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 5: The Railway Age, 1874-1920

The Great Global Railway Boom

Alberton Railway Station, SA.

Alberton Railway Station, SA.

Photo: G Dawson/Australian Heritage Photographic Library

Around 1873 railway development in Australia seemed stalled. No new lines had opened in Victoria for nearly a decade, and in New South Wales there were serious doubts about the colony's ability to fund any railway extensions beyond the current termini of Goulburn and Bathurst. In fact, however, Australia was poised on the brink of its great railway boom. The late 1870s and 1880s were the period when Australia's railway system reached maturity. In New South Wales and Victoria, a few lines became the basis of two extensive networks; something similar happened on a smaller scale in South Australia; in Queensland, small railway systems blossomed along its enormous littoral; while even the sparsely populated and impecunious colonies of Tasmania and Western Australia opened their first lines. The statistical trends were always upwards. The New South Wales figures were typical: in the ten years between 1878 and 1888 the NSWGR's mileage more than trebled from 688 to 2,398 (from 1,108km to 3,495km); its passenger traffic quadrupled from 3,705,510 to 14,881,604; and goods tonnage more than doubled from 1,625,886 to 3,485,839 English tons.1

This railway boom was part of a wider boom in the Australian colonies in general. This was the era of Melbourne's famous land boom. On a global scale, it was the heyday of European imperialism, the time of the scramble for Africa and the grabbing of large chunks of southeast Asia and the Pacific by advanced Western countries, the United Kingdom digesting, of course, the lion's share. All this was powered by a capital-rich Europe looking for investments which were either highly profitable or secure, preferably both. Colonies, where there were often government guarantees on investment, were favoured destinations for this capital. Railways, which seemed to symbolise all that was modern and civilising, were similarly favoured as investments. Through the equatorial jungles of Asia and Africa; across the rainless deserts of North Africa and the frozen wastes of Siberia; to the summits of the Andes and deep into the interior of the wildest parts of Latin America, plucky and ingenious engineers laid their ribbons of steel. All this was funded by capital raised for the most part in London and (to a far lesser extent) Paris.

Thus, Australia's railway boom was part of this worldwide trend. By the mid-1880s the Australian railway boom had developed such a momentum that it seemed as though ubiquitous threads of steel would soon crisscross the entire continent. Timothy Coghlan, who as New South Wales statistician was part of the action, commented that 'from 1884 onward Governmental expenditure became a riot, limited in its violence only by the amount of accommodation available in London.'2 Much the same phenomenon as Australia's railway boom happened at exactly the same time in India, Canada and Argentina. In all three cases, British capital flooded into the countries and laid the foundations of truly impressive railway systems. The exact details differed. In India most railways were private companies enjoying regional monopolies whose return on capital was guaranteed by the Government of India. In Argentina there were private companies with a London-based board whose senior technical personnel were all British. The Argentine government was obliged to protect the railways from civil disobedience, but generally did not guarantee returns. In Canada it was a mixture of private companies (with either local or London boards) and government-owned lines, the loans for which were government-guaranteed. In Australia, almost all railways were built by colonial governments with capital raised in London in the form of government-guaranteed bonds. These guarantees were predicated both on the anticipated profits of the railways and continuing colonial land sales. At this time, land sales were the main form of government revenue in the Australian colonies, and railways easily the largest government investments.

While the long boom was common to all Australian colonies, there were considerable differences between railway policies in each. These were a reflection on a smaller scale of the differences outlined above between various parts of the British Empire (for in economic if not political terms Argentina was very much part of that Empire). While the overall principles of railway investment in the age of imperialism remained the same, the details were always unique, the product of each polity's own peculiar institutions and social setup. Thus, in Australia, the railway boom in each colony was different, since the economic and social development of each was driven by different factors. The differences between the colonies can be summarised as follows.

In New South Wales and Victoria there was a clear overall plan (although not always clear agreement on the details) to build railway systems centred on the capital cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Both colonies' politics were dominated by a prosperous urban mercantile class, and railway policy reflected that reality. One significant detail difference between them was that Victoria built urban railways in a way which New South Wales did not, as discussed in chapter 6 below. In Queensland, railway policy was more decentralised. This was a colony dominated by pastoral interests, although miners and farmers were also influential. They were spread over an enormous area and served by numerous ports along an extremely long coastline. Thus, many small, lightly constructed lines were built from these ports into their hinterlands. These hinterlands were sometimes dominated by agriculture (especially cane-growing), sometimes by mining, and sometimes by the pastoral industry. Thus, at one time there were as many as eleven separate and unconnected small railway systems in Queensland. By contrast there was only ever one system in Victoria (except for suburban lines) and never more than two in New South Wales. South Australia had elements both of the Queensland and Victorian models, but the latter soon triumphed. In Tasmania there was bipolar railway development centred on both Launceston and Hobart (in that order). In Western Australia, the last colony to build railways, development was based at first on the need to serve the extractive industries of mining and logging. Soon after, though, a network based on Perth and its port of Fremantle emerged, although it was never as self-consciously centralising as its equivalents in Victoria and New South Wales.

The long railway boom came to an abrupt end in 1890. The immediate cause was the default of an Argentine loan and consequent collapse of the England banking house of Baring Brothers. For, just as the origins of the boom had been as part of a global trend, so it was an international financial crisis whose origins were far away that brought it to an end. In reality, though, the boom had reached an end in domestic terms anyway. The Melbourne land boom (and the parallel if less spectacular housing booms in other colonial capitals) had subsided by 1890. Wool prices were falling, affecting the entire economy, since wool was the leading export of the large eastern colonies. There was also a dramatic fall in the value of urban real estate, which further dampened the entire economy. Moreover, the railway system had reached what was essentially its logical extent. Many railways approved (and even some built) during the late 1880s had extremely dubious financial prospects, and some were even of little social utility.

Western Australia was an exception to this generalisation for, just as the other Australian colonies drifted into the worst depression in their history, the discovery of the Eastern Goldfields around Kalgoorlie meant that this most isolated of colonies suddenly experienced a genuine boom. Migrants flooded west from the eastern colonies. Much of Melbourne's population loss during the 1890s was the result of the unemployed moving west to seek gold or employment in the burgeoning industries stimulated by gold. Among these, of course, was the railway industry, and the hitherto tentative growth of Western Australia's railways accelerated, creating a railway boom there a full decade later than in the rest of the continent. Much the same thing happened in Tasmania, whose West Coast also enjoyed a copper mining and concomitant railway boom in the 1890s while most of Australia was stagnating.

The Railway Boom in Late Colonial Australia

The railway boom of the 1870s and 1880s flowered most luxuriantly in Victoria, but was also a very healthy plant in New South Wales. Total overseas investment (mostly from Britain) in the four major Australian colonies was around 33.6 million between 1876 and 1880; 70 million from 1881 to 1885; and 100 million from 1886 to 1890. More than half of the 100 million arriving in the peak years of the boom went to Victoria.3 Growth took off in all the colonies around 1874. Indeed the change in mood between 1872 and 1875 was remarkable. There was a sudden spurt of optimism and concomitant high levels of investment in railways. In New South Wales for instance, there was still discussion of horse tramways for the main line to Melbourne beyond Goulburn as late as 1873. By 1875 it was clear that even the steam railways being built were becoming inadequate for the traffic on offer. Until 1885, most of the investment was prudent, and indeed often overdue. The same could not be said of the last five years of the boom, when many railways of marginal utility and no prospects of commercial success were built, especially in Victoria.


No colony had a better railway system than Victoria, nor one that had been built more quickly or more extravagantly. However, the grand pause in construction that followed the opening of the Murray Railway to Echuca in 1864 lasted the best part of a decade as the colony digested the financial consequences of its investment. Planning for extensions began in 1869, but in very different circumstances from those of the golden decade of the 1850s. Engineer-in-Chief Thomas Higinbotham was asked to plan future extensions at 'minimum cost' and for a 'maximum speed of 15 miles per hour' with stations 'of the cheapest kind possible'.4 The three routes anticipated were westwards towards Hamilton, the main centre of Victoria's rich Western Districts; northeast to the Murray; and eastwards to Sale in Gippsland.

