I reckon part of the fun of being a parent is that it’s an excuse to revisit childhood haunts with your own kids!
I still remember my first trip on the Puffing Billy as a child – the thrill of the seeing the huge puffs of smoke from the steam train, the magnificent trees of Sherbrooke Forest and the rumble over the Monbulk Creek Trestle Bridge.
So I am really excited to have the opportunity to ride the Puffing Billy again, invited this time as an adult with two children in tow.
Puffing Billy steam train in the Dandenong Ranges is one of Melbourne’s major tourist attractions and it’s a must do for locals and tourists alike.
Most people choose to travel the route between Belgrave and Lakeside / Emerald Lake Park. It’s also the most picturesque and well-known part of the track, allows a return trip back to Belgrave and takes 60 minutes one way (2 hours return). You can choose to go further to Gembrook, which is approximately another 50 minutes away but the return trip takes 5 hours.
Most Puffing Billy trains commence their journey from Belgrave, the headquarters of the railway. You purchase a ticket for a specific departure time in Belgrave and can return from Emerald on any scheduled train.
Due to safety reasons, you can no longer dangle your legs out of the carriage, but the ride is still a lot of fun. We play an extended game of I Spy while the conductor provides an intermittent commentary about the train and the surroundings.
You can peek inside people’s backyards, look out for wildlife in the fern gullies and appreciate the views of Cardinia Reservoir.
Emerald Lake Park offers serene picnic grounds, two cafes, a lake with paddle boats and even swimming in summer, two playgrounds and the Southern Hemisphere’s largest model railway display – the Emerald Lake Model Railway.
Unfortunately, it’s raining on the day we visit so the two cafes are jam-packed and there’s not too much to do outdoors while we wait for our return train. I recommend bringing your own food and drinks as the offerings at the cafe are pretty ordinary. The birds enjoy the chips though!
With A Day Out with Thomas Thomas the Tank engine pulls the train through a part of the Puffing Billy track from Gembrook to Emerald plus there are other family-friendly activities to enjoy at Gembrook. The Santa Specials feature face painting, a Little Elves play and create workshop, Australian animal exhibition, Santa photos, gifts and a 60-minute return journey through the Dandenong Ranges.
Puffing Billy runs every day except Christmas and is especially popular in summer, during school holidays, public holidays and weekends. As such, it’s best to book ahead to avoid disappointment – though note there are no refunds or exchanges generally on tickets. Remember to keep your vintage souvenir tickets for the scrapbook!
One final tip – bring a hat and sunscreen and one more layer than you think you’ll need! The Dandenong Ranges are generally a couple of degrees cooler than Melbourne and sitting in Puffing Billy’s open carriage for 2 hours is enough to chill anyone. We visit in September with average temperatures and are still cold with long pants, a jacket and a beanie!
- Belgrave is 40km one hour east of Melbourne by car or coach. Belgrave station can also be accessed via train from Melbourne on the Belgrave line.
- On popular days eg weekends, public holidays and school holidays its best to book your Puffing Billy tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. Tickets are also available at the ticket office depending on availability.
- Return tickets can be pre-purchased, single journey tickets can only be purchased on the day of travel from one of the Station Booking Offices.
- Children under 4 years not occupying a seat are free.
- The terms of sale state that there are no refunds/exchanges. However, if you find you can’t make the booked date and let them know early enough you may be able to exchange to another date.
- Arrive at the station at least 15 minutes before your scheduled train departure (Puffing Billy actually recommends allowing 45 minutes). Just because you have a ticket for a specific time does not necessarily mean that you’ll be able to board if you are late or the train is already full.
- Belgrave, Menzies Creek, Emerald, Lakeside, Gembrook stations all have toilets. Belgrave, Lakeside and Emerald stations have parenting rooms.
- Only folding/umbrella style prams or narrow prams can be accommodated through the narrow carriage doors;
- The stop at Menzies Creek is only for about 15 minutes.
- Menzies Creek and Emerald only offer one way trips from Belgrave. Lakeside / Emerald Lake Park and Gembrook offer return trips to and from Belgrave. You can choose any return journey time from Emerald or Gembrook to Belgrave.
- Refreshment Rooms at main stations stock snacks, drinks and souvenirs.
- Book ahead for popular events such as A Day Out with Thomas, which always books out months in advance.
- Take sunscreen and hats and another layer for cooler weather as the temperature is a couple of degrees lower up in the Dandenong Ranges compared to Melbourne;
- There is free parking at Belgrave near the station.