NLA Fellow, Dr André Brett uses the development of railway networks to interrogate the strong and enduring linkages between economic growth and environmental change.
Andre Brett 20-05-21
*Speakers: Martin Woods (M), Andre Brett (A)
M: Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Martin Woods, I’m a Director of Curatorial and Collection Research here at the Library and I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of the land that we’re on and to pay respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here.
Thank you all for attending this afternoon’s presentation by Dr Andre Brett, one of our 2021 National Library of Australia Fellows. Andre’s fellowship is one of three this year which have been funded by the Stokes family and we thank them for their generosity and ongoing support of the Library’s Fellowships programs. Andre is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wollongong where he held a post-doctoral fellowship from 2017 to last year. As you will see, he is a versatile and accomplished historian of British settler colonialism and experience in Australasia and his research profile integrates political, economic, environmental, transport history adopting a comparative approach to understanding similarities, differences and exchanges between these settler societies.
Andre is the author of three books, most recently ‘No End of a Lesson’, about the unification of Australia’s system of higher education along with Stuart Macintyre and Gwilym Croucher published in 2017. His fourth book, ‘Can’t Get There from Here, New Zealand’s shrinking passenger rail network, 1920 to 2020’, is to be published later this year by Otago University Press.
He is currently researching an enviro-economic history of railways in Australasia for world war one and a history of territorial separation movements in colonial Australia. Andre’s Fellowship project entitled ‘Scars in the Country: Railways in Australian and New Zealand Environments, 1850s to 1915’, seeks to redefine our understanding of how railways interacted with Australasian landscapes, exposing the tensions between economic growth and environmental change and how these intersect in large nation-building railway projects.
Please join me in welcoming Dr Andre Brett. Thank you.
A: [Kurikoto] and greetings, everyone. Whether you are watching online or are here in person thank you for coming and thank you to Martin for the very generous introduction and in particular I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to the Stokes family for their munificence that has allowed me to do much of the research you are about to hear today.
I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are on unceded Ngunnawal land and that normally I live and work on the equally unceded lands of the Dharawal people in Wollongong. Now, I’m a Pakeha New Zealander. Pakeha came across the oceans and signed the [speaks Maori: Te Tiriti o Waitangi]with the Maori people, [speaks Maori: Tangata Whenua or Aotearoa] and to those who are striving for similar forms of recognition over here I would like to say [speaks Maori: Kia Kaha], be of a strong.
So, I would like to commence today’s talk with another visitor to these shores, one W. Anderson of the US who visited Sydney for two months in early 1880. His diary in the special collections of the National Library makes for rather lively reading. Near the end of his stay, he summarised his impressions of the city. “Sydney”, he wrote, “was probably originally laid out and surveyed by a person who had formed the habit of indulging in intoxicating draughts early in life. Streets begin anywhere and end nowhere in particular”.
There are further acerbic observations in his diary yet on leaving he wrote, “I bid goodbye to Sydney with considerable regret. The city is old fogey-ish but full of interest, it is 20 years behind the times yet full of novelties”.
A highlight of Anderson’s visit, one he described with unqualified enthusiasm, was a journey by train. “A railway trip”, he wrote, “was suggested to me by almost every acquaintance as being the knee plus ultra of excursions, both for views of sublime and picturesque scenery as well as experiencing the triumph of engineering skill as exhibited in the ascent of the railway over the Blue Mountains”.
So, Anderson made a day trip to Lawson. After passing Emu Plains Station he wrote that “we are face-to-face with the Blue Mountains. Here our locomotive begins to puff and tug and we commence the ascent of the Little Zigzag, going from side to side in short distances on the face of the mountain until we have risen 700 feet above the Plain”. At the top, Anderson looked back from the last carriage and marvelled at what he called the “…giant ladder, which had rendered our ascent comparatively easy”.