Two great controversies raged over Victorian railway policy in the early 1870s. The first concerned the gauge of future extensions; the second the route of the main line to Hamilton. Narrow gauge railways were something of a fad around 1870, and Victoria was not immune from the fashion. There were few places, though, where narrow gauge offered so little by way of advantages, since the terrain for all Victoria's projected lines was about as benign as existed in the settled parts of Australia. Narrow gauge achieved its economies with sharp curves and smaller cuttings and embankments, and so was best suited to mountainous country where light traffic was anticipated. Higinbotham successfully argued against those who wanted the northeast line built to a gauge of 3ft 6in.

His strong and forthright leadership on this issue prevented Victoria making the same disastrous mistake as South Australia would at precisely the same time. So, when the contracts were let for the building of the northeastern line from the suburban terminus of Essendon to the Murray at Wodonga, they specified a 5ft 3in gauge line, as Higinbotham had wanted, although the stations and other structures were to be far less imposing than on Victoria's earlier railways. Since the route over the Great Dividing Range to Seymour was comparatively easy, and was a railway builder's dream across the level plains beyond, this economy of construction was no lasting impediment to the line's quality. It opened in 1873, and was extended across the Murray as a joint New South Wales -Victorian project ten years later to permit through rail travel between Sydney and Melbourne, with, of course a change of trains for the break of gauge at either Albury or Wodonga. Higinbotham's alignment, although economical, was such that the line was and remains one of the finest and fastest railways in Australia.

Equally contentious as the gauge issue was the route of a railway to the Western Districts, the 'Australia Felix' whose fine pastures had made Victoria a viable entity before the discoveries of gold. In 1870 Higinbotham proposed four different routes to Hamilton, each drawn in a different colour on the map accompanying his report. Thus began the famous 'battle of the coloured lines' in which supporters of various routes loudly denounced the rivals and all sorts of ephemeral political alliances were concocted in attempts to secure parliamentary backing for one route or another. Higinbotham argued strongly for the Pink Line (the others were black, green and blue) and ultimately won the day. This line ran westwards from Ballarat to Ararat, then turning southwest to Hamilton. It opened to Ararat in 175 and on to Hamilton and Australia Felix's port of Portland in 1877. Meanwhile, proponents of other routes were mollified by the completion of a loop line from Castlemaine (on the Bendigo line) to Ballarat via Maryborough in 1875.

The third important Victorian line built in the 1870s was the Gippsland line from Oakleigh (in southwestern Melbourne) to Sale, opened in stages during 1877 and 1878. Bizarrely enough, services between Oakleigh and Melbourne were provided by road coaches, because railways in southwestern Melbourne were owned not by Victorian Railways but by the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay United Railway Company. When the government purchased the Company in 1879, it immediately built a connection from the former company line at South Yarra to Oakleigh. Higinbotham, unaware than nationalisation would soon take place, planned an 'Outer Circle' government line to Oakleigh to link the Gippsland line with the rest of the government system without trespassing on the Company's lucrative suburban territory. Its fate will be discussed in chapter 6 below.

Thus, by the end of the 1870s, Victoria's main line network was nearing completion. The only really important lines not yet built were the direct line from Melbourne to Ballarat , completed in 1889; and the Intercolonial Railway from Ararat to the South Australian border at Serviceton. This railway opened to Horsham as early as 1879 but was not completed until 1887, essentially because its South Australian section was not even begun until 1883. However, it was in the late 1870s that Victorian Railways lost its talented and remarkably effective Engineer-in-Chief, Thomas Higinbotham, in circumstances which had absolutely nothing to do with his professional competence or political judgement. Higinbotham was, after John Whitton, the dominant figure in Australia railway engineering in the nineteenth century. It is true that he had more resources than Whitton, and easier terrain over which to build his railways. Hence his task was easier than Whitton's and has railways, accordingly, of a higher quality. Like Whitton, he was courageous and forthright in dealing with political interference in what he regarded as 'his' railway and, also like Whitton, he successfully resisted proponents of narrow-gauge railways and the introduction of an internal break-of-gauge in Victoria. Higinbotham was summarily dismissed on 'Black Wednesday' 8 January 1878. His fate was shared by 136 other senior officials and judges, and the reason was that the government had run out of funds due to a deadlock between the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council over Appropriation Bills. While some officials later were reinstated, Higinbotham was not.5

Thus, just as Victorian Railways entered their most manic phase of expansion, Higinbotham was no longer around to provide the sound technical and commercial advice and astute management he had offered over the previous twenty years. For the 1880s were boom years for Victoria in general and for its railways in particular. Much of the boom was speculative, especially in urban real estate, but there was real, solid and sustained growth in the colony's population and economic activity. Victoria's heavily protected industries thrived during these years, building, among other things, nearly all the colony's locomotives and other railway equipment. This was in sharp contrast with New South Wales, the only other colony with the potential for such industrial production, where, true to its free trade principles, most railway equipment continued to be imported from Britain. During the decade 1883-1892 Victoria's railway system grew from 1,355 (2,182km) to 2,903 miles (4,717km), an average of 155 miles (250km) per annum. By contrast, during the pervious decade it had grown at an average of 104 miles (167km) each year and annual growth in the following decade of depression would be only 42 miles (67km). Growth would peak again in the 1913-1922 decade when its annual average reached 69 miles (111km), although most of this mileage comprised light, cheap and fundamentally unimportant wheat lines in the state's northwest. By 1930, all of Victoria, except its alpine regions, was within eight miles of a railway station.5

The frenzy of the 1880s culminated in the notorious 'Octopus Act' of 12 December 1884, which authorised no fewer than 66 new railways. If constructed, these would have given Victoria a railway density out of all proportion to its population, productivity or potential rail traffic. The crash of 1890 brought an abrupt end to the riot of spending on railways, and to much else in Victoria in general. The 1880s boom in Victoria was far wilder than the boom in other colonies, and the depression consequently far deeper. Melbourne's urban property values declined by 60 percent in four years and the city even lost population in the 1890s, and surrendered its status as Australia's largest city to Sydney. New South Wales, with its open economy and more restrained expenditure in the 1880s, experienced a far less severe depression than did Victoria. Victorian railway construction did limp on the 1890s, as previously authorised projects were completed. When it resumed at the turn of the century, it is significant that the first new lines were extremely light, cheap railways built to the Bosnian gauge (so called because it was the standard for light railways in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially in Bosnia) of 2ft 6in or 762mm. These four lines were all closed in the 1950s and 1960s, although the busiest of them (from Upper Ferntree Gully to Gembrook) subsequently was partly converted to broad gauge and electrified, and partly restored as a tourist railway. This, the famous Puffing Billy, has become the world's second busiest tourist railway (after the North Yorkshire Moors Railway in England), with a traffic of around 250,000 passengers per annum, a happy outcome which its promoters of the 1890s, who were thinking primarily of its potential potato traffic, could never have foreseen.

The final bitter coda to the boom years was the dismissal in 1892 and subsequent ruin of Chairman of Commissioners Richard Speight. He had been appointed from the Midland Railway in England in 1884, and had presided over the extravagances of the boom years. He was savagely attacked by The Age for his role in the boom, and then asked by Railways Minister William Shiels to reduce expenditure and increase income. Unable to do this, he was dismissed and then sued David Syme, The Age's proprietor, for libel. The verdicts in the cases were inconclusive, but Speight was as ruined man, financially and personally. Victoria's extravagant nineteenth century railway program thus claimed its second victim.

New South Wales

Great Zig Zag Railway near Lithgow NSW.

Great Zig Zag Railway near Lithgow NSW.

Photo: K Charlton/Australian Heritage Photographic Library

Of all the Australian colonies, New South Wales had the least ambitious and most affordable railway policy, and also the one which produced easily the best financial results. It was also a railway which had clear aims from the very beginning, even though these aims may have been amended - but never overthrown - over time. By the early 1870s, the aims of the Sydney Railway Company had been achieved, as Whitton's transmontane railways had reached Goulburn and Bathurst. The new aims were extension of the three main lines to their natural termini - south to the Murray at Albury, west to a point as yet undetermined on the Darling, and north to the Queensland border. Over the next fifteen years, these aims would be achieved. In dramatic contrast with Victoria, though, there would be very little filling in of the network. Indeed, throughout that period, not a single mile of track was laid within 200 or kilometres of Sydney. This single-mindedness in completing the three mainlines proved to be the great strength of New South Wales railway policy.

