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Chapter Two


When George Darbyshire resigned as Engineer-in-Chief, Thomas Higinbotham was appointed in his place from 17th May 1860.[1] He brought to the position seventeen years’ experience in railway construction. A member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, he was 41 years old, and a confirmed bachelor when he took over as Engineer- in-Chief. Born into an Anglo-Irish family during 1819, and educated in Dublin, he had begun his career at the age of twenty-one, working with Sir William Cubitt’s firm of civil engineers.

Cubitt’s firm was then heavily involved in railway construction, as the ‘railway mania’ was at its height in Britain. After some years in the office, Higinbotham worked as Assistant Engineer on the construction of lines in Kent and Lancashire. Subsequently he was appointed Resident Engineer for Construction of the Huntingdon section of the Great Northern Railway. He emigrated to Victoria in 1857 and was soon appointed Chief Engineer of Roads and Bridges. His younger brother George had emigrated earlier and became editor of The Argus, and later took up politics. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly and was Attorney General from 1863 to 1868.

The new Engineer-in-Chief investigated the alleged unsound culverts near Castlemaine and exonerated his predecessor’s honesty.[2] Nevertheless he had strong words to say about Darbyshire’s competence, reporting that the ‘specifications for the works on the Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Ballarat lines prove that those who drew them were totally ignorant of railway works, and are so full of errors and inconsistencies, that if they had been drawn with the intention of giving opportunities to contractors to make claims against the Government, they could scarcely have been more effectual than they are for that purpose’.[3]

Thomas Higinbotham C.E. Victorian Railways Engineer-in-Chief, circa 1860. PROV H1322.

Higinbotham was scathing about the contractors. When he took over, he found that Cornish and Bruce had been paid ‘a sum of upwards of £19,000 for ballast that had never been supplied’.[4] That the contractors were corrupt, he had no doubt. He was also deeply suspicious of the actions of William Austin Zeal, one of the Department’s Resident Engineers. Zeal was born at Westbury, Wiltshire, in 1830 and began his railway career as a 15 year old in 1844, working for Joseph Locke, who was then constructing the London and South Western Railway.

With the cooling of the railway mania from 1847, Zeal took various other engineering jobs. He claimed to have been a consulting engineer on one of the Great Western branch lines as a 20 year old. [5] He emigrated to Victoria, arriving in Melbourne about the time of his 22nd birthday in late 1852. After spending time on the goldfields he joined the MMA&MRR where he worked for Charles Swyer on the Williamstown line. Following the government takeover, he worked as a surveyor and engineer, and was a District Engineer on the 13 mile section of the Sandhurst line, over the Keilor Plains to Sunbury. It was Zeal’s responsibility to check the quantities of ballast supplied, and authorise payment. Zeal duped a fellow Resident Engineer, Robert Watson, into authorising payment on the basis of a fraudulent assurance that the ballast had been supplied. On 8th March 1859, a month before the payments were made, Zeal resigned from the Victorian Railways and joined with the contractors, Cornish and Bruce on three times his former salary, to help them exploit loopholes in their contracts.[6]

Zeal was elected to the Legislative Assembly as Member for Castlemaine in November 1864.[7] In May 1865 he and his friends attempted to censure Higinbotham for his allegations about the Cornish and Bruce affair, but they got more than they bargained for. The Engineer-in-Chief was thoroughly professional and confident of his standing. Higinbotham publicly ridiculed his critics who, he said, ‘have had no other experience than the very narrow one that the colony has hitherto afforded, have never been employed on important works elsewhere, or had an opportunity of learning what are the opinions, and what has been the practice, of the best English engineers’.[8]

Higinbotham knew Zeal had only worked in England at a junior level, but stopped short of accusing him of fraud due to a lack of hard evidence. But when pressed by the Select Committee appointed in May 1865 to inquire into the allegations, he held Zeal responsible at the very least for ‘a most culpable neglect’ in failing to detect the over measurement of ballast supplied by the contractors.[9]

The new Engineer-in-Chief, like Darbyshire, was an advocate of solid engineering of the English school. He disclaimed responsibility for the way the Ballarat and Sandhurst lines had been surveyed, the extravagances of the Williamstown branch line, the mistaken design of Spencer Street station, which needed rebuilding, and the loose contracts, all of which added to the cost of the lines he had to complete.[10]

Viaducts and Culverts

Higinbotham’s main economies were in bridging. When it came to building the main lines, Darbyshire had followed British practice and stipulated that culverts, bridges and viaducts be made of stone, brick, or iron, or a combination of these durable materials, ensuring all structures were built to last. The Sandhurst line, which junctioned from the Williamstown branch at Footscray, was planned to have no less than twelve large viaducts or bridges.

When Higinbotham took over direction of the works in May 1860, some of the viaducts had yet to be commenced, and he was able to eliminate three of the lesser structures, replacing them with embankments and culverts.[11] The rest were dictated by the approved survey, which it was too late to change. They varied in size from the iron bridges over Forest Creek, Castlemaine, and Kangaroo Gully, Kangaroo Flat, which rested on brick piers, to the massive masonry and iron viaducts across Back Creek, at Taradale, and Jacksons Creek, Sunbury. The five spans of Taradale viaduct took the railway 120 feet above the trickle below, and cost £178,042, almost as much as that at Moorabool.[12]

Taradale Viaduct showing wrought iron girders and passenger train with a Sturrock 2-4-0 locomotive. A. Morris & Co. PROV H1474.

The high relative cost of the Sandhurst line viaducts was due to their use of iron plate girders, which weighed more but were stronger than the latticed type used at Moorabool. To avoid the expensive use of imported iron, five of the viaducts were built entirely of stone. The grandest of these vaulted 260 feet across the Coliban River at Malmsbury, on five imposing arches over 60 feet above the water. Smaller multiple arch masonry viaducts spanned the Harpers and Blind Creeks near Sunbury, the upper Campaspe River near Woodend, and Barkers Creek at Harcourt. The durability of these masonry viaducts is evidenced by their survival, without strengthening, over more than 160 years of ever more punishing loads, including today’s 2,000 ton wheat trains running at 80 kph, and V/Locity passenger trains at 160 kph. But such permanence had its price: these nine bridges and viaducts on the Ballarat and Sandhurst lines cost £775,000, or 11 per cent of the total costs, exclusive of rolling stock.[13]

Tunnels and Cuttings

Of the three main line railway tunnels made in Victoria, two were on the Sandhurst line: the 1,264 foot bore near Elphinstone, and the 1,276 foot bore at Big Hill, seven miles south of Sandhurst.[14] This was the price of an English main line profile, which also required some massive cuttings and embankments. The two most remarkable cuttings are those at Rupertswood and Elphinstone. The former is about twenty feet deep, but is cut into volcanic rock and continues for about 1,500 yards; the other, on the approach to Elphinstone tunnel, is 65 feet deep.[15] Both were big jobs in the days before the steam shovel.

Digging a Victorian Railways cutting, possibly Sandhurst line circa 1861. SLV pi016819.


To the layman, the most obvious extravagances on the original main lines were the stations and of all the works, stations continued to be the most frequent cause of political interference. Planning and design was therefore carried out at the highest level.

One of the subordinate engineers claimed Higinbotham did these things himself ‘as every other Engineer-in-Chief would do, without reference to those who serve under him’.[16] The ultimate decision nevertheless rested even higher; Higinbotham said the Minister decided questions about stations.[17] If a township was provided with simple wooden station buildings, the residents would press for improved accommodation and generally get it. In these circumstances, the engineers preferred to erect decent buildings to begin with.

Thomas Higinbotham’s Harcourt Railway Station, circa 1870. PROV H1473.

Darbyshire’s stations were adequate but not extravagant. His policy, agreed to by the Board of Land and Works, was that all station buildings be built of wood.[18] The three largest were Spencer Street, Williamstown and Sunbury. These included offices and refreshment rooms, with verandahs posts supporting the platform roofs. The Williamstown and Sunbury stations were built to the same plan, costing approximately £11,900 each.[19] Almost certainly inflated by gold rush prices, costs further increased because some of the buildings were superfluous from the outset.

