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Chapter Nine

Shaping things to come: The ‘OCTOPUS ACT’

Having achieved the passing of the Railways Management Act, Duncan Gillies’ next great challenge was to put together a substantial program of railway construction. Thomas Bent had whetted parliament’s appetite for a massive network expansion with his abortive ‘Octopus Bill’ of 1881. Since then railway leagues all over the colony had been pressuring their parliamentary representatives to vote for railway extensions, and Gillies was obliged to draft a comprehensive Railway Construction Bill. During the previous decade parliament had made only minimal provision for rolling stock and core assets when voting funds for railway building. Gillies acknowledged that ‘Minister after Minister’ had been exhorted by Mirls to provide bigger and more efficient workshops. [1] Now he was being advised by Speight, who not only grasped the full extent of the VR’s shortcomings, but was able to give detailed examples of best practice drawn from his intimate experience of the Midland Railway, whose workshops at Derby were arguably the best equipped in Britain. [2] No doubt Speight made full use of the ‘cultural cringe’ that was already at work in the antipodes. He was able to demonstrate that Victoria was not as good as the protectionists liked to imagine. However he managed it, when Gillies introduced a very large Railway Construction Bill in October 1884, an astounding £1,056,500 of the proposed expenditure of £5,600,000 was devoted to improvements on the existing network. The remainder was the estimated cost of a massive network extension providing 927 miles of new branch lines extending in all directions like octopus tentacles.

Duncan Gillies M.L.A.
Duncan Gillies M.L.A., Minister of Railways March 1883 to November 1890, Premier February 1886 to November 1890. Ballarat Heritage Services Picture Collection.

The Railway Construction Act of 1884 was pivotal. No single piece of legislation before or since has had such an impact on railways in Victoria. Its scope and magnitude at a critical stage of the colony’s development defined the Victorian Railways for the next eight decades. The passage of Gillies’ Bill through parliament is revealing, especially in view of the calamity that later befell the colony and the ruin of some good railwaymen. Of foremost importance to the future of the VR was the huge expenditure for ‘new works recommended by Commissioners’, [3] but these went unopposed and almost unremarked. Of the funding for improvements, £225,000 or 21 per cent, was earmarked for new workshops at Newport. The NSW Railways had taken the lead a few years earlier when a similar sum was committed for new workshops at Eveleigh. [4] At the average cost of £4,515 per mile for the proposed new lines in Victoria, the money to be spent at Newport might otherwise have financed 50 miles of railway to districts clamouring for trains. And yet this and the other expenditure for new works’ amounted to an expenditure of just over a million pounds. A sum of that order had so galvanised parliament during 1871 and 1872 in their search for economy that they were on the brink of adopting narrow gauge. [5] That the spending of a million should now pass almost unnoticed was amazing. But in the nine months between his arrival and the introduction of the Railway Construction Bill, Speight had travelled the network on a special inspection train comprising the two Ministerial carriages designed by Mirls and displayed at the Melbourne Exhibition as examples of colonial workmanship. They were proudly hauled by 2-4-0 No.100, the first locomotive built by the Victorian Railways. To be invited aboard this opulent train would have been an honour in itself, and Speight used the opportunities to brief local politicians, farming and business interests. It also gave them a chance to air their concerns to the Commissioners directly, as Speight was an approachable Yorkshireman, not a toff. He was publicity savvy too, and used the tours as an opportunity to entertain the press, which generally responded positively. The tours also included senior railway officers like Watson and Mirls, the camaraderie on the train helping to cement the management team. The visits of the bosses to all lines made them accessible to all their staff, keeping them on their toes but also instilling a sense of belonging. Speight had begun the tradition of the Commissioners Tour Train, a feature of the railways for the next hundred years, and such was the respect and deference he commanded that his recommendation alone convinced parliament to approve the huge program of ‘new works’.

Victorian Railways Inspection Train 1885
The first Commissioners Inspection Train used Mirls’ twin State cars. Spencer Street circa 1885. PROV H3445.

