The North Coast Line is the primary rail route in the Mid North Coast and Northern Rivers regions of New South Wales, Australia, and forms a major part of the Sydney–Brisbane rail corridor.
The line begins at Maitland and ends at Roma Street railway station in Brisbane, although freight services terminate at the yard at Acacia Ridge on the outskirts of Brisbane. Along the way, the railway passes through the towns of Dungog, Gloucester, Wingham, Taree, Kendall, Wauchope, Kempsey, Macksville, Nambucca Heads, Urunga, Sawtell, Coffs Harbour, Grafton, Casino and Kyogle. After the standard gauge line ends at Acacia Ridge, it forms a dual gauge line into Brisbane, running alongside parts of the Beenleigh railway line.
Since the abandonment of the northern part of the Main North Line in 1988, the North Coast Line has become the only route between Sydney and Brisbane. With the closure of former branches to Dorrigo (1972) and to Murwillumbah (2004) there are now no operating branches off the line.
The Bonalbo branch from Casino was stillborn, with partial construction left incomplete.
The line was built between 1905 and 1932, and when completed, bypassed the Main North Line and provided a quicker route up the eastern seaboard. The development of the line was hampered by the many large rivers that flow through the North Coast. The line also features the Cougal Spiral, which is one of only two spirals in New South Wales.
The first North Coast railway was opened between Murwillumbah, Byron Bay and Lismore in 1894 and it was extended to Casino in 1903 and Grafton in 1905. A branch line was built to Kyogle in 1910 and extended to Brisbane in 1930.
A railway was built from Maitland junction to Paterson and Dungog in 1911. It was extended to Gloucester and Taree in 1913 and Wauchope, Kempsey, Coffs Harbour, Glenreagh and South Grafton (now called Grafton City station) in 1915.
The Clarence River was the most difficult river to cross, and was the last bridge built in 1932. In the meantime services were connected by rail ferry that carried the carriages across the river. The opening of the bridge completed the Sydney – Brisbane line as the first standard gauge inter-capital link.
The completion of the Sydney–Brisbane link converted the Casino–Murwillumbah line into a branch line. In 1930, a branch line had been built from it to Ballina, but this closed in 1949. Trains stopped running on the Murwillumbah branch in 2004.
A picturesque branch was opened from Glenreagh to Dorrigo in 1924, but was difficult to maintain due to the steep terrain and high rainfall and it was closed in 1972 after a washaway. The Glenreagh to Ulong section is proposed for reopening as a heritage tourist railway by the Glenreagh Mountain Railway. The Dorrigo Steam Railway is also being set up in Dorrigo as a museum and working exhibit.
RailCorp, the New South Wales government train operator, runs passenger trains over the North Coast line under its CountryLink brand. Three daily XPT services operate between Sydney and Brisbane, Grafton and Casino (formerly to Murwillumbah until 2004).
The premier trains on the North Coast line were the two daily services to Brisbane, the Brisbane Express and the Brisbane Limited. The Limited was the fastest service, stopping only at major stations, while the Express operated as a sweeper service stopping at most stations north of Grafton and provided connections to services on the Murwillumbah branch. Sleeping cars had operated on the Brisbane Limited since 1960. In 1973, the Brisbane Express was withdrawn and replaced by the Pacific Coast MotoRail, operating to Murwillumbah. The North Coast Daylight and North Coast Mail operated to Grafton until they were both replaced in 1985 by a single Holiday Coast XPT train. Following the 'Booz- Allen and Hamilton' review of 1989 which recommended severe rationalisation of country rail services, the Brisbane and Murwillumbah services were changed to an XPT in 1990, and a locomotive hauled Grafton Express to Grafton was introduced. In 1993, the passenger services were further changed to the current all-XPT service.
The North Coast Line has significant curvature, equivalent to turning through 150 circles – 75.5 to the right and 74.5 to the left heading north, the difference of one circle due to the Cougal Spiral in the Border Ranges. Of course the curves are unevenly distributed meaning that maximum speeds change hundreds of times usually within the range of 60 km/hr and 115 km/hr for freighters.
The Australian Rail Track Corporation has recently resleepered the track with concrete sleepers, upgraded the signals and installed new loops to increase efficiency. In mid 2011 they will ease about 58 sections of curves on the line, increasing line speed for the XPT and freighters. The curve easing will be done without land purchases, so the track changes will be minor, staying within the existing corridor.