Planning a new train room
A History of Australia.


In this age of global interaction on the Internet, one can often forget that others may not know the local scene, in this case Australian Railways.

So I have decided to write my own version of the history of Australian railways - very condensed and very picky. This is not a thesis so please read it as a summary by myself.

All conclusions have been made by myself, any inaccuracies I'm happy to correct.
( A historian I'm not !! )

A History of Australia - a very brief account!!

Before we even get to the railways, a deeper history lesson. Australia has been a nation of discovery and settlement. The Aboriginal people crossed over from Asia and into what is now known as Australia many centuries ago. Australia was "discovered" by several European nations, Dutch, English, French well over three hundred years ago. The English claimed the continent and began their colonisation. The local inhabitants, the Aboriginals were forced off their lands as the English spread inland. Today this issue is important as we look back to what happened from both our viewpoint and theirs.

Well getting back on track, Australia began as separate colonies that grew into towns etc. these largely became states - all separate identities reporting directly back to England. The gold rush came and brought extra wealth, as inland was still the undiscovered country.

  • New South Wales, NSW
  • Victoria, VIC
  • South Australia, SA
  • Western Australia, WA
  • Queensland, QLD
  • Tasmania, TAS
  • Northern Territory,NT
  • Australian Capital Territory, ACT
  • Plus many small islands around the mainland.

Then in 1900 we became one country ( this year we celebrate 100 years ) - that is we have a federal government, but the states remain intact with their own government. The Federal and State governments have different functions yet still share many others. Railways are a state issue that still plays a part today. The Federal government has largely dabbled on railways - never with long term success in unifying the railways.

Australia is a land with deserts in the interior and habitable land around the sea. To use a often used comparison - the sunburnt country where we survive off the sheeps back, the cattle, the mining - Australia had the outback tradition, though the cities still contain most of our poulation.

Railway History:

Back in the Early 1800's saw each state decide to build railways to open up the country. Unlike many countries the railways here were nationalised very quickly or Government owned railways from the outset.

Also we saw at the very beginning the different track gauges problem that still plaques our railways. Without spending a lot of time, basically each state went their own way which meant most systems were incompatible with each other, met at borders and produced a lot of variation to locomotive, rollingstock, buildings and signalling.

The Main Gauges for each state were:
  • New South Wales, 4ft 8 1/2 inches - Standard Gauge
  • Victoria, 5ft 3 inches - Broad Gauge/ 2ft 6inches Narrow Gauge (Puffing Billy)
  • South Australia, 5ft 3 inches - Broad Gauge/ 4ft 8 1/2 inches = Standard Gauge/ 3ft 6inches - Narrow Gauge
  • Western Australia, 3ft 6inches - Narrow Gauge
  • Queensland, 3ft 6inches - Narrow Gauge / 2ft "cane train" Narrow Gauge
  • Tasmania, 3ft 6inches - Narrow Gauge
  • Northern Territory,NT 3ft 6inches - Narrow Gauge
  • Australian Capital Territory,4ft 8 1/2 inches = Standard Gauge
Understand there are many gauges used throughout Australia, only the main ones are shown above. Taking Tasmania as a quick example, there were at least four gauges that I know of. As well as the mainlines there were plenty of tramways, logging lines, mineral lines, construction lines for power stations, dams etc.

So until the 1990 things were largely the same. Each state still owned their railways. But there were many private railways as well - the 2 foot cane trains of Queenland, the mining railways of the Pilbera in Western Australia, the coal railway in the Maitland area of NSW are a few examples.

These privately run railway were generally single purpose railways that might connect to the main government run system. Most were narrow gauge, or a different gauge to that of the railway they met.

The country now had a common gauge as the national standard, being 4ft 8.5 inches. But it was not consistent - in Victoria Standard gauge was run as a separate line into Melbourne form Albury, NSW. And another line from South Australia comes in from the West. the same in Adelaide (South Australia) , Perth(Western Australia), Brisbane (Queensland)- they all have their own "gauge" with the standard gauge coming in by itself. Tasmania being a island still had it's own system

The car and truck have had the same effect here - we have had many branchlines close, disappear under the sand or scrub.

