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South Australian Railways 500 Class steam locomotive number 504, National Railway Museum, Port Adelaide, 18 January 2017.


William Webb. Source: A history of the South Australian Railways, volume 5: controversy and Mr Webb, p. 16.

William Webb

David Matheson

29 March 2020

William Alfred Webb (1878–1936) was a railway administrator who had a significant impact on the South Australian Railways in the 1920s. He introduced major changes, which modernised the railways of the state. However, he attracted criticism for the considerable cost of his ideas.


Early Life and Career

Webb was born on 16 May 1878 at Eaton, Ohio, United States of America. He left home at the age of 12 and worked with various railroads in the United States over the following three decades. His first job was as a messenger-boy on the Colorado Midland Railway. In later years he became a traffic clerk, a telegraphist, and then stenographer to the General Manager.


Webb was appointed secretary to the President of the Colorado and Southern Railway in 1900, eventually becoming assistant to its Vice President. He was later General Manager of the Texas Central Railroad before moving in 1911 to the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad Company, where he was General Manager of Operations. He initiated a large rehabilitation program, including building new lines, upgrading existing lines and bridges, introducing new locomotives, and the rebuilding of freight and passenger rolling stock.


Following the entry of the United States into the First World War all railroads came under government control. In 1918 Webb was appointed General Manager of a large grouping of south-western lines. He resigned in 1919 because of tensions and conflicts between various railway managements. Webb was then appointed a member of the Railroad Board of Adjustment in Washington, DC, focusing on the settlement of industrial disputes, but resigned to take up a position as Vice President and General Manager of the St Louis south-west system. In 1922 he became President of the Cambria and Indiana Railroad, but the following year he resigned when he accepted the position of Chief Commissioner of the South Australian Railways. Webb’s experience with different railroad companies and the numerous positions he held gave him a broad knowledge of many aspects of railway operations and management.


South Australian Railways

Securing the position of Chief Commissioner ahead of 90 other applicants, William Webb was appointed for a seven-year term on an annual salary of £5000. He arrived in Adelaide on 16 November 1922 after travelling by train from Sydney via Melbourne. Upon arrival Webb said, “I think your passenger services are equal to anything I have seen.” He also announced that his policy would always be to have an open door. Over the next three months Webb inspected the railways throughout the state, travelling to Oodnadatta, the isolated Port Lincoln system, Broken Hill, Spalding and Mount Gambier. Overall, he said that he was impressed with the system and that the permanent way was in good condition. Nevertheless, the locomotives and rolling stock were out of date.


The South Australian Government had given Webb the task of modernising the railways of the state. He took on the challenge with comprehensive plans to modernise locomotives, rolling stock and infrastructure, and to overhaul working practices. Prior to his arrival, the South Australian Railways were inefficient and management structures were poorly organised. Webb decentralised the administration, giving Divisional Superintendents greater authority over operations within their regions. He developed management systems which aimed to provide efficient services without unnecessary intervention. Webb enthused senior railway staff and encouraged a spirit of service, but was harsh towards those that did not meet his standards. He believed in hard work and refused to take holidays.


Webb aimed to improve efficiency by increasing the size of locomotives and freight rolling stock, thus enabling larger train loads to operate. Heavier track and stronger bridges were required to support the increased weight of trains. A new Adelaide railway station was built, which incorporated railway offices as well as improved facilities for passengers; the station opened on 30 June 1928. The railway workshops at Islington were completely reconstructed. Other initiatives of Webb included improved safeworking practices, the introduction of rail motors, enhanced marshalling and depot facilities, provision of a dining car on The Overland passenger train between Melbourne and Adelaide, and the construction of a new bridge at Murray Bridge.


Webb’s efforts to provide the railways with greater returns on investment were hampered by the increasing cost of wages and coal, competition from road buses, and also the impact of the Great Depression. His ideas attracted significant criticism because of their size and cost. There were various personal attacks but he was determined to continue with his reforms. Following a change of government in 1930 a Royal Commission was instigated into the administration of the railways. The report noted that while some of Webb’s reforms were necessary, in other areas there was greater expenditure than justified. Some spending was described as extravagant, such as the new Adelaide station.


Big engines

William Webb is perhaps best known for his ‘big engines’ policy, which brought much larger and more powerful steam engines to South Australia than those that were in service when he arrived in the state. These locomotives were able to haul considerably heavier and longer trains, improving efficiency by carrying more passengers and greater amounts of freight on each train. Webb’s big engines were the largest locomotives operating in Australia at the time. The ‘big engines’ policy included the 500 Class, 600 Class and 700 Class, all of which had ten members introduced to service in 1926. These 30 engines were built by Armstrong Whitworth & Company at Newcastle upon Tyne in England. They were followed by the 710 Class and the 720 Class, which were built by the South Australian Railways.


