The Rails is arguably Byron Bay’s most iconic and well-known place to eat and drink, keeping its ‘real Byron’ character, and live music, thanks to its owner, longtime publican Tom Mooney.
By: Vivienne Pearson
Tom Mooney’s life started near a railway line: ‘I grew up in the worst house in the only street on the wrong side of the tracks,’ he says.
These days, Tom, business owner, Byron Bay enthusiast and former professional rugby player, spends much of his time on the ‘right side of the tracks’ – in a pub he owns that is located alongside the Byron Bay railway line.
Tom moved from his hometown of Wauchope to this part of NSW in 1970, when he joined the first intake of teacher trainees in Lismore, and met his future wife and business partner, Cathryn.
Happily, his marriage lasted longer than his teaching career. Three years after moving to Sydney to teach, the business world called and Tom started a transport business. ‘It was in the heart of the Sydney rag trade,’ he recalls.
These endeavours all took place alongside a rugby career, as this was an era before high-level sportspeople were paid a full-time professional wage. During his 10-year career, Tom played for South Sydney and Manly.
Moving to Byron Bay was a big decision. ‘I could have played football for two more years but I was insecure about going backwards. I wanted my children to grow up in the country,’ he reflects.
Tom and Cathryn bought The Railway Hotel, always better known as ‘The Rails’, when trains still ran on the tracks outside the door. Though nostalgic for these times, Tom saw the writing on the wall with the arrival of cheap airline travel, so was not surprised that the train service ended. He would like to see a rail-trail conversion, though isn’t optimistic it will happen anytime soon.
Tom and Cathryn have other businesses, but The Rails is where he feels most at home. He is quick to credit his wife as being the mainstay of their business success, and is full of praise for their staff, saying: ‘You can’t run a good business without good people’. He gets real joy out of seeing staff move onwards and upwards to their own ventures.
He also gets a buzz out of having been a stepping-stone on the way up for many of the musicians who have played at the Rails over the decades. ‘I think I’m right that we’re the only place in Australia that can say we’ve had live music every night since 1982,’ he proudly but modestly says.
At 64, despite some business failures and tough times, Tom feels very fortunate. Retirement is not on the horizon. His two children, Hannah and Luke, both live locally (Hannah is the current licensee of The Rails) and he is grandfather to five young children (or ‘Grandang’, as the youngest likes to call him).
Thanks to his work, family, and community, Tom has no plans to head off the rails any time soon.