Now I did say the federal government has largely dabbled on railways - never with long term success in unifying the railways. Let me quickly expand on this. Back when Australia became a nation one of the many conditions was for a railway linking Western Australia with the Eastern states. This was done and run by the Federal Government. Later on this railway (Commonwealth Railways) took on other railway, the line to Alice Springs.

Then, in an effort to increase this railway presence the federal government offered to take railway off every state if they so desired. They formed a new railway out of three former organisation - The Commonwealth Railway, South Australian Railway, and Tasmanian Government Railways in Australian National Railways. They even used our national colours of green & gold.

But due to many factor AN was not to last in the long term. You know,politics etc.

Another national company was formed, called National Rail. National rail was setup between NSW, Victoria, and the Federal Government. Each partner had to give locos, cres rollingstock and funds. AN suffered effectively becoming a South Australian operator. a few year ago it was sold, the good bits were already with National Rail. ASR took on the remainder of AN and has begun it's growth after purchase of the Westrail ( Western Australia's Railways).

So lets continue towards 2001. Privatisation has pushed the railway over the last 10 or more years with all government railways except Queensland - being sold or in the process. The railways have seen a increase in operators. Former Government owned railways have been divided up.

These operators vary in size. Alot have American Parent companies but operate locally. Some operators are Australian. Others I would call regional operators. Others are formed by railwaymen and are growing in size. Even preservation societies had a presence to a degree (mainly in loaning their preserved locomotives to other operators)

So Australia has it's railway heritage from the states, and now running under private operators.It is still A transitional time as operators and the government still work on how they interact.

Using Melbourne, in Victoria as an example the railways were once all VLINE - government owned. All the track was theirs - on the Broad gauge ( that covers most of Victoria) and standard gauge north.

Now with privatisation we have many companies - CONNEX and M-TRAIN have split the suburban network. VLINE has the passenger component. Freight Australia had/has the freight component. then we get down to the other operators. Great Northern, RTS are small concerns specialising in locomotive hiring's or maintenance.

In the state we now have other operators as well - we have National Rail, ATN, GSR plus others. We have haulage companies hiring trains for their specific needs. WE have the preserved locos on hire to meet demand. One effect is the cities's railway yards have been divided up and given/sold for a particular operator.

Also, Victoria will face a lot of gauge conversion from Broad to Standard - opening up the railways even more. It comes at a price - alot of the preserved steam locomotives cannot be gauge converted easily and will find themselves on a captured railway - as happened to the South Australian Broad gauge that now have the Victor Harbour line as their last stand.

Going national in the outlook we still have a situation that the railways are not totally compatible with each other even if they share the same gauge. Radio useage, trackage rights and state's laws still cause difficulties.

Another factor is, and I do not think this is a local oddity, is that the comptition is mainly between the operators. They have not really begun to compete with road and air. Whether this hurts the railways as a whole will be seen in years to come.

In the past a state's locomotive fleet mainly stayed on their own system. Rollingstock was more far ranging. There was interstate workings of locomotives, well after 1960 there was.

Today's scene is a real mix up of locomotives. because private operators no longer stop at a border, we are seeing a real colourful and diverse scene. there are alot more different colours out there than ever before. Some locos are repainted, some "stencilled", some run as is. Because the railway have changed name etc over time there have been multiple version of a railway.

Another noteworthy item is the locomotive classes and their numbers. We do not have locomotive type in huge numbers. The NR class owned by National Rail are probably the largest class (121). this results in the great mix of locomotive type. It is not hard these days to have a train from NSW racing towards Melbourne with a ex- Victorian loco, ex-South Australian loco, ex NSW loco and even a ex Western Australian loco in the consist! We are seeing locos in places during government owned days they would NEVER be seen in - this makes for exciting railfanning at the moment.

I am not an expert of the movements of the trains, but there are not alot compared to other mainlines around the world Passenger train still run to main cities and towns, though many are one a day. the traffic patters do vary, grain season can have a varied impact on the railways. You have your interstate mainline, your state based mainlines, and the rest which are basically branchlines.

I think that is all I'll say at the moment here are a few references to try if you are wanting to know more, or want a different view.

On to My railway's setting

Page written & maintained by David Head.