A whopping two thirds of the total allocated for ‘new works’ was for improvements in the Melbourne area. It would have been unthinkable only a year or two earlier for parliament to devote such a large sum to the metropolis while so many country electorates were crying for a slice of the railway cake. But Gillies had cleverly formulated a Bill with something for everyone, and Speight’s deputations had softened resistance. It was not only the workshops that were inadequate, but the locomotive depot at Spencer Street comprised a number of dead end sidings that required complex shunting when engines further back in the shed were needed for a train. The coaling road was the same: an engine being serviced had to back out before the next could enter the coal siding. With more locomotives being added to the fleet, these arrangements were severely hampering engine availability. Carriages stored out in the open were difficult to clean and service and exposure to weather was accelerating the deterioration of their wooden bodies. To overcome these problems, a very generous £225,000 was earmarked for new workshops at Newport, for which planning had already begun, plus a huge new locomotive shed for Melbourne costing £75,000 and a further £21,000 for a high capacity coaling station. Another £50,000 was provided for carriage sheds, the largest of which would be at Spencer Street. As a sop to decentralisation, £50,000 was provided for country workshops and £5,000 for a locomotive shed at Geelong. [6]

Melbourne Yard had been remodelled some years earlier, but the only connection between the lines radiating from Flinders Street and the rest of the system which terminated at Spencer Street was a single track along the south side of Flinders Street. This ‘tramway’ was only used for goods transfers, and then only at night with a shunter walking in front of the train swinging a warning lamp. The lightest engine in the fleet was chosen for this work; ex-G&MR No.34, which although fitted with a bell still killed several drunks staggering around what was then Melbourne’s dockland. [7]

Victorian Railways No.34
No.34 rebuilt in 1872 as a light lines 0-6-0 from ex-G&MR 2-2-2 ‘Titania’. PROV H1053.

With goods traffic from Gippsland growing, a proper railway linking Flinders Street and Spencer Street stations was an urgent necessity, but would not come cheap. The line between Flinders and Spencer Street stations would need to be elevated on a viaduct, which would also require lifting the adjoining bridge over the Yarra for the Sandridge and St Kilda lines. The new bridge would replace William Elsdon’s 30 year old timber bowstring truss bridge. Growing traffic was also causing congestion between Spencer Street and North Melbourne, which could only be alleviated by an additional pair of running lines and associated bridge works. The old M&HBUR bridge over the Yarra at Cremorne, between Richmond and South Yarra, was another bottle neck. A new multi-track bridge was badly needed, but the cost of all these civil engineering works in central Melbourne was an estimated £224,000; enough to make another 50 miles of new lines up country. Yet the proposed works went unopposed, as did the building of new railway administrative offices in Spencer Street for a cool £100,000.

Although the original mainlines engineered by George Darbyshire to Sandhurst and Ballarat were more than adequate for the growing colonial traffic, the same was not the case for Higinbotham’s trunk line to the North East, which was joined to the NSW system only months before Speight’s arrival. Now the first inter-colonial railway, it was experiencing 64 train movements daily when at its busiest, especially between Melbourne and Mangalore, junction for the Goulburn Valley line. [8] A hesitant start had been made with duplication work on this section, but Gillies now proposed to complete that work and also install double line block signalling and interlocking. Other improvements to stations and yards and Victoria’s share of the cost for the permanent bridge over the Murray River raised the sum earmarked for the North Eastern line to £260,000.

Some £36,800 was to be spent in Melbourne’s suburbs, with duplication of the line from Hawthorn to Camberwell, upgrading the old M&HBUR network, new stations and bridges, and better facilities at Flemington for the extremely popular race traffic. The remainder was spread over smaller items around the country network. [9] Hawthorn had rapidly become one of the most popular stations on the suburban network. When the line was extended further east in 1882 the astonishing housing boom in the shallow valley between Hawthorn and Camberwell led to a widespread conviction that population would follow railways. [10] It was also popularly believed at the time that rain followed the plough and, just as many wheat farmers were lured to ruin in the north of South Australia [11] , the reckless extension of suburban railways in the next decade was to cause financial ruin to many speculators.

