Thomas Devery: What do you want to go to Australia for?
Jason McCullough: Well, it’s the last of the frontier country. Thought I might like to do a little pioneering.
“Support Your Local Sheriff”, 1969

The land of the Southern Cross, of the Dreamtime, of the kangaroo, (and of Foster’s Lager), of “the Outback”, a 2.5 million square mile desert which covers 70% of this island/continent/nation. This is the land of The Shiny Irons. As in other remote and inhospitable locales, the Irons were an essential element in the quest to move people and commerce in this huge and untamed realm. It is the sixth largest country in the world, yet has a population ranking 53rd, 90% of whom live in urban areas; Australia is very much open space. And open space is what the Shiny Irons do best!

As in the United States and in Europe, the railroad began as a wagonway, with cast iron rails supporting horse drawn (or people drawn – Australia was a penal colony!) wagons. The Australian Agricultural Company laid the first Irons in 1831 to service its coal mines in Newcastle, New South Wales. Coal in the hills south of Newcastle was mined by convict labor, however the efficiency of this solution had long been doubtful. In 1824 The AACo was formed, first to raise sheep and produce wool. In 1831 the Company expanded its operations to include coal production. The lines were inclined railways, gravity powered; two loaded coal wagons would roll down the hill to the town below, automatically pulling two empties back up to the mines. These early wagonways did not have the rail and ties configuration we know today, rather they had rails with a “T” or “I” shaped cross section, about 3-1/2 feet long, each end resting on a rock pillar.

“Fish-belly” rails as used on early Australian railway

Three lines served the three mines, moving coal wagons of 1 tonne (2200 lb.) capacity. Horse power, gravity, and good old elbow grease powered the railroads until 1854, when the first steam locomotive made its way down under.

The impetus for the construction of the Port Melbourne Railway was a common enough, though very exciting discovery… GOLD!!! As in any good gold rush story, the new-found wealth brought people… LOTS of people. An 1851 census gifted the city of Melbourne about 20,000 population … by 1855, the population was over 100,000! Emmigrants leaving Britain in 1852 bought more tickets to Melbourne than to all other destinations! With the increase in passenger and freight commerce, Melbourne’s existing port was no longer large enough to handle the trade, and a larger port was constructed at Sandridge, south of the city. To close the 4 km gap between the new, larger port and the city, a privately owned railway was built in 1854. The Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway operated two trains on a half-hour schedule. Eschewing the old, the proprietors opted to forgo horsepower (and man-power) in favor of steam power. They ordered two locomotives from Robert Stephenson and Company of Great Britain, however, the first locomotive to run in revenue service down under would be home-built. Delays in shipping the Stephenson locomotives irritated the railway owners enough to contract the Robertson, Martin and Smith engineering firm of Melbourne for a local solution. On September 12, 1854, the M&HB Railway hauled a regimental band, several local dignitaries and assorted cargo and baggage from Melbourne to the railway pier at Sandridge. The Sandridge Line, as it has come to be known, still runs today as a tram. Passengers can go from Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station to the beach at Port Melbourne (Sandridge) in 10 minutes.

Flinders Street Station, early 1900s

Up the coast in Sydney, the Irons were showing off their passenger toting skills by 1855. Documents proclaiming the Sydney Tramroad and Railway Company were issued in 1848, with plans to build rail lines up the Parramatta River to carry passengers and cargo. Financial and administrative problems and resultant delays and cost escalations led to purchase of the line by the New South Wales government in 1855. On September 26, 1855, a train carrying the official opening delegation departed Sydney Terminal Station. Extensions and trunk lines followed, though a general climate of political intrigue seemed to stymie any and all endeavors. A bridge across Sydney Harbor helped carry the Irons to Hornsby in 1887, and other suburban lines stretched their arms outbound from the city. In 1895 an electrified tram line was laid from Circular Quay to Redfern Railway Station.

South Australia’s first effort on the Irons was also the first broad gauge rail line in the country (gauge refers to the distance between rails of a rail line). A 10 km horse-drawn rail line connecting the river port at Goolwa with the sea opened for service in 1854. While the iron rails and equine propulsion were seen to be adequate, the oceanic facilities at Port Elliot were not, and the line was extended to Victor Harbor in 1864. State ownership, and steam power, came to South Australia in 1856 when a 12 km broad gauge rail line was laid between the City of Adelaide and Port Adelaide. Over the ensuing years, the urgings of commerce in copper and other minerals, wheat and other crops, and of course in passenger transport, led the Shiny Irons to many other parts of South Australia.

When Sir George Bowen, GCMG, the first Governor of Queensland, arrived in Brisbane, he found the State ridiculously mired on the coast. Ample fertile pasture lands had enticed squatter sheep farmers into the interior, however the intimidation of the Main Dividing Range made transportation of supplies inbound and wool outbound difficult, expensive, and at times, impossible. A magistrate of the time reports of the 125 km journey:

“I have just arrived in Brisbane after a journey of four days from Toowoomba. Any traveler is in absolute danger of his life and it was with the greatest difficulty that I managed to get through at all. At the Seven Mile Creek both horse and rider were nearly precipitated into the creek. Gatton Creek is a wretched place and I noticed drays that had been camped there eighteen days not being able to cross because of the flooded state of the creek.”