The main personality behind this coherence of policy was, of course, John Whitton, Engineer-in-Chief from 1856 to 1890. His continuity in office was unique in Australia's colonial railway history and gave him a measure of authority which even Higinbotham could not approach. Certainly Whitton did not always get his way, and he had his rivals and critics, but he was normally dominant. His first great challenge after completion of the transmontane railways came from his deputy J H Thomas, who wanted to build the extensions beyond the then termini as narrow-gauge light railways. He had some political support too, especially since he promised to do the job for far less than Whitton. Horse tramways even had their advocates once again, as had been the case back in the late 1850s. The struggle was bitter, but Whitton, with the support of Works Minister John Sutherland, won the day, and in 1873 funds were voted for extensions as standard-gauge lines, albeit to lower specifications than Whitton wanted. Indeed, the great problem with all Whitton's mainlines was that he was forced to build them to lower standards than he wanted. The consequence has been that they have needed constant upgrading and rebuilding ever since, and have remained inadequate for the traffic they carry. Light loads, inefficient operation and slow speeds have been the lasting legacy of the inadequate funds Whitton was given to build the NSWGR's major railways.

All three of the New South Wales main lines were built over difficult terrain, so to avoid sinuous, steeply graded alignments would have meant heavy expenditure of the kind Victoria made on its goldfields railways between 1857 and 1862. Such funds were never available in colonial New South Wales. The northern line to the Queensland border at Wallangarra, for instance, the last of the three to be completed in 1888, climbed to Australia's highest railway summit of 1,376m near Ben Lomond. All Whitton's railways included notable bridges. The early stone or cellular iron construction of the transmontane railways of the 1860s was superseded by Whitton's distinctive lattice girder bridges, of which eleven were built and ten remain intact. Where traffic could not justify the expense of iron or steel, and for smaller openings, Whitton built in timber. The most interesting timber design he used was the queen-post truss viaduct, which he adopted from designs used by I K Brunel in Cornwall and the Cotswolds back in the 1850s. Brunel's originals were demolished in the 1880s, just as Whitton was building his, and the survival of all six on the Cooma and Wallangarra lines is remarkable.6

Despite the sometimes hostile terrain, construction over the long distances of New South Wales proceeded relatively quickly. Once the lines had descended the western side of the Great Dividing Range, the challenges were those of bridging great rivers rather than climbing mountains. The Murrumbidgee at Wagga Wagga, for instance required a bridge 7,900ft (2.3km) in length. Whitton's mainlines eventually reached their termini of Albury in south in 1881, Bourke on the Darling in 1885 and Wallangarra on the Queensland border in 1889. During the 1880s the first branches were constructed, as well as coastal lines to compete with shipping near Sydney. The first branch line in the interior opened from Junee to Hay in 1881 and 1882. Soon there was a handful of others - but only a handful, compared with the octopus-like spread of railways across Victoria. The New South Wales branches (and main lines too) were, of course, far longer than their Victorian counterparts, or indeed than any railways elsewhere in Australia.

Whitton's commanding contribution to Australia's railway development was crowned by the two railways north and south from Sydney, to Newcastle and Wollongong and beyond respectively. Built between 1882 and 1889, these involved tunnels and bridges on a scale never before seen in Australia. Extraordinarily enough, the Sydney-Newcastle railway was the first built in New South Wales as a double-track line since the Sydney-Parramatta railway in 1855. This in itself is a powerful comment on the fact that the NSWGR was built to cover long distances rather than cater to an intensive traffic. The Newcastle line included both the longest tunnel and the biggest railway bridge in Australia. The latter, the Hawkesbury River Bridge, was especially significant as it marks the introduction of the American-style truss bridge into Australia. More than a century later, these structures remain the second largest in each category.7 Whitton retired in 1890, having held the top job on the NSWGR since 1856, just as the railway boom ended.8

The 1880s were boom years in New South Wales as in Victoria, There was even a New South Wales equivalent of Victoria's Octopus Act of 1884. This was Premier George Dibbs' 1884 railway policy, which proposed to build eighteen railways with a total length of 1,197 miles (1,927km) at a cost of 14,688,808. Only two of the eighteen were built at the time, for within a year it was clear that the optimism of 1884 was exaggerated. Thus, New South Wales was spared the worse of Victoria's extravagances. Nonetheless, the expansion in mileage was impressive. At the beginning of 1870 there were just 318 miles (512km) of railway in the colony. Over the decade to 1879 this increased by 416 miles (670km, or by an average of 42 miles (67km) per annum. Over the following decade, 1880-1889 there were 1,437 miles (2,314km) opened, at an average annual rate of 147 miles (231km).9 This compared with an annual average for the roughly comparable period in Victoria of 155 miles (255km). The New South Wales mileage, though, mostly comprised the completion of the long main lines to their natural termini; the two coastal railways north and south of Sydney; and a small number of very long branches in the interior. All these were useful railways, and most remain open to this day, compared with the hundreds of miles of uneconomic, now almost entirely abandoned, short branches built in Victoria.

The most significant challenge to the centralising policy of New South Wales railway construction came from the north coast region, where there were a number of ports aspiring to a direct connection with the interior. The oldest and most important of these was Grafton, but it had its rivals such as Lismore, Byron Bay and Coff's Harbour. From the 1880s to the 1940s, a number of schemes for such railways were mooted, and even at times achieved parliamentary approval. However, four factors meant that none was ever built. First was the unrelenting hostility of the Railway Commissioners, for whom such a line would compete with the northern line to Wallangarra. Second was the rivalry between the various north coast ports, which thus were unable to present a united front. Third was the apathy or even hostility of the rest of the colony (including Sydney) to such a scheme, even including the interior districts to be served by such a line, which were generally perfectly happy with their rail communication direct to Newcastle and Sydney. Fourth was the toughness of the terrain, which would have made the railway one of the most expensive ever built in Australia.

A Grafton-Glen Innes line, for instance, was included in the Dibbs 1884 railway policy, but ultimately his rival Henry Parkes, worked out a compromise whereby a railway was built instead from the Tweed to the Clarence Rivers, connecting the rival ports with their immediate hinterlands. Its first section opened in 1894, centred on Byron Bay. Ultimately, this became the NSWGR's fourth main line, connecting Maitland (near Newcastle) with the Tweed River on the far north coast. Built from both ends and even in isolated sections at times, it was not completed until 1923, and even then there remained a crossing of the Clarence River at Grafton by train ferry until the completion of the Grafton double-deck opening bascule bridge in 1932. In 1930, a Commonwealth-funded extension from Kyogle to South Brisbane, as discussed below, made possible through travel between Sydney and Brisbane by the coastal route. The result was the gradual strangling of coastal shipping on the New South Wales North Coast, culminating in the winding up of the North Coast Steam Navigation Company in 1954.10

The North Coast line was easily the most significant rural railway development in New South Wales of the first three decades of the twentieth century. Most lines built in this period were branches serving the wheat and wool country of the interior, and were of little wider commercial or social significance. Most met real enough needs, though, and a surprising proportion of them remains open, at least seasonally. The most important did have a wider purpose and took the NSWGR's tracks across the Darling at Menindee and on to Broken Hill in 1925. This railway, though, was unable to change the reality that most of Broken Hill's mineral production continued to take the shorter South Australian route to salt water at Port Pirie rather than the longer New South Wales route to Sydney or Newcastle. In the first half of the twentieth century, though, the really important investment in railways in New South Wales was in and around Sydney.


More than any other colony, Queensland had a deliberate policy of decentralised railway construction. All its railways were built to the same (rather low) engineering standards and to the same narrow gauge of 3ft 6in. This pattern of railway development was the result of its enormously long coastline and the political significance of its provincial port cities. The first line, from Ipswich to Toowoomba, soon was extended east to Brisbane and by 1880 as far west as Roma with a southwestern branch which then reached Stanthorpe, and would be extended to meet the New South Wales northern line at the border at Wallangarra in 1889. By 1881 there were four other isolated railways serving pastoral, agricultural or mining districts from their nearest ports. These were based on the ports of Townsville, Rockhampton, Bundaberg and Maryborough. By the end of the century there were no fewer than eleven isolated Queensland railways. Some, such as the Central Railway based on Rockhampton and the Great Northern Railway based on Townsville, became extensive networks with a relatively dense traffic. The Central Railway would even include a branch line with a rack section (similar to the Mt Lyell Railway in Tasmania) to reach the mines at Mount Morgan. Others, like the Mackay Railway, were more modest affairs serving agricultural districts, in this case a rich sugar-producing district. Mineral lines tended to be transient, including the northernmost line from Cooktown to the now-forgotten mining town of Laura. A number of lines were destined for an early linking into the ultimate coastal railway, including the isolated line nearest Brisbane, the 1881 Maryborough to Gympie line, whose fate was an early connection through to Brisbane.

