A History of Rail in South Australia

Y class locomotive

South Australia is the youngest colony 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 was the construction of the 10 km broad gauge (1600 mm) track between the Murray River port of Goolwa and Port Elliot. This was the first railway to be laid with iron rails in Australia and was opened on 18 May 1854. Port Elliot soon proved unsuitable for shipping and the line was extended to Victor Harbor in 1864.

South Australian Railways (SAR)

Our State owned railways began with the opening, on 19 April 1856, of the 12 km 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 trade from up-stream.

N Class locomotive and train on up passenger on Sleeps Hill viaductThe 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 1880's, 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 interior of SA, the Great Northern Railway was built from Port Augusta to Quorn in 1879, and Oodnadatta in 1891. The final boundary of land under the plough and the extent of the rail system is largely south of the 254 mm isohyet. Good crops led to settlement beyond Goyder's "Line of Rainfall" and for a few years there were even thoughts of farming the desert with a catchcry of "rainfall follows the plough"! Goyder as Surveyor General persistently warned against farming beyond a line where low long term rainfall and recurrent droughts allowed only the growth of saltbush. Unfortunately he was correct and the poor return from many farms resulted in some lines being placed under threat of closure - even in the mid-1900's.

The Gauge Problems

A 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. By 1917, lines were built to 1067 mm, 1435 mm and 1600 mm gauge. The problem greatly reduced in 1995 with the "One Nation" project completing the standard gauge link from Brisbane - Sydney - Melbourne - Adelaide - Perth.

Broad gauge (1600 mm or 5' 3")

- Initially adopted by NSW, Vic, SA and Tas, Mile End yard view to North from Keswick bridge showing locomotive
 Rx 5 on train of motor car bodies for Victoria. these tracks could carry trains at higher speeds and passengers in greater comfort than narrower gauges but it was much more expensive to build. Its use was therefore restricted to the short haul radial lines around Adelaide and to the Intercolonial railway between Adelaide and Melbourne which was completed in 1887. Despite the obvious problems created when NSW, having changed its mind before construction, and the Commonwealth Railways choosing standard gauge, the South Australian Railways continued to extend or convert lines to broad gauge. The Murray Mallee lines were built to broad gauge, and the mid-north lines were converted in the 1920's from narrow to broad, and all of the lines south of Wolseley (apart from Glencoe) were broadened during the 1950's.

Standard gauge (1435 mm or 4' 8½")

- The first standard gauge line in SA was the Trans-Australian Railway, built by the Commonwealth Railways, and opened in 1917. Yet it wasn't until 1970 that the direct link Sydney - Perth was standardised. Earlier, standard gauge lines connected Port Augusta to Port Pirie in 1937, and to Marree in 1955. Garrett 402

Narrow gauge (1067 mm 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 rapid, less expensive construction throughout the mid-north, south-east and Eyre Peninsula. Longer lines to Cockburn and Alice Springs were also built to this gauge. Only the isolated grain lines of Eyre Peninsula remind us of the importance of 1067 mm gauge to the economic development of SA. Few realised that these lightly laid lines, as well as the old northern system, could not support the tonnages required to turn a profit in the future.

Break of gauge stations

- Terowie station Terowie was the first site selected on the basis that wool from the north and east could be carried to the processing and marketing facilities at Port Adelaide and its deep water harbour, whilst grain could be carted to Port Pirie, the nearest coastal port. As the system consolidated breaks of gauge also occurred at Hamley Bridge, Wolseley, Gladstone, Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Marree. When standard gauge came through in 1970, triple gauge stations were created at Peterborough and Gladstone, in addition to the earlier Port Pirie. 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 Murray Lands 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

By 1922, through wear and tear, lack of maintenance, an ageing fleet of small Mile End roundhouse partly demolished, locomotives visible locomotives and rollingstock, 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 modem 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 Islington Workshops, track duplication and modern depots. Conversion of narrow gauge lines to broad gauge soon began throughout the mid-north in the 1920's, 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 introduction of electric signalling.

Port Augusta Roundhouse C.1953 (Steve Gordon Collection)Other Railway Operators

Commonwealth Railways (CR)

- The Commonwealth Government entered the world of railways when in 1911 it acquired the narrow gauge Pt 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 Pt Augusta and Kalgoorlie, and for the North Australian Railway extension, from Pine Creek to Birdum.

Silverton Tramway Company (STC)

- The 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 56 km link from Cockburn in SA to Broken Hill. The company still exists today as a major contractor to the national freight industry.

Other Railways

- A number of companies have operated private railways in various parts of the State. The most extensive of these are the BHP narrow gauge lines which carry iron ore from Iron Knob, Iron Baron (and later Iron Duke) on the Eyre Peninsula to the steelworks at Whyalla. Broken Hill Associated Smelters at Port Pirie, and Electricity Trust of South Australia at Stirling North Power Station, also owned a number of locomotives.

Terowie Gauge conversionRail Standardisation

The only way for South Australia's railways to participate in the movement of freight nationally was to standardise all main through lines to 1435 mm. The South Australian Railways and Commonwealth Railways mutually agreed to link Pt Augusta, via Pt Pirie, by the construction of a new standard gauge fine between Pt Pirie and Pt Augusta, and a new broad gauge line between Redhill and Pt Pirie, both completed in 1937. In 1955 the Commonwealth Railways built a new standard gauge line from Stirling Nth to Marree, primarily for the transport of Leigh Creek coal to Stirling Nth. Another major standardisation task, to link Sydney and Perth, was opened between Broken Hill and Pt 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. The broad gauge between Adelaide and Pt 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!

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 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.

Ghan at Port Augusta 7.1.1954 (NRM Archives) The Ghan to Alice Springs, affectionately named after the Afghan (actually Pakistani) cameleers who provided much of the early transport throughout the and interior, began on the old narrow gauge line through Oodnadatta in 1929. It still runs today, but on a new standard gauge route which opened in 1980.

Other 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 Pichi Richi Pass - NDH 6 railcarbranch lines until October 1971. To stem declining passenger numbers in the 1950's and 60's, 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.

Amalgamation & Privatisation

In 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 2000 class railcar set 2109,2010, 2110 at Outer Harbor stationAustralian lines (and the railways of Tasmania). At the same time, the State Transport Authority of South Australia (which became TransAdelaide) was created to operate all the Adelaide suburban rail lines.

With the Federal Government 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 1990's, 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 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 State and Commonwealth Government owned tracks.


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