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Byron Shire
June 20, 2021

The novelty has worn off Byron’s ‘solar’ train

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The Byron Bay Railroad Company claims it clocked up its 10,000th passenger in just 19 days of operation according to an article ‘Solar train sees impressive passenger numbers’ published in the Echo on January 17, 2018.

Four months later the novelty factor seems to have well and truly worn off. I decided to wait for the excitement to die down before giving it a go myself and these are my observations as a customer experiencing the product.

I arrived 5 minutes prior to the 1:00pm departure from North Beach station last Saturday, the 26th of May. I liked the styling and presentation of the facilities and the platform was clean and pleasant. There were 11 passengers waiting including the two of us, 4 of the passengers were toddlers and one was an infant. There was not a single tourist in sight.

The train rolled in on diesel power and two passengers alighted. Although the anticipation of my first ride on the world’s first solar train turned into a bit of a clanger, most tellingly, a Saturday service departing Byron Beach station at 12:45pm arrived at North Beach station with 2 passengers and 98 empty seats!

After that first impression we got on the train, which departed on time, again on diesel power. It really is a beautiful train, lovingly restored and presented in full old-world charm. It was a pleasant journey under sunny skies with a smooth reasonably quiet engine and just a whiff of diesel fumes as we pulled into Byron Beach station.

Surprisingly only 2 adults and 2 toddlers got off, the remainder of the passengers stayed on the train for the return journey. We were then joined by a further 7 adults and a child for the service back to North Beach.

I chatted with the friendly and informative volunteer passenger attendant during the layover at the Byron Beach station and she advised me that there was a technical problem with one of the batteries and that the train had run 3 consecutive return services, that’s why it was running on diesel, not solar power. Ok, so now it’s the cool season and there has been some overcast weather recently and ‘technical issues’ are always a potential issue, still questions should be asked. How frequently does the train run on diesel fuel? What impact do seasons and weather patterns have on the reliability of the ‘world’s first solar train’?

This is not a tourist train, it’s a fun-ride. I wonder how many of the 10,000 passengers in the first 19 days bought return tickets and stayed on the train for the return journey? Did they enjoy a long anticipated novelty then tick it off their to-do list? What other conclusion could we come to to explain such a profound decline in passenger numbers? Clearly, riding the train is the experience, it’s not about getting from point A to point B as evidenced in the behaviour of the majority of my passenger cohort on the day and as indicated in the steep decline in patronage once the experience has been had. Despite it being a cool day at Main Beach, getting rugged up and staring wistfully at the ocean seemed a much more popular activity amongst the tourists than taking a ride on a vintage train powered by the sun but sometimes running on diesel.

Is there any reason why the middle of the day on a Saturday would not be a peak time for the train? There is an additional service wedged into the otherwise on-the-hour timetable at 12:30pmpresumably in anticipation of additional passenger demand at peak hour.

This is not a commuter train. The first service doesn’t depart North Beach until 10:00am, way too late for most workers.  For guests at Elements of Byron however, 10:00am might be an ideal time to start exploring after a sleep-in and a leisurely breakfast.  Last Saturday the roads were busy yet virtually no one took the option of parking at the station and taking the train into town at 1:00pm.

Train supporters implored us to believe that this train would improve traffic flow and would prove to be vital public transport for locals and tourists alike. As it’s turned out, it’s become little more than a charming toy train with an unreliable gimmick. The punters could enjoy a pleasant authentic vintage rail experience if they could be bothered, but it would seem that they could not.

 

 


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5 COMMENTS

  1. What solar Train? Who knows about a solar train? When did this begin?
    Was the premier Gladys Berejiklian up here to open the new train? I don’t think so.
    Did Malcolm Turnbull come and see it?

  2. I think the solar train is great. Not sure what your agenda is making such a long letter trashing it. Personally I very rarely use my car to get into town anymore. It’s a perfect link between Sunrise and the CBD. I think it beats traffic and fighting for parking any day of the week! From memory this is the only technical fault they have had since it started almost 6 months ago. I too was on the train on that same Weekend. The friendly passenger attendant informed me that one of the batteries was not working and they were having to run it on diesel until they could work out a solution.

    It’s interesting because the train has days of huge popularity followed by much quite operation. The recent Beer Festival was held at the Sun Bistro, and the train was going gangbusters! The train was packed in the months around Christmas too. It’s important not to base your whole opinion on one experience.

    • Gary Will is not trashing the train; he is providing a note of realism about the operation. It has been touted by some as a form of sustainable public transport when in reality it is a pleasant tourist trip. Yes some have used to get to a destinations but many more driven to it as a destination. There is nothing wrong with driving to Bayshore Drive to ride the train back and forth – it provides them with enjoyment and the opportunity to experience transport history.

      What the hybrid Elements train does not do at all is provide a basis for the future public transport needs of our area. Battery powered buses that will run on 100% renewables are being trialled in Canberra (as is a hybrid). They are can reliably run for hundreds of kilometres, and are air-conditioned, disabled friendly, carry bikes, being cheaper than any rail unit can provide a more frequent service, and unlike any rail service they can go past the hospital, aged care facilities, campuses and any other employment or other destination transport dependant people are likely to need to visit without a an irksome time consuming change of transport. That is how you provide sustainable public transport to all who need it in our region, not just the minority who happen to live near a rail line.

      As a bonne bouche I would note that the Elements train has always run on solar – if you speak Indonesian. The Indonesian word for diesel is “solar” 🙂 .

    • I say good luck to the train, I really liked the experience and I hope the funding model holds up over time. Perhaps I could have been a little more clear; this solar train, as nice as it is, is not a model for reintroducing wider services on the CM corridor. If anything, it is a demonstration that a train would not be viable on a larger scale. We should all enjoy this train and use it or lose it, it will be the only train we ever get. Governments now and/or in the future will point to the solar train as justification for not putting public money into trains on the CM line. If the train really is the resounding success that you claim, Gary, why isn’t the Byron Bay Railroad Company trumpeting the fact. After a flurry of newsletters they have fallen silent since the end of February. Why would that be if there was a plethora of good news to regale us with?

  3. I just wish the TOOTs and NRRAG supporters would use it instead of driving straight past the Bayshore Drive turnoff that takes you to the Sunrise Station and adding to traffic on Ewingsdale Rd . And don’t try using it if you have an electric wheelchair as you can’t get off or on at the Sunrise Station as the platform is not long enough for the wider access door. I wonder who the dope was that designed the station !

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