Linking a Nation: Australia's Transport and Communications 1788 - 1970
Australia: Our national stories
By Dr Robert Lee of the University of Western Sydney
Australian Heritage Commission, 2003
Chapter 4: Building Australia's First Railways, 1848-1873
- The Origins of Australia's Railway Age
- The Gauge Muddle
- Patterns of Railway Policy to the early 1870s
Pichi Richi Railway Quorn SA.
Photo: W Nicholls/Australian Heritage Photographic Library
No technology transformed economies and human interaction across the globe in the nineteenth century than did the railway. It was the great dynamic innovation of the century, which in turn promoted many ancillary industries such as steel-making and telegraphy which were themselves to become new dynamos of social and economic change.1 The railway age began modestly enough, with the gradual improvement of tramroads connecting coal mines to ports in northeastern England, including the progressive introduction of iron rails of increasing strength and steam power. The Stockton and Darlington Railway, completed in 1825, introduced the new concept of using this technology to transport general goods traffic and passengers (initially in their own road coaches mounted on rail wagons). Then in 1830 the first modern railway opened between Liverpool and Manchester. This was conceived from the beginning as a total transportation system, carrying a wide range of commodities as well as passengers in different classes of accommodation in scheduled trains run by the company. The railway age had arrived.
The Liverpool and Manchester was a stupendous technological, social and financial success. Ever since, the railway has been humanity's first choice in resolving transportation bottlenecks, essentially on the same conceptual basis. The spread of the railway was rapid. Within a few years all the advanced countries of western Europe and the United States were building railways. Management models differed widely, from strict state control to a total reliance on private capital. Technological progress was rapid, as vast sums of capital were invested in this most profitable and potent of innovations. Remarkably early, railways were conceived and built in colonies and other economically underdeveloped countries far from Europe. The first was in Cuba, opened in 1839. It was an unlikely cradle of technological innovation. However, the powerhouse of railway development remained western Europe and North America, and above all England, where the great railway boom of 1846 laid the foundations of the world's first truly national system, funded entirely by private capital. The crash which followed the boom meant that shareholders' expectations of their investments were not always realised, and the novel concept of the hitherto highly profitable railway as a potential financial disaster also dated from this decade.
The British railway boom of the mid-1840s saw many extraordinarily ambitious companies promoted whose prospectuses suggested that rails might soon span the globe. There was even the sumptuously-monikered Calais, Constantinople and Calcutta Railway to tempt the unwary investor. In this buoyant atmosphere, railways were proposed in those most remote and bizarre of Britain's colonies which clung to the coasts of Australia. The boom's collapse meant that none of these schemes ever amounted to anything, but the seeds of an idea were sown. These found their expression in the foundation of the Sydney Railway Company (SRC), Australia's first, in 1848. Capitalised at 100,000, it aimed to build railways to connect the port and capital of Sydney with the colony's two main inland towns of Bathurst and Goulburn. These towns, strategically located on the Great Dividing Range, commanded the dray traffic from the pastoral districts of the interior. The wool, which passed through them bound for the sea and export, and the stores, which passed the other way, were expected to be the railway's main traffic.
It would be seven years before the SRC's line was opened, and then it extended from Sydney only as far as Parramatta, just 14 miles. Even this achievement was ruinously expensive for the company, and so much of the 550,000 required for the project (equivalent to nearly 40,000 per mile) was invested by the colonial government that it took over the SRC just before the line opened. Thus was born the New South Wales Government Railways (NSWGR), destined to become Australia's mightiest corporation for the much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.2
Simultaneously, the New South Wales government took over the colony's other railway project, the Hunter River Railway Company, which was building a line from the coal port of Newcastle to Maitland. This line, opened in 1857, became the NSWGR's Great Northern Railway. However, it was not the first railway in the district, as the Australian Agricultural Company had built a horse tramway as early as 1831 to connect its coalmines with wharves on the Hunter River. This had been Australia's first railway, although its traffic was confined to the single commodity of coal. Thus, the emergence of railways in Australia was a close copy of their development in northeastern England, where horse-operated coal tramways had anticipated the railway age by half a century. A second such horse tramway began operating in Newcastle in 1850, and it was converted to steam traction in 1857. By the mid-1850s, there were three separate colliery railways in and around Newcastle, which thus has claims to be recognised as the true cradle of Australia's railway industry.
