THE GREAT ENGINEERING ISSUE – STOPPING TRAINS
John Woods and the Search for Better Brakes 1877-1883
Although the first main lines in Victoria had been built and equipped to the best English standards, in one respect they differed alarmingly. Gradients on main lines in Britain rarely exceeded 1 in 100, but Victorian main lines abounded in long gradients of 1 in 50. Of no great consequence in the 21st Century, steep gradients in the 19th Century could be a nightmare. Trains frequently reached speeds of 60 mph on steep downgrades, but with only hand brakes on the locomotive tender and on one or sometimes two brake vans, even the Engineer-in-Chief had to admit that there were sections of line where drivers and guards could not control their trains.
One of the worst inclines was encountered by trains to Ballarat, where an unnerving 2½ mile descent at 1 in 52 was followed by another mile of 1 in 91 right into Ballarat East, and then only ¾ mile on the level before the dead-end at Lydiard Street. In August 1863, sixteen months after the opening of the line, a heavily loaded goods train came careering down the incline at 50 mph, the hand brakes practically useless due to slippery conditions. The resulting pileup sent wreckage into the street and alarmed the townsfolk. The driver and guard had jumped clear and escaped with minor injuries, but what if it had been a passenger train? 
There were instances of out of control trains on the six mile descent from Elphinstone tunnel being unable to pull up at Castlemaine Station, and so common was the inability to stop at Chewton, half way down that incline, that the station was closed for safety reasons. Frederick Christy, the Locomotive Superintendent, was against throwing an engine into reverse, as was sometimes done in emergency, as ‘the chances are it would carry the cylinder cover away.’ Driver Evan Edwards said the ‘gradients are so very steep, we go at a terrible pace sometimes and we cannot help ourselves.’ 
Sunbury bank was another trap for unwary or inexperienced drivers. On the morning of Wednesday 28th February 1872 a well patronised fourteen carriage train taking excursionists from Castlemaine to Williamstown for a picnic was unable to stop before running into the rear of a goods train shunting at Sunbury. The engine crew and two guards saw the signal at danger and screwed down their brakes, but the speed and weight of the train on the long 1 in 50 gradient worked against them, and they were still moving at eight miles per hour with smoking wooden brake blocks when they haplessly collided with the brake van of the goods.
One man suffered facial lacerations from broken glass but the rest of the passengers and crew were fortunate to escape with a few bruises. The impact dislodged the locomotive’s chimney and smashed up the brake van and a wheat truck on the goods train. Commissioner Francis Longmore and Locomotive Overseer William Meikle attended the scene, and a few days later Meikle conducted brake tests with a train using the same class of engine and sixteen vehicles to equate to the loaded weight of the excursion train.
Descending the bank at ‘passenger train speed’, the hand brakes on O class engine No. 53 and the two brake vans halted the train in time, although the engine was thrown into reverse for the last hundred yards. The second test was made to test the new Le Châtelier counter pressure brake experimentally fitted to No. 53. The guards did not use their brakes on this test and the train was pulled up effectively using No. 53’s new brake and the hand brake on its tender. If stopping required throwing the engine into reverse, a practice Christy had frowned on, clearly the braking power was inadequate, but Longmore thought otherwise and sacked the poor driver. The fireman and guards were fined a month’s wages! A subsequent inquiry absolved the driver.
Most goods trucks had a hand brake, but these could only be activated while the train was stationary. A goods train approaching the top of an incline would stop, and the guard would walk along locking down the hand brakes on as many trucks he thought necessary to prevent the train getting out of control. On passenger trains only the locomotive and brake vans were equipped with hand brakes; the carriages were unbraked. Trains had to begin braking a good distance from station stops, which slowed down suburban services because stations were close together.
Nothing changed for a decade or so, but as traffic grew and the lines became busier, train working became dangerous. A rear-end collision at Riddell’s Creek on 4th September 1876 again brought the issue of brakes before parliament. A special livestock train of 25 trucks and two brake-vans left Macedon behind 0-6-0 No. 53, but the two guards had only locked down the hand-brakes on twelve of the 25 trucks before descending the long 1 in 56 incline. By this time the Le Châtelier brake had been removed from engine No. 53, but driver Douglaas must have wished it was still fitted when his train rounded the curve into Riddell’s Creek.
Looming up in the moonlight was the red semaphore signal light and the red marker lights of the preceding goods train standing in the station platform. Douglaas whistled to his two guards to screw down their brakes then threw the engine into reverse as his fireman frantically screwed down No. 53’s tender brake. But to no avail! With their wooden brake-blocks smoking they ploughed into the preceding train, No. 53 finishing up on its side, with the leading brake van and five trucks crumpled together between the station platforms, and three other trucks more or less damaged.
The immediate outcome was a recommendation from the Engineer-in-Chief, the Overseer of Locomotives and the Traffic Superintendent to install the telegraphic block system on the Up line between Macedon and Riddell’s Creek. No train would then be permitted to depart Macedon until a ‘line clear’ telegram had been received from Riddell’s Creek. It was a beginning of safe train despatching, but much more was needed.
The most obvious cause of the collision was poor braking. When driver Douglaas first saw the red lights he was still a mile from the Riddell’s Creek station, but the train’s braking power was woefully inadequate. In parliament, John Woods offered to trial fit ‘his’ continuous hydraulic brakes to a Victorian Railways train. He had invented a hydraulic brake, and was seeking its adoption but the Engineer-in-Chief had other ideas, for one of the tasks on his overseas tour had been the investigation of train braking developments.
Continuous brakes were inventions to enable drivers to simultaneously apply brakes to all vehicles in a train. A further development of this concept was the automatic brake, which was activated immediately on all vehicles in the event that any part of the train became uncoupled. These inventions were the greatest single advance in railway safety ever made, but very little progress had been made prior to 1870.
When increasing speeds and traffic congestion forced engineers to consider the problem, there were a number of alternative mediums devised to actuate the brakes. Some used chains, some compressed air, others a vacuum, and some were hydraulic. Higinbotham had leaned towards an experiment with the Smith’s vacuum brake, possibly because that was the system adopted by his old employer, the Great Northern Railway (GNR). Conservative as ever, he decided instead to await the investigations in Britain of the Royal Commission on Railway Accidents, which was to report upon all the competing designs then available.
There were at least fourteen different systems under trial and the investigation was thorough. As well as technical effectiveness the Commissioners examined the cost of purchasing equipment and fitting to rolling stock, the maintenance costs, ease of use, and whether the responsibility activating brakes should rest with the driver or guard. It was the most complex and pressing engineering issue of the time, with some dreadful accidents adding to public cries for resolution.
In the middle of the Commission’s deliberations there was a double collision during a blizzard at Abbots Ripton on the GNR. The southbound Scotch Express struck a shunting goods train, and then the northbound Leeds Express careered into the wreckage, all brakes screwed down but unable to stop. Neither express had continuous brakes and fourteen people were killed.
Associated with the Royal Commission’s inquiries, some famous trials were held by the Railway Companies’ Association at Newark, on the Midland Railway, in June 1875. At that time Higinbotham was visiting the Continent, but he returned to England soon afterwards. He must have heard that the GNR train, with Smith’s vacuum brake, had performed poorly in comparison with the Westinghouse automatic air brake, which had already impressed him in North America, where it was by then widely used.
On the other hand, the Smith’s vacuum brake was the cheapest. So Higinbotham vacillated, uncertain which to adopt. Of one thing he was sure, hydraulic brakes were out. The one tried at Newark had performed well, but problems were anticipated with water freezing in the pipes during cold weather. It was clear that the greater part of the railway world in the Northern Hemisphere had rejected the hydraulic brake for this reason, and acknowledged the equal or superior performance of the vacuum or compressed air systems.
While hydraulic brakes would present little difficulty in warm climates like Victoria, their adoption would make the colony a technological orphan. When Woods sought Government approval for a trial of his hitherto untested hydraulic brake during October 1876, he was given the brush off by the Minister, no doubt on Higinbotham’s advice. Woods was told such a trial would be ‘exceedingly inconvenient’, at which he accused Jones of always going out of his way to sneer at his invention, which he offered on public grounds, wanting no benefit for himself!
Woods was also caustic about Higinbotham’s dismissal of his brake, claiming that he had suggested the idea to the Engineer-in-Chief in 1863, albeit without any drawings. ‘In what way, however, was the affair received by Mr Higinbotham?’ said Woods. ‘He made this extraordinary statement, not one word of which I have ever forgotten:- “I object to that brake because it will give the driver too great a control over the train, and render him careless’’’. One can well imagine the Engineer-in-Chief so voicing the conventional wisdom of the day to the then Honourable Member for Crowlands. Having witnessed the fiasco of Woods’ attempt to hide cracked pipes at Malmsbury Reservoir, it is not surprising that he continued to hold a low opinion of ‘Tar Brush’ Woods as a reputable engineer, and doubt the value of his invention.
Like most new technologies, there were pros and cons for several of the best brakes tested and the British Royal Commission was bogged down for several years making detailed assessments of the Newark trials. The Westinghouse brake was already the most widely adopted continuous brake, if not in Britain then certainly in America. It was patented by George Westinghouse in the United States in 1872, and used compressed air piped continuously through the train, each vehicle being connected by a flexible hose.