Burwood Road Bridge at Hawthorn was built with provision for duplication in 1882

All these works were included in the Railway Construction Bill introduced to the Legislative Assembly by the Minister for Railways, Duncan Gillies on Tuesday afternoon 7th October 1884. [12] He enunciated the government’s intentions and spoke against the arguments in The Age editorial that morning, which argued that a ‘Bill that promises more than 300 or 400 miles of railway ought to be looked upon with distrust as a mere bid for popularity’, and that a limit of 100 miles per annum would prevent an ‘undue stress on the supply of capital’ [13] Gillies pointed out that after its five month progress through the House, Mr. Bent’s railway construction bill of 1882 was only lost due to the dissolution of the parliament. So many people had had a stake in its passing that it raised the expectations of the country. Given the ‘perfectly marvellous’ progress in railway revenue, and granting that receipts from many lines were insufficient to cover their capital costs, he noted ‘the real fact…is that the branch lines are great feeders of the main lines, they increase the traffic all round.’ [14] Whether or not branch lines were feeders was a matter of debate: The Age called them ‘suckers’.

Gillies attributed the inability of the railways to pay their overall interest charges up to that time to expenditure on purchasing of the M&HBUR lines and accident compensation. Without these drains on expenditure he assured the House, the other lines would have been paying interest on their construction and the whole system would make its first net profit that financial year. There was therefore no fear of making a large construction proposal. But Gillies passed over warnings that a large proposal would put an undue strain on the supply of capital and labour and excused his failure to submit estimates of traffic on the projected lines by holding that such estimates were ‘altogether fallacious and that members ought to be guided by their general knowledge of the country.’ [15] Gillies thought it would be better for the colony to build light lines and pay interest out of general revenue rather than pay ‘dead money’ out of Treasury for road construction by local bodies, at that time costing £310,000 per annum. [16] He claimed he was only following the practice of Paterson in 1880 and Bent in 1882, neither of whom submitted estimates: but they were not under a legal obligation to do so, Gillies was.[17]

That morning’s editorial in The Argus summarised the policy dilemma facing the government and the Railways. ‘A road, while it costs two or three thousands of pounds per mile to make, will afterwards yield no revenue, while we expect the railways to pay for itself.’ It recommended Victoria adopt the American rule of ‘make the railway first and settle the country afterwards’. Gillies basically revived Bent’s ‘Octopus’ Bill of 1882, but he added 98 miles that had not been included by Bent and omitted 184 miles. Some lines were shortened and others extended, so that overall Gillies proposed just 12 more miles than Bent.

The Second Reading

The second reading of the Bill in the Legislative Assembly commenced the following week on Tuesday, 14th October, with Mr. Mirams raising a point of order.

‘Mr. Speaker, I desire your ruling on a point of order in connexion with this question. By section 79 of the Railway Commissioners Act, it is provided that – “Before the second reading in the Legislative Assembly of any Bill authorising the construction of new lines of railway, the commissioners shall transmit to the Minister a statement under their seal, showing their estimate of the cost of constructing each proposed new line, and of the traffic and other returns likely to be derived therefrom; and the Minister shall, before such second reading, lay the same upon the table of the Assembly”.’ [18]

James Mirams M.L.A.
James Mirams M.L.A. 1876-1889. Euroa Advertiser, 15th July 1887, p.6.

It was ironic that Mirams was the stickler for financial integrity, as his Land Boom companies were soon borrowing on top of the ‘security’ of previous borrowing for land purchases of nearly £1,000,000. The whole lot came crashing down in 1890, with Mirams bankrupt for 2d in the pound, and a year in gaol where as a mercy he was allowed to keep his beard. [19] But the Railway Commissioners claimed they were unable to furnish estimates because ‘experience has shown that the traffic of a district during the time it was without railway communication is no guide to the traffic which has immediately developed upon provision of means for its transit’, and that they regarded any such information as ‘unreliable and misleading’. Furthermore, they considered the lines proposed were justified, notwithstanding some would not pay initially, because they would feed traffic to existing lines where much capital had already been committed, increase revenue and provide numerous advantages for the districts served and the colony generally. [20] Mirams refused to believe that it was impossible to make these estimates as every member was being inundated with printed returns and statements from all parts of the country, from all kinds of railway leagues, giving information which the Railway Commissioners ought to have furnished on an authoritative basis. [21] He moved that until the information was supplied, it was not competent for the House to proceed. Gillies defended the Commissioners by maintaining that their report was a ‘strictly technical compliance with the law’. [22] He was on thin ice, but the House was in no mood to be frustrated by its own safeguards, and the Speaker overruled the point of order.

