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The opening of the Trans-Australian Railway in late 1917 enabled travel across Australia by train. Commonwealth Railways G Class locomotive with a westbound passenger train is stopped at Tarcoola, South Australia, on the Trans-Australian Railway, around 1925, a view that would have been similar in 1918. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Australian Railways and Tramways in 1918

David Matheson

19 May 2018


Australian society in 1918 was dominated by the First World War, which was fought overseas but had a significant impact at home. The war had commenced in August 1914, and would eventually end on 11 November 1918. Over four hundred thousand Australian men served in the armed forces, while the conflict had ongoing effects on the home front, including division over the issue of conscription. The population of Australia reached five million in 1918.


Railway networks

By 1918 Australia had developed extensive railway and tramway networks. Most major cities and towns were connected by railways but new lines continued to be built. The total length in kilometres of government and private railways open in each state and territory in 1918 is shown in the following table.

Distances were reported in miles but have been converted to kilometres.


The distances given for government railways were as at 30 June 1918 and those for private railways were as at 31 December 1917. The distances include 1730.6 km of lines in South Australia and 730.5 km in Western Australia that were owned and operated by Commonwealth Railways. The Australian Capital Territory was known as the Federal Capital Territory until 1938.


The major railway lines in Australia in 1918 are indicated on the following map.

Existing railways in 1918 are shown by continuous lines while authorised and projected railways are shown by broken lines. Some of the projected lines were never constructed.


Australia had a number of different railway gauges, with most lines built to standard (1435 mm), broad (1600 mm) or narrow (1067 mm) gauge. State governments typically built all of their railways to one gauge, although South Australia used broad and narrow gauges in roughly equal amounts. A meeting of railway experts in Melbourne in August 1918 considered the problem of different gauges, as had other previous meetings, but little progress was made at the time.


The major gauges used by railways in each state and territory are indicated below:

  • New South Wales: standard gauge

  • Victoria: broad gauge

  • Queensland: narrow gauge

  • South Australia: broad and narrow gauges

  • Western Australia: narrow gauge

  • Northern Territory: narrow gauge

  • Federal Capital Territory: standard gauge.

The Trans-Australian Railway line between Port Augusta in South Australia and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia was operated by the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Railways and was standard gauge. In 1918 Commonwealth Railways also took over the North Australia Railway between Darwin and Emungalan (near Katherine) in the Northern Territory, a line that was narrow gauge. 



The Trans-Australian Railway had recently opened, the first train operating in October 1917. With the opening of this line it became possible to travel between Brisbane and Perth by train for the first time. Such a journey in 1918 took six days, three hours and forty minutes. The return journey took a similar time. The schedule from Brisbane to Perth is shown in the following table.

A passenger undertaking this journey would need to change trains eight times and travel on three different railway gauges. The journey from Brisbane to Wallangarra (on the Queensland–New South Wales border) was on narrow gauge; from Wallangarra to Sydney, and then to Albury was on standard gauge; from Albury to Melbourne, to Adelaide, and then to Terowie was on broad gauge; from Terowie to Port Augusta was on narrow gauge; from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie was on standard gauge; and from Kalgoorlie to Perth was on narrow gauge. The longest railway journey possible by railway in Australia was from Longreach in Queensland to Meekatharra in Western Australia, a total distance of 7655.2 km.



Almost all train services in Australia in 1918 were hauled by steam locomotives, with only a small number rail motors in operation. There were no electric passenger trains, although they would begin running in Melbourne the following year. The number of locomotives in service on government railways on various gauges in Australia in 1918 is shown in the following table.

Victorian Railways locomotive C10 is the only remaining member of the C Class, the first of which began service in 1918. It is an exhibit at the Australian Railway Historical Society Museum, North Williamstown, 15 January 2017.

5595 is the only surviving member of the New South Wales D55 Class. The first of these engines commenced service as the K1353 Class in 1918, and they were renumbered as the D55 Class in 1924. 5595 is displayed at the NSW Rail Museum, Thirlmere, 5 October 2017.

In 1918 Victorian Railways introduced the C Class, which were 2-8-0 goods engines. When first entering service, the C Class was the most powerful locomotive type in operation in Australia, with a tractive effort of 38,397 lb (170.8 kN)


The first K1353 Class (D55 Class from 1924) 2-8-0 goods engine entered service in New South Wales in 1918. These locomotives replaced older engines and incorporated new features, such as Southern valve gear. The K Class was similar to the earlier T524 (D50 Class from 1924) and TF939 Class (D53 Class from 1924). These three classes together were known as the standard goods type, which eventually comprised 590 locomotives.


