Building the railway

Centenary of the Opening of the Trans- Australian Railway

Celebration: Sunday, October 22 at the Port Augusta Railway Station

Part 1 of 3 – Building the Railway and Port Augusta’s Importance

On the 14th of September 1912 the "Turning of the First Sod" ceremony was performed at Port Augusta by the Governor-General, Lord Denman. A message of congratulations was received from His Majesty King George V. A similar celebration took place in Kalgoorlie on the 12th of February 1913 which was performed by Prime Minister Andrew Fischer.

Work had begun on one of Australia’s greatest feats of engineering.

Over the entire 1,053 mile or 1,695 kms of the railway there was no permanent surface water.

At the time that construction commenced at least 800 miles or 1,287 kms of the route was entirely uninhabited by white settlers.

There were no towns, hospitals or farms on which to reply upon for your everyday needs.

The organisation of the building of the line and the welfare of the workforce was like no other project undertaken in the country at the time.

The Department had to include all necessities for the workman and subsequently their families.

Services included boarding houses, postal, telegraph and banking services, medical and field hospital facilities along with food and water supplies for the entire workforce.

The Roberts tracklayers were ordered from Messrs. Roberts Brothers of Chicago USA. It was the Minister King O’Malley who believed that this tracklayer would revolutionise the way rail was laid.

The layer was the means of depositing both rails and sleepers at the railhead at the same time whilst saving considerable manpower. The tracklayers proved to be highly successful.

Under the capable guidance of Engineer-in-Chief Norris Bell and Supervising Engineers Captain Saunders and John Darbyshire the line, through some of the world’s most inhospitable country, continued to forge a path through which very few people had ever even crossed.

The building was hindered by World War One shortages of both men and materials.

The two tracklaying teams linked the final rails together at a point near Ooldea at 1.45pm on Wednesday the 17th October 1917. The rails were linked at a point 691.068 kms from Port Augusta and 1,011.011 kms from Kalgoorlie.

Included in the 1,692 km railway was, and still is, the world’s longest straight stretch of railway line.

At a point 13 kms east of Nurina (WA) the line extends eastward for 478 kms to a point between Ooldea and Watson in South Australia without a single curve.

The first passenger train left Port Augusta for Kalgoorlie at 9.32pm on Monday the 22nd of October 1917 hauled by locomotive G21.

The final cost of the 1,682 km long railway was £6,667,360.

In today’s terms that equates to around $616 million dollars. Considering the large rise in the cost of materials and labour that occurred during the war, and the additional works involved, such as some ballasting and heavier rail, to have completed the works for the final cost was a remarkable achievement.

The “Tea and Sugar” train began its life in 1915 servicing some of the most remote locations in the world along the Trans-Australian Railway providing goods and services to workers.

The service gradually increased to also serve many isolated communities along the route.

Running between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie, the train carried groceries and fresh meat (with a butchers van) and also provided banking/pay facilities.

Prices were comparable with major cities and towns.  

From the early 1950’s at Christmas time it even bought Father Christmas along to distribute presents to children along the line.

Over the years diesel locomotives replaced steam locomotives (early 1950’s), which cut the number of camps along the line.

In the 1970’s camps reduced further as continuously welded rails were introduced, this was followed by concrete sleepers replacing timber sleepers, further reducing track maintenance and camps. The last run of the Tea and Sugar train was in 1996.

Water, for both locomotives and for human consumption, was a problem for the outset. There was no permanent surface water along the entire length of the railway and bore water was of very poor quality.

This played havoc with the steam engine boilers which corroded quickly. Water treatment plants were set up to improve water quality which proved successful.

It was not until 1951 when Diesel locomotives were introduced that the Commonwealth Railways began to prosper.

Thus began a “golden age” for the railways and Port Augusta as the railway became more reliable and profitable for the first time.

For 60 years Port Augusta was the Administrative and Engineering headquarters for the Commonwealth Railways being one of the most important railway towns in Australia.

The railways were privatised in 1997 thus ending an era of which will never be seen again in Port Augusta.

Even before this the many camps along the Trans-Australian Railway were slowly fading into memory.

We have a unique opportunity on October 22 to turn back the clock and relive some of those heady days that are now just distant memories.

A chance to ponder if Port Augusta, and those many line locations to the west, would even exist today if not for the Commonwealth Railways and the Trans-Australian Railway.

It is our chance to say thank you to all those who lived and worked on the Trans-Australian Railway over the past 100 years.  

Next Feature

 The Trans-Australian Railway Today (being published on September 27)