The Age ruefully accused the Commissioners of shirking a duty which was very deliberately imposed, and the Parliament of viewing Section 79 ‘very much as an adult man regards the promises he made at his confirmation – very excellent, but which he is not expected to live up to.’ [23] If Speight had provided detailed traffic estimates it would have made very little difference to the passage of the Bill, but it would have saved him much personal grief seven years later.

The passing of the second reading was viewed as a fait accompli and on many occasions speakers drew attention to the low numbers in the House. But two important issues were debated. Firstly, that light lines would enable the maximum mileage of track to be laid for the money available, and secondly, that experience was showing that extensions were becoming less financially attractive. Mr. Graves noted that English railway managers favoured powerful engines and ‘making the trains as heavy and as few as practicable, or, in other words, to keep down the engine mileage to its lowest limits.’ He correctly speculated that Speight held these views and would ‘put an end to the idea of constructing light lines in this colony.’ [24] Minimising train mileage was a major contributor to a healthy operating ratio, the proportion of expenses to revenue. A healthy operating ratio was the key to profitability and was instrumental in the success of the Midland Railway Company.

On the other hand Bent’s main concern was to maximise railway extension, and if the government remained opposed to light lines then he wanted the loan increased by £1,000,000 to finance the additional construction! [25] But the best defence of light lines was made by Woods, who made a very long and detailed speech attacking his old Department for persisting with only one standard of construction. He favoured high standards only for main lines but pointed out that the failure of some of the light lines laid with 50 lb. rails was due to the use of locomotives that were too heavy for them. Secondary lines in flat country should be thinly ballasted, laid with light rail and have no fences or level crossing gates. He drew members’ attention to the fact that thousands of miles of railway in the USA were unballasted and stressed that it was only this that enabled people in the United States to get railways when they did. He believed very light 2’ 0” gauge lines should be made in mountainous areas, similar to the already famous Dharjeeling line completed two years earlier in India. He knew what he was talking about, having actually travelled on that line. In this way railways would take the place of common roads and it would be scarcely possible to make them in the wrong place. He drew attention to the differing estimates, both made by Watson; Bent’s class ‘A’ lines in 1882 were to cost an average £2,185 per mile, while Gillies was now allowing £5,043 for them. Woods proposed gatekeeping be reduced from £60,000 to £15,000 per annum and that railways be treated no differently to roads and not fenced. When challenged on this, he said ‘I will undertake to find more instances in new countries of unfenced railways than there are of fenced lines.’ Station buildings and platforms could be dispensed with, simple safeworking used and old suburban carriages attached to goods trains. In this way the cost of these lines could be brought within Bent’s estimates and more lines built with the savings. [26]

Only a few members drew attention to the dangers of a large proposal, but they were supported by the conservative Argus and liberal Age. They stressed the dangers of starting large public works all over the colony, as expenditure of more than £1,000,000 per annum would be almost impossible without immigration to supply more labour.[27]

C.H. Pearson M.L.A.
Professor Charles Henry Pearson M.L.A. 1878 – 1892. SLSA B7772.

