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A studio portrait of Harold W. Clapp, chairman of commissioners, Victorian Railways about 1935. Photo: Public Records Office Victoria, Wikimedia Commons.

Spirit of Progress headed by S301 Sir Thomas Mitchell near Kilmore, about 1938. Photo: John Buckland, Wikimedia Commons. This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.

Harold Clapp

David Matheson

 17 August 2021

Harold Clapp was one of the longest-serving leaders of an Australian railway system. He modernised the Victorian Railways and brought many innovations during the 1920s and 1930s. Clapp’s legacy lives on in Australian railways today.


Early years

Harold Winthrop Clapp was born at St Kilda in Melbourne on 7 May 1875. He was the son of Francis Boardman Clapp, who operated an extensive bus network in Melbourne and had a major role in the establishment and operation of cable tram services in the city.


Harold Clapp attended Brighton Grammar School and then Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, before completing an apprenticeship with the Otis Engineering Company. He then spent four years in Brisbane, where, as Superintendent of Motive Power, he supervised the conversion of the city’s horse tram network to electric traction.


In 1901 Clapp moved to America and began working for the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York, where he remained for six years. He was later employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he was in charge of the electrification of the West Jersey and Seashore Division. In 1908 Clapp joined the Southern Pacific Railroad, and was again responsible for electrification projects. He was subsequently Vice-President of the Columbus Power and Light Company and Vice-President of the East St. Louis and Suburban Railway in Illinois.


Victorian Railways

At the age of 45, Clapp returned to Australia in 1920 to become the Chairman of the Victorian Railways (VR) Commissioners. His appointment was partly on the advice of Thomas Tait, the Chairman of Commissioners from 1903 to 1910. Earning a salary of £5000, Clapp was the highest paid public servant in Australia. He quickly became well-known throughout the state. Clapp held the position of Chairman for almost 19 years, a record term in office, from 17 September 1920 to 30 June 1939. During his time as the head of VR there was a renewed emphasis on service to the public and significant modernisation of the railways in the state. Clapp believed that service should be cheerful and courteous at all times. He gained a reputation as a brilliant administrator, and one who inspired confidence in those who worked with and for him.


One of Clapp’s main achievements was fast passenger trains. Introduced in 1926, the Geelong Flier ran non-stop from Melbourne to Geelong in one hour, a time which was later further reduced to 55 minutes. Clapp also introduced a fast train to Bendigo named the Great Northern Limited. The Adelaide Express was renamed The Overland in 1926, and between 1930 and 1938 its total journey time between Melbourne and Adelaide was reduced from 18 hours to 14 hours.


Four S Class express passenger locomotives were built at Newport Workshops between 1928 and 1933. These engines used a three-cylinder design, which was popular at the time in the Unites States and England, to increase power. They were to put to work operating the two express passenger trains between Melbourne and Albury, the Sydney Limited and the Albury Express. Subsequently they hauled the Spirit of Progress on the same route. Unfortunately none of the S Class engines have been preserved.


Spirit of Progress

The Spirit of Progress is regarded by many as Clapp’s greatest achievement. Introduced in 1937, it included First and Second Class sitting carriages, a dining car, and a parlour car with a rounded end. The train was air-conditioned throughout and brought a level of luxury previously unknown on Australian railways. Carriages were built using a new alloy called corten steel and were painted in royal blue with gold lining. They featured walnut and chrome interiors with plush carpets. Clapp was closely involved in the details of its design and construction.


Prior to beginning regular service, the Spirit of Progress operated several trips to Geelong, Ballarat, Castlemaine and Bendigo for invited guests. Workers who built the train at Newport Workshops were taken for a special journey at the instigation of Harold Clapp. When it was being planned, Clapp had insisted that the train be built at Newport rather than overseas. Clapp rode on the train on its first official run from Melbourne to Albury on 23 November 1937. Upon arrival at Albury he walked the length of the platform, shook hands with the driver and thanked for him for what he said was, “a very good trip.”


