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Portrait of Henry Deane, about 1895. Photo: National Library of Australia.

Sydney’s Central station, which was opened in 1906. Henry Deane had overall responsibility for its design, 10 July 2018.

Henry Deane

David Matheson

29 September 2019

Henry Deane (1847-1924) was an engineer and scientist who made a significant contribution to railways in Australia. He was Engineer-in-Chief for Railways and Tramways in New South Wales, planned the construction of the private Wolgan Valley railway to the west of Sydney, and supervised construction of the Trans-Australian Railway.


Early Life

Deane was born on 26 March 1847 at Clapham Common in London. He attended school in England before completing a Bachelor of Arts at Queen’s College, Galway, Ireland, with honours in mathematics and natural science. He studied engineering for a further two years before returning to London and continuing his studies at King’s College. Deane became a pupil in the office of John Fowler, engineer and railway builder. He was subsequently engaged in various positions, including with Waring Brothers, who were contractors for East Hungarian Railways, and with the Danube Steam Navigation Company. He had some involvement in survey work and bridge designs, as well as building sugar refineries in the Philippines.


New South Wales Railways and Tramways

After arriving in Sydney in January 1880 Deane was soon appointed a railway surveyor under John Whitton, Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales railways. The following year he became District Engineer, involved with construction of the Gunnedah–Narrabri railway, and in 1883 he took a similar position with construction of the Strathfield to Hawkesbury River railway. He was present at the opening of the Hawkesbury River railway bridge on 1 May 1889. Deane became Inspecting Engineer in 1886, and then Engineer-in-Chief for railway construction on 1 July 1891, succeeding John Whitton, who had retired.


After Deane became Engineer-in-Chief for railway construction a new phase of railway building commenced in the state. He supported the construction of ‘pioneer railways’, which were lightly-built lines with minimal earthworks, little ballast, light rails and no fencing. They were used in rural areas where light traffic was expected and trains were restricted to a maximum of 20 miles per hour (32 km/h). He visited Europe and the United States of America in 1894 and 1904, studying the latest advances in railway and tramway construction.


From 1899 Deane was also responsible for tramway construction. He recommended that the Sydney tramway system be electrified, and a major electrification program was commenced in the late 1890s. A large powerhouse to produce electricity for the trams was built at Ultimo in Sydney.


During Deane’s period of service some of the steeper gradients on New South Wales railways were eased, enabling longer and heavier trains to operate. The Lapstone zig zag in the Blue Mountains, which had become a major bottleneck, was replaced by a tunnel. In Sydney the line from Central to Homebush was quadruplicated and others were duplicated. Deane had overall responsibility for the design of the new Central station, which opened after he retired in 1906, and is the existing Central station today.


Railways opened while Deane was Engineer-in-Chief for railway construction included lines from Nyngan to Cobar, Cootamundra to Temora and Wyalong, Kiama to Nowra, Narrabri to Moree, Culcairn to Corowa, Lismore to Murwillumbah, Parkes to Condobolin, and Dubbo to Coonamble. In 1905 the railway construction branch was abolished, and Deane subsequently retired in May 1906.


Wolgan Valley Railway

Following his retirement from the New South Wales Railways and Tramways, Deane established a private engineering consultancy. He was soon commissioned by the Commonwealth Oil Corporation to design and supervise construction of a private railway to the shale mining and refienry works at Newnes, a remote location in the Wolgan Valley, west of Sydney. The 51 km line through rugged terrain was remarkably completed within 13 months, opening in December 1907. It included two tunnels, gradients up to 1 in 25 and sharp curves.


Deane ordered four Shay-geared locomotives for the Wolgan Valley line, which were powerful engines that were able to handle the steep gradient. Shay locomotives were an American design with the weight of both the tender and the engine available for adhesion. Unlike conventional steam locomotives the Shays were was geared, which resulted in a very even turning force being applied to the wheels; this allowed them to start easily on a steep gradient. The short length of their boiler tubes, at around three metres, meant that the difference in water levels when operating on steep gradients was not a serious issue. They had a short wheelbase, enabling them to negotiate sharp curves. Another unusual feature was that they had three cylinders on the side of the boiler, which was offset from the centre. A disadvantage of the Shay locomotives was their excessive noise and vibration, and as a result they were restricted to 25 km/h.