In March 1859 an agreement with the Victorian Stage Company coordinated rail and stage connections at Diggers Rest, where the highway to the goldfields diverged from the railway.[20] This left Sunbury, then the railhead, with very little passenger business. As Diggers Rest was only 20 miles from Melbourne it was not worth the trouble of transferring goods from rail trucks to bullock drays, so most of the goldfields freight remained on the roads.[21] So two years after the line opened the Sunbury station building was removed to the new railhead at Woodend. At the same time the station building at Holden, 18 miles from Melbourne, was removed to Gisborne. Holden was then closed. Relocation of these buildings cost £6,383.[22] Sunbury was temporarily provided with a tent while a replacement wooden building was erected at a cost of £ 2,207.[23] Even by later light lines standards, the second Sunbury station would have seemed palatial.[24]

Woodend Station in 1862 after being relocated from Sunbury. Williamstown was identical and Spencer Street similar. Photo by J.H. Jones. SLV b31573.

Under Higinbotham, the stations on the Woodend to Echuca and Geelong to Ballarat sections were all substantially built of stone or brick on the English pattern, most of them two storey with bluestone platform facing, and large bluestone or brick goods sheds. His terminal stations during the first decade really were palatial. Ballarat, the largest inland city in the colony, was graced with a terminus that shamed the efforts of private enterprise at Geelong. What the G&MR achieved with corrugated iron, Higinbotham excelled in stone. Its beautiful booking hall, with both platforms and tracks being roofed over, cost £61,458, or sufficient to build ten miles of railway in the 1870’s, stations and all.[25]

Ballarat station and goods shed (Melbourne end) circa 1862. Alfred Morris & Co. SLV H3985.

Kyneton, Castlemaine, Sandhurst and Echuca were not quite in the same category, but were still very well looked after. These stations were built to rules he had applied when on the Great Northern Railway in England.

‘There is no point on which English engineers are more thoroughly agreed’ he wrote, ‘than on the policy of building railway stations of durable materials, and with full and complete accommodation. If this be good for an English railway company to adopt, I do not understand how it can be bad policy for the Government, on lines that will probably carry a very large part of the traffic of the continent of Australia.’[26]

Others said that station buildings like those at Sandhurst would only be built for a city ten times the size in England,[27] but in fairness, the Engineer-in-Chief believed he was building portions of the main intercolonial railway lines, thinking the Sandhurst line would continue to Echuca and then into NSW to Sydney.[28] Building for the future was a deeply seated colonial mindset, but it was risky.

Sandhurst station and goods sheds (Melbourne end) 1862. Alfred Morris & Co. SLV H36668.

In April 1864 a contract was let for a new single storey station and goods shed on the former G&MR line at Little River. Still standing over 160 years later, these bluestone buildings cost £4,800[29] and served a tiny village that would not grow for over a century. Even at the time the work raised eyebrows. One critic pointed out that a station with similar accommodation in England would be provided for a town of 20,000 inhabitants![30] But for the financial strictures imposed during the constitutional crisis afflicting Victoria in the second half of the 1860’s, other G&MR stations would likely have been similarly treated.

The irony is that Melbourne got an ad hoc collection of wood and corrugated iron clutter that grew throughout the nineteenth century. No one wanted to foot the bill for the masterpiece that would be necessary to put Ballarat in its place! Eventually a grand station was built at Flinders Street in 1912, but never finished to its original plan. But the country and interstate terminal at Spencer Street was not rebuilt until 1962, one hundred years after construction of the first government trunk lines.

Spencer Street Station with additional trackwork being laid with roughly cut sleepers circa 1860. The engineer with top hat is supervising work. PROV H1476.

Higinbotham estimated a sum of £1,000 per mile for stations, which were usually sited every five or six miles.[31] The ordinary two storey stone or brick buildings on the Ballarat and Sandhurst lines averaged about £8,000 each, but could cost nearly three times that sum if extensive goods sheds and buildings on both platforms were provided.[32] On the private M&HBR, and in South Australia, they put them up for £600 each.[33] Although there were timber and corrugated iron stations from the beginning in Victoria, they were usually confined to locations away from towns. About a quarter of the stations on the original lines to Sandhurst, Echuca and Ballarat were located at such places, but nevertheless they were well built. The Middle Gully (Macedon) station, built of timber, cost 7¼d. per cubic foot, against 9½d. per cubic foot for the brick structure at Elphinstone.[34]

Workshops and Engine Sheds

From the outset, provision had to be made for workshops and engine sheds. The workshops were established at Williamstown. With all the rolling stock arriving by ship from England, proximity to the railway pier was essential. Simple corrugated iron buildings were erected inside the curve leading away from the pier, but this site was destined to become congested.

The Williamstown Workshops in 1861, from the Time Ball tower. The locomotive leading the train is a Single, either ‘Titania’ or ‘Oberon’, not long after the take-over of the G&MR. An extra shed is under construction, and more would follow. Photo by E. Haigh, PROV H5364.

In 1861 a new shed was being built at Williamstown for the commissioning of new locomotives and rolling stock purchased for the goldfields trunk lines. These included the large 2-4-0 passenger and 0-6-0 goods locomotives Higinbotham had ordered from England, designed by his old colleague at the Great Northern Railway, Archibald Sturrock. Engine sheds for these locomotives were needed at Ballarat, Sandhurst and Echuca. Whereas Darbyshire had provided a timber and corrugated iron engine shed at Spencer Street, Higinbotham’s sheds were all of stone or brick, with slate roofs!

The three road engine shed at Echuca in 2018. Sandhurst was similar. RBA Architects.

The Echuca Extension

The railway to Sandhurst was opened on 21st October 1862. Just twelve days earlier Zeal had driven the first ballast train into the uncompleted station soon after the last rail was laid. Also aboard were the Commissioner and Higinbotham. Zeal was working for the contractors, Cornish and Bruce, having resigned from the Victorian Railways for dubious reasons. [35] His relationship with Higinbotham was already strained, and he was to be a constant irritant to the railway engineers for the next 35 years.

There was a brief hiatus before a start was made on the extension from Sandhurst to Echuca. That line was completely engineered under Higinbotham’s direction. He intended to build it to his high standards, but as an economy it was made as a single line with lighter rails. Cost varied directly with the weight of rail, but lowering the weight also reduced a rails tensile strength. Whereas Darbyshire had used 80 lb double-headed iron rails for the Sandhurst and Ballarat lines,[36] Higinbotham specified 72 lb per yard double-headed iron rails on the Echuca extension. The heaviest locomotives were not necessary on this line, as gradients for the first ten miles north of Sandhurst were moderate and thereafter the line over the plains was nearly flat. Higinbotham later proposed similar rails for the North Eastern line.[37] (The private suburban railway companies also settled on 75 lb rail for new construction to Brighton, Windsor and Hawthorn.)[38]

Higinbotham also resorted to many more level crossings, with one every 1.6 miles on average, against one every 2.6 miles on Darbyshire’s Sandhurst and Ballarat lines. He later used a similar ratio of 1.6 level crossings per mile on the North Eastern main line.[39] All these crossings were protected with gates and manned by a gatekeeper. The gates kept wandering livestock out of the railway reservation when open for road traffic, as all railways then had to be fenced by law.

British engineers preferred their road-rail crossings to be at different levels, so there were many bridges over and under roads on Darbyshire’s lines. But on the Echuca extension Higinbotham made only three or four. The first, at the Down end of Sandhurst station carried Mitchell Street over the railway, and was strenuously objected to by the local government and property owners. They thought the earthworks to raise the roadway were unsightly. The Engineer-in-Chief firmly but courteously won the day, the locals lamenting the ugliness, one wit penning a future epitaph:- ‘If no statue is erected to Mr Higinbotham on his retirement from the service, men will need but to point to the Mitchell street bridge and say – Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice.’ [40]

Thomas Higinbotham’s McIvor Road bridge at Sandhurst. The nearby Mitchell Street and Back Creek bridges were similar. PROV 1318.

The Mitchell Street bridge was made with brick abutments with dressed stone quoins, stringcourses, and copings, as were the McIvor Road and Back Creek bridges a few hundred yards further on. The same writer described the latter two as ‘handsome’. That Higinbotham was right has been daily affirmed ever since, as Mitchell Street is a major city thoroughfare, and for many decades carried an electric tram line.

