I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published November 19th 2020
All steamed up in the Goldfields
The Victorian Goldfields Railway provides an intriguing link to the States gold rush history around the city of Castlemaine and the township of Maldon, both the scene of rich strikes at the very centre of the world's greatest ever gold rush. And in November 2020, the really good news is that, with Victoria emerging from Covid restrictions, the Victorian Goldfields Railway, one of the State's great tourist attractions, is getting back on track and slowly returning to business as usual.
VGR's magnificently restored J-Class steam locomotive J549 is seen here near Muckleford on the Maldon - Castlemaine line. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The historic Goldfields Railway is based on the remnants of a branch line which ran from Castlemaine on the main Melbourne to Bendigo line, to Maldon. It was opened on 16th June 1884 and originally carried two trains five days a week, quickly increasing to three return trips a day. In 1891, a 10 mile (16 kilometre) extension to Shelbourne was opened with a daily service.
Although passenger trains were suspended during World War 2, services continued to Shelbourne until 1970 and to Maldon until 1976.
Passenger services on this stretch of line ended in 1976 and it was taken over by a group of volunteers intent on turning it into a tourist attraction. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The closing of the line was quickly followed by the formation of the Castlemaine & Maldon Railway Preservation Society, a group of enthusiasts and local residents who immediately set about acquiring the line, suitable rolling stock and the necessary government approvals to allow for the establishment of a tourist railway.
Ten years of restoration work and the acquisition of additional rolling stock saw a partial reopening of the line by Easter 1986 with the official opening ceremony conducted by the noted historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey on 29th March. Day one of the operation was a strictly limited affair with only a little more than one kilometre of track available and the engine pushing carriages out from Maldon and pulling them back.
Maldon was one of Victoria's rich 19th-Century goldfields. Today it's an historic township classified by the National Trust and served by the Victorian Goldfields Railway. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
It was 1996, before the track was open to Muckleford and December 2004, before the first Victorian Goldfields Railway train reached Castlemaine.
Today the VGR maintains 15 kilometres of track, an impressive array of steam and diesel locomotives, rail-motors, rail-tractors and passenger & goods vehicles.
From November 29th, VGR will operate its steam train on a single service each Sunday from Castlemaine to Maldon and return – just a glimmer of the pre-Covid schedule but undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
The current restricted time-table is just a stepping stone for the VGR to get back up and running at full steam. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The service departs Castlemaine at 11.30 AM and Maldon at 2.45 PM, giving passengers a bit over 2 hours to explore the historic township of Maldon and enjoy lunch in one of the town's pubs or cafes.
Because of on-going restrictions VGR has implemented a series of steps aimed at ensuring the health & safety of its team members and passengers alike.
1. All travel must be pre-booked – bookings are not available
on the day of travel.
2. One-way trips are not currently available.
3. Seating will be allocated.
4. Bookings of up to six people from the one household or
Covid-Bubble will be allocated exclusive use of a
compartment. An extra compartment will be allocated for
bookings of more than 6 people.
5. If you want to redeem a voucher you will need to make a
request at least 48-hours prior to your time of intended
6. The courtesy bus is not able to operate at Maldon so
passengers will need to walk into town, an easy 1.5-
kilometres from the station.
A return ticket costs Adults $50 Excursion Class or $70 First Class, Concession $45 Excursion Class or $65 First Class, Children (4 to 16 years) $20 Excursion Class or $65 First Class and a Family (2A 3C) $110 Excursion Class only.
With limited seats available on a very limited time-table you'll need to get in quickly to enjoy the history and heritage of the Victorian Goldfields Railway. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The Victorian Goldfields Railway provides visitors with a fabulous insight into 19th-century Victorian rail transport and a stepping stone to the rich history of the central goldfields.
Post–Covid the return of this unique attraction, even with a very limited time-table, is a great opportunity for Victorians to enjoy the romance of steam travel and get behind the State's regional tourism industry, helping it on to bigger and better things.
Getting There .....
Castlemaine is 129-kilometres northwest of Melbourne, about a 90-minute drive via the Calder Freeway/M79.
Cost:A current restricted time-table return ticket coasts Adults $50 Excursion Class or $70 First Class, Concession $45 Excursion Class or $65 First Class, Children (4 to 16 years) $20 Excursion Class or $65 First Class and a Family (2A 3C) $110 Excursion