• Janice

Travel Queensland by Rail: Great Barrier and the Whitsundays

Updated: 1 day ago

Australia Rail Station and Train Bowen Station
Spirit of Queensland at Bowen Station Photo Jono

Queensland trains offer a fantastic ecotourism experience by connecting to outstanding natural attractions in Australia! Rail is how to see the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays. Travel inland for an 'Outback' tour.

Go for my 10 top destinations!

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Queensland is the northernmost state of Australia, which stretches from the temperate subtropical climate of the Gold Coast to the steamy wet tropics and on to the northern tip of Australia. To the west lies the dry inland regions known as 'the outback'.

Queensland Rail Explorer Pass

Queensland Rail offers a variety of long-distance travel pass options to tourists visiting Australia. We purchased a two-month Explorer Pass that covers the 1681 km between Brisbane and as far north as Cairns plus three westward inland services. Thanks to the flexible nature of the Explorer Pass we based much of our stay in Bowen taking trains north and south up and down the lines.

Rail passes are a Hop-on Hop-off service that allows passengers to choose where and how long they stay at each destination. The explorer pass offers unlimited travel in either direction on the long-distance lines. A free coach service, known as the railbus, connects with the train to further destinations at several stations. The 35 stations between Brisbane and Cairns and 50 plus inland stations ensure lots of things to do and places to see.

Queensland Long Distance Rail Network

Backpacker, Budget or First Class Travel

Passengers on some trains can book either economy or first class seats. At a base price of $389.00 per person, an Explorer Pass offers economy travel suitable for budget travellers and backpackers. Backpackers often use an Explorer Pass as the main form of transport for a backpacker tour. Backpackers also book the hostel accommodation and public transport close to most of Queensland's train stations.

For the first class experience, onboard the Spirit of Queensland and the Spirit of the Outback, upgrade to first class harking back to the days of luxury rail travel. At your destination book a lovely ecolodge or hotel.

Top 10 Rail Destinations


6 Places to Visit Between Brisbane and Cairns

I have compiled a sample itinerary with seamless rail links to my favourite Queensland destinations. Destinations are in order of travel. Happy Travels!

1. Noosa Beach …

Leg: Brisbane to Cooroy Station - 2 hrs - North

  • Depart Roma Street Station at 11 am onboard the Tilt train.

  • Arrive at Cooroy Station at 12.58 pm

  • Private transport to Noosa Beach is to be arranged independently of QR.

2. Hervey Bay and Fraser Island ...
Lake McKenzie Frazer Island Photo Derek

Leg: Cooroy Station to Maryborough West Station - 2 hr 45 mins - North

  • Depart from Cooroy station, at 12.58 am, on board the Tilt Train.

  • Arrive at Maryborough West Station at 2.40 pm.

  • Depart Maryborough West Station, at 2.45 pm, aboard the Rail Bus (included in the Rail Pass) to Hervey Bay. Arrive at the Urangan bus stop at 3.45 pm.

  • Five-minute walk to resorts.

  • Passage to Fraser Island to be arranged independently of QR.

3. Airlie Beach and Whitsunday Islands …
Whitsunday Island

Leg: Maryborough West Station to Proserpine - 10 hrs 30 mins - North

  • Railbus from Urangan Stop.

  • Depart from Marlborough West Station at 7.29 pm on board the Spirit of Queensland - upgrade to a rail bed recommended

  • Arrive at Proserpine Station at 6.22 am

  • Depart Proserpine Station at 6.30 am aboard the railbus to Airlie Beach.

  • Passage to the Whitsundays to be arranged independently of QR.

4. Bowen - Beaches, Farm to Table Dining and Outback Experience …
Horseshoe Bay Bowen Photo Derek

Leg: Proserpine to Bowen 1 hr North

  • Depart Airlie beach onboard the Rail Bus to Proserpine Station

  • Depart Proserpine Station at 6.32 am on board the Spirit of Queensland

  • Arrive at Bowen Station at 7.09 am

  • Arrange transport to town independently of QR

Green Island Great Barrier Reef
5. Cairns - the Great Barrier Reef, Rain Forests and Kuranda Historic Rail ...

Leg: Bowen to Cairns - 9 hrs - North

  • Depart Bowen Station at 7.09 am on board the Spirit of Queensland

  • Arrive at Cairns Central Station at 4.30 pm

  • HInt -backpackers and luxury hotel accommodations are within an easy walk.

  • Kuranda train departs Central Station and is booked independently of QR

Koala wild life experience Magnetic Island
Koala Magnetic Island photo Janice

6. Townsville and Magnetic Island - Natural History Museums, Koalas, Wildlife and Coral Snorkelling...

Leg: Cairns to Townsville 4 hrs South

  • Depart Cairns Central Station at 8.35 am on board the Spirit of Queensland.

  • Arrive at Townsville Station at 2.39 pm

Climbing the staircase to the Pandora Wreck at Museum of tropical Queensland
Museum of Tropical Queensland - Townsville

7. Eungella National Park - Viewing Platypus in the Wild Rainforest Environment
Post card with platypus image on stamp
Platypus Graphic Janice

Leg: Townsville to MacKay, 3 hrs 30 mins, South.

  • Depart Townsville station at 2.54 pm onboard the Spirit of Queensland.

  • Arrive at Mackay Station at 7.36 pm.

