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BUILT in 1862, Lethbridge railway station evokes the romantic Victorian age of travel, with its stately bluestone frame and grand verandah.
But close up, it's a boarded-up ghost station, with period windows, signs and fan lights long gone. The passenger service ceased on the Geelong-Ballarat line 17 years ago, but trains had bypassed Lethbridge, and many other small towns on the 80-kilometre route, since 1981.
Locals and organisers of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the line say it's time to reopen it to passengers.
They have called for the restoration of the heritage-listed Lethbridge station and its elegant twin at Lal Lal, 40 kilometres to the north.
Other surviving bluestone stations at Moorabool, Bannockburn and Meredith are either bed-and-breakfasts or private homes. Michael Menzies, president of the Geelong and South Western Rail Heritage Society, said the two vacant stations were ''in need of some TLC'' and would make fine neighbourhood houses or museums.
''They're gradually falling apart from neglect, because nobody's keeping an eye on them,'' he said. Until 1889, the Geelong to Ballarat line was part of the Melbourne-Ballarat route. It was an extension of the Melbourne-Geelong railway built in 1857 and linked north-western Victoria and booming Ballarat to Geelong port.
Freight trains still use the line, but Mr Menzies said passenger trains ceased after rail cars wore out and the government saw buses as more economical. The Baillieu government is conducting a feasibility study - an election promise - into reopening the service.
Mr Menzies says there is growing demand for regional rail services, with trains now faster and more comfortable. He says the line is renowned for its heritage and ''fantastic'' scenery, including the 40-metre-high Moorabool viaduct. In the four years it took to build it, the town of Viaduct sprang up with a pub, church and police station serving 2000 labourers and their families, but only paddocks remain.
In the late 1800s, Lal Lal station had 23 employees and was also the post office. In 1886 a branch line was built to the racecourse and waterfall. Nick Fammartino, publican at Lal Lal Falls Hotel, opposite the station, says passenger trains would be ''the best thing that could happen to the town'', with many locals working in Geelong or Ballarat.
Barry Nolan, of the Lethbridge store, said the population was growing, with housing estates at Bannockburn and tree-changers moving in. Trains would be good for the whole place, he said, getting ''more people coming through''. Joan, a lifelong Lethbridge resident, remembers being 14 in the 1940s and taking the steam train to work at a cafe in Geelong.
Now, she does not drive and the train to Geelong or Ballarat would be a ''lovely day out''. To mark the 150th on April 14 and 15, there will be train and bus tours, and Geelong, Ballarat and six small towns will hold exhibitions, talks and a dance.
This Tuesday plaques will be unveiled at Geelong and Ballarat stations at 9.30am and 1.15pm, and a VIP train will run, stopping for ceremonies at Lethbridge and Lal Lal at 11.10am and 11.50am.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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