later to be known as Pacific National, on 21 May 1998 and thus passed into public ownership for the first time in 2009.

The Tasmanian Archives and the State Library of Tasmania holds many unique and beautiful records that document the history of the Tasmanian Railways. This guide will assist you by:

For further tips and information on searching our catalogue, please consult our Searching Tasmanian Archives page.

You may also be interested in other Guides to Records, including on Employment, and Maps and Plans.

Main government and non-government agencies responsible for railways in Tasmania

Tasmanian railways were constructed and maintained by several private companies, as well as State and Federal Governments. These are the major government and non-government agencies responsible for Tasmanian railways:

In 1865 the Tasmanian Government agreed to guarantee the interest on the bulk of the capital needed to finance the construction of a line from Longford to Deloraine based on a proposal put forward by a group of northern businessmen and passed the first in a series of enabling acts. In 1867 the Launceston and Western Railway Company was formed. Construction proceeded and on 10 February 1871 the line was ready for its official opening with normal services beginning the 14th.

The opening of the line however found the company in serious financial difficulties as rising costs had forced it to borrow additional funds from the Government. To ensure that the line between Launceston and Deloraine remained open parliament passed an amendment to the Company’s enabling Act in 1872 to allow it to keep trading but bankruptcy appeared inevitable.

A Special General Meeting of the Company shareholders on 18 July 1872 resolved to surrender the assets to the Tasmanian Government, which occurred on 31 October 1873 although the formal purchase was not completed until 1904.

The company that built the first railway in Tasmania, between Launceston and Deloraine was unable to service its government-backed loans and was taken over by the state in 1873. In 1885, when the Government acquired the Mersey and Deloraine Tramway, management of the two lines was merged as the Tasmanian Government Railways.

Formed when the Government took over the Mersey and Deloraine Tramway Company in 1885 and merged its management with the Launceston and Western Railway Department. The assets and operations of the Tasmanian Main Line Railway Company were merged with TGR in 1890. In 1939 it became the Railway Branch of the newly formed Transport Commission.

The Tasmanian Main Line Railway was built by a private company formed in 1872. A close but uncomfortable relationship with the Government was resolved in 1890 with the purchase of the company’s assets by the Crown and their incorporation into the Tasmanian Government Railways.

An offshoot of the Van Diemen’s Land Company which had a complex series of ownership changes involving companies registered in England, Victoria and Tasmania. An extension of the line linking Burnie and Zeehan opened in 1900. It was shortened with the construction of a freight transfer depot at Melba Flats, outside Zeehan, in the 1960s. The line operated in private hands until its eventual owner, Pacific National, sold its Tasmanian rail assets to the State Government in 2009.

The Mount Lyell Mining and Railway company was prominent in building railway infrastructure, including the Abt Railway and the North Mount Lyell line. In 1897, the Abt Railway from Queenstown to Teepookana was opened, and by 1899 this line had been extended to Strahan. The Abt rack and pinion system was used to assist the locomotive up and down the very steepest sections of track. The railway ran until 1963, and these days operates as the West Coast Wilderness Railway tourist attraction.

The Commission was formed under legislation designed to integrate the management of land transport within Tasmania. It continued until the ownership of Tasmania’s railways was transferred to the Commonwealth, legally in 1975 but administratively not until 1978.

The Australian National Railways Commission operated the Tasmanian (and South Australian) railways until it was privatised in 1997, its Tasmanian assets being sold to the Australian Transport Network P/L, later Pacific National Pty Ltd.

This company was established to acquire and operate the Tasmanian rail assets of the Australian National Railways Commission. Following a change of ownership and a contentious relationship with the Tasmanian and Commonwealth Governments over the cost of maintaining the rail infrastructure the assets were sold to the Tasmanian Government in 2009.

Created by the Rail Company Act 2009 to manage and maintain the rail infrastructure and transport assets that were recombined under Government ownership.


This section includes tracks, lines and crossings, buildings such as stations, yards and roundhouses, bridges, and land surveys.

The main series are:

1833-1992       Civil Engineering Drawings of Tasmanian Railways and Works (P1330)

1930-1997       Architectural Drawings, Railway Civil (P1332)

1952-1989       Index to Level Crossings Files (P2147)

1962-1992       Papers relating to Tasmanian Railway Bridges (P2421)

1935-1938       Survey/sketch Books of Tasmanian Railway Station Yards and Sidings (p2377)

1965-1973       Train Control Diagrams (P2334)

1969-1982       Index Booklets to Property Files, Civil Engineering Branch (P2341)

1942-1978       Cottage and Station Folders (P2370)

1965-1997       Civil Engineering Reports, Tender Documentation, Specifications and Surveys relating to Tasmanian Railways (P2378)

1950-1960       Civil Engineering Construction Drawings, District Engineer South, Location Order Series (P2638)

1872-1997       Clearance, Curve and Gradient, Cant and Other Measurements of the Tasmanian Railways Permanent Way (P2829)

Other records of interest

1880- 1932      Surveyors’ Field Books relating to Various Railways (PWD231)


This includes mechanical drawings of varying scales of steam engines, diesel engines, carriages, and rolling stock, and all their components.