  • Private transport or an organised tour is required to reach the park from Mackay. This is to be arranged independently of QR

8. Brisbane - Natural History Museums and MacArthur War Museum …

Leg: Mackay to Brisbane, overnight, 'rail bed' recommended

  • Depart Mackay station at 7.56 pm

  • Arrive at Roma Street Station at 9.20 am

9. Gold Coast - begin or end travel from the Gold Coast Airport

Leg: Gold Coast to Brisbane - 45 mins - North or South

  • Depart or Arrive at Robina Station aboard the G Train (at no charge if on the same day as 1. or 8. above).

  • Arrive or Depart at Roma Street Station

Places to Visit in the Outback Onboard Queensland Rail

10. Charleville - Observatory for sun and star gazing, a Bilby experience and Date Farm …

Welcome to Charleville

Leg: Brisbane to Charleville, return, is 18 hours one way and departs from Roma Street Station. In addition, a rail bus connects to Quilpie and Cunnumulla. Economy seating is the only travel option and the train itself is a little rundown. Despite this Charleville is one of my favourite stops on our journey.

Mt Isa - Fossil sites and tourist mine experience. Still on my wish list,

Leg: Townsville to Mt Isa Return

Longreach - Home of Qantas

Leg: Rockhampton (known as Rocky) to Longreach. Still on my wish list.

Planning & Booking Queensland Rail Pass

Passengers travelling on a rail pass are responsible for making their train bookings including rail bus transfers. Queensland Rail's customer service, provides fast and efficient processing, issuing tickets onboard their trains and railbuses. Customer service does not extend to itinerary building. For example, passengers are responsible for booking exactly the stops connecting with the transport and accommodation they arrange.

My Booking Experience: Initially, an international phone call to Australia was required to pre-purchase our Explorer Rail pass with a credit card payment. At least one leg of booked travel was required to qualify for the pass. An email itinerary was sent out that contained a reference number to use for future bookings and queries. Following the booking, I was free to email or call to book future train trips.

Upgrades to first class on board the Spirit of Queensland and onboard the Inlander are in short supply and need to be booked months in advance. I spent a lot of time planning this travel and I have created the printable aid below in the planning tools section.

Planning tools:

Queensland rail timetable

Queensland Rail email: reservations@qr.com.au

Queensland Rail phone: 1800 872 467 within Australia or +61 7 3606 6630 international.

Ticketing Offices: Book in person at the major train stations in Queensland. Proof of overseas residence is required to qualify for certain rail passes.

Janice's Printable Rail Trip Planning Aid:

Queensland Rail Planning Aid
Download PDF • 625KB

Queensland Rail Explorer Pass Fact Sheet:

Queensland Explorer Pass
Download PDF • 169KB

Inside Queensland Long Distance Trains

The Ride: The Spirit of Queensland covers the lines between Brisbane and Cairns. Derek tracked a range of speeds. Some of the lines are smooth and fast with the train moving along at over 100 km per hour. I used my laptop and read comfortably during our trips onboard the Spirit of Queensland. However, a feature of travel is the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails.

The Tilt train covers the line between Brisbane and Rockhampton at speeds of up to 160 km per hour. The ride is smooth and relaxing with reading and drawing a great way to pass the time.

We only ventured on one of the inland services, the Westlander, which is a much slower train and the line is rattly. Despite this, our trip to Charleville onboard the Westlander is one of my most enjoyable of all travel.

At night the lights in the carriages are turned off. However, some disturbances occur for instance lights and chimes from level crossings penetrate the carriage. This did not detract from my overall enjoyment of my rail journey but is something to consider when booking.

Seating Arrangments: Economy seating is similar on all trains. I find the economy seats spacious and comfortable for day travel, especially when compared to coach or airline seats. We travelled in economy carriages that have two double rows of seating. Economy seating features a reclining function, a pullout tray, charging facilities and a footrest. Individual movie screens are a feature of the Spirit of Queensland.

First-class onboard the Spirit of Queensland pod-style seating, that converts to a bed and first-class-only bathrooms. The pod seats feature individual screens, power points, charging facilities, trays with cup holders, and a reading light. Couples and sole travellers are catered for with one side of the carriage having double rows of pods while the other has a single row of pods.

Onboard Meals: Depending on the service meals and drinks are delivered to seated passengers via trolley service. The Spirit on Queensland and the Tilt train offer a Café carriage serving snacks, basic hot food and drinks. Most of the hot food is either fast food or in a TV dinner style.

Bathroom Facilities: The bathrooms onboard the Spirit of Queensland and the Tilt are spacious self-contained rooms that include a loo, washbasin and shower. The location of the bathroom, at the end of the carriage, and a sign to indicate when the room is available, add to ease of use.

Upgrades to First Class: First class onboard the Spirit of Queensland is akin to business class airline travel. Carriages within the train are dedicated to first class with stewards looking after passenger comfort. For an extra $127 AU, I purchased a pod seat that converted to a 'rail bed', meals and a glass of wine. Bathroom arrangements remain the same as for the economy option but exclusive to first-class passengers. Although not as exclusive as a private sleeper I found these first-class pod seats come rail beds at a comfort level above the economy carriages. See below for the nighttime experience.

First Class onboard the Spirit of the Outback is a private sleeper arrangement with a dining car. This option was sold out during our travel period.

Luggage Allowance on Queensland Rail: Checked-in luggage is strictly 20 kg or less per item with one item per person. It may be possible to organise additional checked-in luggage for a fee. Overhead lockers are available for carry-on items and carriages have a fenced-off area to self-stow luggage.

Note: prices and schedules are indicative please contact Queensland rail for up-to-date information.

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