A Brief History on Railways in South Australia

The Early Years

South Australia is one of the youngest colonies in the nation, and the only one which resulted from extensive planning prior to settlement. Governor Hindmarsh arrived in 1836 at a time when technological advances in agriculture and transport were to play a large role in the development of South Australia. Railways became an integral part of the State controlled occupation of new lands and expansion of mining, farming and pastoralism, the mainstays of our early economy.

The first line to be constructed in South Australia was a 10 kilometre broad gauge (1600 mm) horse drawn tramway between the Murray River port of Goolwa and Port Elliot. This was the first line to be laid with iron rails in Australia and was opened on the 18th of May 1854. Port Elliot soon proved unsuitable for shipping and the line was extended to Victor Harbor in 1864.

The Formation of the South Australia Railways (SAR)

Our State-owned railways began with the opening, on 19th April 1856, of the 12km broad gauge railway between Adelaide and Port Adelaide. This was the first Government built and owned steam railway in the British Empire. By 1860 a railway had been built to Kapunda where copper was first discovered in 1843 – and soon became the State's largest wheat receiving station. An extension, branching off at Roseworthy, was completed in 1870 to serve the mines at Burra. The Kapunda line was then pushed through to Morgan to capture Murray River paddle steamer trade from up-stream.

The early lines were short, disconnected lines built in the direction of the nearest port such as Port Broughton – Mundoora (horse drawn), Port Pirie – Crystal Brook and Port Wakefield – Balaklava. Later, during the 1880s, efforts were made to centralise the system and eventually all lines, except for those on Eyre Peninsula, were linked to Adelaide.

To serve the mining and pastoral industries in the far north of the state, the Great Northern Railway was built from Port Augusta to Quorn in 1879, with the line reaching Marree in 1883, and Oodnadatta in 1891. In 1865 South Australia's Surveyor General, George Goyder, established a "Line of Rainfall", past which rainfall was not reliable enough to support cropping. However good crops led many to ignore Goyder's advice and settlement occurred beyond Goyder's line, and for a few years there were even thoughts of farming the desert with a catch cry of "rainfall follows the plough"! Unfortunately Goyder's warnings were realised and poor return from many farms resulted in some lines being placed under threat of closure – even in the mid-1900s.

The Gauge Problem

08142South Australian Railways Broad Gauge locomotive 620 on public display at the Centenary Exhibition at the Wayville showgrounds shortly before being introduced to the service in 1936A notorious hindrance to the economic development of Australia was each State operating its railways to different gauges – a problem no better illustrated than in SA, which by 1917, had lines built in three different gauges. The problem was greatly reduced in 1995 with the "One Nation" project ensuring each Australian mainland capital city was connected with uninterrupted standard gauge lines.

Broad Gauge (1600mm or 5' 3")

01275South Australian Railways Narrow Gauge locomotive T241Initially adopted by New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, these tracks could carry trains at higher speeds and passengers in greater comfort than narrower gauges but they were much more expensive to build. Their use was therefore initially restricted to the lines around Adelaide and to the Intercolonial railway between Adelaide and Melbourne which was completed in 1887. Despite the obvious problems created when NSW changed its mind to use standard gauge (a decision also made by the federally owned Commonwealth Railways), South Australia continued to extend or convert lines to broad gauge. The Murray Mallee lines were built to broad gauge, the mid-north lines were converted in the 1920s from narrow to broad, and all of the lines south of Wolseley (apart from Glencoe) were broadened during the 1950s.

Narrow Gauge (1067mm or 3' 6")

Railways built primarily for the transport of grain to the nearest port did not require the speed or comfort provided by broader gauges. Narrow gauge was chosen for faster, less expensive construction throughout the mid-north, south-east and Eyre Peninsula. Longer lines to Cockburn (on the SA/NSW border) and Alice Springs were also built to this gauge. Today only the isolated grain lines of Eyre Peninsula remind us of the importance of 1067mm gauge to the economic development of SA. Few realised that these lightly laid lines could not support the tonnages required to turn a profit in the future.

Standard Gauge (1435mm or 4' 8½")

The first standard gauge line in SA was the Trans-Australian Railway running between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie in WA, built by the Commonwealth Railways, and opened in 1917. In 1937, standard gauge stretched to Port Pirie from Port Augusta, and to Marree in 1955. In 1970, the narrow gauge Port Pirie to Cockburn line, and the 56km privately run link through to Broken Hill was replaced by a standard gauge line, for the first time linking the East and West coasts of Australia - Sydney and Perth – with a single uninterrupted standard gauge line.