By far the best spokesman for this group was Charles Henry Pearson, who had done some homework with the Railways Annual Reports. In his 1883 report Gillies, as Commissioner of Railways, expressed the concern that the marginal return on investment ‘was worsening as railways were carried into thinly populated districts.’ He noted that while ‘the increase of Revenue is satisfactory, yet it does not keep pace with the increased length of the lines, for while the latter received an addition of 10 percent, the Revenue increased only 6½ percent and this result may be accepted as the natural consequence of extending the lines into the, at present, sparsely populated portions of the colony’. [28] Pearson warned that too much could be spent on railway construction, just as a man may dig out gold at too great a cost. He predicted the ruin that was to follow the government borrowing £5,000,000 to £6,000,000 to finance the railway proposals. This money would find its way into the local banks either by direct government deposit or indirectly via government spending in the colony. The banks would find it impossible to prudently invest this flood of money because the colony’s resources were not large enough. The banks would try to lend all the money, rather than have some lying idle and the rest out at unprofitable interest rates. They would lend to increasingly speculative ventures creating an excess demand on available resources like labour, the cost of which would be bid up increasing the cost of all works, government or private, and consequently reducing the profitability of those works. The unsound speculative investments would eventually find the banks out and their debtors would go bad forcing them to close up. In these circumstances, Pearson argued ‘we cannot, at the end of six or eight years, stop the whole railway construction scheme…turn the workmen adrift, and say we will spend no more.’ Private enterprise would be unable to borrow from the compromised banks to use the idle labour and other resources, and ‘there will be a condition approaching bankruptcy’. [29] When the Railway Construction Bill of 1891 was aborted, Pearson’s gloomy prophecy was fulfilled with a vengeance. But in 1884 he regretted ‘the House does not care much to listen’.[30] Mr. Laurens was next to speak, and observed that the ‘very small number of members in the chamber shows very clearly that the second reading is a foregone conclusion’. He supported Pearson with figures from the 1883 Railways Annual Report showing the marked decline in the rate of return on railway investment over the preceding ten years. [31]

Net Revenue to Cost of Construction 1873-1883
YearAverage MileageNet Rev: Cost Construction

With the debate in its dying stages, Mr. Officer remarked that it must be pretty evident to the Government that ‘liberal as is their Railway Bill, the House is in a far more liberal mood’. [32] The Bill was then read a second time, the Premier, Mr. Service, advising members that the Government would reconsider their scheme, taking ‘a liberal view of the position’. [33]

This was precisely what most members had been waiting for and in the week following the Bill’s introduction, private members submitted motions for about 240 miles of extra railway in response to local pressures. [34] Protest meetings were held all over the colony to draft petitions and otherwise influence the Government to add to the Bill. In the weeks between 10th October and 20th November, Victorian newspapers reported meetings by at least twenty railway leagues, [35] and a large conference of representatives from sixteen local bodies in Northern Victoria was held at the White Hart Hotel in Spring Street, Melbourne. The meeting pressed for the inclusion of four extra lines and part of their resolution read ‘It was thought desirable to act in unison in bringing influence to bear on the Government…’ [36]

The Committee and Third Reading

The government sought to pass the 50 lines it had initially proposed during the first night of Committee on Tuesday 21st October. Knowing the government was to propose more lines next night, and with about half its eighty six members absent, only the need for six lines generated any real debate, but between 9pm and 11.53pm, 49 lines were approved. Said one member, ‘in the present humour of the committee it would be useless to object to any line.’ [37] The government had included a solitary line to light standards: that from Mount Moriac to Forrest, which was not expected to warrant a passenger service and therefore the lower speeds mandatory on a light line were thought acceptable. This encouraged Bent, who endeavoured to drum up support for more light railways, but the Premier shut him down. [38] The Argus for that morning had come out against light railways, stressing the dangers to trains from wandering livestock and drawing attention to a recent accident in New Zealand from this cause. [39] Against prejudice of this sort Bent laboured in vain. The last 25 lines were passed in about 50 minutes – two minutes per line!

The government decided to seek an additional £1 million of additional loans and accordingly sought approval for an extra 186 miles of lines proposed in the aborted 1882 Bill plus a few additions of its own. Private Members had submitted proposals for no less than 839 miles of additional lines, but only succeeded in adding a few lines against government wishes.

The Legislative Council Review

The Bill which reached Council on 19th November proposed construction of 1,170 miles of line for an expenditure of £6,620,000.[40] It was by far the largest railway loan since the £8,000,000 for Darbyshire’s trunk lines that was authorised in 1857. [41] Mr. Jenner moved that the Outer Circle line be struck out, maintaining that its original purpose of connecting the Gippsland Railway with Melbourne was negated by the purchase of the M&HBUR Company’s line and the proposed viaduct to connect Spencer Street and Flinders Street stations. He correctly guessed the Outer Circle would cost a lot more than the estimated £145,000. [42] But he was overruled, so strong was the belief that the extended suburban railways would generate their own traffic. In addition to the Outer Circle, new suburban railways were authorised from Hawthorn to Kew, Brighton Beach to Sandringham, Royal Park to Collingwood, Nicholson Street to Fitzroy and Clifton Hill to Heidelberg. There were also sanguine hopes the lower portions of the North Coburg to Whittlesea and Coburg to Somerton lines would foster suburban settlement at least as far north as Reservoir and Fawkner.