Brakes were fitted to each vehicle and connected to a brake pipe running the length of the train. Air pressure in the pipe held the brakes ‘off’, but when the pressure was released by the driver or guard, the brakes on every vehicle came ‘on’. If some untoward circumstance caused vehicles in a train to uncouple while moving, the flexible connection between vehicles broke, releasing brake pipe pressure and automatically applying all brakes. But pending the Commission’s findings the railway industry was unable to commit to a uniform system.
Nine months after the Riddell’s Creek accident, a head-on collision at Spencer Street between two well patronised suburban trains occurred in the Spencer Street yards. The signalman turned an arriving Williamstown train into the path of a departing Essendon train. Both drivers reversed their engines but collided at six miles per hour. One engine derailed, but damage was limited. Nine passengers were injured. A few days later The Argus was calling attention to the absence of continuous brakes on the two trains, which would have stopped them short of collision.
But hardly had the ink dried when another rear-end collision occurred, this time near Broadford on the then single track North Eastern line. It was Monday afternoon, 25th June 1877 and once again, the trains involved were only fitted with hand brakes. A double headed passenger train of just five four wheeled carriages and a brake van were following a goods train; that day just an engine and brake van. At the time the safeworking systems were rudimentary.
Staff and Ticket working was in force on the North Eastern line, and both the Kilmore and Broadford stations were connected to the Post Office telegraph, one wire being reserved for railway use. However the arrangement was unreliable, messages often ‘crossing’ to other wires. Therefore telegraphic block was not in use and total reliance was put on the timetable. This left the stationmaster at Kilmore with no means of knowing if the preceding goods train had safely arrived at Broadford before despatching the passenger train. It was just hoped that the timetable allowed a sufficient interval between trains to keep them apart and that drivers would be vigilant. But a fast moving train could catch up to a slow moving train ahead. This often happened on Oliver’s Bank between Pascoe Vale and Broadmeadows, the first two miles being an arduous 1 in 50 gradient. 
Every morning the guard of the first train from Melbourne would ‘take the time’ to each station along the line, and stationmasters would adjust their clocks to the guard’s watch, thereby ensuring uniform time on the line for that day. Clocks were notoriously unreliable; a fact so common that George Matheson alluded to it in his 1890 hymn about the human heart; ‘it wants a spring of action sure, it varies with the wind’. (Not the ‘wind’ that blows, but the clockwork ‘wind’ of a spring). It was known that railway clocks could vary as much as 15 minutes.
The station clock at Kilmore had been adjusted, but it was in the office where the driver of the passenger train could not see it. The station porter, overtired from working seventeen hour shifts referred to his own watch which was wrong by 10 minutes. So he had inadvertently allowed the passenger train to depart early, sending it to calamity. With double headed B class 2-4-0s it went hurtling down the roller coaster grades and was making more than 50 mph when rounding a curve near Broadford it overhauled the goods only 200 yards ahead. Whistling for brakes and reversing their engines, the drivers slowed the train but could not stop in time. The lead engine telescoped into the goods brake van, losing its chimney and injuring the guard. Otherwise they were lucky, with very little damage. Once again it demonstrated the double vulnerability of trains moving at high speeds without good brakes or the protection of failsafe safeworking.
Woods had commenced his second term as Minister for Railways less than a month before the Broadford collision. Distrusting the old guard of railway managers, he appointed Solomon Mirls, Robert Ford and W.B. Fyfe as an Inquiry Board. Mirls had only days since been confirmed as Locomotive Superintendent, as Meikle’s successor. But Woods studiously avoided appointment of the Engineer-in-Chief or the Traffic Manager to represent their Branches, and chose their subordinates instead. He was shocked at their report, which revealed an appalling laxity of railway operations.
Woods had a deeper understanding of railway matters than any of his predecessors, and was the self-styled ‘General Manager’ of his Department. His micro-managing could be counter-productive, but nevertheless the full implications of the Broadford accident were not lost on him. Despite no serious injury to persons and only moderate damage to a locomotive and a brake van, the incident revealed very serious contraventions of regulations, not only by the Kilmore station staff and the train crews, but by the Traffic Manager himself. He had allowed trains to be timetabled with a shorter interval between them than the rules permitted.
The need for telegraphic communication between stations was forcefully apparent, together with the need for all operating staff to have accurate and readily visible clocks. Woods dismissed the Kilmore stationmaster, who had delegated too much responsibility onto his porter, and criticised Anthony Mathison, the Traffic Manager. A few months later Woods took the opportunity created by the wholesale ‘Black Wednesday’ sackings to dispense with Mathison, along with Higinbotham and a few other senior managers he did not like.
Woods also called tenders for thirty tons of copper wire to install a dedicated railway telegraph on the busy North Eastern line. By July 1878 a single wire had been installed and brought into operation, but whereas Berry’s move to govern without supply was a convenient way for Woods to purge his Department, the necessary curtailment of government expenditure meant further extension of the railway telegraph had to be deferred indefinitely. And trains continued to smash into one another.
On 6th February 1879 B class 2-4-0 No. 94 was leading an up goods when entering Harcourt station and struck a down goods that was shunting. Woods dismissed No. 94’s driver and fireman without waiting for an inquiry by railway officers, and two weeks later, after the Traffic Manager had investigated and recommended the stationmaster receive a rather heavy fine of £5, Woods dismissed him instead.
Not two weeks after the Harcourt incident, and having received some minor repairs, No. 94 was again in a collision. It was damaged when an up livestock special got out of control descending Oliver’s Bank at midnight on 18th, and despite the frantic efforts of the engine crew and guard, slid head-on into a down passenger train that had terminated at Essendon. Two carriages were wrecked, and the hapless crew of the livestock train were suspended. Engine No. 94 was again repaired, and fitted with a new chimney. In his report on the incident, Mirls noted that ‘It is a common occurrence for heavy trains to descend Oliver’s Bank uncontrollable, drivers having often to run with their engines reversed and steam against, and in all cases it requires good judgment on the part of drivers and guards to brake their trains sufficiently to enable them to stop at Essendon.’ 
While Woods was alive to the need for improved safeworking systems, the greatest shortcoming revealed by the Broadford, Spencer Street Yard, Riddell’s Creek, Harcourt and Essendon collisions was braking power. Woods was himself within inches of a rear-end collision a few months into his second Commissionership. Travelling in a special inspection train on the Hamilton line, he heard the driver whistling for the guard to ‘put down brakes’, and on looking out saw they were bearing down on a ganger’s trolley about 150 yards away. Bracing for a collision, they managed to pull up short. Rather embellished in the press, it nevertheless pointed up the need for emergency brakes, and within a month Woods had applied for a patent for an ‘Improvement in Railway Brakes’ 
Woods had conceived an idea for a hydraulic brake in 1863, patented it in 1871 and then bided his time until he was in a position to have it installed. No working application of his invention had been made, but in June 1877, soon after being appointed Minister of Railways, he promoted Mirls as Locomotive Superintendent. So Mirls became a willing collaborator in the development of the Woods brake. It was implied at the time that Mirls and his artisans were responsible for refining Woods’ idea and making it workable. The brake developed at Williamstown clearly differed significantly from his 1871 patent and Woods was unwilling to release details of its working, pending the securing of fresh patent protection. The Melbourne Punch called ‘Jack’ Woods a ‘muff engineer’, and some conservative newspapers were scathing of his engineering ability.
The initial brake trials in October 1877 were encouraging, but necessitated a ‘temporary makeshift’. With Higinbotham then still Engineer-in-Chief, Woods decided it was politic to distance himself from the process by transferring the patent to a group of backers who formed the Universal Continuous Railway Break Company (sic), and work continued at Williamstown, supposedly financed by that company. Woods was one of the nine shareholders, with more shares than any of the others, and with the articles of association so contrived to give him an effective controlling interest. This was not only deceitful but in contravention of Act 23 Victoria No. 41, which ruled that two parliamentarians could not hold shares in a company if the total number of shareholders was less than twenty. The other parliamentary shareholder was none other than Thomas Bent, MLA!
By late November 1877 Woods’ brake had been fitted to some carriages and two locomotives: L class suburban 2-4-0 saddle tank No. 26 and Beyer Peacock B class 2-4-0 No. 50. On the 28th November No. 26 took the carriages for a successful test on the main line. Three days later No. 50 and the same train commenced a regular daily run from Spencer Street to Sandhurst without fanfare.  Once the engine drivers had gained familiarity with the brake’s operation, an official trial was arranged.
On 19th December a train of five fitted carriages, a post office van and a brake van was taken to Woodend. On the return seven trial stops were made from speeds of 60 mph on the falling gradient to Sunbury.  On board were Woods, some railway officials and William Brewster, the Beyer Peacock agent in the Australasian colonies. He was probably in Melbourne to supervise the commissioning of three Sturrock design O class 0-6-0s, ordered by the previous government, and no doubt hoping to drum up more business.
Next day in the Legislative Assembly Bent asked a pre-arranged question which enabled Woods to announce the brake trial was considered ‘so satisfactory by the permanent scientific officers of the department that, for the future, the trains running between Melbourne and Sandhurst would be furnished with the continuous brake’ and explaining that he had sold the patent to a company in which he shamelessly admitted to having a large interest.
