Historical background to railway operations in South Australia ...

viewed in perspective with the rail scene in adjoining States

It might be useful to start with a brief history of events.

Most readers would be familiar with the existence of the many problems with the three main-line track gauges which have beset Australia since the first line was built, and which really only became noticeable to the general public when the Trans-Australian Railway (linking Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie) was completed in 1917. Up until this time, most large shipments of people or goods had been moved from colony to colony, later state to state, by sailing ship or steamer.

By the time that Australia as a whole had become one country on 1st January 1901 - at the time of the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia - albeit a very widely scattered, ethnically diverse, and at times parochial minded community, South Australia's government had taken over all of the privately owned and developed railways that their builders had expected to bring them riches, but which went bankrupt instead.

The only two privately owned systems that existed to the early 1990s were those built and operated by the Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited on the Eyre Peninsular, those from the iron ore deposits in the Middleback Ranges to the Blast Furnace and Pellet Plant at Whyalla (both 3ft 6ins "Narrow Gauge") and the associated Standard Gauge line from Port Lincoln from Coffin Bay where limestone is mined for use as flux in the Whyalla blast furnaces.

The construction of the Trans-Australian Railway by the new federal government elected in 1901 was largely undertaken to keep faith with the people of Western Australia; it was, in effect, a "carrot" held out to Sir John Forrest and fellow West Australians to join the proposed federation of individual British colonies, which became the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1st 1901.

A new government-owned railway company, called "Commonwealth Railways", was created to do this, which also took over the South Australian Railways’ line being built slowly towards Alice Springs and Darwin, after the acquisition in 1911 of the "Northern Territory of South Australia" by the new Commonwealth government, which incidentally still didn't have a home of its own until very much later when it acquired some land in New South Wales to establish the Australian Capital Territory and the city of Canberra, situated rather like Washington DC in the United States of America. History shows that there have been several very serious discussions since then, by some Western Australians, regarding secession, and indeed the original 1901 Constitution of Australia has alternative clauses suiting both inclusion and exclusion the West from the proposed federation.

Illustrations of several maps

After the Trans-Australian "golden spike" was driven on 17th October 1917, it became technically possible to make the really useful journey across the nation, leaving Melbourne for Adelaide initially in a joint Victorian - South Australian Railways train running on 5ft-3ins gauge track with an engine and crew change at the border station, Serviceton (built specifically built for the purpose) and then travelling north from Adelaide on a different train still running on a 5ft-3ins gauge track as far as Terowie in South Australia's mid-north wheat belt, where passengers alighted, crossed the platform, and joined yet another South Australian train, this time running on 3ft-6ins wide track. This next journey took passengers on a circuitous path, eventually joining the promised but still never-completed (in 1999) Port Augusta to Darwin railway at Quorn in the heart of the Flinders Ranges, then wending its way south-westerly down through the Pichi-Richi pass and across the alluvial flats at the head of Spencer’s Gulf (named after a previous Earl Spencer) into Port Augusta. There passengers once again took themselves and their luggage acoss the platform, joining the Commonwealth Railways 4ft 8-˝ins gauge train, which when leaving Port Augusta climbed up to the Eucolo tablelands, continued on across the Nullarbor Plain (null arbor literally means "no tree") as far as Kalgoorlie in the Western Australian Goldfields, where passengers once again crossed the platform on to the 3ft-6ins gauge train which took them the rest of the way into Perth.


Illustrations of early days

Shortly before World War two, a five-foot three inch gauge main line had been extended northwards from the existing terminus at Redhill into Port Pirie, and the standard gauge had been extended south from Port Augusta to Port Pirie along the western side of the Flinders' Ranges, and one gauge change was thereby eliminated, along with a considerably faster service. However, this now made Port Pirie a three-gauge yard, and some very interesting track formations existed there until the withdrawal of the broad gauge in the late 1980s. Port Pirie Junction station was built by the SAR in Solomontown, adjacent to one of its widest streets, "Three Chain Road" - 66 yards wide.

map of Redhill-Pirie etc 3-gauge yards ex brochures PPirie Junct

Post WW2
The railways’ infrastructure and rolling-stock had been thrashed during the war with little opportunity nor resources for rehabilitation, and it was fortunate that there was quite an economic boom period across the nation afterwards. In the mid 1950's the Federal government, after yet another committee had talked long and strong about the gauge problem and published its findings (the Wentworth Report), the politicians actually allocated some money to effect some degree of standardisation. Various states benefited, some through using the funds in ways that with hindsight from this end of the century should never have been permitted.

For example, in South Australia, the isolated narrow-gauge line from Bordertown due south to Naracoorte, Kingston, and Mount Gambier, was converted not to standard gauge, but to broad gauge, in order to eliminate transfers at Bordertown, and the through running of trains across the border at the bottom end, where the Victorian broad gauge already connected through from Hamilton. The rationale was that Adelaide to Melbourne would "never" be converted to Standard Gauge. Unfortunately, as we shall see later, this has completely isolated the South-East region from Adelaide in the mid nineteen nineties onwards.