Break of Gauge Stations

18436Transferring coal from narrow gauge wagons to broad gauge wagons at TerowieTerowie, in the state's mid-north, was the first site selected to become a 'break of gauge' station on the basis that wool from the north and east could be carried via broad gauge to the processing and marketing facilities at Port Adelaide, whilst grain could be carted on the narrow gauge to Port Pirie, the nearest coastal port.

As the rail network was consolidated breaks of gauge also occurred at Hamley Bridge, Wolseley, Gladstone, Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Marree. When standard gauge connected Port Pirie with Broken Hill in 1970, triple gauge stations were created at Peterborough and Gladstone. Whilst travel for passengers was inconvenient, long distance freight traffic was onerously inefficient and this may help to explain why the road industry came to dominate transport.

It is part of SA's heritage that the Government has always determined the direction and nature of economic policy and infrastructure development. From 1906, cheaply constructed rail lines were pushed throughout the Murraylands and from 1907 on Eyre Peninsula, purely to encourage agricultural settlement. By 1917, the South Australian Railways system comprised nearly 5,300 km of railways and would only grow a few hundred more.

The Webb Legacy

06760The South Australian Railways 500 class was the largest of the big power locomotives introduced by Commissioner Webb in the 1920sBy 1922, through wear and tear, lack of maintenance, an ageing fleet of small locomotives and rolling stock, lightweight rail, declining revenues due to mine closures, the drain on the economy caused by the Great War, and because of many other problems, the entire South Australian Railways had decayed to the point of collapse. William Alfred Webb was appointed Commissioner for Railways that year following a proud record of achievement with several railroads in the USA. In his seven and a half years, he rebuilt the South Australian Railways to the pre-eminent position in Australia with his motto:

"The only basis of economy in railway operation is the reduction of train miles by the use of large capacity cars and the largest possible locomotives."

So began the big power era, and within ten years, a fleet of large modern locomotives had been purchased or built at the South Australian Railways’ Islington Workshops. Webb's program also included larger freight vehicles, new and stronger bridges, diesel railcars, expansion of the Islington Workshops, track duplication and modern depots. Conversion of narrow gauge lines to broad gauge soon began throughout the mid-north in the 1920s, to allow the carrying of the much larger trains. Also accomplished in the Webb era was the rebuilding of Adelaide Railway Station, road delivery vans and trucks to compete with the private sector, new administrative procedures, refreshment services, train control, the South Australian Railways Institute and the introduction of electric signalling.

South Australia's Passenger Services

From the early days South Australian Railways’ metropolitan and country passenger services were almost exclusively steam hauled. In 1924 Commissioner Webb introduced Model 55 rail cars, which became known as tinhares, built by the Brill Company in the US for country services where passenger numbers were too low to justify steam trains. They were later relegated to suburban duties until their demise in 1968. A single Model 75 rail car arrived from the Brill Co. in 1926 and numerous others were built at Islington. The "Barwell Bulls", as they were quickly nicknamed, mostly operated over country branch lines until October 1971. To stem declining passenger numbers in the 1950s and ‘60s, modern air-conditioned Bluebird rail cars were introduced on country services in 1954 and the following year, Red Hen rail cars began operating on suburban lines. Steam engines last ran in SA in 1970 ending a remarkable history which began in 1856 at the Port Dock Station.

Passenger numbers continued to decline, but the closure of the remaining country passenger services in SA was left to Australian National Railways – even though South Australian Railways Commissioner Ron Fitch had been warning the Government for many years of the consequences of mounting financial losses. This was perhaps inevitable once the Government repealed in 1963 the Road and Railways Transport Act of 1930, thus exposing the railways to intense competition from road transport.

Interstate Passenger Services

The Intercolonial Express, later known as the Melbourne Express, became The Overland in 1936 and still carries that name today. It was the first direct passenger service between two states without a break of gauge. When opened in 1917, the Trans-Australian Railway carried passenger services, but to travel from coast to coast meant a route via Melbourne, and included about six train changes. With completion of the east-west standard gauge project in 1970, a new direct service became known as the Indian Pacific, but it took until 1986 before the Indian Pacific operated via Adelaide. The Ghan to Alice Springs, affectionately named after the Afghan (actually Pakistani) cameleers who provided much of the early transport throughout the arid interior, began on the old narrow gauge line to Oodnadatta in 1929. It still runs today, travelling all the way to Darwin on the new standard gauge route to Alice Springs which opened in 1980, and on the extension to Darwin which opened in 2004.