The Little Zigzag up Lapstone Hill is one of the extraordinary interventions made by railways in the Australasian landscape. A zigzag is when a railway line surmounts a steep slope with switchbacks. A train travels forward along the first leg, reverses up the second and then continues up as many more as necessary. Now, as the Little Zigzag’s name might suggest to you, it was the lesser of two on the Main Western Line from Sydney to Bathurst and beyond. Here is Lithgow’s Great Zigzag. Now I should say, I’m following what another NLA Fellow, Alisa Bunbury, did last week and all pictures that are from the National Library Collections I’ve put the captions in yellow to highlight them so if you see yellow it’s from here.
So, this is Lithgow’s Great Zigzag and it was even more dramatic than the Lapstone one. As you can see, it involves three viaducts as well as a tunnel and survives as a heritage railway today, which is great. So, were the train to pass through mountain ranges or cutting across river plains, railways modified and were modified by landscapes throughout Australia and New Zealand. Colonial governments harnessed railways to grow economies and to bring commodities to profitable markets and the larger the networks grew the more railways and environments acted upon each other.
I’ll begin today’s talk by outlining my project scope and then work through a series of themes, the role of railways and colonisation and economic growth, the demand railways generate for resources, the interaction of railways with water and dry environments, the challenge of mountains and finally reflections on the environments railways themselves created for passengers and workers.
So, the scope of my research encompasses Britain’s seven colonies in Australasia, the six that federated in 1901 as the Commonwealth of Australia plus New Zealand. Australian railway historiography is heavily state-bound and I hope to show the value of a wider view. People often ask why I include New Zealand, even fellow historians, which goes to show Tony Ballantyne was onto something when he wrote about the anachronistic deployment of the nation state.
It would be highly anachronistic to exclude New Zealand as the seven colonies formed a heavily interlinked world. The colonial railways certainly saw themselves as sharing a common space. This New South Wales Railways Weekly Notice in 1901 conferred the General Manager of New Zealand Railways with a gold pass just like the other heads of Australasian railways. These men were part of one professional world exemplified in semiregular intercolonial conferences. There is no reason to exclude New Zealand that would not also exclude Western Australia or, for that matter, Tasmania.
Now my research focuses on government railways and that is for two practical reasons. First, although each colony had some private lines in all instances the government networks formed by far the largest networks. Second is simply to keep the project manageable. I visited every state archive and library plus all four offices of Archives New Zealand and this fellowship has given me the valuable push to bring everything together in comparative context.
My timeframe begins in the mid-1850s, which is when Victoria opened the first steam railway in Australasia, in 1854 and most of the other colonies followed quickly. Networks expanded rapidly because railways were the quickest, most reliable mode of transport. I take my study through to the 1914-15 financial year after which the hardships of world war one and the rise of motorised transport changed the course of railway history.
Now that said I do make some forays beyond 1915 when it suits the narrative, especially for the trans-Australian railway, which as you can see here, is the blue line across the Nullarbor on this map that was produced in 1921. The Transcontinental Line was one of the few major projects pushed on during world war one, opening in 1917 so other than that one blue line this map gives a pretty fair representation of the railway network in 1915.
It is from a Royal Commission on a uniform track gauge, the distance between the rails. Now that’s not a subject of my research but it’s important to mention here, especially for those of you who are not railway enthusiasts and with apologies to rail fans who persist with imperial measures I was born well after metrification so this is a 448 and a half free zone.
Australia’s railways were built to three different gauges. Why this occurred, still excites debate among railway historians, but in any case in the 1850s Victoria and South Australia built to a broad gauge of 1600mm, as you can see in the black down here, while New South Wales used international standard gauge of 1,435mm, in blue, and Queensland picked the narrow gauge of 1,067mm, all of these yellow lines, and that was to save money surmounting the Great Dividing Range, a good example of the landscape influencing engineering choices.
Western Australia and New Zealand followed suit with that narrow gauge. Tasmania started with broad before completely converting to narrow, while South Australia became a muddle, as this enlargement should hopefully make clear. In pursuit of lower capital costs, it built narrow gauge lines in some regions while retaining broad in others and then the Commonwealth chose standard gauge for the Trans-Australia Railway leaving South Australia with three gauges.
So this raised the Commonwealth role. Although railways featured prominently in federation debates in the 1890s they did not pass to Commonwealth control, and remained in state hands after 1901. The Trans-Australia Railway however was a Commonwealth responsibility and it later operated other lines in South Australia, Northern Territory, Tasmania and right here in Canberra.
