The rail trail passion

Unrealised potential: the trestle bridge at Pyalong could be one of the attractions along the new rail trail

Unrealised potential: the trestle bridge at Pyalong could be one of the attractions along the new rail trail. Photo: Helen Cronin

Ask any fan why they’re so excited by rail trails and they’ll probably give you three reasons. There are no cars. It’s a peaceful and quiet way to explore the countryside. You’re riding through history.

For some the longer the trail, the better. People will travel from all over the state, the country and even from overseas to ride a good trail. The O’Keefe rail trail has the potential to become one of those tourism drawcards – if it’s extended some 100 km all the way to Kilmore.

Imagine hopping on the train to Bendigo with your bike and panniers. You have a look around the town, eat dinner in a local restaurant, and stay in a backpackers’ hostel or the Bishop’s Court B&B. Next day you pedal on through Axedale, past the ghost of Lake Eppalock and on through state forest to Heathcote. Here you can explore Pink Cliffs, check out the wineries and stop for the night. On the bike again, you visit Tooborac then Pyalong with its magnificent trestle bridge, down through more forest and finally to Kilmore. You’ll definitely need to refuel in a local bakery before looking around this historic town. Then you might stop the night before hopping on the train at Kilmore East to return home.

But this gets even better. The Goulburn River High Country Rail Trail will one day take you 134 km from Tallarook (not far north of Kilmore) to Mansfield. It’s just received $13 million dollars as part of the effort to rebuild communities in the Mitchell, Murrundindi and Mansfield shires devastated by the bush fires. A network of reinvigorated trails like this is a prospect that sends rail trail fans rushing to pack their panniers in anticipation.

The current 19 km long O’Keefe trail is only a small part of the railway line built by Irish immigrant, Andrew O’Keefe between 1887 and 1888. The Heathcote to Sandhurst line was his first successful construction tender. After 21 months and 50 bridges, O’Keefe’s own engine, “Sue”, hauled the first passenger train to Heathcote in July 1888.

O’Keefe’s project was only one section of the Wandong to Bendigo line that was itself part of an explosion of the railways following the Victorian 1884 Railway Construction Act. Log onto Google Earth and you can trace the route as clearly as if trains still steamed along the rails carrying timber and agricultural products.

Trails like the Murray to Mountains, which runs 100 km from Wangaratta to Bright, were once simply ghosts like this. The fears of local landholders that walkers and touring cycles would be detrimental to their properties and privacy have long been assuaged. There are gated sections where livestock still graze – it helps keep the weeds down. Trail tourists tend to be the sort of people who are happy to respect a gate and close it. Beyond the odd excited conversation, they’re generally a quiet lot too. But they do bring substantial economic benefits.

Associate Professor Sue Beeton of La Trobe University has been studying the economic effects of rail trails since 2003. Her 2006 study of the Murray to Mountains trail over the Easter weekend concluded that it brought $2,300,000 to the local economy and created the equivalent of 21 full-time jobs.

The 150 km long Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand attracts domestic and international riders. It now supports accommodation, bike hire and bike tour businesses that simply didn’t exist before the trail was developed.

This is the potential of a Bendigo-Kilmore trail. It would be a fabulous recreational facility for local communities and provide a new link between towns along the route. It could also become a stunning and sustainable tourist attraction.

Every successful rail trail started because local communities got excited about the potential. They let local and state governments know they wanted it. They found the evidence to demonstrate the potential return on the investment. They got the local landholders involved from the start.

The Friends of the Bendigo-Kilmore Rail trail are just starting on this journey. If you’re excited by the prospect of a world class trail through central Victoria let us know. See our web site at or contact us at bendigokilmorerailtrail@gmail.com.

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