In regular service the Spirit of Progress ran non-stop between Melbourne and Albury, a distance of 190.5 miles (306.6 km), in 230 minutes northbound and 215 minutes southbound. The four S Class engines were streamlined for service on the train and had larger tenders constructed to enable them to work between Melbourne and Albury on a non-stop run. They were able to achieve average speeds of 49.2 miles per hour (79.2 km/h) northbound and 53.2 miles per hour (85.6 km/h) southbound. The Spirit of Progress quickly gained a reputation on Australian railways as the outstanding train for speed, luxury and modern service.


Other achievements

While Clapp was Chairman, plans were developed for the introduction of three H Class 4-8-4 engines. Delays led to only one being built, and by the time it entered service Clapp was no longer Chairman. February 1941 saw the introduction H220 Heavy Harry, the heaviest steam locomotive in Australia at the time. It was the first locomotive in Victoria to be fitted with a mechanical stoker, making the job of the fireman much easier. It had been intended that H220 would operate on The Overland, but strengthening of track and bridges was required first, which was not possible in the wartime conditions. Although intended as an express passenger engine, it was mainly used on fast goods trains, but also saw some service on passenger trains. H220 is preserved at the Newport Railway Museum.


Other achievements while Clapp was in office included:

  • The continued expansion of the electrified network in Melbourne, following the beginning of electric train services in 1919;

  • Assisting primary producers through a publicity campaign to “eat more fruit” and the opening of fruit juice bars on railway stations;

  • The Better Farming Train, which carried agricultural and other experts to rural areas to teach farmers how to increase productivity, and teach farmers’ wives to run homes more efficiently;

  • The Reso Train (Victorian National Resources Development), which brought businessmen from the city and farmers together;

  • Promotion of tourism in Victoria;

  • The introduction of Australia’s first air-conditioned railway carriage with 36AE entering service in December 1935;

  • The introduction of cheap Sunday excursion trains;

  • Speeding up timetables for passenger trains;

  • The introduction of petrol rail motors on branch lines;

  • A nursery for children at Flinders Street Station;

  • The Man in Grey information service at Spencer Street Station;

  • The introduction of E Class electric locomotives in 1923;

  • More powerful goods locomotives, including the K, N and X Classes, most of which were built at Newport Workshops;

  • The transition from screw couplings to automatic couplings, enabling longer and heavier trains to operate.


Clapp saw road transport as a significant and growing competitor for railway traffic. He cut rates for freight services and introduced a range of innovations to attract business. The Depression years brought significant challenges and deficits for the railways, curtailing some of his innovations. Clapp was also known for his obsession with cleanliness and became known for running his finger along a high shelf in various railway stations that he visited. This action led to the nickname ‘Clever Mary’, after a household cleaning product at the time. He could be impatient at times and was known to be abrupt with those whose work was below standard. Nevertheless, he knew many railway employees personally and welcomed suggestions from staff. Union officials found him to be approachable, and he encouraged further education for professionals and junior staff.


Career following departure from Victorian Railways

Following his departure from VR, Clapp became General Manager of the Commonwealth Aircraft Production Commission. In 1941 he was awarded a knighthood, and in 1942 he was appointed Director-General of the Commonwealth Land Transport Board. Clapp was asked to prepare a report on the standardisation of railway gauges in Australia, and his report was completed in March 1945. It emphasised the importance of the modernisation of the railways using diesel locomotives and updated passenger and goods rolling stock. He noted that the use of different railway gauges led to independent systems which may not be in the best interests of Australia.


Clapp’s major proposals in his 1945 report were:

  • Construction of an independent standard gauge line between Fremantle/Perth and Kalgoorlie

  • Conversion of all broad gauge lines, together with the narrow gauge lines in the South East Division of the South Australian Railways, to standard gauge

  • Conversion of all broad gauge lines in Victoria

  • Conversion of the narrow gauge lines in the Peterborough Division of the South Australian Railways, including the Port Pirie–Broken Hill section

  • Provision of a standard gauge line between Bourke, New South Wales, and Townsville and Dajarra, Queensland (around 150 km south of Mount Isa)

  • Provision of a standard gauge line between Dajarra, Queensland, and Darwin, Northern Territory.

Completion of all projects, including locomotives and rolling stock, would take eight years and cost £76,751,00. This was an enormous sum of money in 1945, but Clapp argued that the economic benefits would be great.