Beyond the first ten miles the Echuca line encountered no engineering difficulties, being built across the plain and only requiring four intermediate stations: Epsom, Goornong, Runnymede (later renamed Elmore) and Rochester. Single storey wooden buildings were provided at these places, but at Echuca Higinbotham provided an imposing two storey building, together with a large goods shed and three road engine shed, all resplendent in bi-chromatic brickwork and costing over £24,000. The line continued three quarters of a mile beyond the station to the south bank of the Murray River where a further £8,000 was spent building an impressive timber wharf.[41]

The contractors made rapid progress across the plains, on some days laying 900 yards of track and averaging two miles a week.[42] The head of rail reached Echuca earlier than expected, enabling goods trains to run through to the new wharf from 25th September 1864, in time to secure that year’s wool clip from New South Wales for Melbourne merchants.[43] There was already a fleet of paddle steamers working the Murray-Darling river system and Echuca soon became Victoria’s second port.[44]

The Stern Wheeler PS ‘Lady Darling’ moored at Echuca Wharf circa 1868. Railway wagons are standing in front of Shackell’s Bond Store. The wharf was extended three times to reach 352 yards. SLSA PRG 1258/1/1775.

The Campaspe River Bridges

Higinbotham had planned a viaduct of 1,000 feet over the Campaspe River and its floodway, with iron girders resting on bluestone piers,[45] but he was unintentionally thwarted by his brother George, among others. George was a leading radical and Member for Brighton in the popularly elected Legislative Assembly. As Attorney-General in James McCulloch’s ministry from 1863 to 1868, he advised the tacking of a tariff measure to the Appropriation Bill in order to get it past the hostile Legislative Council, which represented wealthy big business and pastoral interests.

The tactic backfired. On the 16th May 1865 the Council warned the measure was unconstitutional, but the Legislative Assembly insisted and so on the 25th July 1865 the Legislative Council blocked supply. This later restricted the funds available for the Echuca line, which was under construction at the time. The political stalemate began Victoria’s first constitutional crisis, which dragged on until 1868.[46]

The Echuca line construction was divided into two contracts, the first being let in May 1863. It covered the most difficult ten miles immediately north of Sandhurst. The second was for the remaining 49 miles to the Murray and was let in August 1863. But this contract did not include a permanent viaduct over the Campaspe. The mercantile interests in Melbourne were keen to tap the Murray River wool trade and opted for a temporary timber bridge which was ready in four months. Nevertheless by April 1864 piles were being driven for Higinbotham’s permanent viaduct, but the impending constitutional crisis soon stopped that work and the temporary viaduct achieved a degree of permanence![47] The ‘temporary’ crossing of the Campaspe comprised a Warren truss girder of 180 feet resting on four timber piers, which supported it 40 feet above the river. Leading up to the main girders was a timber trestle bridge of 830 feet over the river’s floodway. [48] The Warren truss girders were made of Baltic pine, but the piers and the trestle over the floodway were all of red gum.[49]

The bridge was almost certainly the work of Robert Gray Ford, who had charge of the bridging on the line.[50] Timber bridges became somewhat of a specialty of Ford, who was a rising talent in the Engineer-in-Chief’s branch, but with no formal engineering qualifications. He was subordinate to Watson, who had charge of overall supervision of the line’s construction. About eighteen months after its completion Robert Adams unofficially inspected the Campaspe bridge. He was one of the original group of engineers appointed to the Victorian Railways in May 1856,[51] and had been commended for the massive Saltwater River bridge. A former resident engineer on the Sandhurst line, he had been laid off after the Echuca line was finished and subsequently joined with Zeal, John Woods and some others critical of the Engineer-in-Chief.[52] Adams wrote a highly critical and alarmist letter to The Argus, criticising the bridge design and claiming that ‘maybe to-day, or it may be to-morrow, but the fall of the girder can be looked forward to with absolute certainty.’ [53] This produced consternation, with local newspapers calling for an immediate investigation.[54]

Higinbotham was quick to respond, and personally conducted a series of deflection tests in which six trains of varying composition and speed were run across the viaduct, one with three of the heaviest goods locomotives coupled. Detailed results were released, with the Engineer-in-Chief’s assurance that they were ‘almost identical with those obtained from experiments made on the 11th July, 1864, before the line was opened for traffic; not differing in any instance more than the one hundredth part of an inch.’ [55]

At the time the only other wooden bridge on the government lines was the 1,150 feet approach trestle over the floodways of the Saltwater River near Footscray, built while Darbyshire was Engineer-in-Chief. Both bridges were intended as temporary structures,[56] but the Campaspe viaduct served nearly twelve years. While lacking the durability of stone, brick and iron, timber bridges were much cheaper and could be built for a quarter of the capital outlay. They did, of course, incur higher maintenance charges later on as the timber deteriorated, and they were built against the professional scruples of Victorian Railways engineers.[57]

Watson, the Echuca extension’s Resident Engineer, conservatively estimated the life of timber bridges as twelve years when giving evidence to the Legislative Council in 1871. Thomas a’Beckett MLC, the Chairman of the M&HBUR, reminded Watson that the timber bridge across a swamp on the St. Kilda line had stood twelve years and was in good condition. Watson then admitted that timber bridges might last up to 25 years, but the department’s engineers had no experience to go on.[58] He said that after seven years, the Campaspe viaduct’s repairs had ‘been very slight’, but nevertheless he went on to state that he would ‘rather not have anything to do with timber bridges’.[59] Higinbotham was similarly set against timber bridges. In June 1869 he said ‘All experience in railways, both in America and here, and in England, shows that it is a bad economy to adopt perishable material.’ [60]

He spoke from personal experience, having built some cheap lines in England for the South Eastern and the London and Dover railways. As an example of cheap lines, he held they ‘proved, in the end, the most expensive works the companies have constructed’. He referred to the single track Ashford to Canterbury line (on which he was Assistant Engineer), where all the under bridges were of wood.[61] But William Elsdon had no such scruples, his timber bow-string truss served throughout the Hobson Bay company’s existence. It stood for thirty years before it was replaced.[62]

The permanent Campaspe bridge was opened on 15th September 1875. It was 534 feet long, with three wrought iron girders of 42 feet spaning the river. The girders were supported by two wrought iron cylinder piers. There were also seventeen girders of 24 feet spanning the floodway, supported on brick piers made with 201,000 bricks.[63] But by the end of Higinbotham’s term as Engineer-in-Chief, timber bridges were the rule on the new light railways.

The 160 miles of double track lines from Melbourne to Williamstown, Footscray to Sandhurst and North Geelong to Ballarat, opened progressively from January 1859 to October 1862, had cost approximately £44,000 per mile, including rolling stock.[64] With the single track sections from Greenwich (Newport) to North Geelong, and Sandhurst to Echuca added, the Victorian Railways comprised 255 route miles of line by 1964. It was more extensive than all the other railways in Australia combined.[65] The NSW Railways were more frugal, having been made for an average of £19,000 per mile.[66]

The impact of railway spending on the colonial economy was highlighted by the Chief Secretary and Treasurer in 1868. The total colonial debt was then £9,663,000. Of this, £8,618,000 or 89%, was in connection with railways. (Water projects amounted to £700,000, defence £100,000, and corporation loans £245,000). Nevertheless, most of the colony was left clamoring for railways, with the common consensus in favour of making the next trunk line to the Ovens and Murray goldfields in the colony’s North East. About the best route to the Western District there was no consensus. The more pressing question was how to make new lines economically. This the politicians were determined to investigate.

The 1865 Select Committee on Railway Extension

With a population of about 105,000, the Murray District of Victoria and Albury combined was roughly three times as populous in 1868 as that around Portland and Hamilton, and five times those of Gippsland or Colac, the other contenders for railway extension.[67] Furthermore, it was recognised that a line to Albury would eventually form part of a Melbourne to Sydney line, although at that time the New South Wales railway came no closer than Goulburn.