Queens Wharf Melbourne circa 1878.
Queens Wharf beside Flinders Street – a railway ran beside the road for goods trains from 1879. SLNSW FL1233261.

The only successful amendment to the lines proposed by the Assembly was to the Koroit-Dunkeld line, which it altered to terminate at Hamilton. This was one of the few instances in the passage of the entire Bill when estimates of traffic were used and it was a rough sort of justice that this amendment very nearly brought down the whole Bill which had progressed without resort to ‘misleading’ estimates of traffic. [43] After dealing with the Assembly’s lines, Council added one of its own, from Baxter to Mornington, and sent the amended Bill back to the Legislative Assembly.

Back and Forth Between Houses

The following day, 4th December, the Council’s amendments were considered in the Assembly. Gillies proposed that they be rejected as a matter of principle, but in order to placate the Council, he nevertheless introduced a separate Bill to authorise construction of both lines they proposed. This produced the unbelievable situation where a small triangle of railway was authorized between Penshurst, Hamilton and Dunkeld. The new Bill passed all stages in 3½ pages of Hansard and the two Bills were returned to Council, which after sitting on 9th December returned them to the Assembly insisting on their original alterations. The very same night Gillies had the whole Bill laid aside and introduced a new Bill, basically the old one but including the Council’s line to Mornington and the incredible Western District triangle. Gaunson tried to restore sanity by moving that the Penshurst to Dunkeld part of the triangle be struck out. Everyone knew it would be useless if the line from Penshurst to Hamilton was also made, and a ‘most monstrous’ waste of £100,000. But only four members supported him and his amendment was lost. [44] The Bill was read a third time and sent back to the Legislative Council. The next day, 10th December, the Council considered the new Bill, the only debate being on the Dunkeld – Penshurst section. A motion that this line be struck out was defeated by one vote and so the Bill was passed.[45]

Map of Victorian Railways 1892 showing 'Octopus Act' lines
The Victorian Railway network in 1892 with lines authorised by the 1884 Railway Construction Act shown in red – truly dubbed the ‘Octopus Act’! © Andrew Waugh 2019

The Penshurst – Dunkeld line proved to be absolutely useless. The railways were in no hurry to build it and it was opened on 22nd August 1890 with minimal facilities. In just over five months passenger services were cancelled and goods trains were only to run if required. [46] It was closed outright with the onset of the Depression of 1892. Even after the recovery of rails when the line was dismantled, the colony threw away at least £33,000 on this line, merely to achieve agreement between the politicians of the two houses of parliament. [47]

The Bill became Act No.821 of the Victorian Legislature on 12th December 1884, [48] the last day of the session. Construction of the lines began the following year. The railway management had distanced itself from parliament’s branch line mania, but later Speight was blamed, despite his chances of holding back that overwhelming tide being no better than King Canute’s! He was not an engineer but one of a new breed of railway generalist managers with a broad and deep understanding of the railway industry, mentored by Sir James Allport, the great strategist and General Manager of the Midland Railway Company. [49] Now as Chief Commissioner, Speight had the oversight of six branches – the Engineer-in-Chief’s (sub-divided into Construction, Existing Lines, and Surveys); the Locomotive, Traffic, Telegraph, Stores and Administration (including the Secretariat, Accounting and Audit functions). [50] He was like a Cobb & Co coach driver, King of the Road with the reigns of all six horses in his left hand, the whip in his right and his foot ready on the brake.