If carried out in full, Clapp’s plan would have seen standard gauge railways connecting Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin. Brisbane had already been connected to Sydney by standard gauge in 1932. Additionally, virtually all railways in South Australia and Victoria would be converted to standard gauge. The remaining narrow gauge lines in Queensland and Western Australia would be converted to standard gauge at a later date. There was no proposal to convert the railways in Tasmania, the Central Australia Railway to Alice Springs, or the railways on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, all of which were narrow gauge.


Most of Clapp’s proposals were never realised and the importance of railways began to decline in subsequent decades. Nevertheless, some significant standardisation projects were eventually completed. A standard gauge line between Albury and Melbourne opened in 1962, linking Sydney and Melbourne by standard gauge. The narrow gauge line between Kalgoorlie and Perth was replaced by a standard gauge line in 1968, and a standard gauge line was completed between Broken Hill and Port Augusta in 1970, creating a continuous standard gauge link between Sydney and Perth. Standard gauge finally reached Adelaide in 1982. In 2004 a standard gauge line reached Darwin, but this line was from Adelaide via Alice Springs, not through Queensland as envisaged by Clapp.



The first mainline diesel to operate with Victorian Railways was B60, which arrived at Melbourne’s Spencer Street station on 14 July 1952 following its delivery run from Sydney. The following day B60 was named Harold Clapp, after the former VR Chairman, and Clapp was present at its naming ceremony. In 1975, to mark the centenary of Clapp’s birth, B60 was transferred to standard gauge and hauled the Spirit of Progress into Melbourne on 7 May.


Harold Clapp died in Melbourne on 21 October 1952, aged 77.


Tributes were paid to Harold Clapp after his death. Prime Minster Robert Menzies said, “Clapp was one of the outstanding public servants of our time. Australia was fortunate to have him in its service. I had the singular good fortune to know the late Sir Harold Clapp closely. I pay tribute to the character and work of a great expert, a great Australian and a great man.”


The Federal Minister for Transport, Senator McLeay, said, “Sir Harold introduced to Australia rail transport in a practical and crusading form the doctrine that the railways are the servants of the people. By modernisation, and by the consistent introduction of new ideas, he had revolutionised rail transport in Australia. The Australian people, and particularly rural communities who depend so much on the railways, are deeply in his debt.”



Adam-Smith, P, ‘Clapp, Sir Harold Winthrop (1875–1952)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National

     University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 August


Adam-Smith, P, ‘Harold Clapp’s railways,’ The Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 44, nos. 3 & 4, August–November 1973, pp. 117–24.

‘Career of service to state railways’, The Age, 22 October 1952, p. 2.

Clapp, H, Report to the Minister for Transport by Sir Harold Clapp, K.B.E., Director-General of Land Transport, on standardization of Australia’s

     railway gauges, Government Printer, Canberra, 1945.

‘Clapp: the man who gave us the Spirit of Progress’, Herald, 21 October 1952, p. 2.

‘Former railways chairman dies’, Weekly Times, 22 October 1952, p. 3.

‘Harold Clapp anniversary’, Newsrail, vol. 3, no. 7, July 1975, p. 148.

Lee, R, The railways of Victoria: 1854–2004, Melbourne University Publishing, 2007.

‘Mr. Menzies’ tribute to Sir H. Clapp’, The Age, 23 October 1952, p. 2.

Peterson, GA, ‘The Clapp era: Sir Harold Clapp, Victorian Railways Chairman of Commissioners – 1920–1939’, Newsrail, vol. 20, no. 7, July 1992, pp. 226–7.

‘Rebel in the railways: the career of Harold Clapp, the man who got things done’, Newsrail, vol. 33, no. 4, April 2005, pp. 104–5.

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A lecture on pure bred stock at the Better Farming Train, 1924. Photo: Victorian Railways, NSW State Archives and Records.

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B60 on its delivery run from Sydney to Melbourne being passed by an S Class steam locomotive at Seymour, 14 July 1952. B60 was named Harold Clapp on 15 July 1952. Photo: Victorian Railways, Wikimedia Commons. This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.

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