A NEW rail-based tourism experience is gathering a full head of steam while Victoria is in lockdown.
The experience would see visitors to the region take a steam train ride from Castlemaine to Echuca with options to hop off in certain towns to visit tourist attractions.
It is a collaborative project between the Victorian Goldfields Railway, Steam Rail Victoria, Seymour Rail Heritage Centre, Echuca Moama Tourism, the City of Greater Bendigo and Mount Alexander Shire.
VGR president Steve Strangward said the project has been five years in the making.
"It really got serious about five years ago when we ran some trial trips to Echuca," Mr Strangward said. "Stream Rail Victoria run trains over state for events, but infrequently. We want to run from our Castlemaine base to Echuca.
"We have tested market over three or four years and they were highly successful. It is built on the success of our pilot tours to Echuca over the last couple years and outstanding success of Royal Train program that ran in conjunction with the Bendigo Art Gallery exhibition.
"When we were allowed to run trains under COVID, our first class option always booked out first on the VGR branch to Maldon.
"Regional tourism bodies formed a working group to promote heritage rail. It's not aligned to any particular railway heritage operation, Terry Karamaloudis and Kathryn MacKEnzie are very much about rail tourism in general. Tourism is glue that brings together rail, (Echuca's) paddle boats, wineries and silo art. That's a whole packaging option.
Echuca Moama Tourism chief executive Kathryn Mackenzie said she hoped to see trial runs by the end of the year with a regular journey operating in 2022. She said collaboration on tourism experience would aid economic recovery.
"It depends on lockdowns and restrictions but we hope to have a regular service next year," she said.
"There are some infrastructure needs but we are certainly working toward (next year).
"Organisations coming together to think bigger than their own footprint and growing the tourism audience is part of recovery efforts.
"Coming up with innovations and opportunities out of a tough time time is what we are all trying to do. It's been uplifting to see the passion, energy and interest from people."
City of Greater Bendigo tourism and major events manager Terry Karamaloudis said there had been great collaborative efforts between the groups to make the steam train experience possible.
"It is important to always look for new unique products to put in to the market and attract people to the region," he said. "There has been tremendous unity and collaboration between these groups.
"We're all interested parties and see clearly that collaboration will yield a new and exciting product in the future where visitors and locals alike are able to enjoy a magnificent steam rail journey."
Mr Strangward highlighted some of the infrastructure improvements required to better at the new steam train experience.
"We need infrastructure support to make it happen easily," Mr Strangward said.
"V/Line will need to ensure it retains servicing facilities for example, we need the ability to get from the VGR's Castlemaine depot to the main line easily. It is a list of these relatively small requirements to make it happen and ramp it up.
"We can run the trains tomorrow but not easily, that adds a bit to the cost and restricts what we can run.
Getting the train from the VGR platform at Castlemaine is complicated and time consuming, which means it is difficult to slot between V/Line services.
"So we are limited on when we can run. But if V/Line and the state government came on board with better signalling, we could eliminate that issue."
Ms Mackenzie also said the heritage of central Victoria's rail network would add to the experience.
"I think the rail lines went in about 1864 and in a short period came through to Echuca," she said.
"Trains were picking up food and wool coming on riverboats. It was a major food source for Bendigo, so fits nicely with the heritage story.
"The work that the VGR has done on their refurbishment of heritage carriages and success that Bendigo had with the Royal Train (in 2019), we have built on back of that working. It will be a great driver of tourism, that's why we are working to make this happen.
"We are exploring all possibilities but Bendigo is a beautiful heritage city with lots to do and explore and having the river here in Echuca with the paddle steamers and dining options, being able to have those experiences, it's a great journey."
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