Sketch showing the first train to run on the Hobson’s Bay Railway arriving at Flinders Street station. This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.
The pier with railway lines, Sandridge (now Port Melbourne), c. 1878–9. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Flinders Street to Port Melbourne Railway
7 September 2020
The railway between Melbourne and Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) was the first steam-powered railway in Australia. It was around two and a half miles (4 km) in length and was officially opened on 12 September 1854, with public services commencing the following day. The line was built to broad (1600 mm) gauge. In 1884 the name Sandridge was changed to Port Melbourne.
Planning and construction
Proposals for a railway in Melbourne were put forward in the early 1850s. A public meeting was held at the Mechanics’ Institution in Collins Street on 7 September 1851, where plans for a railway between Melbourne and Sandridge were put forward. Strong opposition to the railway was expressed, and many speakers were in favour of a canal instead. In the middle of 1852, the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce supported a railway and a Selective Committee of the Legislative Assembly gave a favourable report. A prospectus for the Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Company was issued and a bill incorporating the company was passed by the Legislative Council in January 1853. Hobsons Bay is part of Port Phillip and is at the mouth of the Yarra River, between Port Melbourne and Williamstown.
Work began on the construction of the railway in September 1853 from Melbourne, as well as at wharves and jetties at Sandridge. It was soon discovered that the amount of funds raised by the company would be insufficient to complete the work. One factor was that the rushes to the Victorian goldfields had led to the costs of labour increasing well above estimates. Additional shares were issued to cover costs. Most work on the construction of embankments and the placing of rails was completed by the early months of 1854.
Orders were placed with Robert Stephenson & Company for four steam engines to be delivered in May 1854. However, construction was delayed and company directors were made aware that the locomotives would not be available until some months after the expected time. An improvised locomotive using a pile driving engine fitted to a ballast truck was built locally by Robertson, Martin and Smith to assist with ballast work on the line. It was tested on 30 May and later attainted a speed of 16 to 18 miles per hour (28 to 30 km/h). With the English engines unavailable and the line almost ready to be opened, the company directors placed an order around the beginning of July for Robertson, Martin and Smith to build a small locomotive, which was designed by a Hobson’s Bay Railway Company engineer. Within ten weeks the engine was ready and ran its first trial on 9 September. During the trial it derailed at points at Flinders Street. No photographs exist of this locomotive and there is uncertainty regarding the accuracy of drawings. It had either a 2-4-0 or 2-2-2 wheel arrangement, and was capable of hauling 130 tons (132 tonnes) at 25 miles per hour (40 km/h).
The first six months
An official opening of the line was held on Tuesday 12 September 1854. A large crowd gathered at Flinders Street station and witnessed the Lieutenant-Governor, Captain Sir Charles Hotham, and his wife being presented with copies of the railway by-laws and timetables, which had been printed on silk. The official train consisted of the engine, an open Third Class carriage, a First Class carriage and two Second Class carriages. The Vice-regal party and company directors rode in the First Class carriage, special guests were conveyed in the Second Class carriage, and a band was in the Third Class carriage. Departing at about 12.20 pm, the train ran to Sandridge, where ships saluted its arrival. Following the first train, a further three trips were made to convey guests to a banquet in the engine shed at Sandridge.
Public services commenced operating on 13 September. Trains from Sandridge operated every 30 minutes from 8.30 am until 12.00 pm and from 1.30 pm until 8.00 pm. Services from Melbourne ran every 30 minutes from 8.45 am until 12.15 pm and from 1.45 pm until 8.15 pm. On Sundays there were no services between 10.15 am and 1.30 pm. Fares were 1/6d for adults for a single journey, half fare for children from three to ten years of age, while children under three years of age rode for free.
The locomotive broke down on 18 September, resulting from a fractured crank handle, which was believed to be caused by unequal stress from starting on the sharp curve at the terminus at Flinders Street. It was repaired and returned to service the following day, with the ballast engine running trains in the interim. On 9 November the engine experienced another fractured crank handle and was again repaired, this time with an improved axle. It continued in service until 1 December when the crank smashed completely. All train services ceased until further notice.
Two of the engines ordered from Robert Stephenson were on the ship Jane Francis, which arrived at Hobsons Bay on 23 November. Following unloading and preparation work, three trial trips were operated on 25 December, and these were followed by 32 trips for passengers, carrying a total of around 3500 people. The second engine commenced service on 5 January 1855 and the two engines then operated on alternate days. By April all four of the engines that had been ordered from Stephenson were in service. The four engines were named Melbourne, Sandridge, Victoria and Yarra.
In the six months from 1 November 1854 to 30 April 1855 the Sandridge line carried 151,036 passengers and 9513 tons of goods. Passenger and goods traffic increased and from 1 November 1856 to 30 April 1857 a total of 232,973 passengers and 43,173 tons of goods were carried.
The Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay Railway Company opened a new line on 13 May 1857, branching off the Sandridge line 48 chains (966 metres) from Flinders Street station and extending to St Kilda. It included a large cutting at Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne) and a timber viaduct of 800 feet (244 metres) in length across part of Albert Lagoon. In 1865 the Hobson’s Bay Railway Company purchased the St Kilda to Brighton railway line and amalgamated with the Melbourne Railway Company to become the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay United Railway Company. This company continued to operate services between Melbourne and Sandridge until it was acquired by Victorian Railways on 1 July 1878, which then became responsible for services on the line.
The Melbourne to Sandridge line continued to operate into the twentieth century. Passenger trains generally operated every 30 minutes. Electric trains commenced operating on the line on 26 October 1919, and daytime service frequencies were increased to 10 minutes. From 1927 some trains were extended several hundred metres from Port Melbourne station to the Bay Excursion Pier, and from 22 May 1933 the overhead wiring was extended to enable electric trains to service the Station Pier, located a short distance beyond Bay Excursion Pier. Trains would be extended to Station Pier on an as required basis when ocean liners were berthed. From 1936 to 1939 a special train called The Boat Train operated.
The Victorian Government announced in 1983 that the Port Melbourne and St Kilda railway lines would be converted to light rail. In 1987 both lines were closed for conversion and re-opened the same year. Conversion included changing the track gauge from the broad (1600 mm) gauge used by suburban trains in Melbourne to the standard (1435 mm) gauge used by Melbourne’s trams, as well as converting the voltage of the overhead power supply from 1500 volts DC to 600 volts DC. The St Kilda line re-opened as a light rail line on 20 November and the Port Melbourne line on 18 December.
Australia’s first steam-powered railway is no longer a railway, but the route continues to service regular passengers each day. Melbourne’s tram route No. 109 extends from the CBD to Port Melbourne, mostly along the same right of way as the first railway. The traffic on the line today is very different from 1854, but it provides a link to an important time in Australia’s railway history.
Dornan, SE & RG Henderson, The electric railways of Victoria, Australian Electric Traction Association, Sydney 1979.
Harrigan, LJ, ‘Centenary of the Melbourne-Sandridge railway’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 203, September 1954, pp. 101–
‘Sandridge railway trail’, Museums Victoria <wwwmuseumsvictoria.com.au/railways/pdf/sandridge_railway_trail.pdf>.
‘The Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway Company’, Newsrail, vol. 32, no. 9, September 2004, pp. 272–4.
Vogel, FF, ‘Inauguration of the Victoria Railways system’, NSW Railway and Tramway Magazine, vol. 3, no. 13, 1 December 1920, pp. 796–8.
W8 Class tram 957 outside Flinders Street station, Melbourne, 14 January 2017.
Former railway station, Port Melbourne terminus, now the terminus of tram route No. 109, 18 December 2017.