However, unlike the lines from Sydney and Melbourne, Newcastle's railways were (and largely remain) industrial railways. These are railways developed as ancillary to another industry, whose needs they serve exclusively (or very nearly so). Over the following 150 years, such railways have been developed throughout the country in association with industries such as mining, sugar cultivation, logging, metallurgy, and cement manufacturing. In general they are owned by the parent industry and so often were called 'private railways', to distinguish them from the mostly government-owned mainline and common-carrier railways. However, in some parts of Australia, the distinction between industrial railways and common carrier railways has been a fine one. This was particularly true of the Newcastle-Maitland area of New South Wales and on Tasmania's West Coast. In both these areas, railways built by mining companies carried passengers and freight on regularly scheduled trains, and were the main means of general transportation.
During the seven years of the SRC's existence, the railway age spread rapidly around globe, as the first lines in similar colonial or semi-colonial countries such as Argentina, India, Canada, Chile and Brazil all opened in the early 1850s. Nor was New South Wales alone among the Australian colonies in developing railways. Both Victoria and South Australia opened their first lines a year before New South Wales. For, whereas the SRC had always envisaged its lines penetrating deep into the colony, the promoters of the first steam railway actually to open in Australia, from Melbourne to Port Melbourne, were far more modest in their aspirations. There can be little doubt that this modesty had much to do with its success. Melbourne, unlike Sydney was not situated on navigable water. Its port was some four kilometres distant on the waters of Hobson's Bay. The discovery of gold in Victoria rapidly transformed the colony from a rural backwater into the most dynamic and wealthy of all the Australian colonies. Gold, found in sufficient quantities in New South Wales to cause the inflation and labour shortages which so plagued the SRC but in insufficient quantities to stimulate the extraordinary growth it induced in Melbourne, was a hindrance to railway construction out of Sydney. By contrast, in Victoria it was a stimulant.
While vague and impractical railway schemes had been floated in the Port Phillip District in the 1840s (it was not separated from New South Wales to form the new colony of Victoria until 1851), it was the gold-induced boom following the discoveries of that very same year which made railways not only viable but also necessary. There were two great transport bottlenecks which only railways could unplug. First (and more modestly and profitably) was between Melbourne and its port. Second, was communication from the ports of Melbourne and Geelong with the goldfields at Sandhurst (now Bendigo) and Ballarat respectively. During 1852, following the passing of one of the Victorian parliament's first Acts authorising railway construction by private capital, no fewer than eight companies were promoted, of which three were approved but only one succeeded in completing and operating a railway.
This was the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company, formed in August 1852 and capitalised at 100,000. For a 2 mile line across level terrain, this was a far more generous capitalisation than the SRC. Even it, though, was compelled to double its capital to complete the line. Nonetheless, it was built far more quickly than the Sydney to Parramatta line which had been begun so much earlier. Indeed, so quickly was it completed that the locomotives ordered from England had not yet arrived, so it opened on 12 September 1854 with two home-built machines (one a goods truck with a pile-driver engine adapted to power it!) as its motive power. It was an instant financial success, as its fares were high and traffic dense. A half-hourly passenger service was operated from the beginning, compared with the initial four trains a day between Sydney and Parramatta. The success of the Hobson's Bay Company prompted other capitalists to invest in railway schemes in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Nowhere else in Australia was there such a concentration of privately owned and operated common-carrier railways, as discussed in Chapter 6 below.3
South Australia's first experiments with railways were yet more modest. The colony lacked the pastoral or mineral resources of Victoria and New South Wales, but its first railway certainly was conceived with an eye on its neighbours' wealth. The mouth of the Murray was in South Australia, and this river and its tributaries were becoming important transport routes through the pastoral districts. Steamship technology, and in particular its application to shallow rivers, was what was making this possible. The South Australian government saw an opportunity to attract at least some of the trade from the vast area of eastern Australia watered by the Murray and its tributaries to Adelaide. The problem was that the river's mouth (which was in effect the entrance to a shallow lagoon called Lake Alexandrina) was unnavigable for all practical purposes. A short railway connecting the river with an ocean port seemed to be the solution. Since the traffic was more theoretical than real, and since resources so limited, this was built as a horse tramway laid with very light rails. As such, it opened as Australia's first, very humble common-carrier railway in May 1854. It was only seven miles long and traversed the very easy terrain between Goolwa on Lake Alexandrina and Port Elliot on the Southern Ocean. The line was extended to a superior ocean port at Victor Harbor (always thus spelt by the South Australian Railways) in 1864 and northwards through agricultural country to Strathalbyn in 1866. These extensions made it Australia's largest horse powered railway.4