Woods also claimed that Brewster, ‘a very clever mechanic’ who had fitted up many locomotives with the Westinghouse brake, had pronounced the Woods’ brake ‘fully equal to the Westinghouse brake, and…much more simple, very much less liable to get out of repair, and from 65 to 75 per cent cheaper’.  If Brewster was flattering Woods his reward was meagre. Woods placed orders for two pattern engines, a main line 0-6-0 and suburban 4-4-0 tank engine, (the Old R and M classes) but it was to be five years before Beyer Peacock won a significant locomotive order from protectionist Victoria.
The Westinghouse company remained a powerful competitive challenge and while Higinbotham remained Engineer-in-Chief, Woods had to be careful. But a few weeks later he ‘had his revenge’ on the Engineer-in-Chief in the Black Wednesday purge. Thereafter he assumed unfettered control of the colonies largest undertaking. Determined to dazzle his critics Woods arranged a public ‘scientific’ trial of his brake for May Day 1878.
The test train was again headed by B class 2-4-0 No. 50, which had been working to and fro between Spencer Street and Sandhurst every day for five months. Aboard were 230 invited guests and two ‘professional men’ in charge of the tests. One was Zeal, the other A.K. Smith. He was a Member of Parliament and engineer involved with the gas, water and mining industries and had helped establish the Melbourne Suburban Railway Company in the early 1860’s.
Steaming up to Kyneton where refreshments were provided for the guests, the train then began the trials, the big wheeled Beyer Peacock 2-4-0 hurtling down the 1 in 52 Sunbury bank flat out at 66 mph, its train of eight little fixed wheel carriages and a guard’s van dancing along behind with its load of excited dignitaries, including three Cabinet Ministers. Brakes were applied and the train was brought to a stand in 46¾ seconds. Zeal held the stop watch. On the engine, passing Zeal’s signal to the driver, was none other than William Shaw, General Manager of the Phoenix Foundry.  With Higinbotham gone, Meikle back in England and protectionists in power, the fortunes of his Ballarat company were looking up!
A few months later, a further trial was made on the comparatively flat Geelong and Melbourne line, expressly to compare the Woods hydraulic brake with results obtained from the Westinghouse air brake experiments in England. Those results were published in The Engineer of 25th May 1877. On 4th July a train of nine fixed wheel carriages made eleven brake tests on the down side of Werribee, Zeal and A.K. Smith again being employed as independent but friendly assessors.
This time there were a few red faces. The Argus published a very fulsome report, with tables comparing the Geelong line trials with those on similar terrain in England where the Westinghouse brake had been carefully tested. The report concluded that ‘in no case were the performance of the American invention equalled, or even closely approached’. The Age on the other hand reported the results were ‘highly satisfactory’ and refrained from comparisons with the Westinghouse trials in England. But editor David Syme was hardy impartial, having six months pervious thrown in his lot with the Woods and the Berryites, justifying the Black Wednesday purge.
The neighbouring colonies were bemused by the goings-on in Victoria. In reporting the brake trials on the Geelong line, The Argus and The Age might well have been reporting different events. A journalist in Sydney summed it up:- ‘There has been much controversy in Victoria over this invention, and it has been a most ridiculous thing, that over a mechanical invention, opinions differed on strict party lines. The opponents of Mr. Berry believed that Woods’s break was stolen from Westinghouse’s invention, or if not is quite worthless. The friends of Mr. Berry are firmly convinced that it is the best break yet discovered.’ 
So by July 1878, the Minister of Railways was secure enough to foist his invention on his Department, despite the superior qualities of competing systems. To this effect, the Directors of his company and Bent waited upon Graham Berry on 20th August, and presented the Chief Secretary with the report of an independent ‘scientific commission…totally unconnected with the Railway Department’ which comprised none other than Zeal, then in the political wilderness, and Mr. A.K. Smith, a sitting member of the Assembly who had been employed by the company.
The Argus reported that Bent was also ‘eloquent over the advantages of the break,’ but Zeal had to acknowledge the Westinghouse brake as the most effective ‘at present’ with an established reputation and an undoubted supremacy over its rivals. Nevertheless, he favoured the Woods brake as cheaper to make and fit, simpler in work and easier to maintain. The Chief Secretary was well aware of Woods’ shenanigans, and the advantages given by the Government in developing and testing the brake.
To the nervous laughter of the U.C.R. Brake Co. representatives, Berry suggested it looked like ‘a kind of partnership…that whatever gain the company might seek elsewhere, they would not expect any gain from the Victorian Railways.’ There was no love lost between Berry and his ‘bearish colleague’ Woods, and despite Bent’s enthusiastic promotion of the report and his protestations that the railways had gained more value from the brake than the £1,700 expended at Williamstown, Berry deferred the matter to some future consideration by parliament. 
It seemed that Woods had been rebuffed, and a few weeks later an attempt was made in the Legislative Assembly to impeach the Minister for Railways. The case was based on flimsy evidence and Woods, well acquainted with the workings of his Department, completely demolished his opponent to loud cheers. Then, pouring out some ashes in front of amused members, he told them of an attempt to sabotage his brake by blocking the pipes. He further remarked that he had been informed that New South Wales had decided to adopt his brake, and that it was rumoured South Australia had also resolved to employ the invention on their lines. This despite both the neighbouring colonies already using the Westinghouse brake.
Henry Mais, Engineer-in-Chief of the South Australian Railways, was quick to scotch the rumour. He was ‘well satisfied’ with the Westinghouse brake, and was fitting it to the balance of his broad gauge carriage stock, including the State carriage. To the north, however, John Whitton had indeed endorsed the Woods brake, recommending its adoption by the NSW Railways. But the NSW Engineer-in-Chief’s endorsement was a hollow victory for Woods. Earlier that year Charles Goodchap had been appointed Commissioner of Railways and had stripped Whitton of responsibility for locomotives and rolling stock. Goodchap stuck with Westinghouse.
Nevertheless the Geelong line trials had been impressive and no one had any experience of any other continuous brake. Woods’ invention was also clearly better than the mere hand brakes used on all other trains. So despite his qualms, Berry allowed the trial fitting of the Woods brake to go ahead. He promised parliament would be consulted before ‘permanent’ adoption of the invention, but over the next four years this ‘trial’ fitting of brakes was made to 32 locomotives and 226 vehicles! 
Basking in the publicity of the May 1878 demonstration, Woods took the opportunity to belittle Higinbotham for resisting his invention when first proposed fifteen years previously. He neglected to mention that private trials of it at the time were fruitless. He also failed to mention that in 1863 Higinbotham had supported the trial of a continuous brake patented by the then Locomotive Superintendent, F.C. Christy. The outcome of that trial must have been disappointing, as were all the early experiments with continuous brakes.
Meikle had experimentally fitted the big O class goods engine No. 53 with counter-pressure brakes in August 1870. The Le Châtelier counter-pressure brake worked by injecting a small amount of water at boiler temperature into the engines cylinders, which flashed into steam on the compression stoke, exerting a braking force. It was widely used in France, with 2,625 locomotives fitted by March 1869. Gallic engine drivers were more thoroughly trained mécaniciens, and throughout the steam era successfully managed complex locomotives that failed elsewhere. The London & North Western Railway (L&NWR) experimented with the Le Châtelier brake but rejected it due to scoring of the cylinders. Victoria followed, removing the equipment from No. 53.
The initial trials of Woods’ brake came at a cost, but not much of it was borne by the U.C.R. Break Company! It was alleged they expended £480 of their own money on patents, reports, public trials, etc., but Woods had authorised spending four times that amount by the Locomotive Department. The conservative press was outraged, but the Liberal government took no steps to rein in the Railway Commissioner. Five months after the train fitted with Woods brake commenced running a daily return service from Melbourne to Sandhurst, a distance of 200 miles, Mirls reported it had run without incident – a total distance of 25,800 miles.
But Victoria was lagging behind the neighbouring colonies when it came to braking trains. In South Australia Mais placed orders for Westinghouse brakes in August 1875. On 13th November that year, a six carriage train fitted with Westinghouse brakes made a trial run on the Salisbury line. This was the first application of automatic brakes in Australia, and was publicised in Melbourne.
The following year, Joseph Jones, then Commissioner of Railways in Victoria, claimed that a ‘modified Westinghouse’ brake was fitted to a locomotive working the very steeply graded Beechworth line. Details are unknown, but Meikle claimed his U class 0-6-0 ‘Buzzwinker’ was intended for that railway. He equipped two of these engines with steam operated brakes, in addition to hand brakes on the engine and tender. Jones probably confused the steam brake with Westinghouse’s brake.
New South Wales followed South Australia, trialling Westinghouse brakes in 1876. The apparatus was also demonstrated at the Sydney International Exhibition that year. But the Westinghouse brake was by no means unanimously preferred. Augustus Morris, the NSW Commissioner for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, and agent for the Baldwin Locomotive Works, advised the NSW government that the Westinghouse system was considered too complex by many European engineers he had met at the Exhibition.