Higinbotham estimated the cost of the North East trunk line as £10,650 per mile, including rolling stock. He based this on the cost of the Echuca extension and put his full professional weight behind arguments as to why this was as cheap as prudence would allow.[68] Against this, the claims of railway schemers that substantial lines could be built for £6,000 per mile, including rolling stock, appeared radical indeed.[69]

With the excessive cost and under-utilisation of the Sandhurst line in mind, parliamentarians and railwaymen alike baulked at the prospect of another crossing of the Great Dividing Range. The Legislative Assembly appointed a Select Committee on Railway Extension in March 1865, which recommended a line to Albury surveyed by the Engineer-in-Chief’s staff, branching off the main line at Goornong, eight miles north of Sandhurst. They went against Higinbotham’s advice, and recommended a limit of £6,000 on construction.[70] In so doing, they were swayed by the contrary evidence presented by Zeal and Elsdon.

Zeal’s tenure as Member for Castlemaine was very short. Elected in November 1864, he sat in the Legislative Assembly just thirteen months, but that was long enough for him to lead the opposition to Higinbotham’s plans for the next trunk railway.[71] Zeal was a principal witness before the Select Committee, which sat between March and June 1865. He was also its principal inquisitor! He advocated that the North Eastern line be built for an all up cost of £4,500 to £5,000 per mile, including rolling stock.[72]

Elsdon was more cautious, telling the Committee that they ‘could make, of course, railways or tramways for any sum, by reducing the weight of the rails, etc., and making other works less permanent’. The Engineer-in-Chief’s estimate was £10,648 per mile, but Elsdon said he had ‘no doubt it could be done for half that sum, but £7,000 or £8,000 per mile would make it permanent’.[73] The Committee more or less split the difference between Zeal’s lowest, and Elsdon’s highest estimate, in recommending a maximum of £6,000 per mile. In the event, the Select Committee’s deliberations were a waste of time. With the colony embroiled in a constitutional tussle there was no hope of passing a new railway construction Act. Zeal lost his seat in the elections of December 1865.

In 1867, the railway surveyors mapped out a less circuitous route for the proposed North Eastern railway, this time leaving the main line at Woodend, immediately after cresting the Divide. This would reduce the overall Melbourne – Albury journey by 41 miles, but involve an extra 27 miles of new line, compared with the Goornong – Albury route. The cost estimates per mile were similar to those made in 1865; the Select Committee’s recommendation being ignored.[74] However, it was not until 1868 that the government saw its way clear to make another attempt at railway building. By this time, the surveyors had found a saddle in the Divide near Kilmore, and proposed a direct line from Essendon to Albury.[75]

Victorian Railways in 1973 showing the final and proposed routes to Wodonga.

On 7th September 1868, the Engineer-in-Chief advised the Commissioner that the new North Eastern railway would cost an average of £9,300 per mile,[76] or half as much again as that recommended by the 1865 Select Committee. Confronted with this difficulty, the Chief Secretary McCulloch, opted to let Higinbotham have his way, and devised a strategy to divert attention from the specifics of the railway construction scheme. He would first seek a general loan for a range of railway purposes totalling £2,107,000. The money for the North Eastern line was part of this sum, a total of £1,720,000.

The Bill was introduced on 8th September 1868. That night J.A. MacPherson complained that no information had been submitted to justify the proposed new route of the line,[77] but as the Assembly were not being asked to approve its construction, there seemed little point in pursuing the matter. With Zeal temporarily out of politics, grazing sheep in the Riverina,[78] there was no voice of authority in Parliament to protest that the 1865 Select Committee’s recommendation of a £6,000 per mile limit had been ignored.

Nevertheless, passage of the measure, while quick, was not straightforward. The colony’s finances were strained to the point of forced redundancies in the Public Service, which included many railway employees.[79] Relations between the Upper and Lower Chambers were still frosty, and the Council asserted its rights by making some minor amendments and sending the Bill back. McCulloch’s Government preserved the honour of the Legislative Assembly by scrapping the Bill, then introducing a new one: in reality the original Bill with all but one of the Council’s amendments. With face saved on both sides, the railway loan was agreed to on 24th September 1868, just over two weeks after its introduction.

The question of the North Eastern line’s cost was not a live one, the government expecting that it could be made as a substantial single line for no more than £9,000 per mile.[80] Members were more concerned that construction of the Albury line would deprive Gippsland and the Western District of their lines for a few more years.[81] But news of cheap narrow gauge railways, together with a system for carrying lines over very steep gradients, began to reach the antipodes in the late 1860’s.

Just prior to the introduction of the railway loan Bill, the Commissioner (C.E. Jones, not to be confused with Joseph Jones, who later became Commissioner) had asked the Engineer-in-Chief to obtain information from overseas experts on these recent narrow gauge developments.[82] Higinbotham appears to have been miffed by this request, and did not reply until the loan Bill had been passed. ‘I am in constant communication on matters relating to engineering with men in London who hold a very high place in their profession’ Higinbotham protested, but to enable ‘the public to obtain independent information on several matters that have been discussed lately’ he provided Jones with a list of 13 questions to be put to experts through the Agent General in London. Jones despatched these to George Verdon the next day, 13th October 1868. Seven of the questions dealt with the Fairlie and Fell systems of light railways.[83]

Verdon predictably passed the letter to the Victorian Railways’ consulting engineers in London, Brereton and Lewis. They damned the Fairlie locomotive, as did Archibald Sturrock, Locomotive Superintendent of the Great Northern Railways, and an old colleague of Higinbotham’s. Sturrock considered that Fairlie’s engine would require much modification, and advised that it ‘would be very unwise for a distant colony to yet embark in such engines…’ [84] These and other reports vindicating the Engineer-in-Chief’s views were forwarded to the Commissioner, who avoided further acrimony by resigning, on 9th March 1869.[85] It was left to Jones’ replacement, J. F. Sullivan, to introduce the Railway Construction Bill, meekly accepting the Engineer-in-Chief’s estimate of £9,300 per mile.[86]

The first Double Fairlie was built in 1866 for the Neath & Brecon Railway in Wales. It was a failure. Gwyn Briwnant Jones, The Neath and Brecon Railway – a history. p. 166.

The first part of McCulloch’s strategy worked well, Parliament pliantly agreeing to borrow a large sum for construction of the North Eastern line. However the second stage of the plan failed. Sullivan introduced the Essendon and Upper Murray Railway Construction Bill on 18th May 1869, but immediately encountered resistance on the issue of the line’s cost. A week later on 26th May, MacPherson successfully moved the creation of another Select Committee to inquire into the most economical mode of construction.[87]

Pending the findings of this Committee, the Government was forced to defer the second reading of the railway Bill. Higinbotham’s first reaction was to stand on his reputation. He drew Sullivan’s attention to the correspondence that had followed Jones’ letter to London, reminding the new Commissioner that ‘there are no new modes of railway construction where ordinary circumstances have to be dealt with’.[88] When called as first witness before the Select Committee a few days later, on 1st June, he complained of the short notice. He also acquainted the Committee with his own experience with the Ashford to Canterbury light railway in England during 1846. But when he came under attack for the excessive estimate of £1,000 per mile for stations, he became indignant, at one point telling a Committee member not to put words in his mouth.[89]

The Committee was impressed by the lucid and unbiased evidence of the Engineer-in-Chief of the South Australian Railways, Henry Coathupe Mais. He convinced them that light railways were practicable. His association with railways in Australia was second to none, having been appointed Chief Engineer of the Sydney Railway Company in January 1851 upon the resignation of Francis Sheilds (the man who had prevailed upon the NSW government, and through them the other colonies, to make 5’3” the uniform Australian railway gauge). Mais held that position until 30th June 1852, when James Wallace arrived from Britain (and changed the NSW gauge back to 4’ 8½”).[90]

Mais later worked for Cornish and Bruce, the contractors for the construction of the Sunbury to Kyneton section of the Sandhurst line from 1859 to 1861, and then became the Engineer and General Manager of the Melbourne Railway Company for three years. In 1867 he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the South Australian Railways, a position he was to hold for 21 years.[91]

Henry Coathupe Mais C.E., Engineer-in-Chief of the South Australian Railways 1867-1888. Adelaide Photographic Co., SLSA B 6682.