So you might be wondering what New Zealand railway networks looked like, so here it is in 1920. Similarly there was not a whole lot of additions added in world war one so this is a fair representation at the end of my period. These maps are from a book that I’m about to publish in collaboration with mapmaker, Sam van der Weerden, called ‘Can’t Get There From Here, New Zealand’s shrinking passenger rail network’ and this is a taster of Sam’s fine work. It will hopefully be on shelves in a few months later this year.
My NLA research is going towards a book that shares its working title with today’s talk and I also hope that it might come to fruition sooner rather than later. Hello to any publishers who might be listening. So I hope you are enjoying my slide transitions, they get more ridiculous as we go. I thought it would be a nice, fun little thing to do.
So let us talk about the settler economy. While I have been here at the Library, I have spent much time on the microfilm machines going through annual reports and weekly notices. In an 1859 report Ben Martindale, New South Wales Commissioner for Internal Communications, set out one rationale for rail transport, an advantage in the construction in a new country of railways on a great scale is that by inducing immigration it supplies that great want, population. An apparently lavish outlay may result in the rapid increase of the real wealth of the country.
Julius Vogel, one of the most influential colonial politicians, made a similar pronouncement in 1870 as Treasurer of New Zealand. He told Parliament that “…the time has arrived when we must set ourselves afresh to the task of actively promoting the settlement of the country…”. He set out a grand scheme to address what he called the great wants of the colony, public works in the shape of roads and railways and immigration. He emphasised that these were inseparably united.
These quotes highlight the centrality of railways to colonisation. Indigenous peoples were usually dispossessed of their land before railways were approved, let alone built but these lines were crucial to settlers occupying said land and exploiting it for economic gain. The colonising language of development went hand-in-hand with the rhetoric of conquests, which has been enduring. The vanquished party is often depicted as an inanimate and sometimes difficult landscape.
Books about the so-called railway conquest sometimes do not even mention indigenous peoples, yet we’re all I imagine familiar with the term ‘terra nullius’ and if settlers were to act on their belief that they could use the land better than its first inhabitants they needed to link resources with markets.
Land transport was expensive and onerous prior to the railway. If a product was perishable or heavy, it was uneconomic to produce beyond local needs. Even coastal regions struggled. Illawarra is not far south of Sydney yet butter from its dairy farms often reached Sydney rancid in summer. The first railways therefore linked productive hinterlands with colonial capitals and export harbours.
In some colonies, the network was highly centralised. New South Wales railways radiated from Sydney and Newcastle and Victoria from Melbourne and Geelong. Queensland’s decentralised network however pushed inland from many places. South Australia had conflicting goals. Local interests of port towns feared that plans for trunk railways north and south of Adelaide would allow the capital to prosper at their expense and sought connections to what they saw as their hinterlands. Port Pirie became one locus. Lines also ran inland from Port Augusta, Port Lincoln, Kingston and elsewhere. As a result, South Australia ended up with a circuitous messy network.
Now, railways between centres like Melbourne and Geelong could survive on commercial grounds but those into lightly populated areas became known as developmental railways. In some colonies, a specific kind of cheaply built line was dubbed a pioneer railway.
Now this picture of the first train to Winton in central west Queensland in 1899 is a good example of a basic line built deep inland to locations home to only a few tens or hundreds of people in the expectation it would stimulate growth. Alan Pendleton, Commissioner of South Australian Railways, explained in 1904 his state’s policy to, quote, “…build lines of communication in order to open up area hitherto more or less inaccessible. No businessman can contend that private capital would ever have been obtained for the construction of these railways”.
This developmental mindset contributed greatly to public acceptance of government ownership. Charles Goodchap articulated it in 1881 as Commissioner of Railways in New South Wales. Each extension, as it is opened for traffic, assists in developing the resources of the interior of the country and promotes its settlement, fresh fields for the profitable employment of labour.