Morris favoured the simplicity of the Henderson hydraulic brake, and ordered enough equipment from the Philadelphia company to fit a locomotive and half a dozen bogie carriages. It could be made locally cheaper than imported Westinghouse equipment. Henderson’s was one of a plethora of continuous brakes being touted in the 1870’s. Chief Mechanical Engineer F.W. Webb of the prestigious L&NWR had the Henderson brake experimentally fitted to a 2-4-0 express locomotive in 1876.
This was the highly competitive quest that Woods joined, pitting his ‘inventive genius’  against some of the world’s best engineers. But as Commissioner, Woods was able to hobble the competition, keeping potential competitors at bay while the U.C.R. Break Company galloped away with orders from the Victorian Railways. Best or not, the Woods brake definitely worked. By the spring of 1878 it is likely that all trains on the Williamstown line were equipped with the hydraulic brake, as well as the train used on the Sandhurst line.
Williamstown line trains were saving five minutes compared with their earlier performance with only hand brakes. A more confident public responded by doubling their patronage. One of the ‘brake trains’ had managed to stop short of killing a woman who had trespassed onto the Stony Creek Bridge near Yarraville. Using the Woods brake and throwing the engine into reverse, the driver had pulled up with the engine’s buffer just touching Jane Owens as she turned to run down the embankment.
The U.C.R. Break Co. revealed that by August 1878 eight locomotives and twelve carriages had been equipped with the Woods brake. This was probably sufficient to roster one daily train from Melbourne to Sandhurst, and all or most of the suburban services on the Williamstown line, given that only carriages and not brake vans were so fitted. The cost was given as £1,700, whereas the estimated cost of fitting Westinghouse would have been £1,968, or an additional sixteen percent.
But Woods needed an excuse to have more trains fitted without having to trial Westinghouse brakes in direct comparison with his own. He found the answer in the reopening of Chewton station. Half way down the long incline between Elphinstone tunnel and Castlemaine, it had been closed due to the difficulty of stopping trains only equipped with handbrakes. Woods therefore took the view that if the Government wanted the station reopened, the provision of continuous brakes for all trains on Sandhurst line trains should be part of the cost to ensure safe operations.
Before Christmas 1878 he therefore called tenders for 20 sets of his hydraulic brake gear, enough to equip all trains on the Sandhurst line. This contract was let in January 1879, but five months later, with no publicity, Woods let a contract for a further 20 sets! The two contracts amounted to £1,518, or £42 19s. per set after fitting. But the total spending on Woods brakes for the 12 months to 31st December 1879 was £3,134 or twice the amount contracted.
Clearly the Woods brake either cost much more than claimed, or more likely, Williamstown Workshops was quietly equipping locomotives with the injectors, accumulators, piping and controls necessary to power the brakes, thereby adding to the total cost. By December 1879 Woods brakes were fitted to at least 52 carriages and at least twenty two locomotives. That constituted a fifth of passenger carriages and locomotives. The conservative press rightly questioned how such large sums could be spent without Parliamentary approval, when the ‘small sum of £200 cannot be spent on a public bridge until it has been voted on the estimates.’ 
The Demise of John Woods and Mirls’ Investment in the Brake
For the first half of 1879, during which most of the spending on his brake was committed, Woods was almost unchecked. Premier Berry was away in London on a mission to convince Westminster to rule that the Victorian Legislative Assembly could reform the Legislative Council without the latter’s consent. Berry was unsuccessful, and returned with the constitutional crisis unresolved. With Higinbotham and several senior managers sacked, ordinary railwaymen quickly learned to be careful around their new, self-styled ‘General Manager’.
Woods had dealt harshly with the engine crew and stationmaster involved in the Harcourt accident, had summarily closed the Kyneton refreshment room in favour of Castlemaine. He dismissed the Horsham stationmaster on the spot in front of a delegation for daring to express an opinion about the limited capacity of the newly opened line. The delegation sought to mollify Woods, who let the stationmaster off with a reprimand, but had him transferred anyway. Similar incidents led the Melbourne Punch to satirise Woods, and to charges that he was terrorising the civil service.
Mirls was appointed by Woods, and reported directly to him, so he more than most would have been aware of his Commissioner’s mercurial temper and interfering manner. But in the General Election of March 1880 Berry’s radical government fell, and Woods with it. The new Minister for Railways, Duncan Gillies, agreed to seek a report from Mirls as to how the Woods brake had been adopted, its total cost and effectiveness. Higinbotham was back as Engineer-in-Chief and the atmosphere in the railways was more poisonous than ever.
With parliament very unstable, there was no knowing who would be in control in the months to come. So Mirls had to be careful, and his report in May 1880 on the Woods brake is revealing, both in its detail and omissions. He explained that soon after the Broadford accident, he and Woods had a long discussion about brakes, during which Woods spoke about his patent for hydraulic signalling in mines and suggested it could in principle be applied to brake trains. In subsequent conversations with Mirls and the General Workshops Foreman, Robinson Jackson, Woods made some rough pencil sketches.
Woods then instructed Mirls to have two carriages experimentally fitted, authorising him to spend up to £100. Mirls, Jackson and a draughtsman named Ramsay then set about designing the equipment and supervising its manufacture. After fitting-up two carriages an initial test was made using water direct from the locomotive boiler. This was a failure so a force pump was designed to pressurise cold water instead, and more sophisticated valves were designed for the carriages.
The technical explanation by Mirls is very brief and obscure, and detail given in the whole report is minimal. He explained that none of Woods’s pencil sketches were kept. So clearly, Mirls, Jackson and the artisans at Williamstown had a lot more intellectual property in the ‘Woods brake’ than its supposed inventor. Furthermore, Mirls only partially answered the question as to the total cost of fitting brakes, mentioning only one of the two contracts for 20 sets of equipment ordered in 1879, and quoting only £22. 4s for ‘tank engines’ – certainly not the whole cost of equipping a locomotive.
Greatly understating the £3,134 total cost later given in the 1879 Annual Report, and making positive comment about the brakes effectiveness, Mirls was protective of the invention as if it were his own, which it probably was. (An Argus editorial later referred to it as the Woods-Mirls brake.) On a second inquiry by the Minister, Mirls noted that 22 locomotives had been fitted with the brake. All of these locomotives were provided with pumps and equipment to power the brakes on the carriages, but five of them also had the brakes fitted to their wheels. All trains on the ‘Main Line’ (Melbourne to Sandhurst), and all suburban trains on the Williamstown and Essendon lines were running with the Woods brake. By October 1880 when the Annual Report for the previous year was delivered, Woods was out of the picture, yet Mirls remained enthusiastic, expressing no reservations:-
The passenger trains fitted up with Woods’ Patent Automatic Continuous Brake, keep excellent time. The brake is undoubtedly a great boon in the working of the suburban trains, and is much liked by the drivers. Upon the long journeys, they can descend the steep and long inclines with great confidence. As previously reported, this brake complies with all the conditions stipulated by the Board of Trade of England, in their order to the Railway Companies dated 30th August 1877. Solomon Mirls 
Mirls was not alone in favouring the Woods brake. R.H. Burnett, the NSW Locomotive Engineer, was sent to Melbourne to investigate. At the time the isolated Northern system based on Newcastle had no trains fitted with continuous brakes, whereas the network based on Sydney was being equipped with Westinghouse brakes. Burnett was impressed with the Woods brake and in order to decide which was more reliable, he suggested Woods brakes be fitted to trains on the Northern system for comparative trials. But nothing came of this and NSW sensibly stuck with Westinghouse.
The Service government was short-lived, lasting only five months, after which Berry formed his third government. He managed to shake off the fractious Woods and gave the railway Ministry to Patterson. Little if any further fitting of continuous brakes took place during Patterson’s incumbency, but in July 1881 the government changed again. The new Premier, Sir Bryan O’Loghlen, appointed Bent as Railway Commissioner and Mirls once again found himself reporting to a shareholder in the U.C.R. Brake Company! Bent claimed that by the time he became Commissioner of Railways he had divested his shares, but these were most likely held in his wife’s name.
The fitting of continuous brakes did not resume immediately as Mirls was preoccupied with the urgent repairs to rolling stock following the Jolimont and Windsor accidents and with building new workshops. Bent was fending off criticism by the Opposition over the ongoing Ford inquiry, his feud with Elsdon, and Woods’ meddling in carriage building at the Yarra Bank Works. Nevertheless, a means was contrived to revive the installation of Woods’ brake.
Early in the New Year of 1882 Bent quietly appointed a Board to report on the future adoption of the Woods brake. Once again the sympathetic Zeal was chosen, along with ex-M.L.A. Edward Langton to represent UCR Break Company, while Mirls and General Traffic Manager Anderson represented the Railways. Both had been promoted to their positions by Woods. Langton was advocating support for the government in the upcoming election and was a free-trader like Bent.
The Board recommended the government pay the company £5,000 for the right to fit the Woods brake to all existing rolling stock, or £8,000 for the right to continue to fit the brake to rolling stock for the duration of the patent. They made no engineering assessment, because Mirls was satisfied on that score. Hardly surprising given his significant contribution to its design, but the conservative press and the Westinghouse representative cried foul!
