A trip on the Victorian Colonial Express is a journey back in time to the goldrush days when thousands of people made the trip from Melbourne to Castlemaine and Maldon in the hope of striking it rich.
Whilst the original 1800s train carriages turn what would be a smooth 16-minute car trip into a rattling hour-long journey on hard wooden seats, they were considered to be the height of luxury during the goldrush, according to Victorian Goldfield Railways volunteer Andrew Key.
‘Maldon had only a couple of hundred people when gold was first discovered there in 1853. By the end of that first week, the population had risen to 6,000, and it went up 6,000 people a week for six weeks. If you weren’t rich, it would take you a week to walk here from Melbourne or you could get the train up in half a day, and it had the roof to keep off the sun and windows to keep out the rain and the wind. The wooden seats weren’t so comfortable, but they’re probably better than spending a week walking in the bush.’
The railways were a gamechanger in other ways; at a point when few knew what the time was with any degree of accuracy, people literally set their watch by the train.
‘You could see it was daytime or sunrise or sunset, but you didn’t really know if it was at nine o’clock or 11 o’clock. Some wealthy people had pocket watches, but they lose time over a period of days until gradually, once again, you don’t know what the time is,’ Andrew says.
‘But before the trains set out from Melbourne, at 10.30 every morning they got a call from the Observatory to tell them what the time was, and they set the time on all the guards pocket watches and on all the trains.’
As the train passed through the stations en route, the guard would let people know the time.
The train line also spread the latest technology to the regions.
‘The railway brought the telegraph to towns along the line, and then the next evolution was the phone. Once people saw the railway using phones, they wanted them, so the phone system spread out.’
Castlemaine’s rail line from Melbourne, which opened in 1862, continues to function as part of the V/Line service to Bendigo but a combination of bushfire damage and falling patronage saw VicRail close the branch line to Maldon in 1976.
Within the month, prompted by fears that a significant part of Victoria’s history was about to be lost, history and rail enthusiasts began efforts to reinstate the Maldon branch line. The formation of the not-for-profit Victorian Goldfields Railway led efforts to gradually restore and reopen the section, with the line officially reopened in 2005.
Now, thanks to the hard work of volunteers like Andrew, about 25,000 passengers a year are able to experience the historic journey in a variety of restored carriages and engines. A return service is run twice a week with additional special services held regularly, including the 1800s ‘Colonial Express’ service that ran for Heritage Week, and trips featuring beer tastings or a screening of Murder on the Orient Express.
Victorian Goldfields Railway
Adult one-way tickets from $37
Regular service Wednesday and Sunday, departing Castlemaine at 11.30am
Check for additional/special services
Article written by Kate Robertson for the 2023 Australian Heritage Festival