Thus, during the years 1854 and 1855 the first railways opened in the three major colonies. Sparsely populated Tasmania and Western Australia would have to wait until the 1870s, while Queensland was then still part of New South Wales. The three railways were very different and reflected in many ways the colonies themselves. The New South Wales railway was easily the most ambitious, traversed by far the hardest terrain, but had endured the hardest political and financial struggles, ending up as a government enterprise by accident rather than design. The Victorian line was relatively modest in conception, but met a pressing transport need, was profitable immediately and remained privately owned. The South Australian line was extremely modest and had to be built by the government because no investor would consider such a scheme.
There was another respect in which the railways differed from each other. This was the gauge to which they were constructed. Misunderstandings and blunders led to the curious situation where New South Wales built its railways to one gauge and Victoria and South Australia to another. The ideal gauge for a railway was a matter of intense debate between engineers at this time. The standard gauge of 4ft 8in (1485mm) had emerged in northeastern England simply because that was the gauge of the old tramroads built over the previous century to serve coalmines. It is a peculiar measurement, which probably arose from the fact that the rails were laid five feet apart measured across their outside faces, thereby creating what became the standard gauge between the rails' inner faces. During the 1830s and 1840s many engineers believed this gauge was too narrow for mainline railways and so experimented with larger gauges, most notably I. K. Brunel's 7ft in (2140mm) gauge to which the English Great Western Railway was built. However, by the 1850s, the standard gauge clearly was dominant in most countries where railways already had been built. In countries that were just beginning their railways, though, there was a marked preference for broader gauges, most commonly 5ft 6in (1676mm), widely used in the Iberian peninsular, Latin America, Canada and India. A similar gauge of 5ft 3in (1600mm) was adopted in Ireland.
When the SRC was incorporated in 1848, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Grey, specified that all Australian railways should be built to standard gauge. However, the SRC's tumultuous history included the frequent replacement of its chief engineer. One of these, Francis Sheilds, advised the Company to change to the Irish gauge because, he argued (with some justice), expert opinion at the time believed this to be the technical ideal. The Company accepted his advice, requested permission for the change from London, which concurred, meanwhile advising the other Australian colonies of the change. Thus, the South Australian and Victorian schemes, then still at the planning stage, were developed to a gauge of 5ft 3in. However, another change of chief engineer in Sydney brought contrary advice and the SRC's hapless directors, totally ignorant of technical matters, obliged their senior employee by reverting to standard gauge. By this time the other colonies had ordered equipment and the die was cast. So Australia's first railways came to be built to two different gauges, both quite similar, neither of which offered the least technical or economic advantage over the other. John Whitton, Australia's dominant railway engineer of the nineteenth century, was appointed Engineer in Chief of the NSWGR in 1856 and immediately advised conversion of the then still infant railway to the Irish gauge, but his political masters demurred at even this modest expense. They were unable to envisage intercolonial traffic ever developing. Whitton's defeat (one of his few) on this issue meant that the gauge problem would remain to plague Australian railway development across three centuries.5
A decade later, when Queensland came to build its first railway, it chose to do so to a narrow gauge of 3ft 6in(1067mm). This was a rational enough decision, since there were real economies of using such a narrow gauge, especially if traffic was expected to be light. These economies were often exaggerated by proponents of narrow gauge railways, of whom the English engineer Robert Fairlie was the most influential. Western Australia and southern Tasmania followed the Queensland example for precisely the same good reason of economy of construction. So, rather less rationally, did South Australia for some of its secondary lines in the 1870s.