The South Australian Railways was a light railway system built to the same gauge as that used in Victoria. Mais explained that the Gawler to Kapunda line was laid with 40 lb per yard iron rails, and cost less than £5,000 per mile. Although it was restricted to 20 mph, he told members that during the busy four months following the wheat harvest, it carried as much traffic as any Victorian line. As far as he was aware, lines of that standard satisfied the South Australian colonists, and he was personally ‘pledged’ to make them a success.[92] While he made do with 40 lb rails, he preferred something heavier, but thought the 72 lb rails required by Higinbotham was unnecessary heavy. Victoria would be advised to lay the North Eastern line with 60 to 65 lb rails, and build the stations for £600 or £700 each.[93]

Mais rather liked American carriages, which were cheaper to build, but was worried about their excessive dead weight when only part loaded. The level crossings on the Kapunda line were not gated, but had ‘American ditches’ (cattle pits) instead, with the locomotives fitted with cow catchers to throw obstructions aside. South Australian stations were inexpensive, costing £600-700. Goods sheds and passenger sheds were of corrugated iron attached to timber frames.[94]

South Australian Railways D class 4-4-0 No. 18, built by Robert Stephenson & Co., Newcastle on Tyne in 1859 for the Kapunda line, which was laid with 40 lb iron rails. A cow catcher is fitted as the level crossings were ungated. No. 18 is coupled to the State Carriage for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Visit, 1867. National Library of Australia PIC/5837.

Mais’ evidence demonstrated that neighbouring South Australia had a proven formula for cheap light lines, and the Select Committee used his authority to justify their final recommendation. They were also encouraged by Zeal, who was called as a witness. He argued forcefully for a maximum expenditure of £6,000 per mile, as had been recommended by the 1865 Select Committee, when he was in Parliament. He saw no need for Fairlie engines or narrow gauge in order to accomplish this. The Select Committee agreed, their report of 8th July 1869 virtually adopting the findings of their predecessors in 1865.[95]

At the time the radical McCulloch government was pushing through J.M. Grant’s second land settlement bill, opening up farms of 320 acres for selection. The Land Act was passed in December 1869[96] and might have been followed by an equally radical railway construction Bill, based on the Select Committee’s findings. It was not to be, as shortly after the Select Committee tabled its findings, its Chairman, J.A. MacPherson, was called upon to form a new government in place of McCulloch’s.

One might have expected MacPherson to stick to the findings of his own Committee, but such was the persuasiveness of the Engineer-in-Chief that the new government was content with a token compromise. Francis Longmore, the new Minister of Railways, introduced the second reading of the previous government’s Bill on 20th October 1869, explaining that the new government would not give a guarantee that the line would be built for £6,000 per mile, and because ‘the money is lying idle in the banks, it is necessary for prudential reasons to proceed with the measure without delay’.[97]

Longmore meant what he said. The Bill had passed all remaining stages of debate by the following day, and was with the Legislative Council the following week. In that House, the government indicated that the Engineer-in-Chief had revised his estimate downwards to £7,225 per mile, but still retained 72 lb rails.[98] No limit on expenditure per mile was specified, and the Bill passed all stages in only one day. Higinbotham had won. He had authorisation to build a 181 mile line to Wodonga, and £1,720,000 to do it. If the Parliament for a minute thought the Engineer-in-Chief would hold expenditure to £7,225 per mile, and return them £412,275 change, they were deluding themselves!

Contrasting Engineering Standards

Throughout the decade following the completion of the Echuca line the debate about engineering standards continued with very little reference to the private suburban railways which took many of the protagonists to work every day. And yet most of the private lines were engineered and operated to quite frugal standards. The Hobson’s Bay railway always had an eye on dividends for shareholders, and was reluctant to commit capital unless really needed. A road crossing at Elsternwick had no gates or gatekeeper, wandering livestock being kept out of the railway reservation by pits dug under the track, just as the South Australians had done with level crossings on the Kapunda line.[99] Some stations had no stationmaster and at others one man combined duties of ticket seller, ticket checker, signalman, gatekeeper, pointsman, stationmaster and porter. The company was stingy with wages too.[100]

The M&HBR initially made do with the simplest wooden bridge over the Yarra just above the Falls, and only as revenue swelled over its first four years of operations did it have the bridge replaced, but not in iron. Elsdon’s new timber bridge proved itself able to cope with the worst flood ever recorded when the Yarra inundated huge areas of Melbourne and suburbs in December 1863.[101] Most of the M&HBR lines were under water, and Elsdon spent much of a week making inspections by boat, hardly having time to change his clothes.[102] But the bridge held, as it did again in 1878 and 1880.[103]

Single track lines were adopted by several of the private suburban railway companies. Swyer engineered a single line for the St Kilda and Brighton Railway Company which opened on 19th December 1859.[104] The line was well built, with 75 lb chaired rails, but the company owned no rolling stock. Instead, they made an agreement with the M&HBR for the older company’s trains to run through from Elizabeth Street to Brighton via the ‘Loop’ between St. Kilda and Chapel Street (later renamed Windsor).

While this line was under construction, the Melbourne and Suburban Railways Company had commenced building a direct line to Chapel Street from Princes Bridge, a station adjacent to Flinders Street, just east of Swanston Street. But financial strictures forced them to lay only a single line as far as Punt Road (Richmond). Due to delays importing rails and rolling stock from England, they purchased some Barlow rail and the locomotive ‘Hercules’ from the G&MR, and were able to commence operation over this short section on 8th February 1859.[105] An influx of capital later enabled them to adopt British standards and complete the line from Punt Road to Chapel Street as double track, including an imposing wrought iron lattice girder bridge over the Yarra River at Cremorne. Trains began running from Princes Bridge to Chapel Street on 22nd December 1860, and a single line branch was opened to Hawthorn on 13th April 1861, this requiring a bridge across the Yarra similar to the one built at Cremorne.

The Hawthorn line junctioned at Swan Street (Richmond), where a new station replaced the one at Punt Road. However, the company was bankrupted by its borrowing for their expensive wrought iron bridges and it was soon sold and renamed the Melbourne Railway Company. In an effort to generate more traffic, the inexperienced Melbourne Railway Co. made an agreement with the St. Kilda and Brighton Railway for Brighton trains to run through to Princes Bridge on their railway, rather than to Elizabeth Street over the M&HBR via the ‘Loop’ to St. Kilda.[106] A rather miffed M&HBR was given short notice of this fateful decision.[107]

Melbourne and Suburban Railway Company bridge over the Yarra River at Cremorne, just before completion in 1860. This and a similar bridge at Hawthorn bankrupted the Company. PROV H1547.

The risk inherent with single lines in the days before telegraph was the inability of a station at one end of a single line section to be certain that the station at the other end had despatched a train. It all depended on the timetable, accurate clocks, a well-trained and disciplined staff, and nothing unexpected occurring. But the inexperience of the two new private railway companies quickly became apparent.

The Melbourne suburban railway network in 1867.

While the lines to Brighton and Hawthorn were being made, the Melbourne and Essendon Railway (M&ER) was busy building into the northern suburbs. Their three mile single track line junctioned with the government line at North Melbourne and presented no substantial engineering challenges. But the line did not serve a well populated area. The promoters were thought to be more interested in using the line to promote land sales. Services to Essendon commenced on 1st November 1860 using locomotives and rolling stock hired from the Victorian Railways, but patronage was meagre.

Their most profitable business came from the 1½ mile branch from Newmarket to Flemington Racecourse which opened three months later on 28th February 1861, for a three day Victorian Jockey Club meeting. The first of many racecourse lines to be made in Victoria, it was laid as a single line with light rails which were adequate for the intermittent race traffic. On 7th November 1861 Archer won the first Melbourne Cup in front of a crowd that had mostly arrived on M&ER trains.

