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A Commonwealth Railways G Class locomotive with a westbound Trans-Australian Express, at Tarcoola, South Australia, on the Trans-Australian Railway in the 1920s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

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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Trans-Australian Railway

David Matheson

 23 June2024

The Trans-Australian Railway is a 1691-km section of railway that links Kalgoorlie in Western Australia with Port Augusta in South Australia. It’s opening in 1917 enabled passengers to travel between the eastern states and Western Australia by rail for the first time, and was a vital part of opening up the new nation.

 

Construction

Construction of the Trans-Australian Railway commenced in 1912. It had been promised as part of the agreement for Western Australia to join the federation of Australian states and territories in 1901. John Forrest, who was Premier of Western Australia from 1890 to 1901, became a member of the first Federal Parliament in 1901. He promoted the idea of an east-west railway as early as 1888 and continued to campaign hard for the line to be built once Federation had been achieved. Construction was finally authorised by Federal Parliament on 12 December 1911.

 

Henry Deane was consulting engineer for the survey of the line and was appointed Engineer-in-Chief for the Commonwealth Railways on 1 January 1912. Deane was responsible for construction of the line, which included significant challenges in an almost waterless landscape that had few inhabitants. The first sod was turned at Port Augusta on 14 September 1912 by the Governor-General, Lord Denman. Around 5000 people gathered to witness the ceremony. At the western end of the line the first sod was turned on 12 February 1913 by the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher. Work was undertaken simultaneously from both ends of the railway. Track workers used basic tools and horses to assist with construction. Around 2.5 million hardwood sleepers and 140,000 tons (142,247 tonnes) of rail were required. Works progressed despite the onset of the First World War in 1914. The two construction teams met near Ooldea, a distance of 995 km from Kalgoorlie and 697 km from Port Augusta, at 1.45 pm on 17 October 1917. Completion cost of the line in round figures was £6,667,000.

 

A noted feature on the Trans-Australian Railway is the longest straight section of railway line in the world. It is 478 km in length and extends from near the 797 km post (between Ooldea and Watson in South Australia) to near the 1275 km post (between Loongana and Nurina in Western Australia).

 

Opening

The first train on the Trans-Australian Railway departed from Port Augusta on 22 October and arrived in Kalgoorlie on 24 October after a journey of 42 hours and 48 minutes. It was hauled by 11 different G Class locomotives before its journey ended at Kalgoorlie. One of the passengers on board was Sir John Forrest, by this time Federal Treasurer. Upon arrival at Kalgoorlie he noted the contrast between a journey from Port Augusta to Perth by train, which now took two and a half days, and his first journey in 1870. Forrest had led an expedition that travelled from Perth to Adelaide by horse, taking five months to accomplish. An official opening ceremony took place in Perth on 16 November and the line was officially declared open by the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson.

 

The Trans-Australian Railway was designed for high-speed traffic, and it was expected that a journey between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie could be completed in 24 hours, with an average journey speed (including stops) of 44 miles per hour (77 km/h). Although these figures seem slow by today’s standards, at the time they compared favourably with the journey speeds of some of the world’s best express trains. The Trans-Australian Express was a luxury passenger train that operated between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie. It featured silver service in the dining car, lounge cars and showers.

 

With the opening of the Trans-Australian Railway in 1917 it became possible to travel between the Queensland capital of Brisbane and the Western Australian capital of Perth by train for the first time. Such a journey in 1917 took six days and 47 minutes. A passenger undertaking this journey would have needed to change trains eight times and travel on three different railway gauges. The route was via Wallangarra, Sydney, Albury, Melbourne, Adelaide, Terowie, Quorn, Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie. While the Trans-Australian railway was built to standard gauge, the railway lines extending from both ends of it were built to different gauges. It was not until 1970 that the first train crossed Australia from Sydney to Perth on standard gauge tracks the whole way.

 

A train known informally as the ‘Tea and Sugar’ train ran weekly to provide supplies to the isolated communities along the Trans-Australian Railway. Its eastbound return was known by locals as ‘The Bomber’. The train began in 1915 to supply construction workers on the line, and continued running after the railway was completed in 1917. It brought food and other goods, and was also an essential means of communication for places whose link to the outside world was the railway. As well as bringing supplies, the train also had a cinema and a welfare car. At Christmas time Santa Claus joined the train and brought cheer to children along the line.