The first twenty years of railway development in Australia were characterised by very different patterns in each of the four colonies involved. Victoria, easily the richest and most dynamic colony at this time, rapidly implemented a grand plan which then took some digesting. New South Wales, confronted with the most challenging terrain and longest distances, struggled hard to build railways to Whitton's plans even though his political masters all too often challenged them. Queensland built a spectacular line remarkably quickly but to low standards; while in South Australia railway development was ad hoc and tentative. There was one common element in all four colonies' railway strategy: this was that each aimed to build railways to attract the trade of their neighbours' rich pastoral districts to their own ports and capitals. In this contest Melbourne was the clear early winner.
The Victorian policy of building railways to a government plan using private capital, on the model of the successful Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company, rapidly collapsed. Three main railways were envisaged: from Melbourne northwards to the goldfields city of Sandhurst (now Bendigo) thence onwards to the Murray River at Echuca; from the port of Geelong to the other major goldfields centre of Ballarat; and between the two ports of Melbourne and Geelong. Private enterprise only succeeded in building the last of these railways, which traversed by far the easiest terrain. This was also the first main line to be opened, in 1857. Companies building the other two lines failed, the government taking over their works and the Melbourne and Geelong Company as well, thus forming the Victorian Railways.
The Ballarat and Bendigo lines required heavy earthworks, tunnels and notable bridges, although ultimately the potential traffic and profits were far greater, since marine competition was not an issue as it was between Melbourne and Geelong. The two goldfields railways were built to the highest standards of English main lines, with double track throughout, relatively easy grades, generous curvature, splendid bluestone stations, and three magnificent bridges. These were the bluestone viaduct at Malmsbury and the iron viaducts on stone piers at Taradale and across the Moorabool River near Geelong. The first two were on the Bendigo line. The last was a thousand feet long and 115 feet high. Its completion in 1862 enabled trains to run through from Melbourne to Ballarat. The Great Northern Railway was opened to Bendigo in the same year, taking rails across the Great Dividing Range for the first time. It was extended (as a single track line) across the flat country to reach Echuca on the Murray in 1864.
Once the rails had reached the Murray, Melbourne was assured at least of the temporary economic domination of the rich pastoral districts of southwestern New South Wales. For this was the famous 'meeting of the whistles' where the trains from Melbourne met the paddle steamers on the Murray, which serviced the vast basin drained by the navigable waters of the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Darling Rivers. For a time Echuca became Victoria's second busiest and Australia's fourth busiest port, its traffic exceeded only by Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle. Thus, Victoria's aims were achieved quickly and effectively, and her relatively short railways secured for Melbourne the trade of much of the interior of New South Wales. But there was a price to pay, for these had been very expensive, indeed extravagant railways. The first 255 miles of Victoria's railways, completed in 1864, had cost no less than 34,000 per mile, including the very easy lines from Melbourne to Geelong and from Bendigo to Echuca. Of all railways built in Australia in the nineteenth century, only the pioneering line from Sydney to Parramatta cost (marginally) more per mile. While the railways were profitable enough, the enormous investment they required was more than even booming Victoria's finances could digest with ease. Their completion was followed by the grand pause, when no new railways were opened for almost a decade.6
Seen from Sydney, the Victorian problem was a nice one to have. For in 1864, when Victorian metals reached the Murray, New South Wales's two main lines running south and west from Sydney were stalled at the banks of the Nepean River, about 35 miles from Sydney. The Murray was still nearly 400 miles from the railhead, the Darling nearly 500. Moreover, the prospects for further extension were marginal, as beyond the Nepean lay the steep escarpments of the Blue Mountains. So desperate was the situation that many (including the last really powerful governor of the colony, Sir William Denison) argued that future extensions should be built as light horse tramways laid along the roads. Some reputable authorities even suggested that it was downright impossible to build a railway across the mountain barrier. Whitton destroyed both arguments in his usual categorical manner, pointing out that horses might be capable of hauling traffic across level ground, but would be quite ineffective over mountains, and that steam railways could indeed be built to Goulburn and Bathurst for about a third the cost of the Victorian lines.
