Ever since I was a kid I had heard about the Pichi Richi Railway. I had cousins who lived nearby that gloated about their rides, and school mates regaling me with tales from their family holidays. But somehow, my parents’ holiday plans never took us to Quorn. Instead the tables were eventually turned, and a couple of years ago I took my parents to ride the rails and enjoy the fabulous steam trains of the Pichi Richi Railway.
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A Little About the Pichi Richi Railway
The Pichi Richi Railway runs from the small town of Quorn in the Flinders Ranges, around 325km north of Adelaide. It’s historic trains bring back the romance of train travel, as it was in its heyday a century ago.
The name “Pichi Richi” came from the section of track between Port Augusta and Quorn, through the Pichi Rich Pass, which was first opened back in 1879. It was originally part of the main north-south railway line in Australia called the Central Australia Railway as well as the east-west, or Transcontinental, line, making it an important part of the Australian railway network. One of the original trains that ran in this area was called The Afghan Express, which, in the Australian way, was shortened to The Ghan. The luxury passenger train that runs from Adelaide to Darwin today still carries this name. In 1957, regular trains stopped using this section of track and it started to fall into disrepair.
In 1973, the Pichi Richi Railway Preservation Society was set up, and over the years has been restoring various locomotives and railcars to be used for tourism purposes in this area. There was a large section of narrow gauge track that needed to be relaid to allow the trains to run right into the centre of Port Augusta again. Progressively, new trains and sections of track have been brought back into service as they have become ready. The process is ongoing, so there will be even more variety available in the future.
There are now a variety trips made on the Pichi Richi Railway, using different locomotives and carriages. Today’s version of the Afghan Express does return trips from Port Augusta to Quorn train station using locomotives and carriages from the original Ghan back in the 1920s. The shorter Pichi Richi Explorer does a return trip to Woolshed Flat using restored equipment from the early 1900’s. The cute little Coffee Pot train runs only a few times a year, but it includes a meal on this run making it a real experience. This train is the only one of it’s kind left running in the world and I would have loved to have caught a glimpse of it, but alas, she was all tucked up in her rail barn. The fourth kind of train to run on the line is the Barwell Bull, a diesel train from 1928. Towards the beginning and end of the rail seasons, as the days become longer, this diesel engine does some evening tours to view the countryside as the sun goes down. Currently an 830 Class Locomotive is being restored for future trips.
The trains run from March to November, mostly on the weekends, with the exceptions being during school holidays (usually April, July and September) and public holidays. In March and November only the diesel trains run, and even outside of the fire danger season, if it is deemed to still be a high fire danger day, the steam engines will be substituted for diesel. All of the times and prices are included on the Pichi Richi Railway website here. The website is also the place to do your online train ticket booking. Just print the confirmation and take it with you, or tickets can also be bought at the station.
It should be noted that because these carriages were originally built a century ago, wheelchair and pram access is unfortunately not available. Either can be folded and stored during the journey, but passengers must be able to get themselves up some quite steep steps into the carriages.
My Ride on the Pichi Richi Train
I had booked tickets on the Pichi Richi Explorer that would do the return trip from Quorn to Woolshed Flat. We arrived at the Quorn Railway Station about 45 minutes before our train was due to leave and I was surprised to see quite a number of people waiting to get on the train. There was no engine in sight though, so we knew we would have little wait yet. With about thirty minutes to go the engine emerged from the rail yards and hooked up to the carriages, giving us all our first chance to check it out. Many people took this opportunity to get some photos, but as seats are first come, first served, I took a quick snap and made a beeline to the first class carriage, taking our places on the really comfortable cushioned seats.
All the carriages filled up, and there was a small amount of shuffling around as groups tried to stay together. My guess was that the train was close to capacity, which was great to see. In our carriage we had not only Australian’s, but visitors from Canada and England too.
The train left on time and our carriage – and I presume all of the others – had a volunteer conductor on board who told us about the train and various landmarks along the way. He also answered any questions we had too.
The trip to Woolshed Flat takes about 45 minutes as the rattly old steam train chugs along. We passed by landmarks such as Devil’s Peak, stations appropriately named “Summit”, and “Willow’s Halt”, the latter at least has at least one building that is occasionally used for weddings, but the former is simply a sign a t the top of the pass.
I just loved being able to hang out the windows and enjoy the view, and we had the perfect day for it with blue winter skies and mild temperatures. It was still cool enough to spot some of the wildlife who had not yet hidden away in the shade for the day. We saw dozens – if not hundreds – of kangaroos and a handful of emus, some of them quite close to the train. While I have grown up seeing these quite regularly, I always enjoy watching others who are seeing them for the first time and our international visitors were so excited.
We soon arrived at Woolshed Flat and jumped off the train. Honestly, there really isn’t anything here, just an old school house that is now used to served some drinks and snacks to the people on the train when it stops. You will also find toilets here, as there are none in the old carriages (what did they do back then? I hope the train stopped regularly). There were also a few picnic tables so it would be nice to bring your own food and sit and eat here.
While we were stopped, the engine moved to the other end of the train and hooked up again ready for the return journey. There was also a great opportunity for railway enthusiasts, children, or just the curious, to climb up into the locomotive, speak with the train driver and have a look close up at the workings. Since it was school holidays the line was long, so I didn’t have a look, but what a great idea.
After about forty-five minutes, we jumped back on the train for the journey back to Quorn. I spent much of the trip again hanging out the window. I never get bored on trips like this, there is always so much to see. Everything was a little bit dry and brown for this time of the year, as this area, along with much of Australia, is in the middle of one of the worst droughts in history. I can imagine this trip when the area is lush and green, with water flowing in the creeks, and perhaps even some small waterfalls!
We were soon back in Quorn, getting off the train and heading into the station shop to pick up some great local souvenirs. Many of the passengers had a bit more of a look around the train and carriages, and I loved being able to do this. It was so refreshing to be allowed to move freely around, as often access would be roped off or restricted, but here common sense was allowed to prevail. It was also nice the see the visitors respect that, and behave appropriately.
Overall I really enjoyed this step back in time. I am not a train enthusiast, I have no idea about the technical details of the train, I just loved getting on, enjoying the sound the wheels make on the tracks and the toot of the horn. It made for a great day out.
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Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred. She has lived in the state for almost her whole life, just one short stint away as a teenager with her family. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.