Generally one train a day operated on the Wolgan Valley line, carrying both freight and passengers. It connected with the New South Wales Railways Main West line at Newnes Junction, near Bell in the Blue Mountains. The Commonwealth Oil Corporation’s works at Newnes were never very succesful and the railway was closed in 1932. The rails were taken up during the Second World War and sent to Tobruk in the Middle East.


Trans-Australian Railway

Deane chaired a meeting of engineers-in-chief of the government railways in Australia in 1903 and was requested by the Minister for Home Affairs to review information regarding the proposed railway across Australia linking Western Australia to the eastern states. He submitted a report in July of that year, recommending that the line be built to standard gauge and that it extend from Port Augusta in South Australia to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. He suggested that the line could be completed within three to four years and would cost just over £5 million. It took considerable time for agreement on the railway to be reached and in 1908 Deane was appointed consulting engineer for the survey of the line. He was working at the Department of Home Affairs and by 1911 he had a staff of 35 engineers, surveyors and clerks. He completed a final report with estimates and specifications in September of that year. He continued his work and was appointed Engineer-in-Chief for the Commonwealth Railways on 1 January 1912. Although based in Melbourne, the work took him out to the Nullarbor to supervise railway construction.


Deane was responsible for construction of the 1682 km Trans-Australian Railway line, including organising the plant and equipment required. The construction of a railway across an almost waterless landscape that had few inhabitants brought a new set of challenges. He recommended that diesel locomotives be used due to the considerable logistical difficulties of providing water and coal for steam engines in such an arid and remote region. Deane was a visionary in this regard as diesel locomotives were not operating regularly on any main line railway in the world until 1929. His recommendation was not adopted at the time, but diesel locomotives eventually took over from steam engines on the Trans-Australian Railway in 1951, bringing significantly improved efficiency.


Retirement and Legacy

Deane resigned from the Commonwealth Railways effective from 1 April 1914, citing the stress of the previous two years’ work. He resumed his private engineering consultancy in Melbourne. As the years passed he spent more time on other interests. Work on the Trans-Australian Railway line continued, and the first train on the completed line ran in October 1917.


In addition to his engineering career, Deane was a noted botanist. He conducted extensive research on the tertiary fossil flora of eastern Australia and Australian timbers, publishing numerous papers. He was also President of various scientific and engineering organisations, including the Royal Society of New South Wales.


Henry Deane died at Malvern, Victoria, on 12 March 1924 at the age of 76 years. He was buried in Brighton Cemetery, Melbourne, Victoria. Deane was married twice: first to Anna Mathilde in 1873; and after Anna died he married Mary Lillias in 1890. He was survived by his widow, three sons and three daughters.


Deane’s legacy remains in the Trans-Australian Railway, which continues to see freight and passenger trains moving across the nation. Many railway lines in New South Wales that were planned and constructed by Deane continue to see trains, while others have closed but remain in place. Sydney’s Central station continues to see regular passenger train services each day. Henry Deane Plaza, near Sydney’s Central station, commemorates Deane’s work. Eucalyptus deanei, or mountain blue gum, is also named after him.



Arthur, I, ‘Henry Deane, railway engineer’, ASHET News: Newsletter of the Australian Society for History of Engineering and Technology, vol. 7,

     no. 14, October 2014.

Burke, D, Making the railways, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995.

Burke, D, Road through the wilderness: the story of the transcontinental railway, the first great work of Australia’s federation, New South Wales

     University Press, Sydney, 1991.

‘Obituary: Mr Henry Deane’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1924, p. 10.

The cyclopedia of N.S.W.: an historical and commercial review, Sydney, 1907.

Walker, J D, ‘Deane, Henry (1847–1924)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

     published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online <>.


Henry Deane at the right of a group of Federal Members of Parliament on the Trans-Australian Railway line construction in 1913. Image: Making the railways, p. 130.


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Track laying machine on the Trans-Australian Railway, January 1914. Photo: State Library of South Australia, B 241. No known copyright restrictions.

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