 

Changes

Trains along the Trans-Australian Railway were powered from the outset by steam locomotives, although Henry Deane had recommended that diesels be used. In October 1951 the Commonwealth Railways’ first mainline diesel locomotive, entered service. GM1 was built by Clyde Engineering in Sydney. By the middle of 1952 all members of the class were in service, by which time train services on the Trans-Australian Railway had quickly become completely dieselised. From the middle of 1952 all train services on the Trans-Australian line were hauled by diesels. Around 50 steam locomotives had been replaced by 11 diesel-electric locomotives, and at the same time running costs were substantially lower.

 

Developing technology brought changes to the Trans-Australian Railway. Dieselisation of the line meant that fewer workers were required to service locomotives.  During the 1980s and 1990s wooden sleepers along the length of the line were replaced with concrete sleepers. This enabled trains to travel more quickly, meaning that journey times were reduced. Maintenance work was also substantially reduced. Settlements along the line virtually disappeared around this time.

 

The ‘Tea and Sugar’ train departed from Port Augusta for the final time on 28 August 1996, running as far as Cook. It had previously operated to Parkeston, near Kalgoorlie, but had been truncated to Cook some years earlier. The last trip of ‘The Bomber’ arrived back in Port Augusta on 31 August. Adelaide’s National Railway Museum includes carriages that operated on the ‘Tea and Sugar’ train.

 

On 17 October 1967 a ceremony was held at Ooldea to mark 50 years since the completion of the line. Two monuments, one on either side of track, were unveiled. The monuments eventually deteriorated, but replicas were installed at the same location to mark the line’s centenary in 2017. Centenary celebrations were held in Port Augusta on 22 October 2017, 100 years after the first train departed from there for Kalgoorlie. An exhibition was also held at the National Railway Museum in Adelaide. The Royal Australian Mint commemorated the centenary with a specially designed coin featuring a G Class locomotive hauling a passenger train. Australia Post released two new stamp designs featuring replicas of posters advertising the line.

 

Today almost all trains operating on the Trans-Australian Railway are freight trains. Fast intermodal services carry cargo across the nation. Also, the Indian Pacific runs on the east–west transcontinental route between Sydney, Adelaide and Perth once a week in each direction, with. its journey taking it along the Trans-Australian Railway. A single NR Class unit hauls the train between Adelaide and Perth. A stop is made at Rawlinna in the westbound direction and at Cook in the eastbound direction for an outback experience, providing passengers the opportunity to experience a remote outback location.

 

References

Anchen, N, Iron roads in the outback, Sierra, Melbourne, 2017.

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.

Drymalik, C, National Railway Museum: exhibits guide, National Railway Museum, Adelaide, 2015.

Gray, T, ‘Welcome to the Trans-Australia Railway: 100 years young’, Motive Power, no. 84, November 2012, pp. 71–3.

Luke, M, Riders of the steel highways: the history of Australia’s Commonwealth Railways 1912–1975, V M & B M Luke, Port Augusta, 1997.

Oberg, L, ‘Celebrations offer something for everyone’, Track+Signal, vol. 21, no. 3, July–September 2017, pp. 43–5.

Port Dock Station Railway Museum, Locomotives and railcars of the Commonwealth Railways, Gresley, Adelaide, 1996.

‘Rail link that brought the nation together’, Track+Signal, vol. 21, no. 3, July–September 2017, pp. 40–2.

‘‘Tea and Sugar’ bites the dust’, Railway Digest, vol. 34, no. 10, October 1996, p. 21.

‘The Trans-Australian Railway: national engineering landmark’, Engineers Australia, 2001

     <https://portal.engineersaustralia.org.au/system/files/engineering-heritage-australia/other-supporting-

     material/HRP.Trans%20Australian%20Railway.Booklet.Nov%202001.pdf>, accessed 21 June 2024.

Vogel, F, ‘Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta railway’, New South Wales Railway & Tramway Magazine, vol. 1, no. 1, December 1917, pp. 5–7.

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G14 hauling a passenger train on the Trans-Australian Railway, South Australia, 1924. Photo: Herbert H Fishwick, Wikimedia Commons, National Library of Australia. This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.

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Trans-Australian Railway track next to Lake Hart, Wirraminna, South Australia, 27 March 2005. Photo: Pavel Spindler, Wikimedia Commons.

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