In 1862 the M&ER imported two 2-4-0 tank engines from Slaughter, Gruning of Bristol, but almost immediately sold them to the South Australian Railways.[108] By early 1864 the company directors were seeking a government buy-out. Higinbotham inspected the M&ER line and was not impressed! He found it in bad order, requiring the immediate expenditure of £3,300 to make it safe, and much more to satisfy his standards. Therefore the government was only prepared to offer £25,000 for the property, despite its directors being personally liable to the company’s bankers for £54,500. The directors had no option but to close the lines from 1st July 1864, no doubt hoping for a change of government with a more generous disposition. But three years later they accepted the government’s £25,000 and the racecourse line was re-opened for the November 1867 Melbourne Cup. The Newmarket to Essendon line remained closed until 9th January 1871, when it was re-opened as the first section of the North Eastern main line. [109]

In contrast to the M&ER’s woes, the M&HBR thrived, its success being largely due to three factors: its tapping of goods traffic from ships berthing at Sandridge; a prudent investment policy; and its lines serving the populous suburbs of South Melbourne and St Kilda. From this solvent position it was able to take over the Melbourne Railway Co. on 30th June, and the St Kilda and Brighton Co. three months later. The greatly expanded company was renamed the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay United Railway Co. (M&HBUR), and controlled all railways to the east and south of the city.[110]

The M&HBUR South Yarra station with 4-4-0WT No. 20 and train, circa 1874. PROV H1123.

Elsdon then engineered the linking of the Princes Bridge and Elizabeth Street stations by tunnelling under St Kilda Road and using the earth removed to raise the Princes Bridge yards above flood level. After a false start, trains commenced running through from Brighton to Sandridge and from Hawthorn to St. Kilda on 1st October 1866.[111] But the private company avoided unnecessary expenditure on stations, making do with the humble wooden building at the bottom of Elizabeth Street, excusing their parsimony while consistently paying dividends of ten percent.[112]

Twenty years after the first train ran, the Elizabeth Street station was still a single storey, timber building (almost certainly the original), and even the friendly Argus complained that the M&HBUR ‘stations are mean, inconvenient, and dirty’, their carriages ‘stuffy, uncomfortable, and too often unclean’, while their ‘numerous bridges…require replacing, and a wilderness of wood and iron-work…has not had an interview with a paint-brush for years.’ [113] Newspapers and politicians might complain, but the M&HBUR was a very profitable private company, its Chairman being a respected Member of the Legislative Council, Thomas Turner àBeckett, MLC.[114] The daily visits of politicians and reporters that became a feature of the Victorian Railways Spencer Street railway offices were not encouraged at the Flinders Street offices of the M&HBUR!

The original M&HBR station in Flinders Street, opposite Elizabeth Street, in late 1882. PROV H1856.

In 1873 the government sought to purchase the company, but the asking price was exorbitant. Furthermore, Thomas Higinbotham estimated an additional £128,112 would be needed to put the company’s lines ‘in proper order’. But what was ‘proper’ to the Engineer-in-Chief was excessive to Elsdon, who estimated £50,000 would be ample, but no sale resulted.[115] Neither did the company follow through on their own engineer’s estimate. They spent a mere £3,550 on maintenance of their assets in the second half of 1873, preferring to pay dividends to shareholders instead.[116] Nevertheless, the company ran many more trains than the government railway and only incurred one collision in their 24 year history, and that with only minor injuries to half a dozen passengers.[117] Ironically the huge expenditure on improving the Geelong line after the buyout of the G&MR did not prevent the worst head-on train wreck in the Victorian Railway’s first fifty years.

Early Single Line Woes

Single line railways were risky in the days before telegraph and continuous train brakes. The new private companies were the first to discover just how risky. The Melbourne Railway Co. had been running trains to Brighton via Richmond for one week when a head-on collision occurred. On 8th May 1862 the seven carriage 9.05 am Up Brighton express with about 200 passengers aboard was being hauled by the 2-4-0 tank engine ‘Melbourne’, travelling bunker first (i.e. backwards). As it neared the end of the double line near Punt Road, its crew saw a Down Hawthorn train of three carriages steaming towards them on the single line hauled by the large 0-6-0 tank ‘Hercules’, also bunker first.

It was a misty morning, the rails were wet and the hand brakes were unable to stop the Up Brighton train before it entered the single line. With both engines thrown in reverse and frantically whistling, they had no hope of avoiding collision, so both crews jumped clear and escaped with their lives. The impact was at low speed, but resulted in a number of the wooden carriages being wrecked and some serious injuries to passengers. The signalman on the bridge over Punt Road was showing a red flag to the Up Brighton train, but in the misty conditions its driver saw it too late to stop his train. There was no Home signal, and no rule mandating that Up trains must stop before entering the single line section to Princes Bridge, and no train staff (token) to ensure only one train was in that section at any time.[118]

The ‘Hercules’, which had been purchased from the G&MR, was not much damaged, and repairs were made to the ‘Melbourne’ over the next few weeks. (The ‘Melbourne’ was the first of the locomotives sent out from England with Elsdon, but had since been sold to the St. Kilda and Brighton Railway).[119] On its first trip back in service, the ‘Melbourne’ ran a morning train to Brighton on 23rd May 1862, where it uncoupled in order to run round its train for the return journey. During this manoeuvre it derailed. This meant it was not ready to run the 12.45 pm Up service back to Princes Bridge, but the corresponding 12.45 pm Down train from Princes Bridge left on time. There was no telegraph and the Brighton Beach stationmaster could not get a horse, so guard Billinge of the stranded train ran the two miles from Brighton Beach to Bay Street (North Brighton) to warn the stationmaster there and get help for re-railing the ‘Melbourne’.

In his haste Billinge had hurt his foot, so a porter named Roche was told to take a message further up the line to Elsternwick and Chapel Street. He didn’t hurry, taking an hour to walk the 3½ miles, but he arrived at Chapel Street before the Down train and delivered the message. Under no circumstances should the Down train have proceeded further, as no one at Chapel Street knew if the Up train might have been got underway. But Sacre, the company’s Traffic Manager, was on the train and thinking the derailed engine at Brighton Beach would take a long time to be re-railed, ordered the crew to proceed.

In the meantime, the engine ‘Melbourne’ had indeed been re-railed and the Brighton Beach stationmaster, assuming the Down train would be held at Chapel Street, where they were time-tabled to cross, despatched the Up train. It’s very nervous crew took it out under protest, whistling frequently as they steamed into the cutting which curved under the Williams Street bridge (renamed Hotham Street). Too late they saw the 2-4-0 tank engine ‘Hawthorn’ steaming towards them with the oncoming Down train! Neither crew had time to stop their trains before colliding head-on under the bridge. Both engines were running backwards, with only a small coal bunker in front of the crews standing on the footplates. They hit bunker to bunker and driver Mattinson on the ‘Melbourne’ was seriously injured, as were a number of passengers in the carriages that telescoped together under the bridge, the still smoking chimney of the ‘Melbourne’ protruding into the wreckage and its smoke adding to the misery of the traumatised passengers.

Brighton trains reverted to the ‘Loop’ and ran via St. Kilda for the next four months and the accident was investigated by Higinbotham, the Engineer-in-Chief of the government railways.[120] Sacre was dismissed and later the Hobson’s Bay company merged with the Melbourne Railway Co. and the St. Kilda and Brighton Railway. Elsdon had all its stations linked by a telegraph wire by mid-1866.[121] This enabled the single lines to Brighton and Hawthorn to be worked by telegraphic block, a significant safety advance over the total dependence on timetables that had led to the head-on wreck near Elsternwick.

The use of telegraph not only enhanced safety, but also enabled more trains to be scheduled without the need for expensive track duplications. When the Victorian Railways opened the single line to Echuca, its stations were equipped with telegraph, but unlike the M&HBUR, the instruments belonged to the Post and Telegraph Department and were not for the exclusive railway use. The Victorian Railways did not install its first dedicated railway telegraph until July 1878.[122]

Higinbotham made no recommendation calling for a safe means of working trains on the Brighton line.[123] The ‘Train Staff and Ticket’ system of safeworking was the simplest and safest method for single lines and was already in use in the United Kingdom.[124] A train could not be despatched without a unique token, (the Train Staff) or written authority (the Ticket) ensuring the single line section ahead was clear. But the Victorian Railways got away with operating the single track Geelong line safely without Staff and Ticket only because traffic was light. Risk increased with busyness, but the old school managers failed to notice! It was to be many years and several serious accidents before this simple means of ensuring the safe operation of single lines was adopted. But in 1862 the colonial railways were still in their infancy.