The Hamilton Spectator saw it as a move by Woods to extract more money from the government. They were also caustic that Bent permitted him to supervise the building of a railway carriage to his own design at the Yarra Bank Works at government expense. Bent had earlier given assurances that the Westinghouse brake and one other continuous brake would be given a twelve month trial before any final commitment was made. It reported the ‘alarm’ of Cabinet when these matters were raised by the press. They claimed the Board were merely fixing the price to be paid for the Woods brake should it prove superior to its competitors in the proposed trials.
The 1883 Brake Trials
Nevertheless, by the end of 1882 no less than 137 carriages had been fitted with Woods brakes. Mirls had also been fitting some locomotives with Beyer Peacock designed steam brakes, which activated on the driving wheels. Under pressure from the Westinghouse agents and the conservative press, Mirls proposed conducting brake tests in mid-December, but was strongly against testing by independent outside parties. He wrote, ‘No railway company would allow of undue interference by strangers with regard to the adoption of any particular brake power.’  In this he was at variance with the Railways’ Secretary, Paul Labertouche, who recommended a Board comprising the locomotive engineers from South Australia, Queensland and NSW.
Bent initially sided with Mirls and asked for the tests to be arranged, but following the storm of criticism over the Hawthorn accident of 2nd December, he agreed to the establishment of a Board of engineers to conduct the tests. The Argus successfully opposed the nomination of Mirls as a Board member, but the three men chosen could hardly be considered experts in continuous brakes. For a second time William Thow, the South Australian Railways Locomotive Engineer and Henry Horniblow, the Queensland Railways Locomotive Superintendent were recruited to a Victorian inquiry. The third member was W.E. Batchelor from Tasmania.
Neither Queensland nor Tasmania had trialled continuous brakes, although Horniblow had two locomotives fitted with Westinghouse ‘straight air’ brakes, which applied only on the locomotive wheels; no carriages or wagons were fitted. Thow had some experience with continuous brakes on the broad gauge lines in South Australia and was made Chairman. The only system of comparable size to Victoria’s, and with extensive experience of continuous brakes was NSW, but despite Labertouche’s recommendation, they were excluded. 
Ostensibly this was because the NSW Locomotive Engineer Robert Burnett had made an investigation two years before and favoured the Woods brake. But he had since fallen foul of railway Commissioner Goodchap and had resigned. Goodchap ordered 34 new locomotives from local builders in January 1879, all to be fitted with Westinghouse brakes. Burnett was slow to fit the Westinghouse equipment, but by May 1881 it was functioning and Bent made a trip to NSW purposely to inspect it. The decision to exclude a NSW representative was therefore no mistake.
Neither Bent nor Mirls wanted engineers knowledgeable with Westinghouse and all its capacities. Furthermore, the tests were arranged by Mirls, who insisted on having stop tests only. He resisted calls by the Westinghouse agents to test the ability of the competing brakes to regulate train speed through partial applications. Mirls knew the Woods brake was incapable of gradual application. This meant it could not be used to regulate a train’s speed and was at a major disadvantage against the Westinghouse system. Mirls kept the Westinghouse train on the suburban Brighton line, which was flat and with closely spaced stations. Only on main lines with their long gradients could express trains make partial brake applications to regulate speed and therefore test Westinghouse’s full functionality.
The trials began on 25th January 1883, by which time only one train had been fitted with Westinghouse brakes, and that had been running on the Brighton line less than six months. Against this Woods braked trains had been running extensively on the Victorian Railways for five years. Woods its ‘inventor’ and Mirls its ‘elaborator’, were fixtures in the railway establishment, and had the backing of The Age and the liberal/protectionist faction of politics and business.
The inertia against change must have been palpable enough for Thow and Batchelor to feel as they sailed into Port Philip Bay from Adelaide and Launceston. Henry Horniblow had sailed from Brisbane to Sydney and then came overland by train. It was most likely his first experience of continuous brakes; Westinghouse from Sydney to Albury and Woods from Wodonga to Melbourne.
The trials were well organised and quite thorough. Two trains were assembled, each of nine four wheeled carriages and a brake van, as far as practicable similar in composition and with locomotives of the same class. The Woods braked engines were express B class 2-4-0 No. 50 (Beyer Peacock, 1862) and M class 4-4-0 suburban tank No. 40 (Beyer Peacock, 1879). Against these were Westinghouse braked express B class 2-4-0 No. 108 (Beyer Peacock, 1872) and C class 4-4-0 suburban well tank No. 25 (Stephenson, 1878).
A total of 30 tests were conducted, 26 over three days on a flat and straight section of the Geelong line near Werribee, using both the express and suburban tank engines. The last four tests on 31st January used only the B class 2-4-0s going flat out down the steeply graded Main line near Riddell’s Creek. On the last run the driver thrashed No. 108 up to 72 mph before hitting the brakes. He stopped in 1,951 feet, compared with the Woods engine No. 50, which was braked at 62 mph and took 2,454 feet to stop.
The margin of 483 feet in favour of Westinghouse despite a 10 mph disadvantage was astounding! Not every test showed such a dramatic variation, and a few were disallowed by faulty equipment or mistakes by the testing staff.  Nevertheless, the Board had to conclude:- ‘If this question were to be decided in accordance with the value of the results obtained from the trials which we witnessed, the Westinghouse brake would unquestionably deserve our recommendation…’ 
But as locomotive engineers they had ‘other and more important considerations’ to assess, such as durability of parts, cost of maintenance, simplicity of design, stability of parts, and safety of use. They interviewed 39 witnesses over six days and spent another four preparing their 73 page report. Of particular interest to them were the stresses incurred by train and passengers when the brakes were applied:- ‘With the Woods apparatus the times occupied in stopping, and the distances ran after application, were sacrificed to smoothness of motion, and the prevention of jerks to passengers. In the Westinghouse brake, on the other hand [there were] very perceptible jerks and shocks – sometimes violent- at the moments of application…’
Their concern was not ill-founded. The rolling stock of the day was not robust. All underframes were of wood and the running gear was mostly cast or wrought iron. Train speeds were generally low and braking gentle, with only handbrakes on the engine and brake van. Subjecting trains to sudden and severe braking would induce more wear and tear. Then there were passengers to consider. A full emergency application of Westinghouse brakes was dramatically sudden compared to the gentle stops travellers were accustomed to: for some it would be terrifying.
Bur the inexperience of the Board with Westinghouse brakes was telling. The trials were all designed to test maximum braking power, such as would be applied in an emergency application. In day to day operations emergencies were rare, and the Westinghouse had the advantage of graduated application to control train speed, not just to make stops. But no tests were designed to measure this feature, and the Board had no firsthand knowledge of it. All they could do was concede that in ‘ordinary working this is doubtless done,’ and acknowledge that the Woods brake was incapable of graduated application. It was ‘either full on, or not on at all.’
Like many engineers of the day they were nervous of devices which might remove responsibility from the driver or guard, and warned about ‘self-acting, irresponsible machinery.’ To their minds, the simpler and more robust the mechanism, the less likelihood of it failing in some catastrophic way. They were impressed that the Woods brake had only ten moving parts ‘all simple and strong’ but worried that the Westinghouse used thirty-three moving pieces, ‘many of them complicated and frail.’ Therefore, they concluded:-
‘The question before us thus seems to resolve itself into a choice between superior retarding power, combined with complex mechanism, on the one hand, and inferior retarding power, combined with simplicity of mechanism, on the other hand. These conditions have been carefully weighed; and we are unanimously of opinion that the Woods brake is, of the two, the most suitable for the Victorian Railways; especially as we consider that its action, and its reliability, may be further improved, by very slight modifications in its design and materials, without in any way reducing its simplicity.’ 
With that, Thow, Horniblow and Batchelor sailed back to their colonial domains, leaving Melbourne in turmoil. The Argus, no friend of Woods, was initially nonplussed, but after digesting the evidence of the many engine crews interviewed, they again cried foul. The Board’s findings could no longer be regarded as ‘straightforward and impartial’. The Argus asked:-
‘Why was no reference made in the report to the statements made by the drivers and guards? Why was not the Minister plainly told that notwithstanding its greater simplicity the Woods brake was continually getting out of order, and disappointing the expectations of those using it by its erratic action? Why was he not informed that, while the ‘Westinghouse’ in ordinary use could be put on gently, so as not to incommode passengers, the ‘Woods’ could not help giving them one jar on application to the wheels, and another on withdrawal? Why was it not pointed out that whatever saving might be made in maintenance charges would be more than swallowed by the larger expenditure on fuel in working the Woods machinery as compared with the Westinghouse? And why, finally, was he not put in possession of the important fact that, in spite of the complexity which led the referees to sacrifice the chief purpose of a continuous brake, the ‘Westinghouse’ has never been known to fail during the time it has been on trial on the Victorian Railways…’ 
It was true that the Woods brake gave passengers a jolt when applied, and again when released. Passengers on the Brighton line, who had the choice of both Woods and Westinghouse braked trains, were firmly in favour of the latter, a fact satirised by the Melbourne Punch. Even some of Woods’ Ministerial colleagues were highly critical of his brake, and a public meeting called by the Mayor of Brighton unanimously pressed for Westinghouse.
