August 03, 2019

Full Steam Ahead with Australia's first female steam engineer [video]

Our railway buff, Roderick Eime, travels to Queenstown and meets a special lady aboard Tasmania’s historic West Coast Wilderness Railway.

One of the tourism icons of Tasmania’s rugged and isolated West Coast is the namesake Wilderness Railway. It seems everyone has heard of this famous little railway, but not so many of us have actually ridden these very special rails.

Driven by an ingenious system devised by the Swiss railway engineer, Carl Roman Abt, the line first opened under controversial circumstances in 1892 and ran regular services through the stunning mountain scenery to the mines and dam works until 1963, when road transport superseded the steam infrastructure.

After a period of neglect, the railway was revived as a tourism and heritage attraction after a multi-million dollar renovation and resumed tourism services in 2003. The railway hit another speed bump in 2013, but the ball was picked up by the Tasmanian Government and, after yet more repairs and rehabilitation, reopened along its full 32.5 km length in 2014.

Now sparkling like a new pin, the Abt locomotives chug merrily up the 1 in 15 grade through freshly painted stations at Dubbil Barril, Rinadeena and Lynchford. At Dubbil Barril, the train is reversed on a classic turntable and the entire complement of passengers turn out to watch the spectacle of high-pressure steam and clunking cogs.

As I jostled for position with my camera, I noticed something a bit unusual. One of the overall-clad engineers was a woman. It was hard to tell because she swung the heavy mallet and pushed on the heavy levers just like any bloke, but what gave her away was her massive smile. Here was someone having a ball.

With the engine swung around and reattached to the rolling stock, I introduced myself to Allie Hume, Australia’s only licensed female steam engineer.

“I started off selling tickets and doing commentary and then an opportunity came up to get up on the footplate in 2005,” Allie tells me, casually wiping the grease from her hands, “and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”

Obviously, there’s quite a bit to do to gain a position up the noisy end of the train.

“You start with a boiler ticket and become a fireman to start with, then you need to sit a special exam for this railway to get the next ticket.”

But everyone wants to drive a train, so what did you have to do then?

“To be a driver you need to know what’s called ‘reciprocating steam’, then a few more tests before your final driver’s exam.”

Allie’s no amateur, she’s been on the ‘footplate’ (a flat metal plate that serves as the floor of the cab) for ten years. So did she always wanted to be a train driver?

“My brothers used to have train sets as kids and I was never interested in dolls, so I’d play with them more than the other kids. Later on, I got into high-performance vehicles and racing cars. But it was really just this particular railway that has a special attraction and when the opportunity came up I grabbed it!”

And who can blame her? The West Coast Wilderness Railway is one of those special engineering feats that brings railway enthusiasts from all over the world, and with enthusiasm like Allie’s, it’s always great fun for everyone.

For more information about the WCWR, schedules and pricing, see

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