Cobb & Co stagecoaches were still ascendant, their drivers accorded ‘King of the Road’ status.[125] Locomotive drivers were accorded similar status, and carried a great weight of responsibility for the safety of their trains. The preference by engineers for double lines like those to Sandhurst and Ballarat was as much about mitigating the risk of trains in opposing directions colliding as it was about building for the future. Double lines were the safest arrangement then available, but they remained prone to rear-end accidents, where one train caught up to and collided with a preceding train.

Rudimentary Signalling and the North Melbourne Accident

The colony’s early railways, whether double or single line, private and government owned, were equipped with the most rudimentary signals. Entrance to a station or junction might have no semaphore signal, as was the case at the Melbourne Railway Co.’s Punt Road junction. Other stations often had just one semaphore signal governing the whole yard. In the early decades a safe distance between trains was achieved by a time interval; the rule being that no train could follow another within five minutes.

The original Spencer Street Station circa 1870. The platform is parallel with the street, with tight curves leading to the mainline. Signals are rudimentary and all the turnouts are hand operated by ‘pointsmen’, but only four oil lamps are visible: the yard was a dangerous place at night. Beyer Peacock 2-4-0 No. 64 is posed in the foreground with four-wheeled carriages, and two 2-4-0 saddle tank locomotives are in the platform roads. The Engineer-in-Chief’s office is the building at the end of the platforms. PROV H1827.

The semaphore was set at Danger when a train was required to stop for passengers or other business. The signal remained at Danger while a train was stopped, and for five minutes after it was despatched. It was also placed at Danger for five minutes after a non-stopping train had passed. It was then lowered 45 degrees to Caution, where it had to remain for another five minutes. It dropped out of sight, into a slot in the signal post, to signify ‘All Right’. (At night, the equivalent signals were red, green and white.) In a few places where steep gradients posed the risk of one train catching up to the one in front, the time interval was set at 15 minutes.[126]

There was a semaphore at North Melbourne, but things got out of hand on 25th November 1862, only a month after the opening of the final section of the Sandhurst railway. That morning the Sandhurst train was delayed at Spencer Street, so a local Williamstown train was despatched first. The semaphore signal at North Melbourne was at Clear for the Sandhurst train, but the Williamstown train slowed and stopped to set down passengers. Just after it got underway again the stationmaster was alarmed to see the Sandhurst train bearing down ‘at a tremendous pace’, the driver thrashing his engine in an attempt to make up lost time.

Too late to cross to the opposite platform and set the signal to Danger, the stationmaster and some others hand-signalled the speeding train, but no notice was taken, and a few hundred yards further on its driver found himself overhauling the slowly accelerating Williamstown train. Speed was reduced by the action of hand brakes and reversing the engine, but a collision was inevitable. The brake van and some carriages of the Williamstown train were damaged, but everyone escaped with a severe jolting. The stationmaster was blamed but no change in safeworking procedures resulted. It is no surprise that this was not to be the last rear-end collision on double lines.[127]

Saddle tank locomotives at Spencer Street circa 1870. These were used primarily for Williamstown line trains. PROV H2711.

Rafferty’s Rules on the M&HBUR

There were safeworking rules on both the private and government railways, but much depended on drivers, guards and stationmasters. Rules were often ignored or forgotten to suit local circumstances. On the M&HBUR the rules may as well have been written by Rafferty! Things had become so lax by 1870 that the company was not even using the double line between Sandridge and Melbourne to separate Up and Down trains. They were running the double line as adjacent single lines, one for passenger and one for goods trains. The telegraph was largely ignored with trains being despatched by the time-table.

It all came undone at dusk on 25th May 1870. The 5.48 pm Down Sandridge passenger left Elizabeth Street three minutes late after its faulty engine had been replaced by the 2-4-0 tank engine ‘Hawthorn’, which had been taken off a ballast train. Driver William Decey on the ‘Hawthorn’ admitted that in his five years with the company he had never read all the rules. In the bustle of swapping engines, guard Michael Whelan forgot to put a tail light on the rear of the passenger train. Just four minutes after Decey’s train departed, driver Edward King was instructed to take the faulty locomotive ‘light engine’ to Sandridge, and was given the All Clear semaphore to follow the passenger train.

King had only one lamp and left it on the rear of his engine. Setting off without a head lamp in the gloomy and ‘greasy’ conditions – a heavy dew was settling on the rails – King could not see the passenger train ahead, as it had no tail light, and neither could his unlighted approach be seen! Furthermore, King was exceeding the 20 mph speed limit, as he was keen to reach Sandridge before the 6 pm Up passenger train departed. King’s ‘light engine’ movement was not in the timetable and he feared the driver of the Up train would depart before he cleared the line!

John Headbury, the gatekeeper at Ingles Street might have saved the day, but could not make out if the passenger train had left North Sandridge station, about 190 yards away, as it had no tail light. In fact driver Decey on the ‘Hawthorn’ was having trouble with his engine and was still stationary at North Sandridge, which had no Home signal to protect his train. Guard Whelan was still unaware his train had no tail light and so made no effort to protect his train with a red hand lamp.

Headbury had not been advised of the light engine movement and could not see King’s locomotive approaching until it was quite close as it had no head light. But he did hear King’s whistle and opened the gates just in time. As King sped past, Headbury threw up both hands in warning he was going too fast. He said he had no time to display a Caution signal with his hand lamp, but both King and his fireman said they saw him signal a green light. A green light signified Caution, but could also be taken to mean All Clear, a dangerous ambiguity that would not have helped King whether or not it had been displayed!

There was no semaphore signal at the Ingles Street crossing but Headbury was aware that the rules required him to show a red light from his hand lamp for three minutes after a train passed. He said he had never had occasion to do this, as there was never anything in the way, and in any case he could not hold up a red light for three minute or his arm would drop down! But King sensed something was wrong and began braking. Too late! Guard Whelan heard King’s engine whistling and quickly signalled driver Decey to start, but he had difficulty getting the ‘Hawthorn’ moving as it was slipping on the greasy rails. When King’s engine collided with the brakevan it had slowed to about 10 mph, but the impact shifted the carriage body 4½ inches off its underframe and injured six passengers, one sustaining a broken collarbone.

The M&HBUR management had King and Whelan charged, but at the trial it became evident the company was negligent on many scores. A pointsman gave evidence that he had known trains to run without tail lamps after sunset, which was partly due to the parsimony of the company. In previous years lamps had never been displayed on the 5.48 pm train, and an employee at St. Kilda had been fined 5 shillings for lighting a gas lamp a few minutes too soon, while porters and others were cautioned to save the candle ends and be very careful not to waste kerosene! Engines were frequently put into service with only one lamp, and King was held to be right in leaving his only lamp on the rear of the engine.

King explained that he had frequently seen an express carrying engineer Elsdon, company Secretary Finlayson and inspector Bennett steaming through level crossings at 30 mph, well in excess of the speed limit, which was 4 mph over level crossings! When asked if King’s light engine movement had been advised by telegraph, the company explained that while the running of a special train was always notified by telegraph, the movement of a light engine may not be! The Elizabeth Street stationmaster was meant to be on the platform supervising departures, ensuring trains had tail lights in place and recording all arrivals and departures in the train register book, but his duties elsewhere often made this impossible!

The judge acquitted King but fined Whelan £5 with a month to pay. The company received some very bad press to boot.[128] Just over a month later, on 4th June, a double length Saturday morning train for Brighton was delayed at the Swan Street Junction, Richmond. The points were changed before the last carriage was clear, causing it to tip over. Nobody was hurt and not much damage resulted, but the incident was unsettling, one journalist hypothesising that passengers on the Hobson’s Bay trains would soon have to take out life insurance![129]

The expansion of the private suburban and government trunk lines had been a feature of the first half of the 1860’s, with both private and public investment stalling in the second half. But English engineering standards and imported English equipment still held, albeit more frugally on the M&HBUR, which had grown by amalgamation. The private company’s parsimony had made it unpopular with its passengers and may have been the factor which stymied any further expansion. But both the private and government railways were still running trains in much the same haphazard manner throughout the 1860’s.