Allegations of failures and queries about costs continued. Argy bargy about the tests raged, with detailed charges by the Westinghouse agents, Imray, Hirsch & Co., and rebuttal by John Munday, Secretary of the U.C.R. Break Co. The Argus being conservative and free-trade was pitted against The Age, Syme’s liberal-protectionist paper. The Age published a letter from Munday complaining of ‘the zeal of The Argus to damn anything not imported has outrun its discretion’, and of ‘its hurry to condemn the colonial brake’ 
Woods himself joined the fray, complaining that his train was unfairly saddled with a locomotive that would not steam well.  This was the express 2-4-0 No. 50, but he neglected to draw attention to his choice of tank engine. No. 40 was a new 4-4-0T from Beyer Peacock with a boiler 35 percent larger than Stephenson 4-4-0WT No. 25, which was one of the few available with the Westinghouse brake. The Board rightly ignored Woods’ objection, as it did the Westinghouse agents’ request to swap No. 25 for sister No. 34.
The two test trains were comparable except for the matter of brake blocks. The Westinghouse train had 84 cast iron brake blocks, whereas the Woods train had only 64 cast iron blocks and six wooden blocks – 70 in all. Furthermore, the brakes on the driving wheels of the Westinghouse engines were integral with the train brakes, whereas the brakes on the driving wheels of the Woods locomotives had to be activated separately, which would have caused a delay of a second or so.
The Board saw this as disadvantaging the Woods train, and may have contributed to their controversial recommendation. But the Westinghouse agents pooh-poohed the idea, claiming ‘…the number of blocks used has no bearing on the brake power employed, as a wheel may be as effectively retarded with one block as with a dozen…and we would ask, if Mr. Woods in his wisdom considered it best to work the engine separately and that the number of brake blocks would affect the results, why; in the name of common sense, did he not put more on to his train!’ 
And so it went. The Westinghouse camp complained that their engine was carrying an additional five tons, that Mirls had rostered drivers inexperienced with its operations. Faults with the Woods brake mentioned in the evidence by drivers and guards were ignored. The presence of Woods and Mirls on the test trains and during the interviews constituted a possible intimidation of crews, all of whom were responsible to Mirls. The Westinghouse agents were combative and aggrieved because the inadequate patent protection in Victoria was allowing Woods and Mirls to incorporate parts of the Westinghouse patent. Its limitation to the Brighton line prevented the demonstration of its greatest attribute, its ability to be applied gradually to steady a train on a long gradient.
John Munday retorted by quoting favourable evidence from experienced drivers, and debunked claims that the Woods train used more fuel and water. He mounted a convoluted argument to show that when allowance was made for the Woods train having fewer brake blocks and an engine with separate brakes, it actually exerted superior braking power! Mirls also responded to charges in The Argus with a detailed defence. The controversy followed Thow back to Adelaide. Clearly annoyed, he wrote to The South Australian Register:-
‘This recommendation was arrived at after carefully sifting the whole of the evidence and excluding the rubbish: and before The Argus insinuates that the Board’s report is dishonest it should, if skilled enough in a mechanical question of this kind, put the whole not a part of the evidence through this process of sifting, and separate the grain from the chaff.’ 
Such put downs of drivers by professional engineers have been endemic in the railway industry. They are often warranted, but Thow was later savaged by his own peers. The Brake Commissions report was castigated in a June 1883 issue of ‘The Engineer’, the authoritative journal published in London. It noted that hydraulic brakes had been discarded in the United Kingdom, and made a point of naming Thow, Horniblow and Batchelor! In the meantime Thow was on the defensive, claiming the Brake Board had extended every courtesy to the Westinghouse agents, which he nevertheless referred to as ‘strangers’ : the same term used by Mirls. He arranged a trial of both brakes in South Australia, but Engineer-in-Chief Mais was a firmly convinced Westinghouse supporter after his world tour.
The Brake Board favoured Woods against empirical evidence, but just how convinced were they really? Three times their recommendation used the term ‘suitable for the Victorian Railways’ but they shied away from an outright preference for one brake over the other. As practical engineers they could not help being aware that the Victorian Railways already had extensively fitted Woods brakes, and that introducing another brake would create an inefficient mixed fleet of incompatible rolling stock. The Woods brake may not have been best, but it worked. Would conversion to Westinghouse warrant the expense? This they were unqualified to say, as their brief did not run to the examination of costs. But the Woods-Mirls brake was never adopted outside Victoria.
Impact of the Brake Trials on Other Colonies
William Thow’s career may have been dented, but he went on to become one of Australia’s notable Chief Mechanical Engineers. He was employed as Locomotive Engineer of the South Australian Railways in October 1876 but Engineer-in-Chief Mais still exerted authority in mechanical matters. Mais overrode Thow’s opposition to the importation of two Baldwin 4-6-0 Ten Wheelers to work the steeply graded line over the Adelaide Hills, then being constructed. Thow preferred the K class 0-6-4T tank engines, which Beyer Peacock designed and built to his specifications from 1879 to 1885.
Thow was a man of strong opinions and clashed badly with Mais and the Assistant Engineer-in-Chief, R.C. Patterson. As had occurred earlier in Victoria and NSW, the separation of the mechanical and civil engineering branches had produced tensions, but in South Australia they boiled over into a protracted series of inquiries and parliamentary debates. Thow was barely back in Adelaide after the Victorian brake trials when a petty incident occurred on the cab of a Baldwin N class Ten Wheeler, which became a total failure while taking a trainload of dignitaries to the opening ceremony for the railway to Aldgate, in the Adelaide Hills on 14th March 1883.
Thow and the Assistant Engineer-in-Chief were both in the cab as the engine struggled towards Blackwood, where part of the fire grate collapsed, making further progress impossible. Not half way up the mountain and miles from the ceremony, the incident was highly embarrassing and ignited recriminations and intemperate exchanges that festered for the next two years and resulted in Thow’s temporary suspension from duty.
He blamed the American locomotive, but poor coal was a more likely reason. He had little time for American engineering and workmanship, which may explain his doubts about the Westinghouse brake. He described the hand brake on the N class as ‘utterly useless’, but the Baldwin N class was also fitted with both the Westinghouse continuous brake and the Le Châtelier counter-pressure brake. That the Westinghouse brake could be mishandled by incompetent drivers and guards was demonstrated when the brakes on an Adelaide Hills train temporarily failed on Christmas day 1883, but a runaway was averted.
When the need arose for more big engines to work intercolonial trains over the Adelaide Hills, Thow prepared specifications for a 4-6-0 and sought out the Scottish firm Henry Dübs of Glasgow for its design and manufacture. The first of these R class locomotives were delivered with Westinghouse brakes in 1886. It was rostered to haul the inaugural Melbourne Express, all cars of which were Westinghouse braked. Thow grudgingly retained this brake on the South Australian Railways broad gauge lines, but the narrow gauge lines had yet to be equipped with continuous brakes. He was still looking for something simpler and cheaper than Westinghouse and in 1888 trialed vacuum brakes on the narrow gauge.
The following year he resigned to take up the position of Locomotive Superintendent of the NSW Railways. Despite all the NSW passenger rolling stock being Westinghouse fitted, he angled to fit the goods stock with vacuum brakes. There was understandable opposition to this idea, as two incompatible systems would result. This posed a serious problem given the number of mixed trains in operation. (Mixed trains included both carriages and trucks, hence the need for uniformity of braking systems).
To settle the matter, the NSW Railway Commissioners arranged brake trials, with an independent board of engineers as referees, just as Bent had done in Victoria eight years earlier. Thow was included on the Board, and Allison Smith and Thomas Roberts, then Locomotive Superintendents respectively of the Victorian and South Australian Railways, attended as observers. By that time both the Victorians and South Australians had standardised on Westinghouse. And yet there was still no brake that was clearly superior on all counts, and the NSW Board reached the conclusion that one brake was as good as the other! Their Commissioner sensibly decided to stick with the status quo.
If Thow had been pig-headed when it came to brakes, his innovative specification for British built 4-6-0s was a triumph. The success of the R class in South Australia prompted Thow to specify an even larger 4-6-0 and a 2-8-0 for the severe gradients on the NSW Southern and Western main lines. Designed and manufactured by Beyer Peacock in Manchester, they proved remarkably successful locomotives and provided the mainstay of NSW motive power for the next sixty years.
Henry Horniblow continued his long career with Queensland Railways. After his service on the Brake Board and return to Brisbane he was promoted from Locomotive Superintendent of the South Western lines to Locomotive Engineer for the whole of Queensland Railways.  A passenger train was experimentally fitted with Westinghouse brakes in 1890, and general adoption commenced in 1892. With L.G. Piggott he designed the PB15 class 4-6-0, which was introduced in 1899. Some hundreds were built and ran all over the State until the 1960’s. Having served the Queensland Railways since 1864, he was replaced by William Nesbit in 1899, but stayed on in a lesser role until his retirement.