So instead of accruing profit, if railway income exceeded working expenses settlers expected this to be returned in the form of cheaper rates and fares. Colonial railways were common carriers that conveyed anything and everything. This train at Toowoomba Railway Station in about 1890 has wagons for diverse goods. When you start flicking through official notices from this period, you quickly notice special rates for all sorts of commodities, fresh fish to tallow, marsupial skins to domestic wines.
There are occasional passive aggressive instructions to crews to drive livestock trains more carefully because of complaints that cattle were injured in transit or that drovers giving water to sheep on hot days were nearly left behind when trains began moving with little warning.
Warwick Frost has coined the term ‘wet frontier’ to describe the heavy forests along Australia’s east coast from Tasmania to northern Queensland, and it could also be fairly applied to much of NZ. We often think of the frontier of settlement as steadily inching inland but as Frost explains, heavy forests remained largely unexploited until the 1870s. Railways played a large role in crossing this frontier and clearing forests for farmland. It was only when a railway entered a forest that sawmills opened and timber carried to cities at a profit. Firewood-cutters moved in and dispatched wagon upon wagon for use at industries and residences alike. Railways themselves created a need to cross the wet frontier, their voracious appetite for timber.
Thin railways required all sorts of natural resources. Coal is perhaps most obvious, oil of many kinds were used and iron ore beneath Britain’s surface became steel rails crisscrossing Australasia. Except in rare circumstances, one necessity of railway construction is sleepers, rectangular supports laid perpendicular to the rails for the purposes of load distribution and maintaining the correct gauge.
Now if you look at tracks today you will often see concrete sleepers but they were traditionally wooden. I have calculated that in peak years Victoria alone laid over half a million sleepers from the 1880s to the 1920s. Most other colonies would have recorded similar numbers. Sleeper hewing formed a major industry that provided crucial income to forest communities when sawmilling declined during economic downturns.
Now sleepers in the colonial era were expected to last 15 to 30 years and engineers experimented to find a balance between cheapness and durability. When a Royal Commission called engineers from each state in 1914, they hailed redgum and ironbark as the best timbers. Western Australia’s railwaymen quickly discovered that karri sleepers suffered dry rot, attracted white ants and had to be replaced within a decade. They preferred to exploit jarrah forests like the one pictured here on the left and cut millions of sleepers from them.
Where possible railways sawed sleepers from forests near a line under construction or repair but often local timber was unsuitable or only available in small quantities so sleepers were imported from other colonies or even from across the globe. South Australia bought large quantities of jarrah sleepers from WA, and New Zealand imported over 200,000 of them in the 1873-4 financial year alone. These sleepers lasted but New Zealand had a much worse experience with Oregon pine. In 1879, it had to replace sleepers in the South Island that were laid just three years earlier.
Now in northern Australia white ants were such a problem that experiments began with steel sleepers in the 1880s. South Australia handed the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth in 1911, and the picture at bottom left shows a federal parliamentary party visiting the Darwin Railway workshops a year later. They are viewing a piece of timber that white ants had attacked which revealed why the line had been built with steel sleepers from the start in the late 1880s.
Queensland Railways had, at the same time, laid steel sleepers on the Normanton to Croydon railway near the Gulf of Carpentaria. Capital costs were much higher than wood but a quarter of a century later the men responsible for their maintenance had only praise. So their sleepers had endured, providing a smooth, quiet ride. As you can see at top right steel sleepers remain in use at Normanton.
Now anyone who has spent time in northern Australia knows that when it rains it pours. Dry riverbeds become swollen torrents. Railway engineers faced a dilemma, whether to build expensive bridges well above known flood levels or place them lower and design them to withstand floods, accepting suspension of services when waters rose.
This was often a trial and error process as the hydrological conditions of northern Australia, and many other regions, were unfamiliar to British-trained engineers. Queensland Railways often chose low-level bridges and an early example was on the Central Western Line from Rockhampton to Longreach. In 1878, Queensland Railways Commissioner, Arthur Herbert, wrote that a bridge above the reach of unusual floods would be an unnecessary expenditure because floods also made nearby roads impassable and the railway wouldn’t lose traffic to any competitors. This set a pattern for the large networks that sprawled inland from Rockhampton and Townsville as well as the lines emanating from Cairns, Cooktown and Normanton. Although water could force lengthy delays to services railways became a lifeline in the wet season, able to resume operations quickly.