The North Coat Railway was Queensland's last mainline, and was not completed through from Brisbane to Cairns until 1923. Coincidentally, this was precisely the same year that the New South Wales north coast line effectively was completed. The through route from Brisbane to Cairns enabled the introduction of the Sunshine Express, whose journey of 1043 miles (1680km) was one of the longest narrow-gauge journeys possible anywhere in the world. The only comparable narrow-gauge trains were the Union Express, which operated weekly from Capetown to Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa, and the similarly weekly International Express from Bangkok in Siam to Prai (later Butterworth) near Penang in British Malaya. The reason for the late completion of the Queensland North Coast Railway was precisely the same as that for its counterpart in New South Wales: coastal steamers handled both freight and passenger traffic quite adequately through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in fact continued to compete with the trains on both price and speed until December 1941, when Australian coastal steamers suddenly became very dangerous places to be indeed and passenger services came to an abrupt halt from which they never recovered.

The most spectacular, and in most respects the most controversial of all these isolated railways, was the Cairns Railway, built over the five years between 1886 to 1891. The Atherton Tablelands, sitting atop the an escarpment about 1000ft (300m) high behind the fertile coastal plain of Far North Queensland, were a rich mineral and potentially a rich agricultural district, if the extreme difficulties of access up the wild rainforest escarpment could be resolved. Moreover, the less fertile and well-watered interior beyond the tableland was promising grazing country and had mineral potential as well. Initial controversy surrounded the choice of a port, with Port Douglas, Cairns and Innisfail all making strong claims. Ultimately the government decided to follow expert advice, and make Cairns the terminus, which is the only reason Cairns rather than some other place has become the leading city of northern Australia. The climb through the Barron valley from Redlynch to Kuranda, that is from an elevation of 78ft (24m) to 1073ft (327m) in a little over 15 miles (24km), was extremely arduous. The slopes were very steep and covered in tropical rainforest. Works included fifteen tunnels and the extraordinary steel bridge over the Barron Falls, where the trains pass through the waterfall in the wet season. It was and remains, together with the Whitton's railway over the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, one of Australia's two most impressive mountain railways.

One of the most unusual, unquestionably the most isolated, and certainly the strangest survival of the era of small, quasi-independent Queensland railways was the Normanton to Croydon line. Built between 1889 and 1891, this 150km line connected the Gulf of Carpentaria port of Normanton with the gold rush town of Croydon. It was laid with steel sleepers pressed directly into the muddy topsoil, without any ballast, the idea being that floodwaters would wash over the line without damaging it, as would have been the case with a conventionally laid railway. The theory worked, and the railway has required remarkably little maintenance as a result. The cost is an uneven track and very rough riding. However, such is the longevity of this system, that the railway survived the end of mining at Croydon in 1907, and has continued until the present with just one train a week. As such, it is the last survivor of the light, isolated Queensland port-to-interior railways.

While the Queensland Railways were built to low engineering standards, they were appropriate to the needs of the colony. They were cheap to build and operate. The most expensive section was the fifteen-mile climb to Kuranda on the Cairns railway, which cost roughly 19,000 per mile. Low standards, though, meant that service speeds were slow and locomotives could only be light and hence not very powerful. As long as Queensland remained relatively undeveloped compared to the southern colonies, this was a perfectly acceptable trade-off. Queensland was able to build at modest cost the largest (if far from the most intensively worked) railway system in Australia. The Queensland Railways were not really deficient until exposed to the stress of the Pacific War between 1941 and 1945, when it became clear that their light standards were as inadequate for the defence of the country as they were for intense economic development. The result has been that no Australian railway was more extensively rebuilt in the second half of the twentieth century than Queensland's.

There was one attempt at building a great transcontinental line deep into the interior of Queensland by the McIlwraith government in 1883. He proposed to fund it on the land-grant principle and allow and English company to build it in return for substantial land grants. This system would be used with some success in Western Australia, but never worked elsewhere, and McIlwraith's government fell in the attempt. The proposed land-grant railway would connect Roma (and hence Brisbane) with the far northwest and, ultimately, with a new port at Point Parker on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The railway's initial financial prospects were bleak, hence the need for land-grant funding, although as a national project it had great significance. Its failure was an interesting illustration of the fundamentally parochial pressures which drove railway policy in Queensland, and indeed in the other Australian colonies as well.11

South Australia

South Australia's railway history is probably the least coherent of any of the mainland colonies. For despite being the location of Australia's first minerals boom, following the discovery of copper at Kapunda in 1843, South Australia always lacked both the rich pastoral (and later agricultural) districts and the sequence of mineral discoveries which did so much to drive the growth of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in the second half of the nineteenth century. Even the favourable geography for railway construction of much of South Australia worked against the development of a coherent railway policy. For its flat agricultural regions were close to the relatively sheltered coasts of its two gulfs, so cheap, horse-operated tramways going to nowhere in particular in the interior from jetties on the gulfs could meet real transport needs.

The first of these, running into the interior from Port Wakefield at the head of the Gulf of St Vincent, opened in 1870. On the advice of William Hanson, then Railway Manager, it was built as an experiment to the Queensland gauge of 3ft 6in, since it was not expected ever to join the 5ft 3in-gauge lines near Adelaide. Hanson resigned after the tramway was authorised but before construction began. His successor, H C Mais, a former engineer of the Sydney Railway Company, advised against introducing a second gauge into South Australia, but the colonial parliament, impressed with the alleged economies of narrow gauge, overrode its technical expert on the matter. In fact, by 1880 the tramway had been extended into a network linking Port Wakefield; the pastoral interior; the copper towns of Kadina, Moonta and Wallaroo on Spencer Gulf; and Adelaide (with a break of gauge at Hamley Bridge, which in 1880 became the first of Australia's many break-of-gauge stations). From 1876, steam locomotives replaced horses. Two other narrow-gauge lines were also in service, one further north based on Port Pirie and another in the southeast based on Mount Gambier.

Thus, in less than a decade, Hanson's entire foolish rationale for introducing narrow gauge and horse working had been overthrown by the natural development of the colony. The new railways carried goods and passengers far more economically than the coaches and drays they replaced, but the difference in speed was not as dramatic as it had been in the wilder terrain of the eastern colonies. The journey time on the coach service between Adelaide and Kadina, which had begun operating in1864, was twelve hours. (Cobb and Co took it over in 1876.) By comparison, the same trip of 117 miles (185km) in 1886 by two mixed trains, including the change from broad to narrow gauge at Hamley Bridge, took some seven hours and 12 minutes.12

The narrow gauge railways in northwestern South Australia continued to expand under the stimulus of mineral and pastoral development. There were two important main lines built in the 1880s. First was what began as the Port Augusta and Government Gums railway. At the ceremony to begin construction of the line at Port Augusta in January 1878, Governor Jervois expansively observed that the railway would not just serve the colony's pastoral northern interior, but ultimately reach Port Darwin and so provide connections with India, Java, Siam and China. This was just eight years after the first tenuous horse tramways had opened in the district! The line opened to Quorn in 1879, taking tracks through the Pichi Pichi Pass into the north, and was extended in stages to reach Oodnadatta in 1891. It was extended to Alice Springs in 1929 (by which time it had become part of Commonwealth Railways) and there its terminus remained until work on the final extension to Darwin began in 2001.

The second important line connected Port Pirie with Broken Hill in far western New South Wales. Opened in 1888, this line allowed the development of Broken Hill's rich silver, lead and zinc deposits, and virtually created the town of Port Pirie, where the smelters for the new mines were located. The short distance within New South Wales from the border to Broken Hill was built and operated by the Silverton Tramway Company. There were three other significant elements to the South Australian narrow-gauge system. These were the grain and mineral lines of the Eyre Peninsula, centred on Port Lincoln; the southeastern lines around Mount Gambier; and the Palmerston (later Darwin) railway in the Northern Territory, which under South Australian management would run as far south as Pine Creek.

As the narrow gauge system expanded, the problems of a dual-gauge system became ever more acute. Moreover, in 1912 the Commonwealth decided to build the Transcontinental Railway from Port Augusta to Western Australia to standard gauge. The same year, the South Australian government decided to extend the broad gauge through to Port Augusta but did nothing to achieve that aim. Eventually, by a State-Commonwealth agreement, the South Australian broad gauge line was extended northwest to Port Pirie and the Commonwealth Railways' Transcontinental standard gauge line was extended east from Port Augusta also to Port Pirie in 1937. This at last eliminated the circuitous narrow-gauge link between Adelaide and Port Augusta.