The first of the 500 Class 4-8-2 locomotives entered service on 22 May 1926. All ten members of the class were operating by the end of October. Weighing 213.3 tons (216.7 tonnes), the 500 Class were the heaviest locomotives in Australia when they began operating, and were the first in Australia that weighed more than 200 tons. Their 51,000 pound (226.86 kN) tractive effort enabled them to haul heavy loads. The addition of boosters several years after introduction increased their tractive effort to 59,000 pounds (262.45 kN) and their overall weight to 222.3 tons (225.9 tonnes). Boosters provided additional drawbar pull when starting, and on difficult gradients and curves. The 500 Class were mainly used between Adelaide and Tailem Bend hauling goods trains, but they also operated The Overland express passenger train. Their heavy weight saw them restricted to lines with heavy track, including those to Port Pirie, Terowie and Victor Harbor. The 500 Class continued in service until displaced by diesel locomotives in the 1950s. Number 504 is an exhibit at the National Railway Museum in Port Adelaide.


Also commencing service in 1926, the first member of the 600 Class was introduced to service on 10 May 1926. Introduced for express passenger train working, these 4-6-2 locomotives hauled a range of passenger and fast goods trains, mostly between Tailem Bend and Serviceton. Upon entering service their tractive effort was 36,600 pounds (162.8 kN) and their overall weight was 197.0 tons (200.1 tonnes). They were modified in the late 1930s, including the installation of new steel boilers and the fitting of smoke deflectors; these modifications increased their tractive effort to 39,300 pounds (174.8 kN) and their weight to 199.8 tons (202.8 tonnes). All of the 600 Class engines were withdrawn from service in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and all were subsequently scrapped.


Number 700, class leader of the 700 Class, was the first of the big engines to enter service when it commenced duties on 27 April 1926. Although all of the big engines were larger and heavier than other engines in operation until that time, the 700 Class 2-8-2 locomotives, with a weight of 171.2 tons (173.9 tonnes), were lighter than the 500 Class and 600 Class. With a tractive effort of 40,400 pounds (179.7 kN), they were designed for hauling goods trains over the lighter tracks on the system, including to Moonta, Gladstone, Renmark, Pinnaroo and Victor Harbor. At times they were called on to work passenger trains, mainly on the line through the Adelaide Hills. Their lighter weight also resulted in them having longer service lives than the other big engines and they operated into the middle of the 1960s. Number 706 continued running until 1967 and is now at the National Railway Museum.


The 710 Class was obtained to expand the fleet of good engines capable of operating on lighter lines. They were similar in appearance and design to the 700 Class, and also had a 2-8-2-wheel arrangement, but were slightly larger. The first of the ten members of the 710 Class entered service on 16 February 1931, by which time William Webb had left the South Australian Railways. They were fitted with boosters when built, but these were removed in the 1930s. All were withdrawn from service in the 1960s and subsequently scrapped.


It had been intended that 20 members of the 710 Class would enter service. However, issues with the boosters on the 710 Class led to modifications to the design, resulting in the creation of the 720 Class. The major feature of the modifications was that the booster and firebox were supported by four trailing wheels, making a 2-8-4 wheel arrangement, instead of the two trailing wheels on the 710 Class. Class leader number 720 entered service on 26 November 1930, with five engines operational by the middle of 1931. Further orders led to another six engines entering service in 1938 and 1939, and six more in 1942 and 943, bringing the total to 17. In service it was found that were not ideally suited to operation on lighter lines as had been intended, and they were generally used on heavier lines. All had been withdrawn from service by the middle of the 1960s and none have been preserved. Other big engines entered service with South Australian Railways, but these began operating well after the years that William Webb was Chief Commissioner.


Departure and Legacy

Webb departed South Australia in May 1930 and returned to the United States of America. His years of working as Chief Commissioner had caused significant strain, although he had become very wealthy. He became General Manager of the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1935, working up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. William Webb died of an intercranial haemorrhage at Dallas, Texas, on 9 August 1936 at the age of 58 years. He was buried in Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.


Despite the criticism of many of his reforms in South Australia, his initiatives enabled South Australian Railways to fulfil the massive demands placed on it during the Second World War. The system was much better equipped to carry out the significant movements of troops and equipment required.


Webb’s legacy remains in the Adelaide railway station, which continues to service regular suburban passenger trains. The changes that he introduced to the state’s railways enabled it to cope with the demands of the following decades, although the system is now much smaller. Two of Webb’s ‘big engines’, numbers 504 and 706, can be seen at the National Railway Museum in Port Adelaide.



‘Chief railways Commissioner: arrival of Mr. W. A. Webb’, Chronicle, 18 November 1922, p. 35.

‘Death of Mr. W. A. Webb: man who remodelled railways’, Recorder, 10- September 1936, p. 4.

Jennings, R, ‘Webb, William Alfred (1878–1936)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

     published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online <>.

Marshall, B & J Wilson, Locomotives of the S.A.R., Mile End Railway Museum, Adelaide, 1972.

Stewien, R, A history of the South Australian Railways, volume 5: controversy and Mr Webb, Eveleigh Press, Sydney, 2011.

Stewien, R, A history of the South Australian Railways, volume 6: Mountains, Mikados and Pacifics, Eveleigh Press, Sydney, 2010.

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South Australian Railways 700 Class locomotive number 706 hauling the Oakbank race train at Blackwood, 14 April 1952. Source: State Library of South Australia. This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.



Adelaide railway station under construction, 1927. Source: State Library of South 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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