W.E. Batchelor had a long career with the Tasmanian Railways, employed as Locomotive Superintendent from the beginning in 1871 and retiring in 1898. During that time he oversaw the introduction of most of the rolling stock, and issued specifications for the locomotives. But despite his experience on the Brake Board, he was in no hurry to install continuous brakes, waiting until 1891 to fit the Hobart-Launceston Mail with vacuum brakes. And not too soon, as the brake saved the Mail from toppling off a bridge in September 1893. In retirement he revisited England and the Continent, and on his return was elected as the member for North Launceston in the House of Assembly.
The Victorian Outcome of the 1883 Brake Trials
While the Brake Board was preparing its report, six companies were preparing tenders for 300 sets of continuous brake gear. One day before Sir Bryan O’Loghlen’s caretaker government ended, Bent tabled the tenders received. Four were for Woods and two for Westinghouse. Mirls recommended the acceptance of the tender of Wayman and Kay, of Stawell, for the Woods brake. Bent’s replacement as Minister for Railways was Duncan Gillies, returning for his third term in the job in March 1883. With the brake debate still raging, he asked Mirls to provide more details and it emerged that Wayman & Kay’s price was £14,520. The second lowest bid was for Westinghouse, at £15,660.
Gillies prevaricated, his primary concern being the Railway Management Bill. Bent had failed to push it through Parliament, but its passage was a priority of the new government of James Service. The revised bill was introduced on 11th July 1883, but during the tortuous 16 weeks of debate there was a collision between two trains at Newmarket. This occurred late in the evening of 28th August 1883 when a Down Essendon train was turned into a siding occupied by a cattle train. An engine derailed and 22 passengers were injured.
The passenger train was fitted with Woods brake, but it had been applied twice shortly before the collision and had not recovered pressure. The guard saw the impending crash before the driver, who had temporarily lost his night vision due to the firebox’s glare. Unlike the Westinghouse system, the Woods brake could not be activated from the brake van. The Westinghouse agents seized this opportunity to lever the adoption of their brake on one of the new overland express trains on the Albury line. All colonies were closely watching the brake saga in Victoria, and the accident was summed up in Brisbane:- ‘The case looks unpromising for the Woods brake, and the Westinghouse star is once more in the ascendant.’ 
Prior to this, Gillies had been equivocal about the brake question, and had allowed Mirls to fit Woods brakes to the new six wheel Stroudley carriages imported from Brown and Marshall of Birmingham. The Newmarket accident finally forced Gillies’ hand, and he made a typical political compromise. Having sat on the tenders for 300 sets of brakes for over six months, he authorised 86 carriages to be fitted with Woods brakes, and 237 carriages with Westinghouse brakes. Given the 156 carriages, vans and engines already fitted with Woods brakes, this would provide a rough parity of trains fitted with the competing brakes.
Woods trains would run exclusively on the northern lines radiating from Spencer Street station, and Westinghouse trains exclusively on the Gippsland and south suburban lines out of Flinders Street and Princes Bridge. After some time it would be possible to fairly assess the merits of the two systems. It sounded fair, but Westinghouse was once again denied the right to fit its brakes to main line express trains. Woods braked trains had long been running on the Sandhurst and Ballarat lines, but Gillies bowed to overtures to have Smiths vacuum brakes fitted to one of the two overland express trains on the Albury line. The Victorian Railways was to be saddled with three incompatible continuous brakes!
High resolution versions of some of the photographs in this chapter may be found on Smugmug.
- Bendigo Advertiser, 8 August 1863, p. 2. ↑
- Ballarat Star (Ballarat), 20 August 1863, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 15 August 1863, p. 4. ↑
- Bendigo Advertiser, 28 August 1863, p. 2. ↑
- Weekly Times, 2 March 1872, p. 7.
Herald, 2 March 1872, p. 2.
Australasian, 9 March 1872, p. 19. ↑
- Age, 4 September 1875, p. 7. ↑
- A preserved NSWR carriage from 1855 is typical. See:- Powerhouse Museum ↑
- Age, 24 November 1879, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 7 September 1876, p. 6.
Argus, 10 October 1876, p. 6. ↑
- ibid. ↑
- Argus, 29 January 1877, p. 6. ↑
- L.T.C. Rolt, Red for Danger, London, 1955, pp. 95-100. ↑
- Hamilton Ellis, Railway carriages in the British Isles from 1830 to 1914, London, 1965, pp. 196-197. ↑
- Argus, 18 October 1876, p. 9.
Age, 18 October 1876, p. 2. ↑
- Victorian Parliamentary Debates (VPD), 1877-78, Vol. 27, p. 2323-2424. ↑
- O.S. Nock, The Great Northern Railway, London, 1958, pp. 102-104. Nock discusses how Higinbotham’s previous employer, the GNR, held out against continuous brakes. ↑
- Alfred W. Bruce, The Steam Locomotive in America, New York, 1952, p. 34. ↑
- Argus, 12 June 1877, p. 7. ↑
- Argus, 16 June 1877, p. 6. ↑
- Argus, 4 March 1873, p. 5.
Australasian, 14 July 1877, p. 1. ↑
- Age, 26 June 1877, p. 3. ↑
- George Matheson ‘Make me a Captive, Lord’ Sacred Songs, Edinburgh, 1890. ↑
- Argus, 12 May 1883, p. 7. Evidence by Robert Ford to the Hawthorn Accident Inquiry. ↑
- Argus, 6 July 1877, p. 6. In Woods’ report, he said it had lost 10 minutes overnight. More likely it had gained 10 minutes. ↑
- Argus, 29 June 1877, p. 4; 6 July 1877, p. 6. ↑
- Leo Harrigan, Victorian Railways to ’62, Victorian Railways, 1962, p. 274. ↑
- Kyneton Guardian, 28 August 1878, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 30 May 1879, pp. 4-5. ↑
- Argus, 6 September 1877, pp. 4. ↑
- Leader, 19 January 1878, p. 21. ↑
- Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the year Ended 31 December 1878, Victorian parliamentary Papers (VPP) 1879-80, No. 9, Appendix 3, p. 26. ↑
- Age, 28 December 1877, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 7 February 1879, p. 5 ↑
- Argus, 17 February 1879, p. 7. ↑
- Age, 21 February 1879, p. 5. H.W. Clark and J.C.M. Rolland, History of the Locomotives of the Victorian Railways, 1860-1904, Privately reproduced MS, Melbourne, 1934, Sheet 3. Note Meikle chimney, and photo in 1885. ↑
- Argus, 22 September 1877, p. 7.
Ballarat Star, 24 September 1877, p. 2. ↑
- Geelong Advertiser, 15 October 1877, p. 3. ↑
- Argus, 2 June 1877, p. 7. ↑
- Argus, 20 December 1877, p. 4.
Argus, 28 August 1878, p. 6. ↑
- Melbourne Punch, 9 February 1882, p. 6.
Hamilton Spectator, 4 February 1882, p. 2.
Kyneton Guardian, 19 June 1878, p. 2; 28 August 1878, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 21 August 1878, p. 10. Brake was usually spelled ‘break’ but not always. ↑
- Argus, 28 August 1878, p. 6. Woods and Bent both held shares and were both MLA’s. ↑
- Williamstown Chronicle, 1 December 1877, p. 3. ↑
- Argus, 20 December 1877, p. 4. ↑
- Robert Lee, Colonial Engineer: John Whitton 1819-1898 and the Building of Australia’s Railways, Sydney, 2000, p. 252. ↑
- VPD, 1877-78, Vol. 27, p. 1920. ↑
- The 0-6-0 became the R class (later the ‘Old R’), and the 4-4-0 the M class. ↑
- Norman Cave, John Buckland and David Beardsell, Steam Locomotives of the Victorian Railways Volume 1: The First Fifty Years, Melbourne, 2002, pp. 51, 104, 116, 123. The three Sturrock 0-6-0s from Beyer Peacock were placed in service in February-March 1878. Their pattern suburban 4-4-0T (No. 40) and light lines 0-6-0 (No. 151) were delivered in 1879. Their next big order was for ten express 4-4-0s in 1884. ↑
- Argus, 2 May 1878, pp. 5-6. ↑
- Jill Eastwood, ‘Alexander Kennedy Smith’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 6, MUP, 1976. ↑
- Argus, 2 May 1878, pp. 5-6. ↑
- Age, 5 July 1878, p. 3.
Argus, 5 July 1878, p. 5.
Age, 19 September 1878, p. 2. Smith vehemently defended Woods in the Legislative Assembly. ↑
- Argus, 5 July 1878, p. 5. ↑
- Age, 5 July 1878, p. 3. ↑
- Australian Town and Country Journal, 28 September 1878, p. 10. ↑
- VPD, 1877-78, Vol. 27, p. 2370, 2 April.
Argus, 21 August 1878, p. 10. ↑
Kyneton Guardian, 28 August 1878, p. 2. ↑
- Age, 19 September 1878, p. 2. ↑
- Evening Journal, 24 September 1878, p. 2. ↑
- Australian Town and Country Journal, 28 September 1878, p. 10. ↑
- Lee, pp. 243, 259. ↑
- Argus, 17 December 1878, p. 5.