The expansion of the broad-gauge network around Adelaide was more straightforward than the building of the narrow-gauge lines. There were two main aims: to connect the Murray near where it flowed into South Australia with Adelaide; and to build the Intercolonial Railway to link with the Victorian Railways. The former was achieved quickly with the completion of the line to Morgan. The Intercolonial Railway was a more complex scheme, both politically and technically, and there was considerable debate as to the best route southeast from Adelaide. The line, which involved ascending and descending the Adelaide Hills and a bridge across the Murray, was opened in stages between 1883 and 1887. A branch between Mount Barker and Strathalbyn opened in 1884 to connect the Intercolonial Railway with the pioneering southern tramways, which were soon converted from horse to steam operation. Thus, after thirty years, easily the most important country horse tramway in Australia came to an end. With the completion of the Intercolonial Railway, the 'classic system' of the South Australian Railways was virtually complete. However, such had been the confusion of railway policy in the colony, that, as a state in the new Commonwealth, its railways would be rebuilt and their uses redefined far more than was the case elsewhere in Australia.


Like South Australia's Tasmania's early railway history was remarkably complex and beset by political and technological confusion. In contrast with South Australia, however, Tasmania initially relied on private enterprise to build its railways. The first was the Launceston and Western Railway, authorised in 1865. The Tasmanian government refused to contribute funds and insisted that its guarantee of a return to investors be met by those who would benefit from the railway. A poll of landowners along its route in 1865 resulted in a vote of 2,259 in favour of the guarantee and 545 against. This was to have important consequences. Construction began in 1868, following an elaborate ceremony to commemorate the turning of the first sod by the Duke of Edinburgh, the most distinguished royal visitor Australia had even seen. The line, built to Victoria's 5ft 3in gauge, opened between Launceston and Deloraine, a distance of 45 miles (73km), three years later in February 1871. Second-hand construction engines from Victoria provided most of the motive power.

Nineteenth months later the company was bankrupt and the line closed for six weeks until the government took it over. It then set about collecting the funds to cover the railway's losses from landowners, above all in Launceston. This lead to one of the most serious outbreaks of civil unrest in Australia's history, exacerbated by the fact that it was a Hobart government which sent in the bailiffs to confiscate the goods of those landowners who refused to pay. There were riots and damage to property. The Launceston police were unable to maintain order, and other civil servants refused to support the government or be sworn in as special constables because they considered the government's behaviour unconscionable. This prompted the government to send 35 heavily armed Territorial Police from Hobart to quell what was in danger of becoming an uprising. It even threatened to send a gunboat to bombard Launceston if resistance became too fierce. The Launceston Examiner's anti-government rhetoric was so violent that the Attorney-General sued it (unsuccessfully) for libel. Ultimately the funds were recovered, but at enormous cost and in a way that nearly led to the splitting of the colony. A change of government in 1874 led to the abandonment of the hated railway levy, and civil disturbances came to an end. It is little wonder that property taxes never again have been used to subsidise railways in Australia.

At the very moment the Launceston and Western Railway opened, the Hobart government was negotiating a contract with English capitalists for the construction of a line from Hobart to Launceston. Signed in August 1871, before the full extent of the Launceston company's woes was apparent, it provided for the building of the line subject to a government guarantee on capital of five per cent. This was not further devolved to landowners, which naturally incensed Launceston opinion, since Hobart's railway was to be guaranteed by the government while Launceston's was guaranteed by local landowners. Work on the Tasmanian Main Line, at it was known, began in 1873, and the railway was built to the 3ft6in gauge, as had just become fashionable. Its construction was riven by controversy over routings and allegations of engineering incompetence, but nonetheless it opened through to Evandale near Launceston in March 1876 where it met the tracks of the Launceston and Western at Australia's first (of very, very many) break-of-gauge stations. Relations between the Tasmanian Main Line Company and the government were nearly always acrimonious and not infrequently litigious. Ultimately the government bought the line in 1890. By this time it already had built branches from both the Tasmanian Main Line and the Launceston and Western. The most important of these was the Deloraine to Devonport line, opened in 1885 as a 3ft 6in gauge line. This left the Launceston and Western as a short length of broad gauge line connecting two narrow gauge ones. The solution was obvious, and in August 1888 its conversion to narrow gauge was completed. Thus, by 1890 the 3ft 6in-gauge Tasmanian Government Railways (TGR) dominated the railway scene in that colony, whose railway scene now more closely resembled the other Australian colonies.

This newfound unity did not last long, for the copper boom on Tasman's wild and inaccessible West Coast soon prompted a rash of railway construction there by mining companies, railway promoters and the government itself. In the1890s construction was so intense and the rival claims of various railway company's prospectuses were so extravagant that it was described as the West Coast Railway Wars. The Van Diemen's Land Company had built the first of these as a 3ft-gauge, wooden-rail horse tramway running southwards from 44 miles (71m) from Emu Bay (Burnie) to its mines near Waratah. Converted to a 3ft 6in-gauge steam railway with steel rails in 1884 this line was bought by the Emu Bay Railway Company in 1897. The new owners raised capital in Melbourne to extend the line southwards to Zeehan, where they hoped to tap the riches of the new Mt Lyell mining district.

The extension opened in 1900, but there were already other players in the district, notably the TGR's own line from Strachan (the rather poor port on Macquarie Harbour) to Zeehan and Dundas, which had opened in 1891. The most remarkable of the lines in the area, though, was the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company's mainline from Queenstown, location of its rich copper mines and smelters, to the (barely) navigable waters of Macquarie Harbour at Strachan. Opening in 1896, it was so steep as to be built as a rack railway to the Abt system. It was one of only three such public railways ever built in Australia, the others being the almost contemporary Mount Morgan line in Queensland and the very much later electrified passenger Skytube line in New South Wales's Snowy Mountains. Thus there existed a through but very circuitous rail route from Hobart to Queenstown, by the Tasmanian Main Line (after 1890 TGR) track to Evandale; then over the former Launceston and Western (by then TGR) trackage to Deloraine; then over the TGR's own line to Burnie; then by the Emu Bay Railway to Zeehan; over the TGR once again to Strahan; and finally by the Mt Lyell's Abt railway into Queenstown.

For variety of owners and confusion of purpose, there was nothing in Australia quite to rival the situation on Tasmania's West Coast. This description of the through route is by no means the whole story, for there were many other lines built in the West Coast copper belt. Two were particularly notable. The TGR's 2ft-gauge North East Dundas Tramway was famous as the line for which the world's first Garratt articulated locomotives were built in 1911, and was also one of the most scenic lines every built in Australia. For extravagance, uselessness and lack of longevity, though, the North Mount Lyell Mining Company's railway was in a class of its own. This was a rival of the Mount Lyell Railway, and opened in 1900 from near Queenstown to a new port on Macquarie Harbour at Kelly's Basin. Its 33 miles (53km) had cost 316,638.13 Although easier to operate than the Mount Lyell Abt railway, it was unable to win much traffic, and its design and management were inept and irresponsible. In 1903 the North Lyell enterprise was bought by the its rival, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company, which promptly closed the entire line after just three years' operation. This brought an abrupt end to the ebullient era of the West Coast Railway Wars. Thereafter stability reigned, until the lines started to close during the Depression of the 1930s. By the 1960s all had disappeared except for the Emu Bay Railway Company's line.

Western Australia

In railway development, as in so many other things, Western Australia was a case apart. Until the 1890s it was the least populated and developed Australian colony. Its first railway was 12-mile (19-km) line built to carry timber from logging camps to the navigable waters of Geographe Bay near Busselton in the colony's southwest. The line's most notable feature was that its first locomotive was built not in England but at the Victoria Foundry in Ballarat. Obsolete and underpowered when built, this fragile machine inaugurated rail transport, albeit only for industrial purposes, in Western Australia in mid 1871. It also established the 3ft 6in gauge as the colony's standard, and was the precedent for a number of other timber tramways built in the southwest over the rest of the decade.