Ending the Light Lines Experiment

The irony of the Railway Construction Act was that just as the railways were perfecting the building and operation of light lines, the impetus to apply that know-how was lost. Even while the Bill was being debated in parliament, the last of 22 American 4-6-0 ‘Ten Wheelers’ were being delivered. Half of them were built by Phoenix in Ballarat to a local redesign of the Baldwin pattern which gave the local industry the ability to churn out many more ‘Colonial Yankees’ for the ‘Octopus’ branch lines that parliament was authorising. The Baldwin engines exerted a tractive force a tad over 12,000 lbs. for an axle load of 8 tons 17 cwt. But the Phoenix engines were a bit smaller, still with a respectable 11,250 lb. tractive effort, but tipping the scales at only 8 tons 3 cwt. This almost achieved Meikle’s elusive 8 ton axle load, and gave the engines a genuine go-anywhere capability. [51] Although basically similar to the Baldwin locomotive, they were marginally scaled down but not as well made. This, together with their incongruous domes may have led to the enginemen calling them ‘Bastard Yankees’. [52] The increasing availability of steel rails also meant that light lines could be more robust. It was light iron rails that had been quickly damaged by the badly balanced and overweight ‘Buzzwinkers’, but a 50 lb. per yard steel rail was more durable and had greater tensile strength than its 50 lb. iron equivalent.

It was ‘Tommy’ Bent that had cunningly ordered the second group of Baldwin ‘Ten Wheelers’ in 1882, while Minister for Railways. At the same time he gave Phoenix an order for 18 light 0-6-0’s, based on the pattern engine supplied by Beyer, Peacock in 1874. [53] Not as powerful as the Baldwin engines, and also a bit heavier, the design had been proven when the Deniliquin and Moama Railway had imported four for use on their light line. [54] So whether American or English designs were preferred, locomotives for light lines were tried and tested.

Bent also ordered a steam railcar specially designed for sparsely trafficked lines. Known as the Rowan Car, its engine was built by Kitson of Leeds and incorporated in a carriage body built by the Bristol Wagon and Carriage Works. Promoted by F.C. Rowan, a fellow member of the Engineers Association, along with Mirls, it was similar to another Rowan Car trialled in Adelaide during 1880. [55] Basically a train in one carriage, it was coded 1ABDL and was the forerunner to scores of rail motors the VR would adopt over the succeeding seventy years. It promised a means of economically working very lightly laid lines, but Bent lost office two months before it arrived aboard the SS Aberdeen in May 1883. Mirls supervised its assembly and early trials, but without an advocate it was parked at Princes Bridge for a year. It was then moved to Maryborough and worked the lightly laid Avoca line for a few years, then the short branch to Wedderburn before being left idle again. [56]

Victorian Railways Rowan Car circa 1883.
The Rowan Car on trial circa 1883. PROV H1047.

With Speight’s arrival and the passing of the ‘Octopus’ Act, the will to make light lines and locomotives suited to them dissipated.   Not only was anyone in the railways willing to advocate them, but the engineers proceeded to upgrade the light railways already built and adhere to their prejudice for substantial construction on all new works.