VPP, 1882-83, Vol. 1, C.20. ‘Woods Continuous Brake’. A report by Solomon Mirls, dated 12 December 1882, detailing the extent to which the Woods brake had been applied. ↑
- Argus, 2 May 1878, p. 6. ↑
- Kyneton Guardian, 19 June 1878, p. 2. ↑
- Age, 21 September 1878, p. 7. ↑
- Cave et al, p. 208. ↑
- Australasian, 12 November 1870, p. 8. ↑
- E.L. Ahrons, The British Steam Locomotive 1925 – 1925, London, 1975, p. 208. ↑
- Argus, 28 August 1878, p. 6. ↑
- Argus, 2 May 1878, p. 6.
Bradshaw’s Guide to Victoria, 1 September 1879, pp. 3-4. The 6.45 am down Passenger from Melbourne Monday to Saturday arrived Sandhurst 10.50 am. The 12.00 noon up Mail from Sandhurst arrived in Melbourne at 4.15 pm. The 70 minute turnaround at Sandhurst would have required smart work, but was probably achievable. Otherwise the brake-fitted locomotive and carriages could have returned on the 3.20 pm up Mixed. ↑
- South Australian Register, 27 August 1875, p. 5. ↑
- Evening Journal, 15 November 1875, p. 3. ↑
- Argus, 22 November 1875, p. 6. ↑
- Age, 2 October 1876, p. 3. ↑
- Argus, 22 March 1877, p. 6. ↑
- Age, 2 October 1876, p. 3. ↑
- Sydney Morning Herald, 16 September 1876, p. 8. ↑
- Australian Town and Country Journal, 5 May 1877, p. 18.
Alan Barnard, ‘Augustus Morris’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 5, MUP, 1974.
William M. Henderson Papers, 1847-1893, Smithsonian Museum of American History. ↑
- Ahrons, p. 220. ↑
- Melbourne Punch, 9 February 1882, p. 6. ↑
- Age, 19 September 1878, p. 2. ↑
- Age, 17 October 1879, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 28 August 1878, p. 6. ↑
- Argus, 17 December 1878, p. 4. ↑
- Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1879, VPP 1880-81, No. 14, Appendix 5, pp. 25, 27. Contract 1155 with Wright & Edwards on 24 January 1879 for £759; Contract 1216 with Wright & Edwards on 13 June 1879 for £759. Both contracts for 20 sets of automatic brake gear.
Argus, 17 September 1880, p. 7. Mirls gives the cost per set fitted. ↑
- Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1879, VPP 1880-81, No. 14, p. 5. ↑
- ibid, Appendix 18, p. 41. Passenger carriages 243, passenger locomotives, 87. (Not including the Hobson’s Bay suburban system, which was still being separately managed after take-over by the Government).
Argus, 17 September 1880, p. 7. Gives 22 locomotives at 26 May 1880. ↑
- Argus, 17 December 1878, p. 4. ↑
- Argus, 16 July 1879, p. 4. ↑
- Melbourne Punch, 16 May 1878, p. 7. ↑
- Argus, 16 July 1879, p. 4. ↑
- Williamstown Chronicle, 27 January 1877, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 12 May 1883, pp. 8-9. ↑
- Argus, 17 September 1880, p. 7. ↑
- Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1879, VPP 1880-81, No. 14, Appendix 2, p. 18. ↑
- Argus, 8 October 1880, p. 6.
Corowa Free Press, 19 November 1880, p. 2. The report was not mentioned in the Sydney press. ↑
- Margaret Glass, Tommy Bent ‘Bent by name, Bent by nature’, MUP, 1993, p.61. ↑
- Argus, 2 February 1882, p. 4. ↑
- Argus, 24 January 1882, p. 4. ↑
- Hamilton Spectator, 4 February 1882, p. 2. ↑
- Age, 13 March 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Age, 6 December 1882, p. 5. ↑
- Argus, 7 December 1882, p. 9. ↑
- Age, 9 March 1883, p. 1. ↑
- Launceston Examiner, 12 March 1883, p. 2,
Brisbane Courier, 24 November 1877, p. 5; 21 October 1884, p. 6.,
The Week (Brisbane), 2 June 1883, p. 7.
John Armstrong, Locomotives in the Tropics, Brisbane, 1985, p. 22. The first locomotive fitted with Westinghouse brakes was 0-4-4-0 Double Fairlie ‘Governor Cairns’ in 1877, the second was 2-6-0 E class No. 32 in 1879. ↑
- Argus, 7 December 1882, p. 9., reporting correspondence tabled in Parliament. ↑
- Williamstown Chronicle, 13 January 1883, p. 2. ↑
- Lee, pp. 259-60. ↑
- Sydney Morning Herald, 30 January 1879, page 3,6. ↑
- Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 1879, p. 4; 20 January 1880, p. 4. ↑
- Mercury, 12 May 1881, p. 3. ↑
- Age, 13 March 1883, p. 6. Mirls response to charge No. 4., and Argus, 25 August 1883, p. 7. ↑
- Age, 13 March 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Argus, 5 March 1883, p. 4. ↑
- Age, 22 January 1883, p. 2. Thow’s arrival on the S.S. Victorian.
Argus, 24 January 1883, p. 4 Batchelor’s arrival on the S.S. Flinders.
Brisbane Courier, 18 January 1883, p. 4. Horniblow sailed for Sydney on the S.S. Elamang. ↑
- Argus, 26 January 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Report of the Brake Trial Board…VPP 1883, No. 14. 10th February 1883. Appendix H, p. 65. ↑
- ibid, p. iv. ↑
- ibid, p. vi. ↑
- ibid, p. vii. ↑
- Argus, 5 March 1883, p. 4. ↑
- Argus, 1 August 1883, p. 9; 11 September 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Melbourne Punch, 10 May 1883, p. 181. ↑
- Argus, 11 September 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Age, 12 March 1883, p. 2. ↑
- Age, 9 March 1883, p. 1. ↑
- Age, 9 March 1883, p. 1. ↑
- Age, 12 March 1883, p. 2. ↑
- Report of the Brake Trial Board…VPP 1883, No. 14. Appendix I, p. 65. ↑
- ibid, p. iv. ↑
- Age, 12 March 1883, p. 2. ↑
- Age, 12 March 1883, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 5 March 1883, p. 4. ↑
- Argus, 5 March 1883, p. 4. ↑
- Argus, 26 January 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Age, 12 March 1883, p. 2. ↑
- Argus, 25 June 1883, p. 4. ↑
- Argus, 25 August 1883, p. 7. ↑
- Age, 9 March 1883, p. 1. ↑
- Age, 13 March 1883, p. 6. ↑
- South Australian Register, 10 March 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Argus, 21 June 1883, p. 5. ↑
- Brisbane Courier, 27 May 1884, p. 3. ↑
- South Australian Register, 10 March 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Tasmanian, 12 May 1883, p. 493. ↑
- South Australian Register, 24 August 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Report of the Brake Trial Board…VPP 1883, No. 14. pp. vii-viii. ↑
- Argus, 12 February 1883, p. 5. ↑
- Adelaide Observer, 21 October 1876, p. 5. ↑
- South Australian Register, 15 March 1883, p. 4. ↑
- Express and Telegraph, 30 August 1881, p. 2.
See Comrails:- Broad Gauge K-class 0-6-4 tank locomotives. Eighteen broad gauge and one narrow gauge locomotive built. ↑
- Argus, 30 January 1885, p. 5. ↑
- Argus, 10 November 1884, p. 7. ↑
- South Australian Advertiser, 20 March 1883, p. 6.
Evening Journal, July 1884, p. 2.
Argus, 11 July 1884, p. 5. ↑
- Argus, 16 October 1884, p. 5. ↑
- South Australian Register, 21 March 1883, p. 7. ↑
- South Australian Register, 15 March 1883, p. 4. ↑
- Express and Telegraph, 17 January 1884, p. 2. ↑
- South Australian Register, 7 January 1884, p. 4; 17 January 1884, p. 6. ↑
- See Comrails:- R class locomotives, Nos. 91-96. ↑
- South Australian Advertiser, 20 November 1888, p. 4. ↑
- Advertiser, 1 May 1889, p. 6. ↑
- Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 16 May 1890, p. 2. ↑
- Age, 10 June 1891, p. 6. ↑
- Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 July 1891, p. 4. ↑
- J.D. Walker, ‘William Thow’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, 1990. ↑
- John Kerr, Triumph of Narrow Gauge: A History of Queensland Railways, Boolarong, 1990, pp. 94, 96. ↑
- See Queensland Rail:- Westinghouse Brake 1890’s ↑
- Launceston Examiner, 29 August 1898, p. 5. ↑
- Tasmanian (Launceston) 30 September 1893, p. 13. ↑
- Tasmanian News (Hobart), 18 October 1900, p. 4.
Examiner (Launceston), Saturday 14 February 1903, p. 5. ↑
- Age, 7 March 1883, p. 6. ↑
- Argus, 11 July 1883, p. 4. ↑
- Argus, 2 November 1883, p. 4. The Railway Management Act was signed by the Governor on 1st November 1883. ↑
- Age, 29 August 1883, p. 4.
Argus, 31 August 1883, p. 6; 3 September 1883, p. 9.
Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 1 September 1883, p. 399. ↑
- Queenslander (Brisbane), 15 September 1883, p. 28. ↑
- Argus, 25 August 1883, p. 7. ↑
- Age, 21 September 1883, p. 6. ↑