The first government railway, and the nucleus of the later Western Australian Government Railways (WAGR), also was built far from the colony's capital and for a specialised traffic. In 1874, work began on the government's line from the port of Geraldton to the lead and copper deposits of Northampton. Although only 33 miles (53km) long, construction took five years, and traffic was never especially brisk. Just as the Northampton line opened, work began on the first stage of the Eastern Railway, from the colony's main port of Fremantle through the capital Perth and ultimately to York, then the colony's main agricultural centre. The first stages of this line (opened in 1881) were easy enough, but its completion by 1885 involved the ascent of the western escarpment of the Darling Range on a steep and difficult alignment. This was built according to the ideas of J H Thomas, who had come to Perth following his defeat at the hands of John Whitton in New South Wales. Here he had the opportunity to put into place his ideas on light railways. Given that his main line needed rebuilding after ten years, his achievement must be considered limited.

The Eastern Railway's completion marked the beginning of an era of rapid expansion. This had one characteristic unique to Western Australia - the construction of two main lines by private capital under the land grant principle. The eastern colonies were highly dependent on land sales revenue, so were unwilling to give away land to capitalists in order to have railways built. As discussed above, an attempt to do so in Queensland in 1883 foundered on the opposition of the squatters, for whom cheap pastoral leases were sacrosanct. However, with its apparent enormous land surplus and small population, the Western Australian government saw matters rather differently, and in 1886 signed two contracts with English syndicates for the construction of railways in return for land grants along their routes. These were the Midland Railway, running north from Midland near Perth to Walkaway near Geraldton; and the Great South Railway, running south from Beverley near York to Albany. They were opened in 1894 and 1889 respectively. The Midland remained in Company hands until 1964, but the government, its funds buoyed by the gold rush, bought the Great Southern in 1896 for no less than a million pounds.

During the 1890s Western Australia's economy boomed following gold discoveries near Kalgoorlie. The WAGR built the colony's last two main lines in these buoyant times, from near Perth to Bunbury (opened in 1893) and the eastwards extension of the Eastern Railway, known as the Eastern Goldfields Railway. This was completed through to Kalgoorlie in 1896. For a time Kalgoorlie was so busy that its suburban train service was more intense than that between Perth and Fremantle. As the Eastern Goldfields Railway was being completed, the original Eastern Railway was improved by duplication from Fremantle to Midland and construction of a deviation on an easier alignment of the ascent of the Darling escarpment. The engineer of these works was the brilliant and energetic C Y O'Connor, who had replaced the adventurous if rather less competent J H Thomas in 1892.

Thus, by 1897 the skeleton of the Western Australian railway system was complete. It was a rational, well-conceived and efficiently operated railway system, and would remain so throughout its history. Over the following twenty years mileage increased rapidly, but most of the new lines were lightly trafficked agricultural branches. Growth of traffic on the main lines, though, was spectacular. Between 1895 and 1915 the WAGR's goods tonnage increased nearly ten times (from 255,839 to 2,454,021 tons) and its passenger traffic by almost twenty times (from 1,022,248 to 18,635,327.14

Federation and Transcontinental Railways

As in all the Australian colonies, railways were a big political issue in the West in the late nineteenth century. However, this connection between railways and politics took rather a different form from that in the eastern colonies. Federation was firmly on the political agenda of the Australian colonies in the 1890s, and there was rather less enthusiasm for the concept in Western Australia than elsewhere, especially as the other colonies (above all Victoria) were in depression while the West was booming. Western Australia's premier, Sir John Forrest, was a believer in federation, but was well aware that his views were not shared by most of the population. He astutely used the promise of construction of a railway linking east and west as a bargaining tool in the federation debate, and managed to secure a promise of its building as a condition of Western Australia's adherence to the new Commonwealth in 1901. Forrest knew the magnitude of the task, as he had cut his teeth as an explorer and twice walked across the vast Nullarbor Plain.

As part of the federal settlement, railways were left on the hands of the states. This was in dramatic contrast with the situation in Canada, India and South Africa, the three countries whose administration most closely matched Australia's. In all three cases, the central governments always have had responsibility for railway policy. Australia's unique situation in this regard was the result of the simple reality that the vast bulk of its railways were owned and operated by the colonial (from 1901 state) governments. They were also built to different and often incompatible technical standards, of which gauge was easily the most important but by no means the only one. Federation may have brought an immediate end to the customs houses on the platforms of border stations such as Albury, Serviceton and Wallangarra, but to little else. The railways' administrations did agree to common technical standards on matters such the loading gauge (the clearance of structures from the track which determines the size of rolling stock) as early as 1906. However, this only affected future construction and was not a commitment to any level of rebuilding to common standards.

Even in the case of the transcontinental railway, the promise Forrest had extracted from other colonies' representatives was not a commitment, and it was not until 1911 that the Commonwealth Government, then in the hands of a centralising Labour Government, authorised construction. The conservative Forrest was in opposition, but was the Bill's greatest parliamentary supporter. The Commonwealth Railways were set up to do the job under Engineer-in-Chief Henry Deane, recently retired from the same position on the NSWGR where he had been understudy to John Whitton back in the 1880s. Deane, although far from young, was progressive and energetic. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher turned the first sod at Port Augusta, the railway's eastern terminus in South Australia, in February 1912, just two months after the authorising act was passed, and Deane, together with his successor and first Commonwealth Railways Commissioner Norris Bell, built the railway 1051 miles (1682km) across the desert in just five years. The railway was built as a standard-gauge line, even though it connected two 3ft 6in gauge railways. In this sense, it contributed to the gauge muddle, but in selecting the standard gauge in 1911 the Commonwealth set the norm to which Australia's railways eventually would begin to conform in the second half of the twentieth century.

Transcontinental expresses began operating, with much fanfare, in October 1917. Construction was not without its hazards, industrial disputes and material shortages, the latter caused by war conditions. For the railway was built through the most desperate days of the First World War, and so to rather austere standards. This austerity did not extend to its passenger cars, which were equipped with showers (for first class passengers anyway) and a piano in the lounge from as early as 1918. At last the continent could be crossed by rail, and the journey only took four days, despite the need to change trains on account of gauge differences no less than eight times between Brisbane and Perth. Through freight traffic, though, would remain insignificant until the 1960s.

The Commonwealth Railway's workshops and operations headquarters were established at its eastern terminus of Port Augusta, although the business headquarters remained in the then national capital of Melbourne. Deane had hoped to use internal combustion locomotives (either petrol or diesel) because of the absence of both coal and, more critically, assured water along the route. Indeed, more than a fifth of all traffic on the railway would be coal and water for its steam locomotives. Use of diesel traction would have made the Commonwealth Railways a real world pioneer, but tight budgets and engineering conservatism stymied his plans. Standard New South Wales design steam locomotives were ordered for the railway and operated it until 1951. Bell was unable even to order the sort of modern steam power he wanted for the line. Such locomotives would take advantage of its generous loading gauge permitting large cylinders and boilers, but tight budgets meant that it struggled on for most of the steam era with (admittedly very good for their time) New South Wales designs from the 1890s.

Just before the Commonwealth decided to build the transcontinental railway, it had got involved in the railway business as a subsidiser, if not yet as an owner and operator. Following the transfer of the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth in 1907, two South Australian 3ft 6in-gauge railways similarly were transferred from 1 January 1911. These were the Darwin to Pine Creek railway and the Port- Augusta-Oodnadatta railway. Neither was especially thriving as a business - in fact the losses on the Oodnadatta line in the first decade of the twentieth century were around 80,000 per year, - but they did form the two extremities of the proposed north-south transcontinental railway. They remained operated by the South Australian Railways until 1926, although the Commonwealth Government covered the deficits. Thus, from 1926 Commonwealth Railways, like the South Australian Railways, became a two-gauge operation, although the two gauges were different from those of the state system!