  1. The Ballarat Star, Thursday 16 October 1884, p.3.
  2. Roy Williams, The Midland Railway: A New History, David & Charles, 1988, p.123-24.
  3. The Argus, Wednesday 8 October 1884, p.6. The average cost per mile includes country and suburban lines, and the permanent way material for new lines, which was shown separately.
  4. Robert Lee, Colonial Engineer, Op. Cit., p.266.
  5. The Argus, Thursday 21 September 1871, p.4. The Railway Construction Bill introduced by Francis Longmore proposed about 200 miles of new railway to be built for approximately £1,000,000.
  6. The Argus, Saturday 8 November 1884, p.13.
  7. Leo Harrigan, Op. Cit., p.184-186.
  8. The Argus, Saturday 8 November 1884, p.13.
  9. The Argus, Saturday 8 November 1884, p.13.
  10. Graeme Davison The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne. (Melbourne University Press, 2nd Edition, 2004). p.193.
  11. Wiki: Rain Follows The Plow
  12. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1650.
  13. The Age, Tuesday 7 October 1884, p.4.
  14. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1651.
  15. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1652.
  16. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1653.
  17. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1652.
  18. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.1749. 14 October.
  19. Michael Cannon. The Land Boomers. (Melbourne University press, 1966). p.72-76.
  20. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1749-50.
  21. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1750.Also:The Age, Wednesday 15 October 1884, p.6 gives the full text of the Commissioners statement.
  22. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1753.
  23. The Age, Thursday 16 October 1884, p.4
  24. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1825.
  25. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1756-7.
  26. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol.47, 1884, p.1776-86.
  27. The Argus, Tuesday 14 October 1884, p.4.
  28. Victorian Railways, Annual Report, 31 December 1883, p.6.
  29. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.1827-1831.
  30. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.1831.
  31. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.1831-32.
  32. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.1833.
  33. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.1835.
  34. The Age, Wednesday 15 October 1884, p.5
  35. The Age, The Argus, The Ballarat Star, and The Bendigo Advertiser, between 10th October and 20th November 1884 reported meetings of the following railway leagues:-
    1. Upper Murray Railway League
    2. Kerang and Swan Hill Railway League
    3. Colac and Beeac railway leagues
    4. Cobram Railway League
    5. Poowong and Jeetho Railway League
    6. Strathmerton Railway League
    7. Hamilton Railway League.
    8. Camperdown Railway Extension League
    9. Sandhurst, Eaglehawk and Swan Hill Railway League
    10. Boort to Swan Hill Railway League
    11. Winchelsea, Deans Marsh, and Lorne Railway League
    12. Kotupna Railway League
    13. United Railway League (Picola & Nathalia)
    14. Bass Valley and Cape Patterson Railway League
    15. Hedi Railway League
    16. Warracknabeal Railway League
    17. Central Railway League
    18. Rochester, Corop, and Heathcote Railway League
    19. Bangerang and Willenabrina railway leagues [to be united]
    20. Wedderburn Railway League
  36. The Argus, Wednesday 15 October 1884, p.6.
  37. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.1880. Mr. Officer, speaking in favour of a line from Penshurst to Hamilton, later included by the Legislative Council.
  38. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.1882.
  39. The Argus, Tuesday 21 October 1884, p.4.
  40. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.2331. Stated by Mr. Fitzgerald in the Legislative Council, 28th November 1884.
  41. Leo J. Harrigan. Victorian Railways to ’62. (Melbourne, 1962). p20.
  42. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.2321.
  43. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.2341.
  44. Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 47, 1884, p.2389.
  45. M.A. Venn. ‘The Octopus Act and Empire Building by the Victorian Railways During the Land Boom’, Master of Arts Preliminary Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1973. This provides a more comprehensive discussion of the passing of the Railway Construction Act in 1884.
  46. The Argus, Saturday 19 December 1891, p.11.
  47. Victorian Railways, Annual Report, 30 June 1900, Appendix 10, p.42. Only the costs for the complete 49¼ miles from Koroit to Dunkeld are given, which average a low £3,450 per mile, but the 16¼ mile section between Penshurst and Dunkeld was probably less than the average for the whole line. On that section no intermediate stations were provided and the gentle terrain with only two small streams to be bridged probably kept expenditure to about £3,000 per mile. Of this, the rails would have been recovered and reused elsewhere, but a waste approximating £2,000 per mile was nevertheless incurred.
  48. It is formally ’48 Victoria No.821 and 58 Victoria No.1381’, its official short title being ‘The Railway Construction Act 1884’.
  49. Grace’s Guide See James Joseph Allport
  50. The Argus, Wednesday 19 July 1882, p.10.Also:-Leo J. Harrigan. Victorian Railways to ’62. (Melbourne, 1962). P276-279.
  51. Norman Cave, John Buckland and David Beardsell. Op. Cit., p.81-93.
  52. The Ballarat Star, Wednesday 22 August 1888, p.2.
  53. Victorian Railways, Annual Report, 31 December 1884, Appendix 23, p.42. The engines were part of contract 1658 for 50 locomotives, let on 8th September 1882.
  54. Norman Cave, John Buckland and David Beardsell. Op. Cit., p.113, 117.
  55. The South Australian Register, Friday 16 April 1880, p.4.Also:The Argus, Thursday 21 February 1884, p.10.
  56. Norman Cave, John Buckland and David Beardsell. Op. Cit., p.159-60.