Whitton's arguments won the day, partly because electors in the interior demanded railways, and partly because Sydney's mercantile community was unable to sit by and watch much of its income flow south of the Murray to Melbourne. Thus the Nepean was crossed in 1863 by two iron bridges at Menangle and Penrith, which were far and away the most expensive structures ever built in the colony, and from 1865 the rails began to climb the mountains. They reached Goulburn and Bowenfels (near Lithgow) in 1869 and the banks of the Macquarie River opposite Bathurst in 1873. Over the same period, the Great Northern Railway was extended up the Hunter valley and by then had reached Murrurundi. Thus, the NSWGR at last had achieved the aims of the SRC, exactly 25 years after the Company's foundation.
Whitton's two transmontane railways were extraordinary achievements, especially in view of the rough terrain they conquered and how little they cost. The contrast with the Victorian goldfields railways could not be greater. Whitton's lines were built with the strictest economy he could tolerate. Grades were extremely steep, indeed at the absolute limit of locomotives of the period. The average grade, for instance, of the western line over the fifty miles from the Nepean to its summit of 3658ft (1114m) at Clarence was 1 in 50. This was the same as the few short steepest pitches on the Bendigo line. By way of contrast, the summit where the Bendigo line crossed the Great Divide was just 1902ft (580m). There were sustained climbs on both Whitton's transmontane railways of 1 in 30. The sharpest curves were as tight as 8 chains (160m) radius compared with 60 chains (1200m) in Victoria (with a couple of exceptions in stations). The New South Wales lines were single track throughout and the smaller stations were simple timber structures, although Whitton insisted on brick and stone for the few major towns. Even the terminal stations at Goulburn and Bathurst, however, were very modest affairs compared with the imposing monoliths at Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.
Most remarkable of all were the two zigzags by which the western line climbed the eastern and descended the western escarpments of the Blue Mountains. These involved reversing trains twice to climb up the face of the sandstone escarpments. Whitton used enormous sandstone viaducts to cross the ravines which scarred the mountainsides. These were dramatic ensembles of bridges and cuttings, tunnels and embankments, all cut through a wild, inhospitable landscape. Moreover, the most expensive contract, for the 15 miles near Lithgow including the larger of the two zigzags, cost under 22,000 per mile. There is no doubt that New South Wales acquired its main lines at bargain prices, although the cost ever since has been expensive operation and slow trains. Even that, though, was too much for many in New South Wales public life. Thus, when the transmontane railways were completed, the debate of a decade earlier on whether they should be extended or not was replayed on a larger canvas. Once again, horse tramways had their advocates, as did narrow-gauge railways. Once again, there was a pause in New South Wales railway construction.7
The enthusiasm in some quarters in New South Wales for narrow-gauge extensions arose from the success of Queensland in building Australia's first narrow-gauge railway in the mid 1860s. This was highly innovative technology for the time. Queensland was a new colony, established in 1859 by the simple expedient of excising the northern part of New South Wales. This had occurred at the request of its relatively few white inhabitants, dominated by rich graziers or squatters. These men were alarmed at the democratic and progressive tendencies then emerging in Sydney politics. Having secured their own colony, they were anxious to intensify its economic exploitation and increase its white population. Railway building seemed to meet both desiderata, and so was a top priority.