Under the contract transferring the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth undertook to 'construct or cause to be constructed a railway in South Australia proper, from any point on the Port Augusta railway to a point on the northern boundary line of South Australia proper, to connect with that part of the Transcontinental Railway to be built in the Northern Territory southwards to the northern boundary of South Australia proper.' The expectation was that this North-South railway would be constructed sooner rather than later. Even the program for the turning of the first sod of the East-West railway described it as 'one of the two Transcontinental Railways, the construction of which is to be deferred for the present.' Maps of the time suggested that the future fast route from Sydney to London would be by train to Darwin, steamer to Port Arthur in Manchuria, thence by train across Siberia.15

It never happened. The Commonwealth honoured its promise in part with the extension of the Oodnadatta line to Alice Springs between 1927 and 1929, a line it rebuilt to standard gauge on a different route in the mid 1970s. At the same time, though, it closed the North Australia Railway, as the line stretching south from Darwin had become known. Contracts for the extension from Alice Springs to Darwin (including the rebuilding of the North Australia Railway to a different gauge) would not be signed until 2001, by which time the railway would no longer have anything like the impact on travel or trade patterns it would have had eighty years or so earlier. One consequence of the transcontinental railway planning and construction was that the tiny South Australian railway town of Quorn became bizarrely significant. For this was where the North-South and East-West routes intersected. One brave soul forecast in 1909 that "At some future time Quorn will be the most important railway station in the whole of Australia.' It never was, although the South Australian Railways did erect a new and fairly extravagant station there in 1915 in deference to its anticipated status. The dream of Quorn becoming an antipodean Chicago may never have been realised, but it was an important railway centre through the busiest years of the Port Augusta to Alice Springs railway from 1942 to 1945. General Douglas McArthur even trod its platform on the penultimate leg of his epic escape from Japanese-besieged Corregidor in Manila Bay to Melbourne in 1942.

The Commonwealth's forays into the railway business included two other railways, both built before the shocks of World War II which would transform forever Australian transport policy. First was the little branch from Queanbeyan to the national capital site of Canberra, opened in 1914, which would always be operated by the NSWGR despite its Commonwealth ownership. Second, and far more significant, was the last section of the direct coastal route between Sydney and Brisbane, opened with Commonwealth funding assistance in 1930. This line, from Kyogle in northern New South Wales to South Brisbane, had for seventy years the unusual status of being partly owned by the NSWGR, partly by the QGR, but operated throughout by the NSWGR although with QGR employees on the Queensland section. Not only that, the dividing point between the two owners was in the middle of a tunnel under the MacPherson Ranges which form the border. Its construction cut six hours from the longer, two-gauge route via Wallangarra, which also had involved the climb over Australia's highest railway summit. This railway, the first of the many uniform-gauge intercapital lines built with Commonwealth financial assistance after World War II, was also a significant engineering feat, climbing to the sub-tropical rainforest-covered range at the border on an alignment which included Australia's first spiral, where trackage redoubled on itself to gain altitude.

Workshops and Rolling Stock on Australian Railways

The boom years forced all Australia's railways to upgrade their initially very modest maintenance facilities. In effect it forced them to become more mature industrial enterprises, with extensive infrastructure to support their transport functions. Because Australia was then not yet industrialised, this meant that the railways became pioneers of modern medium to heavy industry throughout the country. They were, to use an apposite metaphor, the locomotives which hauled the train of Australian industrialisation. It must be admitted that it was a very short train, even at the end of the nineteenth century when, for instance, the NSWGR employed more workers than the colony's entire private manufacturing industry. Moreover, a significant proportion of that industry was devoted to the manufacture of railway carriages and wagons. However, the great railway workshops of the 1880s laid the foundations of the future industrialisation of the country, which really got under way during World War I. It was in them that metallurgy, forging, machining, and assembly first were practised on a large scale in colonial Australia.

Large railway workshops were built for all Australia's government railways in the twenty of so years from the mid-1880s. Locations included Ipswich near Brisbane, Townsville, Islington near Adelaide, Midland near Perth, and Launceston. Predictably enough, the two most impressive workshops were built in Sydney and Melbourne, both during the mid-1880s. These were the Eveleigh and Newport works respectively. Their functions were rather different. For two reasons Eveleigh was the more spectacular ensemble of the two. First, it included the large running sheds where locomotives working trains out of Sydney were serviced, whereas in Melbourne the locomotive depot was located closer to the city than Newport, at North Melbourne. Secondly, there were a number of smaller railway workshops established in Victoria at locations such as Ballarat and Bendigo, as part of a policy of decentralisation. By contrast, in New South Wales centralisation was the key - even the Newcastle workshops were scaled down after the 1889 opening of the Hawkesbury River Bridge linking the northern and southern New South Wales systems. Thus, Eveleigh was the most expansively conceived and lavishly equipped of all the colonial railway workshops, although Newport had one important function which Eveleigh did not.

This function was the construction of locomotives. For Victoria and New South Wales followed very different policies in locomotive procurement. From the mid-1870s Victoria was protectionist. This was an unusual and paradoxical situation, given that the British Empire was based on the principle of free trade and did not hesitate to wage war on recalcitrant kingdoms (even large and powerful ones like China) whose policies deviated too much this principle. In the name of colonial self-government, though, Victoria was able to get away with this, and orders for the railways, easily the most important single customer for heavy industry on the colony, naturally enough were subject to this policy. Thus, sustained local locomotive building for the Victorian Railways as early as 1871 when Victorian Railways built its first locomotive at its Williamstown shops (the precursor of Newport). Then in 1873 Phoenix Foundry of Ballarat delivered the first of about 350 machines it would build for VR over the next thirty years. Thereafter, few locomotives were imported into Victoria until the late 1940s. South Australia too, increasingly tied economically to Victoria, followed protectionist policies. New South Wales, however, remained rigorously free trade until Federation. This meant that, apart from a handful of experiments, all its locomotives were imported until after Federation, when New South Wales too was obliged to adopt protectionist policies. The majority came from one builder, Beyer, Peacock and Company of Manchester. In fact, throughout Beyer, Peacock's 110-year history, the NSWGR was its biggest customer.

The local workshops (especially Eveleigh and Newport), the skill-base they developed, and the drafting office of Beyer, Peacock in Manchester, became the basis of a recognisably Australian school of locomotive design by the end of the nineteenth century. The leading early figure in this school was William Thow, successively locomotive superintendent in Adelaide during the 1880s and then Chief Mechanical Engineer in Sydney from 1890 to 1911. Thow developed his R class 4-6-0 locomotive at Adelaide. Subsequently refined with a lot of assistance from Beyer, Peacock, this was transformed into the New South Wales P class, also a 4-6-0, the first example of which was completed in Manchester in 1891. This was a very successful machine, of which 191 eventually were built for service in New South Wales and a further 26 for Commonwealth Railway's transcontinental railway. Thow's Victorian counterpart, Alf Smith, followed its broad principles in devising his D class and its subsequent derivatives for the Victorian Railways. Thow also introduced a moderately heavy 2-8-0 goods locomotive in New South Wales, the T class of 1896, a development of earlier Beyer, Peacock 2-6-0s. This was so successful that, together with its more refined sisters of the TF and K class, more than 500 were built for service not just in New South Wales but also for Commonwealth Railways and even for the British army's operations on Belgian railways during the First World War. It was not until more than twenty years later that Smith designed the generally similar K class for Victoria, where the English 0-6- type remained the standard for forty years after it had been superseded in New South Wales. However, Smith generally opted for larger goods locomotives after World War I (the C, N and X classes), rather than refining the existing design, as Thow's successor, E. E. Lucy, did in New South Wales. Thus, the great leap forward in goods locomotive power occurred much later in Victoria than New South Wales, but was more profound when eventually it did occur.

As passenger types developed, Lucy led the way with his NN class of 1914. Smith's slightly earlier A2 class initially was rather less imposing, but was subsequently refined into an effective machine. These were all typically Australian locomotives, rather larger overall than their British counterparts, somewhat smaller than what was then being built in the United States. Their overall conception was rather American, but nearly all the design details were British. Most of these machines lasted until well after World War II (and in New South Wales into the 1970s!), which is certainly evidence of the quality of the designs Thow and Smith developed.

The narrow gauge networks in Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia lacked the capacity for local design and innovation which characterised New South Wales and Victoria by the early twentieth century. Queensland's designs were the most distinctive, but in general the locomotives on these railways were built (largely by Beyer, Peacock) to much the same designs, a sometimes to identical designs, as their counterparts working on similar British-run railways in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Australian railways, though, were important customers, and Beyer, Peacock undertook much of the refinement of its narrow-gauge 2-6-0 locomotive with inclined cylinders for its Australian customers.

A further important innovation on Australian railways was the development of the Garratt locomotive. The design and development of the Garratt was entirely undertaken in Britain, specifically in Beyer, Peacock's drafting office in Manchester using the ideas of H W Garratt, but Australian railways were the first customers of this articulated design which ultimately came to represent the pinnacle of steam power for relatively lightly-laid railways, above all in Australia and Africa, but also in parts of Asia and Latin America. Beyer, Peacock built the first experimental Garratt for Tasmania in 1911, and Tasmania and Western Australia were the first two important customers for the design, which essentially was developed for their requirements. Ultimately, every Australian state railway ordered Garratt locomotives on a large scale, except Victoria, which only ever had two, and those only on its narrow-gauge lines. The vast majority of these were built in Manchester to Beyer, Peacock's designs, although there was an indigenous design developed and built locally during World War II. Designing Garratts, though, was a highly specialised art, and these local Garratts, the products of emergency wartime conditions, were about the worst specimens of the genre ever built.