Now the Burdekin River posed special challenges. Pictured is the Inkerman Bridge on the North Coast Railway Line that links Townsville with Brisbane. Here engineers did not even believe they could build a high bridge, as the foundations are sand. This bridge opened in 1913. Earlier, in 1882 the Great Northern Railway from Townsville to Charters Towers crossed the Burdekin inland at Macrossan on a low bridge originally built for a road. T H Annett, Chief Engineer of the Northern Division, reported that floods in early 1890 peaked over 15m above the Macrossan Bridge. Damage was slight but priorities had shifted, the action of the water every wet season was a costly nuisance outweighing construction expenses. A high-level metal truss bridge at Macrossan opened in 1899. The Inkerman Bridge was also eventually replaced. Indian designs inspired a new bridge that rests on hollow concrete caissons sunk deep into the riverbed. It took a decade to build, opening in 1957 and is now recognised as a national engineering landmark.
Now we cannot just focus on bridges when we are talking floods, as lengthy earthen railway embankments cut across flood plains. Nicholas Crane’s historical Geography of Britain describes entirely new linear habitats of railways inducing what he calls ‘topographic shock’. The same was true down here and early railways often underestimated the drainage requirements on our floodplains. Sometimes this was because of poor hydrological knowledge, other times insufficient funds meant capable engineers had to cut corners and wait for politicians to appreciate the consequences.
As I have gone through the annual railway reports, a common theme is the installation of additional culverts and flood openings on existing lines. Sometimes proactively when farsighted officials had the funds but often only reactively. This is especially pronounced in the 1880s and ‘90s as increasingly large networks started experiencing floods higher than any that had yet occurred during European occupation. Risks extended beyond just the damage to the railway.
If floods devastated farms or towns it could mean a collapse in goods output and diminished revenue. It was in the interests of railways to avoid scenes such as those throughout the South Island in July 1879 when a storm revealed how poorly new railways were drained. Livestock drowned in their thousands when embankments trapped rising waters. A correspondent of The Lyttelton Times gave a distressing account of cattle straining to keep their heads above water line sight near Kaiapoi, north of Christchurch.
Now these photos of culverts for construction of the Trans-Australia Railway suggest another theme, the challenge of constructing and operating railways in dry environments. Surveying and construction parties made much use of camels in this arid region. A. H. Campbell, a member of a surveying party in 1908, described the work in a letter to his mother. “There are 93 camels on the job, rather a lot you might think but then we have stores for the whole trip, not to mention our water cartage which is most important of all. Without the hardy camels the surveyors would have faced far greater difficulties…”.
Once the railways opened, the water requirements shot up. Steam engines are thirsty; they get their motive power from boiling water, which is why they are often nicknamed kettles. Sometimes about half the weight of a train across the Nullarbor came just from water carried for the engine. Moreover, steam engines are picky beasts. You can lead an iron horse to water and you can make it drink but you might not like the consequences. Water corrodes locomotive boilers and the physical properties of water affect the rate of corrosion. Industrial demands like this altered how water sources were understood. Potable water that sustained vibrant ecosystems was now unsuitable and needed treatment.
On the Nullarbor, the challenge was simply to obtain any water at all. Some bores tapped salty water which was bad news indeed so condensers boiled and then condensed it into water suitable for use although still quite corrosive. This process was hugely expensive so only in Geraldton, 400km north of Perth on WA's state network, did engines slake their thirst with condensed water for decades on a large scale.
Perhaps the most remarkable attempt to solve the water problem was that of scientist, Graeme Balsillie. The NLA holds his papers from so-called rainmaking experiments in 1916 at Bookaloo on the Trans-Australia Railway, 80km northwest of Port Augusta. Balsillie hated the term rainmaking. He did not believe he could conjure water from clear skies but he hoped that static electricity discharged in the atmosphere when certain cloud formations were present would stimulate more particles of water to fall as rain. He claimed the experiments were a success. Every time he operated his apparatus for over six hours, rain followed. Other scientists however were dubious that there was actually any causation here. Balsillie’s experiments ended in 1920 after ridicule from the press and politicians.
