Will Jeffery, Nimbin.
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.