Neil Manson, Rainforest Rattler

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Neil Manson is a driver on the Rainforest Rattler – a vintage diesel powered train that runs to and from the Coffs Harbour Railway Station during the summer holiday season. Passing a diverse range of scenery, including coastline, rainforest, rural hinterland, urban landscapes and historic tunnels, the Rattler is a unique and special attraction for the Coffs Coast. We spoke to Neil about his experience with trains and the railway and what he loves most about driving the vintage train.

Hi Neil. How did the Rainforest Rattler come to be on the Coffs Coast? 

The Coffs Coast is almost a perfect storm for heritage trains; we have a city with a large enough population to create a viable market and have a large tourist population to ensure an almost unlimited market. We have some of the most beautiful scenery in NSW, only a few minutes from a railway station that is smack bang in the middle of our busy tourist precinct! In a one hour trip, travellers can experience coastal heath, coastal littoral rainforest, coastal estuaries, rainforest, five historic hand built tunnels, rural hinterland and urban landscapes.

How did you become involved with the Rainforest Rattler?

I am a diesel fitter by trade and naturally interested in all things mechanical. I first joined Lachlan Valley Railway (LVR) after meeting some of the volunteers when they were working a steam train out of Coffs Harbour. Most of my time is spent maintaining their steam locomotives. Steam is my passion, but it has limitations, such as only running in the winter months, and on a steam train only a few of us are in the driver’s cab at a time – so we don’t interact as much with our passengers. The Rainforest Rattler is a diesel powered rail motor, so we can run all year round and as the driver’s cabin is located in the carriage, we can interact with passengers and share. As a Coffs local, I could see the huge potential a heritage train had running during Coffs Harbour’s peak holiday season. Numbers were crunched and it looked viable, so last year we trialled a short season, that was successful, and this year’s longer season was also very successful, with all tours selling out – so next year, with lessons learnt, we will most likely extend our season further to meet demand.

Can you tell us a bit about the train? How old is it? How fast does it go?

The Rattler is actually three vintage railmotors coupled together. These were the first diesel trains built by NSW Railways as a low cost alternative to steam trains for remote areas with small populations, where it was too expensive to send a steam train a long distance with only a few passengers. At almost 100 years old, it is remarkable that they are still running – let alone carrying thousands of people every year. The Rattler’s three 150 horsepower engines give us a total of 450 horsepower for a 75 tonne train; by rail standards, this is a very high power to weight ratio and while these trains were capable of high speeds, today’s safety regulations restrict our maximum speed to 80 kph.

How many passengers can it take at a time? 

In 1923 the Rattler could carry 120 passengers. Today, the average Australian is larger than we were almost 100 years ago, so for comfort and to allow for picnic baskets and nursed kids, we limit tickets to 90. 

Where does the Rainforest Rattler run? 

All trips depart and return from Coffs Harbour Railway Station; we are extremely grateful for the assistance station staff offer us on what is a considerable addition to their daily workload. 

We have three main trips, with all trips firstly running south to Bonville Creek; Beaches And Tunnels goes as far north as just past the last of the five Red Hill Tunnels; Beaches and Coramba runs past the Red Hill Tunnels and extends into the Orara Valley to Coramba; the Hinterland Picnic Train continues further into the Orara Valley Hinterland to Nana Glen – this is a very popular trip, as people can enjoy their BYO picnic as we travel through the countryside.

What are some of your favourite sights that you’ve seen from the train?

As a passionate Coffs Coast local, I love it all, but my favourite sight is Boambee Reserve. As kids, this was our favourite picnic spot, and today on the Rattler I love taking a trainload of happy people over the bridge and watching our passengers waving to the beach goers and the people on the beach waving back. To me, that’s the ultimate Coffs Coast summer – happy people everywhere, enjoying our special place.

How long have you been involved with trains and railways?

Only since 2010, when LVR were running steam out of Coffs. Most of our members have been lifelong rail enthusiasts, and all our drivers are either XPT or freight train drivers who take holidays to drive the Rattler.

What is it like driving a nearly 100 year old train? How does it differ to modern trains?

Our drivers love the hands on seat of the pants driving of the Rattler; we have heard stories of modern airline pilots flying gliders and tiger moths on the weekend for a true flying experience, without computers and technology. 

Our old trains are the same; there is no computer or automation to drive it for you. Apart from a modern state of the art radio with satellite communication, GPS and electronic messaging to and from train control, all the controls are still manual. They have some strange tricks that will catch the unwary, but it’s all the weird and different things drivers need to know that makes these old trains so much fun to drive.

What’s your favourite thing about this train?

Meeting so many people and sharing the experience of heritage travel through the magic place we live.

What sort of response have you had from Coffs Coast locals who have taken a ride on the Rainforest Rattler?

We have had a fantastic response; every trip has sold out, so the hardest part of my job is replying to people who missed out on tickets and telling them we will be back next year. One of our oldest passengers was an 89 year old lady who fondly remembered catching railmotors to school in the far west of NSW – for many children, we have been their first train ride.

Thanks Neil.

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