The main series are:

1935-1997       “New” Railway Mechanical Drawings (P1279)

1946-1997       Construction Drawings for Diesel and Diesel Electric Locomotives (P1284)

1872-1960       Construction Drawings for Steam Locomotives and Self Propelled Rail Cars (P1297)

1900-1949       Plans of Locomotives of the Emu Bay Railway (AF207)

1875-1997       Locomotive, Rail Car, Wagon and Carriage Outline Diagrams (P2316)

1925-1997       Specifications, Railway Mechanical, Single Number Series (P2423)

1950-1997       Engine Maintenance Records, Numerical by Engine Number (P2616)

Other items of interest

1980-1999       Steam Locomotives Operated by the Tasmanian Government Railways (LMSS609)

Personnel (staff records)

The main series are:

1947-1997       Tasmanian Railways Weekly, Fortnightly and Staff Notices (P2225)

1937-1997       Staff [History] Record, Mechanical Engineering Branch, Lexicographical Series (P2125)

1909-1946       Staff Registers, Traffic Branch (P2137)

1918-1947       Record of Examinations (P2139)

1957-1997       Duty Statements (P2140)

1939-1963       Personnel Files, Railway Branch, Annual Single Number Series (P2146)

1903-1977       Railway Service Classification List, (Staff List), Tasmanian Government Gazette (P2215)

1903-1976       Railway Service Classification Lists (AE460). This series fills some gaps in P2215.

1960-1979       Production Office Job Register, Alphabetical Series (P2589)

1893-1944       Register to Certificates issued for Competency, First and Second Class, to Operate Land Engines (AE549)

1890-1902       Copies of Certificates of Competency to Operate Land Engines (LID20)

1890-1901       Copies of Certificates of Service As a Mine Winding Engine Driver (LID23)

1890-1961       Copies of Certificates of Competency to Operate a Mine Winding Engine LID24

1903-1939       Copies of Certificates of Competency, First Class, to Operate Land Engines (AA79)

1913-1921       Time Books relating to Various Railways (PWD232)

1880-1946       Personal History Cards for Railway Branch Employees Who Had Left by Jan 1947 (AC275)

1908-1959       Personal History Cards for Railway Branch Employees Who were Still employed in January 1947 (TC23)

1939-1996       Staff Files (TC1)

1939-1963       Personnel Files, Railway Branch, Annual Single Number Series (P2146)

1909-1946       Staff Registers, Traffic Branch (P2137)

1904-1913       Alphabetical Register of Staff Leave (TC19)

1899-1956       Holiday Record, Rolling Stock Branch (P2323)

1890-1963       General Correspondence (TC10)

1903-1976       Railway Service Classification Lists (AE460)


1896-1955       Diaries of Engineer for Railways (NS6275)

Photographs and negatives

Some examples include:

1880-1989       Photographs (The Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Company) (NS3245)

1947- 1977      Photographic negatives relating to Railway Mechanical Operations (P1300)

1947                Photographs of and associated with the Queenstown to Strahan Railway (NS3747)

1906-1997       Photographs of Permanent Way and Rail Operations (P2121)

1960-1970       Register of Colour Negatives (P2001)


We have a range of railway films available on the Libraries Tasmania YouTube channel. Including West Coast Railways (c.1950) and A Century of Railways (1976)

Other films include:

1995-2003       Railways films, Russell Holland (NS3697)

1976                Compilation of films: Tasmanian trains and railways (DVD for sale)

1958                ABT RAILWAY – produced by E C Cramp – shots of ABT train (NS1823/1/5)

Administration records (including correspondence, registers and indexes)

The main series are:

1873-1992       Rolling Stock Reports and Asset Management Records for Tasmanian Government Railways and Australian National Railways Commission (P2831)

1873-1989       Registers of Service History of Tasmanian Railway Rolling Stock, Locomotives, Self-Propelled Rail Cars, Camp Wagons and Containers (P2376)

1905-1990       Contracts,Licences, Agreements, Leases, Briefs Etc. (P2129)

1947-1997       Tasmanian Railways Weekly, Fortnightly and Staff Notices (P2225)

1967-1991       Correspondence Files of the Operations Branch (P1994)

1892-1997       Head Office Correspondence Files (P2092)

1978-1986       Asset Registers (P2003)

1901-1983       Train Control Records for Single Line Working (including Staff and Ticket System) (P2076)

1873-1969       Correspondence Files, Resident Engineer Then Chief Civil Engineer’s Office (P2093)

1936-1990       Correspondence Files, Civil Engineering Branch (P2094)

1944-1986       Correspondence Files, Mechanical Engineering Branch (P2096)