The government appointed a Chief Engineer, Abram Fitzgibbon, who was given the task of building a railway from Ipswich, the head of navigation on the Brisbane River, to Toowoomba, the largest town in the rich pastoral district of the Darling Downs. There was no gentle climb to the Darling Downs: the railway would involve a steep ascent of the eastern escarpment of the Great Dividing Range. Fitzgibbon reported in 1863 that the project was feasible, and recommended the use of sharp curves and a narrow gauge of 3ft 6in to reduce costs. Only in Norway was such a gauge being used, where it had been pioneered in 1862. The large English contractors, Peto, Brassey and Betts, were engaged to build the line. The first section of the line, on easy terrain in the valley of the Brisbane River from Ipswich to Bigge's Camp (now Grandchester), opened on 31 July 1865. It is now the world's oldest surviving 'medium gauge' (3ft, metre or 3ft 6in) railway. The 57-mile (92km) extension to Toowoomba opened on 1 May 1867 and climbed from an elevation of 468 ft (143m) at Helidon) to 2008 ft (612m) at Harlaxton near Toowoomba. Fully two-thirds of those 27 miles (43km) would be in cuttings and there were 47 bridges, nine tunnels and 126 curves, 49 of which would be of just five chains (100m) radius. Many of the bridges were composite structures with iron girders resting on timber piers. The ruling gradient was the only relatively easy aspect of the line: it was kept to one in fifty. No railway quite like this had ever been built before. The Toowoomba Range Railway was thus the precedent for many such lightly constructed and sinuous narrow-gauge mountain railways all over the world.
Moreover, the speed of its construction was dazzling compared with the New South Wales western line. The latter's construction had begun in 1850, and the rails did not reach the Great Zig Zag, approximately the same distance from Sydney as Toowoomba is from Brisbane, until nineteen years later. From approval to opening, the Ipswich to Toowoomba line was completed in just over three years. Admittedly its engineering standards were much lower than those on which Whitton insisted, let alone those of the magnificent Victorian main lines, but its completion did illustrate what could be done using narrow gauge and low standards if budgets were tight.8
In South Australia, there were two quite distinct fields of railway endeavour. The first, discussed above, was the construction of what became the horse-operated 'Southern Tramways' at the mouth of the Murray. The second was the more conventional project to connect Adelaide and its wharves at Port Adelaide with a steam railway. This was a government enterprise from the beginning and was opened April 1856, five years after work had begun. As in Sydney, the Gold Rush and consequent flight of labour was responsible for the delay. A short extension north of Adelaide opened the next year, and by 1868 this had reached Kapunda. However, progress was slow and this northern line would not reach the Murray at Morgan until 1878. The gauge of both the Adelaide railways and the southern tramways was 5ft 3in, as the three colonies had agreed.
By about 1870 the pioneering age of Australian railway history was over. Prosperous Victoria's, indeed, had ended as early as 1864. New South Wales had built railways across some of the hardest terrain in the continent in an effort to maintain economic control over Sydney's hinterland. Queensland, with its small population and limited resources, had used contractors to build a similarly remarkable mountain railway extremely quickly, using the new technology of the narrow gauge. The South Australian achievement was more modest, for no railways had yet been built there over difficult terrain, but the railway clearly was established as part of the colony's economic and social life. In all the colonies, though, there was some confusion as to future policy, and hard decisions about the use of railway technology to solve their transportation problems remained.
1 It should be noted that in Australia the telegraph was generally not operated for public use by the railway, although railways gradually built their own telegraph systems, independent of the post office telegraphs, to assist with safeworking on busier single tracks.
2 On early railway building in New South Wales, see John Gunn, Along Parallel Lines, a History of the Railways of New South Wales, 1850-1986 , Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1989, pp 1-78, and Robert Lee, The Greatest Public Work, the New South Wales Railways, 1848-1889, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1988, pp 1-66.
3 Leo J. Harrigan, Victorian Railways to '62, Melbourne, Victorian Railways Public Relations and Betterment Board, 1962, pp38-45.
4 On the South Australian horse tramways, see Kim Baird, South Coast Limited: a History of the Victor Harbor and Milang Railway Lines in South Australia, Adelaide, Australian Railway Historical Society, 1972.
5 On the gauge issue, see Lee, The Greatest Public Work, p 18, and Robert Lee, Colonial Engineer: John Whitton (1819-1898) and the building of Australia's Railways, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2000, pp 24-27, 81-82, 117, 213-214.
6 Harrigan, Victorian Railways to '62, pp 79-86.
7 Lee, Colonial Engineer, pp 123-182.
8 John Kerr, Triumph of the Narrow Gauge: a history of Queensland Railways, Brisbane, Booralong Press, 1998, pp 2-22.