Other Railway Operations in South Australia

Commonwealth Railways (CR)

14 219 a80 197Commonwealth Railways standard gauge locomotive GM1 at Port AugustaThe Commonwealth Government entered the world of railways when in 1911 it acquired the narrow gauge Port Augusta to Oodnadatta line – operated by the South Australian Railways until 1926. The Commonwealth Railways completed the line to Alice Springs in 1929. The Commonwealth was also responsible for the building of the Trans-Australian Railway, opened in 1917 between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie, and for the North Australian Railway extension, from Pine Creek to Birdum in the Northern Territory.

Silverton Tramway Company (STC)

06876The NSW Government refused to allow the South Australian Railways to complete the narrow gauge link across the border to enable the transport of ore from the Broken Hill mines to the smelters at Port Pirie. This led to the formation of the privately owned Silverton Tramway Company, which from 1888 to 1970 operated the 56km link from Cockburn in SA to Broken Hill. Until recently the company still existed as a major contractor to the national freight industry, though the Silverton tramway was closed following the linking of Broken Hill and Port Pirie by standard gauge in 1970.

BHP and Other Private Operators

11789BHP's Baldwin Steam Locomotive No. 9In 1902 the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) opened a private tramway between its iron ore mine at Iron Knob and its jetty at Hummock Hill (now known as Whyalla). Over time the narrow gauge line was diverted and extended to mines at Iron Baron and Iron Duke, both of which still operate today, supplying iron ore to the furnaces at Whyalla - now owned by the OneSteel company, with the rail operations run by Genesee & Wyoming Australia. BHP also operated a standard gauge line from Coffin Bay, on the lower Eyre Peninsula, to Proper Bay (near Port Lincoln) for the transportation of mineral sand until 1989. In additional to these lines, BHP also operated a small number of locomotives for shunting operations at its Port Pirie smelter, with the Electricity Trust of South Australia doing similar at the Stirling North Power Station.

Rail Standardisation

14 219 b80 278cBuilding the Tarcoola to Alice Springs lineThe only way for South Australia's railways to participate in the movement of freight nationally was to standardise all main through lines to 1435mm. The South Australian Railways and Commonwealth Railways mutually agreed to link Port Augusta and Adelaide, via Port Pirie, by the construction of a new standard gauge line between Port Pirie and Port Augusta, and a new broad gauge line between Redhill and Port Pirie, both completed in 1937. In 1955 the Commonwealth Railways built a new standard gauge line from Stirling North to Marree, primarily for the transport of Leigh Creek coal to the Stirling North power station (located near Port Augusta). Another major standardisation task, to link Sydney and Perth, was opened between Broken Hill and Port Pirie by the South Australian Railways in 1970. Once plagued by floods and derailments, the narrow gauge from Marree to Alice Springs was finally replaced in 1980 by a new standard gauge route, branching off at Tarcoola on the Trans-Australian line. The broad gauge between Adelaide and Port Pirie was replaced by standard gauge, linking at Crystal Brook, in 1982. The Federal Government's "One Nation" project resulted in the broad gauge between Melbourne and Adelaide being standardised in June 1995. All mainland State capitals were directly connected by standard gauge! Ironically, this section was the first with a common gauge across a State border – opened in 1887.

Amalgamation & Privatisation

09541Australian National's BL33 helps shunt a train at Mile EndIn 1978 the Commonwealth Railways, South Australian Railways and Tasmanian Government Railways were amalgamated to form Australian National Railways – and it took over the operation of all Commonwealth and non-urban South Australian lines (and the railways of Tasmania). At the same time, the State Transport Authority of South Australia (which was to become TransAdelaide) was created to operate all the Adelaide suburban rail lines.

With the Federal Government’s move towards microeconomic reform, it decided to privatise the railways. One of the steps towards that goal was the creation of National Rail in the early 1990s, which then eventually led to the sale of Australian National in November 1997. Great Southern Railways took charge of the ex-Australian National passenger services, while Australia Southern Railroad (now Genesee & Wyoming Australia) took control of the remaining functions – ownership of ex-Australian National locomotives, wagons and branch lines. Enter the era of private rail companies running their own trains over a combination of Commercial, State and Commonwealth Government owned tracks.

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