1948-1976       Records relating to Tasmanian Railways collected from the Past General Managers Office, Invermay, January 1991 (P2097)

1971-1988       Correspondence Registers, Chief Engineer’s Office (P2136)

1960- 1997      Derailment Register (P2309)

1952-1985       Correspondence Files, Hobart Railway Station, Alphabetical Series (P2206)

1986-1997       Records of the Operations Branch Covering Derailments, Collisions and Other Accidents (P2247)

1969- 1997      Train Control Logs (P2255)

1917- 1919      Telegraph “Train Register” Book (P2269)

1892- 1997      Assets Register (Stores and Equipment Book) (P2324)

1947- 1989      Record of Goods Damaged or Missing (P2327)

1921- 1956      Register of Files, Correspondence Files, Annual Single Number Series (P2581)

1918- 1944      Alphabetical Register of Incoming Correspondence (P2582)

1947-1997       Chief Mechanical Engineer’s Standard Instructions, Single Number Series (P2601)

1978- 1997      Locomotive Foremans Log Books, Chronological Series (P2605)

1950-1997       Engine Maintenance Records, Numerical by Engine Number (P2616)

1937- 1962      Alphabetical Register Cards to Correspondence Files (P2679)

Maps and plans

The main series are:

1883- 1975      Contract Plans (Bound Volumes) (P1331)

1914-1975       Surveyors’ Diagrams and Correspondence Regarding Identification of Lots at Closure and Disposal of Parts of the Tasmanian Railway System (P2832)

1876- 1969      P Series Maps (AF718)

1833- 1992      Civil Engineering Drawings of Tasmanian Railways and Works (P1330)

1935- 1938      Survey/sketch Books of Tasmanian Railway Station Yards and Siding (P2377)

1942- 1978      Cottage and Station Folders (P2370)

How we can help you

There are many ways that Libraries Tasmania can help you find information about Tasmanian Railways.

For quick queries or help consulting various records, feel free to visit us in the Reading Room and History Room on the second floor of the State Library of Tasmania (91 Murray Street, Hobart) where staff can assist you.

You can also reach us on the telephone on 6165 5538 between 9.30am and 5:00pm Monday to Friday.

If your query requires a little bit more research or has some more challenging questions, then you can fill out an online form.

Key publications in our collection

Mark & Angela Fry, On splintered rails : the era of the Tasmanian bush-loco 1873-1974 Volume 1 (Launceston, Tasmania : Mark Fry and Angela Fry, 2017.)

Mark & Angela Fry, On splintered rails : the era of the Tasmanian bush-loco Northwest Coast and Central Coast Volume 2 (Launceston, Tasmania: Mark Fry and Angela Fry, 2020.)

Nick Anchen, Tasmanian Railways 1950-2000 (Melbourne : Sierra Publishing, 2020)

Nick Anchen, Locomotive enginemen of Tasmania (Melbourne : Sierra Publishing, 2016)

Greg Cooper, Grant Goss (compiled by), Tasmanian railways 125 years, 1871-1996 : a pictorial history (Devonport, Tas. : CG Publishing Co., 1996.)

Brian R. Chamberlain, The Launceston and Western Railway Company Ltd., 1867-1904 (Launceston, Tas. : Regal Press, [1985?])

Nick Anchen, Railways of Tasmania’s wild west (Ferntree Gully, Vic. : Sierra Publishing, 2014)

Other resources and research groups

Abt/West Coast Wilderness Railway

“We find a way or make it”

In 2016, the West Coast Wilderness Railway earned an Engineering Heritage International Marker. The former mining line was challenging to build and maintain, but it was once the main route into the rugged Tasmanian West. The railway’s clever construction incorporates the use of an Abt rack and pinion system to help the train up and down steep sections of track.

Gold was discovered in the Lyell area in 1881, and efforts to extract it led to the discovery of copper. It was the wealth to be made in copper that inspired the large industrial mining venture which became The Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company in 1893. The company needed reliable transportation. In a land of boggy tracks and washed-out roads, a railway was the best solution.

The first section of track opened in April 1897, from Queenstown to Teepookana. Construction was completed when the track reached its destination at Regatta Point, near the port town of Strahan, in 1899. The line operated as the Mount Lyell Railway until 1963, when the improved roads took over the mining traffic. Unfortunately, this change came just as tourists were beginning to enjoy taking day trips on the railway.

For three decades journeys on the train through the rainforest were just a fond memory. Then, in 1998, the Federal Government announced funding to rebuild the Abt railway as a tourist attraction. Reconstructing the old track (to new standards) took nearly as much skill and hard work as the initial build. It reopened in 2002 as the West Coast Wilderness Railway and continues to delight visitors with its old-world charm.

Source: Rae, L., 2005. The Abt Railway : Tasmania’s West Coast Wilderness Railway, 5th ed. Harris Print, Burnie, Tasmania.

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