Victoria’s ghost railway stations, decommissioned for low protection, a draw for explorers | So Good News

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Steam trains stopped here once. They stopped and visitors from Geelong or Ballarat got off on their way to the racecourse or the spectacular Lal Lal Falls.

Children hopped along the platform waiting to commute to school, while local farmers popped into the post office that was once part of a busy community hub.

Now the bluestone building is empty and boarded up. Built in 1862 and once staffed by a score of employees, Lal Lal railway station was decommissioned 40 years ago. The trains had already stopped coming three years earlier.

Set up window and door on an old blue stone building
Lal Lal station is quiet and a little eerie, a far cry from its heyday more than a century ago.(ABC Ballarat: Gavin McGrath)

A local asks visitors to be wary of the resident ghost. It is a fitting enough warning… Lal Lal is now what is known as a ghost station.

There were 608 stations and platforms in Victoria in 1940, according to research by the Victorian Railway History Library, housed at the Prahran Mechanics Institute. There are now just 90 across the state’s remaining seven regional rail lines.

Black and white photo of a D class locomotive at the old Ondit railway station in Victoria.
Ondit station, on the Irrewarra to Cressy line, where little evidence of the station remains.(Supplied: ARHS Victoria Collection)

The fate of Victoria’s ghost stations varies greatly. Some were demolished, while others were left to slowly decay.

Others, however, have been saved from that indignity. The complex that was once St Arnaud railway station is now the St Arnaud railery hub, an art gallery. The old Trentham railway station is the Central Highlands town’s visitor information center and a museum.

Restored railway station with cartoonish wooden sculptures of two commuters
The restored Glenrowan station stands as a monument to the Kelly gang’s last stand.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Alice Walker)

There are former stations that have new lives that are arguably more glamorous than when they were still in use. The Timboon station complex is a distillery, while the old Wodonga station is a fashionable social destination.

Old restored railway station converted into a cafe
The disused Glengarry station in Gippsland is now a cafe.(ABC Gippsland: Anne Simmons)

But these are exceptions. Most have just disappeared.

“The [first closed] passenger services on many branch lines as well as the little-used stations on the main lines,” Victorian Railway History Library President Don Barker said.

“Some of these branch lines are still open for freight, especially grain, but passenger services are long gone.”

Decommissioned and vandalized brick station
Quambatook railway station has been closed for more than 40 years.(Delivered: Margaret Jansen)

“The reason is simple. Lack of patronage. Of course, the car [played a part] but it was too expensive to provide a rail service for perhaps a dozen people on the line.

“The big change came in 1981 with something the state government called ‘the New Deal’. They consolidated a lot of the passenger services and that’s when they cut out a lot of stations that had low patronage.

A very weathered railway building
Trawalla railway station was closed to passenger traffic in 1981 as part of the Victorian Government’s New Deal.(ABC Ballarat: Gavin McGrath)

“The new deal sped up services, put catering on the trains and that caused a significant revival, so that was positive, just not for smaller stations.

“I feel very sad about that. As a train person, I think every line should be open.”

Modern V/line trains zoom past an abandoned railway platform.
Trains from Melbourne to Ballarat no longer stop at the decommissioned Gordon station.(ABC Ballarat: Gavin McGrath)

At least for the old Lal Lal station, there will be a happy ending to this story.

While the almost identical station at Yendon was demolished (local historian Kaye Patton suggested the bluestone was sent to the then Ballarat University to be used in gutters), Lal Lal will be treated to a $750,000 refurbishment that will see it used as a community hub, tourist center and a historic steam train stop.

“This has been a community project for 20 years, but the funding is there now and it will finally happen,” explained Friends of the Lal Lal Community Hub group president Sue Witherspoon.

“It’s just a building we didn’t want to lose.”

Abandoned but intact Bluestone railway station
Lal Lal’s ghost station is slated for a new lease of life as a community hub.(ABC Ballarat: Gavin McGrath)

Tracing the past

The history and mystery of old disused railway stations has its own community of dedicated enthusiasts.

Jasmine Jones is a contributor to a Facebook group of abandoned train station explorers.

Women standing under a wooden railway bridge
Jasmine Jones is one of hundreds who explore abandoned railway sites such as abandoned stations and old bridges.(Provided by: Jasmine Jones)

Originally from Lake Boga, now living in Queensland, she visits these ghost stations, takes photos and then shares them with the Abandoned Railways group’s 5,000 followers.

“It was a step-by-step process really. I moved to a new area and literally chased waterfalls and looked at historic sites,” Jones said.

“I kept coming across old rails. I started getting into it and putting up pictures, and then other people started getting into it too.”

Crumbling railway platform along still functional railway line
Burrumbeet railway station building was demolished, but the platform remains.(ABC Ballarat: Gavin McGrath)

Ms Jones said, unlike other rail fans, she was more interested in exploring railway lines and platforms than the trains themselves.

“I haven’t been interested in trains all my life. I’m not a train spotter. To be honest, I’m more in love with the structures than the trains,” she explained.

“My process is a bit weird. I often come across something quite randomly. I drive around a lot and come across a place.

“I have a bit of scouting around to see what’s there and take some pictures.

“Then I usually go home and start investigating. I search the internet, look at old maps, old newspapers and find out a bit more about the history, why it was abandoned, and if there is, for example, a bridge nearby. I then go back, take more photos, look for old photos and take comparative photos.”

Broken window on wooden building.
Abandoned train stations are a window into the past.(ABC Ballarat: Gavin McGrath)

Jones said there was “something creepy about some of these places”.

“Sometimes there are the remains of an old town or an old cemetery nearby. A hundred years ago there were hundreds of people here, three pubs, and now there is nothing.

“I like to sit there and imagine what it looked like back then.”

The history of Victoria’s railways and individual stations is well documented by many voluntary organisations, including the Victorian Railway History Library, Steamrail Victoria, Geelong and the Southwestern Rail Heritage Society, along with many local history groups.

Secretary of the Victorian Railway History Library, Milton Biddle, said they had a selection of volumes entitled Victoria’s railway stations: An architectural study.

“There are five volumes dated 1982. It gives details of each station’s construction date, style and period, builder, contract number and date, current condition and even a plan,” he said.

“If I wanted to find out more after that, I would possibly try the Public Records Office of Victoria, or the State Library.”

A large storage shed in bluestone
A goods shed at the Ballarat East Railway Depot. Ballarat East once had its own station and platform.(ABC Ballarat: Gavin McGrath)

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