The land and climate forced railways to adapt, experiment and innovate and let me take you from arid plains back to temperate mountains and the wet frontier. The cost of construction here was eyewatering. I said before that Australia’s narrow gauge is 1,067mm but two government railways went narrower in a bid to save money in this rugged terrain. Victoria built four lines to 762mm gauge. The earthworks required for even a cheap broad gauge line would have been prohibitive but small trains of 762mm could negotiate tighter curves and climb steep grades as they scrambled along hillsides in the Dandenongs, Otways and Gippsland.
Tasmanian Government Railways went even narrower, 610mm from Zeehan on the west coast to the Williamsford mines. This spectacular line opened in 1896. The left-hand photo here depicts Montezuma Falls, which sometimes soaked trains with spray. In 1909, Beyer Peacock of Manchester built the world’s first Garratt locomotive for this line, an articulated engine that could navigate tighter curves than rigid-framed counterparts while also being able to run on lighter and therefore cheaper track.
Elsewhere engineers stuck with the network’s common gauge but chose special technology. These provide good examples of the international knowledge networks that Australasian engineers tapped. A line to the Mt Morgan mines near Rockhampton had a grade of 1:16 and a half, beyond the capabilities of conventional engines. So Queensland Railways employed the Abt rack railway system of Swiss engineer, Carl Roman Abt. A toothed rail sat in the middle of the track gripped by the cog wheels of specially built locomotives. The photo on the left shows the toothed rail and a private line in Tasmania also used this technology. A reconstruction of it operates today as the West Coast Wilderness Railway.
In New Zealand, engineers went for the Fells system for the railway across the Remutaka Range from Wellington to the fertile Wairarapa region. This route was even steeper with a ruling grade 1:15 so John Carruthers, head of the Public Works Department, settled on the third rail system of English engineer, John Barraclough Fell. Locomotives gripped a raised centre rail with horizontal wheels and despite fears of a runaway, none ever happened. The weather posed greater challenges. In 1880, a gust belted around a notorious curve called Siberia, sweeping three carriages of a train off the rails. The Fell engine gripped its centre rail but the wind tore the body of one carriage from its base, killing four people. Such severe weather prompted New Zealand Railways to erect windbreaks at Siberia and other locations. This was the only fatal accident from this extraordinary line’s opening in 1878 until a tunnel near 9km long bypassed it in 1955.
New Zealand is home to some of the most remarkable railway tunnels in the world. In 1861, construction began to link Christchurch with its harbour, Lyttelton. Now as you can see from the left-hand picture the Port Hills form a formidable barrier. Canterbury province, then home to only 16,000 people, boldly authorised the world’s first tunnel through the side of an extinct volcano. Trains began running through this 2.6km hole in 1867. Now if that was not enough, engineers then had to figure out how to cross the Southern Alps to link the east and west coasts of the South Island. Work began on this enormous project in the mid-1880s. Boring a hole through the main range did not start until 1907. At over 8.5km long, the Otira Tunnel was the seventh longest in the world and the longest in the British Empire when it opened in 1923.
It was also New Zealand’s first electrified railway and the second in Australasia after Victoria began sparking Melbourne’s suburban network in 1919. Otira was electrified for a simple reason, smoke pollution. Steam railways created their own environments and tunnels were most notorious. If you look at the bottom middle of the photo of Heathcote Station, you can see a train emerging from Lyttelton Tunnel belching smoke. In May 1895, Canterbury’s District Traffic Manager wrote to the National General Manager. “Complaints”, he said, “are being made by passengers of smoke in the little tunnel. Some days it is particularly offensive”.
Discussion however went nowhere; some officials actively downplayed the problem. A newspaper editor in October 1909 lamented, “We have been patiently enduring the choking fumes in that tunnel and have put up with soiled raiment and sooty hands as the penalty of a trip to Port”. A month later almost every Canterbury MP crowded into the office of the Minister of Railways. One after another, they described unpleasant trips. Despite assurances that the matter would be taken seriously the date on this photo, 1919, might have clued you into a succession of delays. The tunnel was not electrified until 1929.