Steam locomotives were of course the most visible and technically advanced items of rolling stock. However, passenger cars and goods wagons were equally important to Australian railways and also developed in distinctively Australian ways. It is notable that nearly all such equipment was made in the colony where it operated. This was even the case in New South Wales, since local manufacturers could compete on price and quality with importers. This was because of the high quality and cheap price of timber in Australia. Once again, Australian rolling stock tended to be characterised by a mixture of British and American influences. New South Wales used American-style end-platform suburban cars, Victoria British-style side-loading cars, and South Australia a mixture of both. For long-distance traffic all colonies used a mixture of different styles. There was a fair amount of copying of imported cars and wagons by all colonial railways. Rolling stock was largely built by private companies. Indeed the rolling stock industry was one of most important components of late colonial Australian manufacturing. Henry Lawson, for instance, found a job in Sydney as a painter of new passenger cars at Hudson Brother's plant at Granville. Related to rolling stock was the question of how trains were braked. Australian railways adopted higher breaking standards than British railways in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the larger systems fairly quickly applying Westinghouse air brakes to all their passenger and most of their goods stock. By contrast, British railways remained stuck in the era of non-braked goods trains well into the 1960s.

Railways and Industrial Politics

The great railway workshops were of course social as well as technical institutions. They had an important role in the development of the modern trade union movement in Australia and in the origins of the Australian Labor Party. The first two great waves of industrial unrest in Australia, in 1890 and 1917, both affected the workshops. In 1890, the strikes began in the bush and the railways were among the last industry to be affected. However, out of this wave of industrial activity came the beginnings of parliamentary representation of railway workers, the first being William Schey, who represented the Eveleigh workers in the New South Wales parliament. Schey's judgement was not always astute, but his victory in the 1891 election marked the beginnings of an important new phase in the ever more complex relationship between the railways and the government. Henceforth, railway workers would have their voices in colonial (and later in state) parliaments, with all that implied. All railway workshops were nurseries for Labour politicians, and no fewer than 24 state and federal Labour (after 1922 spelt Labor) politicians worked at Eveleigh (the workshop on which most research has been done) early in their careers.

The 1917 strike was on another level altogether. This began in the Randwick tramway workshops in Sydney and was primarily a railway strike. Coming as it did in most desperate months of the First World War, it created many cleavages in Australian society. The immediate issue was the introduction of the Taylor system of scientific management into the New South Wales railway and tramway workshops, and in particular timed job-cards. However, the conduct of the war, and especially Irish Australians' growing hostility towards a war in support of an empire which seemed to be ravaging Ireland, were important background issues. Among the leaders of the strike at Randwick was Joe Cahill, an Irish Catholic Labourite and a future premier of New South Wales.

Despite the massive support of workers for the strike - almost all the wages staff at Eveleigh was on strike for at least the first couple of weeks - it was utterly defeated as the weeks drifted by and hunger and evictions descended on the railway suburbs. The unions were deregistered, and the strikers dismissed. Long-term strikers ultimately were accepted back with loss of seniority. Among the victims was the Bathurst engine driver Ben Chifley, who became first an organiser, then a politician, and nearly thirty years later Prime Minister as a result of his experiences. The strike lasted 82 days and it has been estimated that about seventy thousand workers, or fourteen per cent of the state's workforce, were on strike for at least some of that period. The failure of the strike was largely because it was not just about the job-cards. Many workers did support the war effort and, while willing to participate in a short strike on a straight industrial issue, were unenthusiastic about its wider political agenda. This included many union organisers, who were sometimes among the more languid participants.

Victoria did not have the same levels of industrial militancy as New South Wales, and indeed there was only one strike in the history of its railways before 1945. This was the 1903 engine drivers' strike, which lasted only a week and was insufficiently supported to prevent many trains running. Its main result was that unions were recognised by the railway's management for the first time, more than a decade after the New South Wales management accorded them this status. Elsewhere in Australia, as in Victoria, railway unionism was not that significant a factor in the changing landscape of late colonial and early federal politics.

Australia's Railways about 1920

Thus, by the 1920s, Australia's classic colonial-based railway network was in place. The completion of the Queensland and New South Wales North Coast lines (from Brisbane to Cairns and from Maitland to Murwillumbah respectively), both coincidentally in 1923, and the New South Wales line from Parkes to Broken Hill two years later, marked the end of this phase. Railway workshops were important social, technical and industrial enterprises in the country. A distinctively Australian school of railway engineering, both mechanical and civil, had emerged, and railway engineers dominated engineering professional bodies and engineering education. Rails linked all major centres - and a great many very minor ones as well - to ports. The systems remained essentially colonial rather than national in conception, with their different gauges and sometimes fiercely competitive practices as they struggled for control of different regions. Interstate links existed, but interstate traffic was relatively sparse and confined to the upper end of the passenger market. Interstate freight still was carried by ship more than trains, and interstate shipping also remained competitive for passenger traffic.

However, it was also the case that by the 1920s the shape of the future was becoming discernible. Already lightly trafficked rural branch lines were threatened with closure. More positively, electrification of suburban railways was a reality in Melbourne from 1919 and from 1926 in Sydney. Commonwealth Railways already had begun operations on its transcontinental railway in 1917 on the standard gauge, and before the end of the decade the Commonwealth would fund a second standard-gauge interstate link - the completion of the direct coastal line from Sydney to Brisbane. So, as the colonially conceived railways reached their maturity, the transformation of their roles to include long-distance interstate traffic and an intense urban traffic was just beginning to stir.

1 Statistics from NSWGR Annual Reports (various names) in Robert Lee, The Greatest Public Work: the New South Wales Railways 1848 to 1889, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1988, p 175.
2 T A Coghlan, Labour and Industry in Australia from the first Settlement in 1788 to the Establishment of the Commonwealth in 1901, London, Oxford University Press, 1918, vol 3, p 1411.
3 Ibid, pp 1408-1413.
4 Joseph Jones, Commissioner of Railways, to Higinbotham, 12 January 1869 quoted in Leo J Harrigan, Victorian Railways to '62, Melbourne, Victorian Railways Public Relations and Betterment Board, 1962 p 87.
5 Harrigan, Victorian Railways, p 92.
6 Whitton's bridges are discussed in Don Fraser, Bridges Down Under: the History of Railway Underbridges in New South Wales, Sydney, Australian Railway Historical Society, 1995.
7 The Woy Woy tunnel on the Sydney-Newcastle line was the logest until the opening of Cox's Gap tunnel, also in New South Wales, in 1987. The Hawkesbury River Bridge, also between Sydney and Newcastle, is the second-largest railway bridge in Australia, has the deepest foundations, and the second-longest span, of any Australian railway bridge except the Sydney Harbour Bridge of 1932. This latter structure is a railway bridge with (as a secondary function) a roadway slung between the two double-track railways, one of which since has been converted to road use.
8 On Whitton, see Robert Lee, Colonial Engineer: John Whitton (1819-1898) and the building of Australia's Railways, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2000.
9 Lee, The Greatest Public Work, p 175.
10 On the origins of the North Coast line, see Ian A Dunn, 'The Railway from Nowhere to Nowhere': the Grafton to the Tweed Railway, 1894-1932, Sydney, Eveleigh Press, 2002.
11 John Kerr, Triumph of the Narrow Gauge: a history of Queensland Railways, Brisbane, Booralong Press, 1998, pp 37-38, 43-56.
12 W H Callaghan, 'Horse and Steam, Wheat and Copper: South Australia's Western System' ARHS Bulletin 53, 771-2, January and February 2002, 16, 48.
13 Tomas C J Cooley, Railroading in Tasmania, 1868-1961, Hobart, the author, c 1961, p 81.
14 C J Higham, One Hundred Years of Railways in Western Australia, 1871-1971, Perth, Australian Railway Historical Society, 1971, p 9.
15 David J Gordon MHR, 'Through the Heart of a Continent: the straight route transcontinental railway south-north links Adelaide to Darwin', The Australasian Traveller, 8, 1 November 1912, 129-32.