The iconic Cockatoo Run is one of Australia’s great railway tours – a ‘must do’ for rail enthusiasts around the world. Our journey today will take us winding through the timeless scenery of the 55,000-hectare Royal National Park before following the Illawarra coastline to Unanderra, turning then inland and making a spectacular climb up the Illawarra Escarpment through rainforests, past waterfalls, the Summit Point lookout, historic Robertson and the serene rolling hills of the Southern Highlands. The train takes its name from the flocks of Black Cockatoos that in days past could be seen in large numbers during the climb from Unanderra to Summit Tank – these gave rise to the nickname among railwayfolk which soon spread.
Enjoy your trip, and please refer to the map and notes below throughout the journey for a bit of added information and history!
Illawarra Line: Sydney to Unanderra
Departing from Sydney Terminal (Central) at 9:06am, the Cockatoo Run travels through industrial and suburban Sydney to a pick-up stop at Hurstville then drops down to cross the Georges River at Como, running beside the disused Gauntlet Bridge (formerly a rail bridge notable for carrying two overlapping tracks to avoid the need for points at either end, now used by pedestrians and cyclists) before making the climb to Sutherland for another quick passenger pick up.
About 2km further along the Loftus Tram Museum appears on the left, where the railway briefly runs parallel to the preserved tramway – both lines then branch off in separate directions into the 55,000 hectare Royal National Park. Established in 1879, this is the second oldest National Park in the world to the Yosemite National Park in America, and earned its ‘Royal’ title following a visit by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954. The train now meanders through National Park land all the way to the coast at Stanwell Tops, and between Helensburgh and Otford you will see a line branch left to the Metropolitan Colliery. This colliery has been in operation for more than 130 years, and according to the British Royal Navy, produces the best steaming coal in the world.
Soon after leaving Stanwell Park, our train crosses a viaduct (Australia’s tallest at 100m) which was constructed in 1920 from 500,000 house bricks, as there was insufficient steel but a surplus at the State Brickworks in Homebush Bay, later the site of the Olympic Stadium. To the left across the valley is Bald Hill, the site used by Sir Lawrence Hargraves for his early flight experiments using box kites. The railway line then passes through a tunnel and rounds to the right where the most spectacular moment of the journey presents itself as Stanwell Beach and the Tasman Sea come into view on the left, delivering a wonderful vista from the train’s high vantage point. On calm days during the right season, it may even be possible to see whales breaching!
Approaching Coalcliff, disused coke ovens may be seen on the right in addition to a large stockpiling area for coal, which was once used to make coke for the Port Kembla Steelworks. Immediately after passing these, the line enters the single-track Coalcliff tunnel, 999 metres long and perfectly straight – looking back you can indeed see the light at the end of the tunnel! Between Thirroul (where the train stops to pick up Illawarra passengers) and Bulli, you will see an overhead bridge cross the line. This bridge originally carried coal trains from the Excelsior and Old Bulli Mines to the Bulli Jetty, where their contents were loaded onto collier ships for transfer to Sydney for both gas manufacture and power generation – the bridge has since been converted for road use. Similar privately operated rail lines once ran from Coalcliff, Scarborough, Austinmer and Corrimal to individual jetties. The trip then continues through industrial and residential areas to the city of Wollongong, where local passengers join us for the trip to Robertson and Moss Vale.
Illawarra Mountain Railway: Unanderra to Robertson and Moss Vale
From Wollongong the train travels south to Unanderra where it branches off the mainline and starts the ascent of the Illawarra Escarpment to Summit Tank – look out for the remaining Black Cockatoos! With an average gradient of 1-in-30 over 17km, this climb is a contender for the steepest in NSW. After 10km the dual lines reduce to single track at Dombarton, and remains as such until reaching the Main Southern Line at Moss Vale, with the exception of a handful of passing loops. After Dombarton the train passes through a number of ‘snow sheds’ (tunnels which are left open on one side to deflect falling rocks after heavy rain) – after the first of these, a spectacular waterfall may be seen on the right following rainfall. A short while later, we cross a picturesque curved viaduct with a sheer drop to the right hand side of the train – don’t look down!
At the end of the major uphill climb we stop at Summit Tank, where passengers are encouraged to disembark and view the Illawarra Valley from the spectacular Summit Point lookout (weather permitting). The only access to this lookout is by rail – both it and the platform were especially built for the first 3801 Limited Cockatoo Run in 1995, and are maintained by Wollongong Rotary. In the days of steam, a ‘bank engine’ attached at Wollongong to assist with the uphill climb would be disconnected here while the train engine took on water (from the tank which gave the stop its name) before continuing its journey. The bank engine would then be turned on the turntable, watered and prepared to assist with braking for the next train heading back downhill to Wollongong. Please note we may stop in the passing loops at Summit Tank and/ or Mount Murray to allow opposing trains to pass.
Twenty minutes along from Summit Tank we find Mount Murray’s passing loop and abandoned station, with a further half hour taking us to the Robertson Heritage Railway Station and Museum. Just before Robertson the train passes Ranleagh House, built in 1924 as a hotel and serving variously since as a monastery, RAAF training centre, girls’ school and retirement home. Today it is again a hotel and convention centre. Passengers can alight at Robertson for approximately 2 hours for a leisurely meal at one of many locations in town, or else may continue with the train to Moss Vale where the train is turned and reversed into the station – please note however that there is not sufficient time here for a sit-down lunch!
The scenic Cockatoo Run was initially a service operated by what was then known as State Rail during the 1980s. At that time, many Black Cockatoos inhabited the trees on the escarpment along the climb from Unanderra to Summit Tank and could often be seen on the tracks feeding on grain which had spilled from passing trains, leading to the christening of the service among railwayfolk as the Cockatoo Run. Unfortunately it is now unusual to see many cockatoos during the trip as they have subsequently resettled closer to the city – they have clearly developed an appreciation for domesticated living and the higher echelons of the real estate market in the intervening years!
By the early 1990s, State Rail were looking for a new operator to take over the service as a tourist train, and in stepped 3801 Limited. The rest, as they say, is history – the service has proven a mainstay of the company’s operations ever since, having operated formally under the Cockatoo Run name since its relaunch on 19th August 1995. It has since become well known and loved under the name once coined as a colloquialism!