So it’s hard to overstate – oh my graphics have somewhat failed me, that little insert was meant to bounce in quite spectacularly later but no matter – it’s hard to overstate how significantly steam engines modified the environment around them, especially along main lines and near bustling city terminals. This photo of Brisbane’s Roma Street Station in 1890 is a great example so if you look closely at the road bridge in the inset, you can see all of the soot that has accumulated on it and I should note that the railway under it opened only a year beforehand. So within a year the soot has become thick and unmistakable. Steam engines caked everything around them in grime.
Imagine living lineside. In Dunedin one person wrote in 1907 to inform their local MP, that it is “…something terrible to live near a railway yard as we cannot get a bit of washing clean or keep our windows tidy”. They signed themselves, ‘A Sufferer’. Residents near Christchurch’s Addington Workshops petitioned for relief from “...Smoke continually belched forth from morning ‘til night, completely blackening the surrounding neighbourhood”.
A Christchurch politician related an anecdote to the Minister of Railways. Now I cannot be sure if this is actually true but it is a goodun, of a man who purchased a white cow and the next morning thought somebody had stolen it and left behind a black cow. The man allegedly spent two days searching for his white cow until heavy rain washed away the soot.
Now the environment for workers was even more unpleasant. The NLA holds copies of the New South Wales Railway and Tramway Review, a monthly union paper. A column in May 1889 lamented that Sydney’s old boiler shop is unfit to work in, there being four blacksmiths’ fires, which discharge all of their smoke into the shop having no chimneys or other outlets. The anonymous scribe suggested that if hogs were kept in it they would have thought too valuable to poison in such a manner but of course, workmen are of no value.
Staff at Petone Workshops near Wellington must have felt similarly as they secured an MP’s help to resolve their complaints in February 1906. He found the men in the Woodworking Department had severe nasal and throat problems from dust and believed this had caused a recent death. The men got a new ventilation system but matters of health and safety resolved slowly. Deliberations on this matter took nine months.
Queensland meanwhile upgraded its Ipswich Workshops around 1903 but a new woodworking shop was built without its planned ventilation. This was not installed until December 1909. Now that same month an accident on the other side of the continent underscored that these working conditions were highly flammable. The paint shop at Midland Junction east of Perth caught fire while crowded with 25 carriages and wagons, all of them burning to the ground. Worse, the WA Government Railways had let its insurance policy lapse mere days beforehand as it had baulked at a new higher premium. It could not even plead that this was unforeseen, workshop fires were not uncommon. Just six years earlier, the entire stock of paints and varnishes at Hobart fuelled a fierce blaze. On that occasion, at least the rolling stock was saved.
So, the railway environment today is almost unrecognisable. Diesel and electric traction have transformed the lineside experience. Railways are well adapted to a decarbonised future. No form of transport can exceed the energy efficiency of steel wheels on steel rails. Now the sounds and smells of steam trains evoke nostalgia. The first locomotive to run into the ACT on revenue service, New South Wales Railways 1210, is a star attraction of the Canberra Railway Museum.
I haven’t had a chance to date to touch on other long gone aspects of the passenger environment such as gloomy night trains lit with stinking oil lamps or the major auditory changes. However, if you want a sample of my work on railway soundscapes please check out my article on Illawarra Railways that is coming out in the first issue of the Journal of Australian, Canadian and Aotearoa New Zealand Studies next month. Best of all it will be open access.
So, I hope though that nonetheless I’ve entertained you with transitions like that and nonetheless that today I have given you some glimpses of how economic imperatives interacted with the environment. Settler colonialism required railways to exploit resources and bring them to profitable markets, yet as railways stretched across the landscape, the landscape influenced them. Engineers and scientists innovated and adapted to floods, mountains and seemingly waterless plains. And as coal trains rattled from mines and expresses rushed between cities they created environments of their own. Even lines that are now closed have left reminders from new habitats in overgrown cuttings to abandoned tunnels of glow-worms and embankments that still influence local hydrology. The scars in the country are indelible. Thank you.
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