Illustration of map of SE area

Western Australia was having its north-west mineral boom, the Ord River cotton boom, the iron and other ore prospecting, processing and manufacturing boom, and they were quick to turn the federal handout into what was at that time a "state of the art" standard gauge link, adding to its potential revenue by slightly deviating via a new iron ore mine about to be established by a subsidiary of the BHP company at Koolyanobbing, some fifty miles west of Kalgoorlie, with additional financial help from BHP.

November 1962 saw the start of its construction, with the Avon Valley deviation being opened to narrow-gauge traffic in February 1966 on the day that Australia changed to decimal currency, this route replacing the winding and heavily graded route through the Stirling Ranges east of Perth. Grain traffic from Merredin commenced in that November, and ore from Koolyanobbing to Kwinana started rolling on the following April. The full standard gauge railway from Kalgoorlie to Forestfield, Kewdale, Kwinana and Fremantle (Leighton) was finally opened to revenue service for freight traffic in November 1968, and to passenger traffic into East Perth in June 1970.

Illustrations of ore train ex WAGR brochures

In Western Australia, the eventual logical conversion of the north and south narrow gauge lines out of Coolgardie/Kalgoorlie resulted in the transfer of the 2000 horsepower R and RA series English Electric locomotives to standard gauge, becoming "KA" class standard gauge units after being lifted on to new standard gauge bogie frames designed by and manufactured in their Midland workshops.

South Australia did eventually build a standard gauge railway from Port Pirie through to Broken Hill (after many hiccups) and they spent large sums in both the constructing of new locomotives and rollingstock, and the modifying of some narrow-gauge plant for stadard gauge operation. All South Australian engines and bogie wagons were capable of using either standard or broad gauge wheelsets, and the Peterborough Division 830-class Goodwin-Alcos were as at home on standard as narrow gauge bogies.

This, however, still isolated Adelaide from the inter-capital standard gauge network.

Illustrations of Broken Hill line construction

Whitlam Era
The era of the federal government under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was really the demise of the South Australian Railways as a system which had serviced its country customers quite well even if inefficiently. It had always been a "service" organisation, even providing considerable employment during depression years. The then State Premier, Don Dunstan, had wanted - ever since he came to power - to get rid of the railways to the Commonwealth because of financial losses, and the newly elected Labour federal government was now looking for ways in which it could exercise a more effective and efficient control over the whole nation, something that was described by those who opposed the idea as the "Canberra Octopus". There was quite a division created in the population over this push, but, fortunately for governments, people have a short collective memory!

One of the results of this "nationalistic" push by the Canberra majority was the offer extended to each State by the federal government to purchase for cash, lock stock and barrel, the assets of the individual rail systems currently run by the States. Only Tasmania and South Australia agreed, both incidentally having socialist state governments, which may or may not have had a bearing on their decisions. South Australia received a substantial amount of money, part of which was earmarked for the proposed electrification of Adelaide's suburban rail system - which never happened. Indeed anecdotal sources suggest that some equipment was actually purchased and stored for many years, only to be disposed of for scrap value, and it has been suggested that the purchases were incompatible within themselves, though I have no evidence to that effect.

Not having access to rolling-stock manufacturing plant any more - having sold the manufacturing capability located at Islington - the South Australian Government's suburban rail instrumentality called the "State Transport Authority" purchased their new custom-built 2000 class diesel-hydraulic multiple-unit railcars from Comeng - the name coined by Commonwealth Engineering's new owners after South African Union Carriage and Wagon's ownership was bought out .

These were fitted with limited life obsolete auxiliary power generating equipment (according to press reports at the time), equipment which would no longer be required when electrification took place. The rationale was because electrification was supposedly only five or ten years away, so this resulted in considerable capital savings by the STA. Unfortunately, the STA were not to know that the electrification was to be put on hold by their masters, the state government.

The 2000 class ("Jumbos") are still running, twenty-five years later, with extensive alterations some of which may have been necessary because the electrification never eventuated.

In the 1980s, the State Transport Authority re-manufactured a prototype three-car dmu train at its Regency Park bus depot (located just round the corner from where National Rail's terminal is now) from a "Red Hen" suburban railcar set that was up for a major overhaul. Red Hens are described in the section which deals with Bluebirds, but suffice it to say that they were all-steel bodied units built in the 1950s at Islington, which developed enough power (but no more) than needed to operate with a full load of passengers.

The upgrade looked very well in its fitting out, with a roof mounted cab (similar to the 2000s) and exterior cladding of corrugated stainless steel, panels painted orange (also like the 2000s). Unfortunately the extra weight of the stainless cladding meant that even without the middle trailer car the units performed poorly, and after extensive trials with existing 300 and 400 class Red Hens, the project was dumped in favour of purchasing new dmus from Comeng, similar to the Melbourne suburban electric mu's.

Illustrations of 2000 class and also "superchooks"

Over many previous years few funds had been made available to the railway infrastructure that Dunstan had hoped would be sold in the event of a change in federal government; one suspects he had already lobbied them while in opposition. Infrastructure was to suffer from lack of maintenance again in the early nineties with its successor AN, and perhaps that was similar to that of the last years of the nineties with Victoria's V/Line prior to privatisation.

Australian National Railways
On 1st March 1978 the Australian National Railways Commission came into being as an agency of Australia's federal government.

This is a good point to conclude this chapter and move to the next...

Created April 9th, 1999 using the Australian html editor "FlexEd"
Updated 28th May 1999