Queensland Railways introduced the single member of the 2-6-2 B16½ Class in 1918. It was built as a prototype to trial the use of coke as a fuel. In service it required a much higher rate of firing, which brought complaints from firemen, and a mix of coal and coke was subsequently implemented. No further coke burning engines were built.


Rolling stock

Numerous passenger and goods trains operated in Australia in 1918. There were relatively few motor vehicles on Australian roads, and railways and tramways played a vital role in the transport of passengers and goods. The number of passenger carriages in service on government railways on various gauges in Australia in 1918 is shown in the following table.

Almost of the passenger carriages were locomotive hauled, although there was a total of 19 rail motors: three in Victoria, ten in Queensland, four in South Australia and two in Tasmania.


The number of vehicles other than passenger carriages in service on government railways on various gauges in Australia in 1918 is shown in the following table.

Most of these vehicles were goods wagons, but the figures also included brake vans and service stock.


Private railways

Although the vast majority of railways in Australia in 1918 were government-owned and operated, there were also various private railways. Most were short lines used for particular purposes, such as the haulage of minerals, timber and agricultural products. Private railway networks of considerable length were operated by the Midland Railway Company (448.0 km) and the West Australian Goldfields Firewood Supply Company (164.2 km) in Western Australia, the Chillagoe Railway and Mining Company (403.3 km) in Queensland, the Emu Bay Railway in Tasmania (165.7 km), and the Silverton Tramway Company (59.0 km) in New South Wales.



Passenger tramways operated in numerous locations in Australia in 1918. The total length in kilometres of tramways open for passenger traffic in each state is shown in the following table.

Distances were reported in miles but have been converted to kilometres.


Most tramways were owned by state governments or local municipalities, although some short privately-owned passenger tramways also operated, including networks at Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria.


Passenger tramway systems operated in the state capital cities and also some regional cities. The cities and towns with passenger tramway networks in 1918 in each state are indicated below.

  • New South Wales: Sydney, Newcastle, Maitland, Broken Hill

  • Victoria: Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Sorrento

  • Queensland: Brisbane, Rockhampton

  • South Australia: Adelaide, Moonta, Gawler, Victor Harbor, Port Broughton

  • Western Australia: Perth, Fremantle, Kalgoorlie–Boulder, Roebourne–Cossack, Leonora–Gwalia

  • Tasmania: Hobart, Launceston, Smithton–Marrawah.


The majority of passenger tramways used electric traction. In Sydney several lines continued to use steam trams, and the networks in the New South Wales cities of Newcastle, Maitland and Broken Hill also used steam trams. Tramways using steam also operated at Rockhampton in Queensland, between Roebourne and Cossack in Western Australia, and at Sorrento in Victoria, while the tramway between Smithton and Marrawah in Tasmania was partly worked by steam and partly a horse tramway. The only cable tram lines were in Melbourne, where a network was operated by the Metropolitan Tramway Board. A short horse-drawn tramway operated in Royal Park in Melbourne. In South Australia the Moonta, Gawler, Victor Harbor and Port Broughton tramways were worked by horses, as was part of the line between Smithton and Marrawah in Tasmania. Western Australia had various short horse-drawn lines between jetties and goods sheds or warehouses, while the short Leonora–Gwalia tramway was powered by electric motor.




Armstrong, J, Locomotives in the tropics, vol. 2, Australian Railway Historical, Queensland Division, Brisbane, 1994.

Harvey, JY, The never-never line: the story of the North Australia Railway, Hyland, Melbourne, 1987.

Knibbs, GH, Official year book of the Commonwealth of Australia, No. 12–1919, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Melbourne,


Knibbs, GH, Official year book of the Commonwealth of Australia, No. 13–1920, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Melbourne,


Oberg, L, Locomotives of Australia: 1854 to 2007, 5th edn, Rosenberg, Sydney, 2010.

‘Railway gauges: Australia’s problem: conference of experts’, Daily Telegraph, 7 August 1918, p. 6.

Wheaton, RT, Destination Paradise, 2nd edn, Australian Electric Traction Association, Sydney, 1975.

Twenty of the C Type tramcars entered service in Adelaide from 1918. They were commonly known as the ‘Desert Golds’ after a well-known racehorse of the era and were reportedly Australia’s fastest single-truck tramcars. C Type tramcar No. 186 is an exhibit at the Tramway Museum, St Kilda, Adelaide, November 2008. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, ShareAlike 3.0.


B Class tram heading south in Barrack Street, Perth, 1918. The Perth Town Hall clock tower can be seen in the centre of the image, and a northbound tram is visible below it. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

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