By 1861, the area on the west side of the Range was inhabited by a paltry 3,500 settlers, but they tended over 3 million sheep and half a million head of cattle. The effort and expense of transportation across the Range had become a serious problem and rails were badly needed. Parliament in the colony favored a privately funded solution, and the promoters of the Moreton Bay Tramway Company published a prospectus in October of 1860. Capital to the tune of £200,000 was to be raised, and a 90 km wood railed, horse drawn tramway was to be built from Ipswich to Toowoomba. As it transpired, the Tramway promoters’ eyes were bigger than their wallets, and the Company went insolvent before any serious construction could begin. In the interim, the Parliament had rethought the financing, the route, the gauge and the propulsion method. The arrival from Britain of esteemed civil engineer Mr. Abraham Fitzgibbon ensured that the upcoming rail line would, indeed, be Shiny… and Iron. The Minister of Lands framed the first Railway Bill and presented it to Parliament in May, 1863. A bitter debate over the proposed 3 ft., 6 in. gauge for the rail line followed, with numerous voices proclaiming their derision of the proposed narrow gauge, favoring instead the Standard Gauge of 4 ft., 8-1/2 in. The chorus of dissent included even the Rt. Hon. William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer of Her Majesty’s Treasury! However, even this esteemed voice could not be heard from such a distance. The first spade of sod was turned on the narrow gauge railway in February, 1864. Orders for locomotives and rolling stock were sent to England, track was laid, and on July 31, 1865 the first leg of the Southern and Western Railway opened for revenue service; the first narrow gauge trunk line in the world.

Australia being a continent, it would be only fitting for it to have a transcontinental railroad… everybody has one!! The notion of a north-south railroad was given speed by the terrible cost in money and lives of shipment from Adelaide, on the southern coast, to Palmerstown (now Darwin), in the north. In 1862, land speculators financed an expedition to explore routes from south to north, and 4 years prior, a Melbourne businessman had proposed building a railroad spanning the distance. By 1876, the government of South Australia (which administered the Northern Territory) had already built a telegraph line along one of the explored routes, and was eager to back up its wire line with a rail line. Reaching deep into its pockets, the government found… mostly lint – the telegraph line had used up all its spare cash. Bills of authorization were passed despite the meager rations of funds, and the transcontinental construction began. Irons were laid from Port Augusta to “The Gums” (now Farina), stretching the Irons northward into the Outback. A separate project ran a rail line from Palmerstown south into the desert, ending at Pine Creek. Fits and starts marked the meager progress of the transcontinental for decades to come. In 2001, final construction began on the 90-year-old project and the last of the missing 1500 km. was completed in 2004.
a
An east-west transcontinental railroad opened in 1917, however, it was really a combine of several different railroad lines. Ground was broken at Port Augusta in 1912, and the Irons stretched out across the Nullarbor towards the west coast and Perth. In 1911, King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs, introduced a bill authorizing the construction of a railroad linking the two cities. Combined with the existing rail lines from Sydney, through Melbourne, and to Port Augusta via Adelaide, this would link the extremes of the east and west coasts by an unbroken (sort of) rail line. “Sort of” referring to the gauge differences between some of the sections of the line. World War 1 intervened in Australia, halting construction due to lack of supplies and materials, but in 1917, the final spike was driven at Ooldea, South Australia. This transcon did not present the engineering difficulties of the American transcontinental railroad or of the Russian one; there were no mountains to cross, nor any large bodies of water to bridge. This is not to say the effort was without headaches, though. There was typhus, extremes of heat and cold, logistical problems, shortages of material… and the flies, constant, endemic, biting flies. There was also the mind-numbing distance. The Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie line is 1096 miles, with over 600 miles of that across the flat, desolate Nullarbor Plain. In spite of these difficulties, the line was built in record time for Australian railroad construction, averaging over 2 miles per day. Until the advent of Indian Pacific service in 1970, east-west travelers had to change trains at state borders due to mismatched track gauge. In the mid-late 20th Century, the Commonwealth undertook to standardize gauge at 4 ft., 8-1/2 in. The Nullarbor section of this line boasts the longest unbroken straight stretch of Irons in the world, 478 km. with nary a curve to be found!

Alice Springs isn’t the middle of nowhere,

but you can see it from there… on second thought, Alice Springs IS the middle of nowhere….
In 1893, Dost Mahomet Baloch arrived in Freemantle, Western Australia. He brought with him 25 camels. The interior of the Australian Continent, the “Outback” is notoriously difficult to ford. Dry, sandy, windy, with water holes few, far between, and unreliable. Early European expeditions into this expanse used the same pack technology as used in Eurasia and North America, horses, mules and wagons. It quickly became clear that this type of outfitting was unsuited to the task at hand. Horses and mules are ill equipped to walk in sandy soil and constant loose gravel, and they need copious amounts of water in hot, windy conditions. With their narrow wheels, the wagons of the time were very hard to drag through the sand, exhausting the draft animals in short order.

“The Ghan” at Alice Springs, wit the tribute to the cameleers

The solution was to be found in the deserts of Africa and Asia, in a draft animal which had been negotiating this terrain for millennia; the camel. From about 1860, camel caravanners from South Asia, Southwest Asia and North Africa transported supplies into the desolate Outback. Going where horses and wagons could not go, they transported tools, equipment, even water and mail to mining camps, to remote settlements and to construction sites. Cameleers supplied the critical materials to build the Overland Telegraph up the backbone of the continent, and later did the same for the building of the railroad. The Horrocks Expedition in 1846 proved two points; one, camels were eminently well suited to the Outback and two, Australians were ill suited to handle the grumpy beasts. Thus entered the Afghan Cameleers. When the vertical transcontinental rail line was completed to Alice Springs, the train running the line was named “The Ghan”, a tribute to the camel caravanners whose service had been so vital in carrying the Irons across the Outback.

Play A Train Song

Australian balladeer Slim Dusty, AO MBE entertains with a tale of the east-west transcon, “Indian-Pacific”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *