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Back On Track: The Scenic Railway

One of Australia’s oldest and most visited tourist attractions is about to be unveiled after a $30M makeover, Owen Lynch speaks with the design team

Back On Track: The Scenic Railway


August 8th, 2012

In the 134 years that the Scenic Railway site in Katoomba, Australia, has been in operation, it has spent nearly 70 of those celebrated as one of Australia’s most successful tourist attractions.

Perched on the edge of a vast World Heritage listed National Park in the Blue Mountains, the railway was originally built in 1878 to transport coal miners to the valley floor.

Since conversion to a tourist attraction in 1945, four trains have rattled up and down the 310m track, carrying in excess of 25 million passengers safely.

A $30million overhaul is currently underway that will see a new train, two new stations and extensive rebuilding of corral, interpretive infrastructure and ticketing facilities at either end of the line.

PMDL have been have been working closely and holistically with the Hammon Family, the operators of the attraction, for nearly 15 years.

“Since the inception of the masterplan, PMDL has formed a close working relationship with the Hammon family, as well as the other members of the design team, which has been fundamental to the success of the staged development over time. The key has been to build on the strengths and history of the site, exposing the machinery and operations, as a true, real, working site…” says Practice Director Peter Doddrell.

As an iconic attraction, the site is steeped in historical significance and demanded a great deal of sensitivity in re-interpreting it for a contemporary audience.

“…we have worked with simple materials such as steel, stone and timber, building on the ’industrial’ nature of the site and its coal mining history. At every opportunity we have made sure that visitors are connected to each part of the site, the moving parts and machinery, whilst respecting the heritage landscape.”

Not for the faint-hearted, the train journey is experienced at quite some speed on a 52° incline. Even for its time, the railway was a remarkable feat of engineering that to this day holds the title of ’The World’s Steepest’.

Conscious of the tricky site limitations and ever-changing weather conditions, we asked Mr Doddrell what the greatest challenges were that the design team faced:

“The biggest challenge has been to meet current engineering and safety standards without losing the character and feel of the site. We liken the redevelopment of the site to being more “Alien” than “Star Wars”…. Even the new train has been developed with this in mind and incorporates the latest technology whilst retaining the excitement of the old ride.” He elaborates: “Wherever possible we have seized the opportunity to reinforce the essence of “being on the edge”, through planning and placement of structure, height and views.”

As the beauty of the natural environment is the primary draw card for the precinct, Doddrell explains how the cultural expansion in local tourism has resulted in an inclusive design proposal.

“The site needs to cater for all visitors regardless of origin and to that end the game has been to make the site speak for itself, without too much need for signage.  Design of tourist facilities is much more than addressing the needs of the visitor. It needs to respect the environment, the staff and the neighbours, as well as provide a unique experience that people share after leaving. Scenic World provides the opportunity to bring together “nature” and the “industrious nature of man” in a single setting, and this provides attraction and messages to all.”

The completed Scenic Railway refurbishment will be unveiled in December 2013.



Scenic World


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