The wonder is there were not more accidents, but railwaymen from the Engineer-in-Chief to humble station porters knew no other way of working, and with light traffic and well-spaced trains the system functioned tolerably well. But expansion of the network and increased business would soon begin to force more disciplined operations, initially on Higinbotham’s single track North Eastern line. The Engineer-in-Chief had given way a little yet had largely deflected calls for cheap railways like those being made in South Australia. Nevertheless, a great debate was brewing and was soon to come to the boil.

High resolution versions of some of the photographs in this chapter may be found on Smugmug


end notes

  1. Age, 18 May 1860, p. 5.
  2. Leo J. Harrigan, Victorian Railways to ’62, Melbourne, 1962, p. 80.
  3. Papers Relating to the Chewton Station, Railway Breaks, etc., Victorian Parliamentary Papers (VPP), 1864-65, A 22. p. 3.
  4. ibid, p. 4.
  5. Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly upon Railways, VPP 1857, No. D 37. p. 40.
    Geoff Browne, ‘William Austin Zeal’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 12, MUP, 1990.
    Age, 25 November 1893, p. 13. Zeal’s evidence in the Speight v. Syme case. Over forty years since leaving England, this account is unreliable. The Great Western Railway did not run through Westbury at the time, and he was only one of several engineers supervising construction of the Sandhurst line. His evidence to the 1857 Select Committee is almost certainly more accurate.
  6. Chewton Station, Railway Breaks, etc. VPP 1863-64, pp. 3-4.
    Report from the Select Committee on Railway Contracts, VPP 1864-65, D 20. pp. 3-9.
  7. Kathleen Thompson and Geoffrey Serle. A Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament 1859-1900, Canberra, 1972, pp. 234-5.
  8. Chewton Station, Railway Breaks, etc. VPP 1863-64, p. 2.
  9. Railway Contracts VPP 1864-65, Q. 38, p. 4.
  10. Chewton Station, Railway Breaks, etc. VPP 1863-64, p. 3.
  11. ibid, pp. 2-4.
  12. Harrigan, p. 82.
  13. Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the year Ended 31 December 1865, VPP 2nd Session 1866, No. 11. Appendices B and D, pp. 21-22. Total cost of viaducts £684,000, plus £90,000 for the Saltwater River (see Harrigan, p. 18). Total cost of construction, both lines, £7,051,626.
  14. ibid, p. 82.
    Matthew J. Murray, Memories: Notes of a lecture to the Historical Society of Victoria 25th June 1917, Melbourne, 1973, p. 23. Mentions that Elphinstone alone cost £37,000.
  15. Harrigan, p. 82.
  16. Select Committee on Railway Extension, VPP 1864-65, D 24, p. 14. Pollard’s evidence.
  17. Select Committee on Railway Extension, VPP 1869, D 10, Q. 299.
  18. Railway Department First Report of the Board of Land and Works, VPP 1859-60, No. 26, p. 4.
  19. Age, 12 March 1859, p. 5. Contract for Sunbury £11,743.
    Railway Department First Report…, VPP 1859-60, No. 26, p. 11. Contract for Williamstown £12,064.
  20. ibid, p. 6.
  21. Argus, 21 March 1861, p. 6; 25 July 1861, p. 5.
  22. Victorian Farmers Journal and Gardeners Chronicle, 2 February 1861, p. 27.
  23. Bendigo Advertiser, 15 March 1861, p. 2. For a time Sunbury station was a tent.
    Victorian Railways: Report … November 1862. VPP 1864-65, No. 45, p. 15
  24. Railway Stations, VPP 1864-65, C 21. Sunbury station actually cost £24,126. The cost was not so much in the building, but in the station yard, for it served as a terminus for three years.
    Age, 1 December 1893, p. 6. Darbyshire was criticised for extravagance like the tooled margins on the bluestone platform coping.
  25. Victorian Parliamentary Debates (VPD), 1871, Vol. 13, p. 1515. Figure quoted by W.A.C. a’Beckett.
  26. Chewton Station, Railway Breaks, etc. VPP 1863-64, p. 2.
  27. Railway Extension, VPP 1964-65, D 24, p. 140. W.A. Zeal in a question to Pollard.
  28. Argus, 24 March 1853, p. 9.
  29. Victorian Railways: Report …31 December 1864, VPP 1864-65, No. 48, Appendices 2, p. 20.
  30. Railway Extension, VPP 1964-65, D24, p. 14. W.A. Zeal in a question to Pollard.
  31. ibid, Q. 138, p. 167. Pollard’s evidence. The basis of this estimate was the single storey bluestone station and goods shed at Little River, which cost £4,790.
  32. Railway Stations, VPP 1864-65, C 21. The gross cost of fourteen stations is given in this return, All but four of them (Diggers Rest, Sunbury, Lancefield Road [Clarkfield] and Riddell’s Creek) are two storey buildings, with an average of £8,000 each. Ballarat East cost £22,519. Every station in the return, except Sunbury, was designed while Thomas Higinbotham was Engineer-in-Chief.
    Age, 1 December 1893, p. 6. Cross examination of George Christian Darbyshire.
  33. Railway Stations, VPP 1864-65. Q. 227. William Elsdon gave evidence that the Raglan Street station, built in brick and including the stationmasters quarters, cost £600.
    Railway Extension, VPP 1969, Q. 690. Henry Mais’ evidence on the South Australian Railways.
  34. Report from the Select Committee on the Colac Railway, VPP 1867, D.11, Q. 256. Evidence of Robert Watson.
  35. Bendigo Advertiser, 6 October 1862, p. 2. Line due to be complete by Thursday 9th.
    Argus, 14 October 1862, p. 6. This train was carrying rails and included a few passenger carriages for a group if officials, including Thomas Higinbotham.
    Harrigan, p. 84. The official opening with visitors stranded overnight.
  36. Report of the English engineers consulting by direction of the late government on the subject of rails, etc., and the rolling stock of the North Eastern Railway, VPD 1870, Vol. 10, p. 1.
  37. Railway Extension, VPP 1869, D 10, p. 81. Evidence of Thomas Higinbotham on 8 July 1869, Q. 23, p. 1.
  38. Harrigan, p. 47.
    Murray, p. 9. Shows double headed rail at Richmond laid by the M&SR.
  39. Victorian Railways, Diagram of Gradients and Curves, (Melbourne, 1927). The Melbourne – Bendigo and Geelong – Ballarat lines compared with the Bendigo- Echuca and Essendon – Seymour lines.
  40. Other rail over road bridges were made at Huntly and Benson Road, Echuca.
    Herald, 7 April 1864, p. 2. Quoting the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral “If you are looking for a monument, look around you”.
  41. Victorian Railways: Report…31 December 1865, VPP 2nd Session 1866, No. 11, Appendices 2, pp. 14-15.
  42. Herald, 8 April 1864, p. 2.
  43. Argus, 26 August 1864, p. 6.
    Victorian Railways: Report …31 December 1864, VPP 1864-65, No. 48, p. 11.
  44. Geoffrey Serle, The Rush to be Rich, Melbourne University Press, 1971, p. 81.
  45. Herald, 8 April 1864, p. 2.
  46. Charles Parkinson, George Higinbotham, Melbourne University Law Review 181, 2001.
    Gwyneth Dow, ‘George Higinbotham’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 4, MUP, 1972.
    H.G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, Volume II, 1854-1900, (London, 1904), p. 123.
  47. Herald, 8 April 1864, p. 2.
  48. Argus, 26 August 1864, p. 6.
  49. Evidence taken at the Bar of the Legislative Council on the Railway Bill, VPP 1871, D 4, p. 30.
  50. Argus, 14 December 1881, p. 10.
  51. Age, 7 May 1856, p. 2.
  52. Select Committee upon Victorian Water Supply, VPP 1869, D 6, p.xiii, finding 5.
  53. Argus, 11 April 1866, p 7
  54. Bendigo Advertiser, 16 April 1866, p. 3. Quoting the Riverine Herald, published in Echuca.
  55. Age, 1 May 1866, p. 7.
  56. Railway Extension, VPP 1964-65, D 24, p. 14.
    Harrigan, p. 16.
  57. Select Committee on Railways, VPP 1871, D 5, Q. 1406.
  58. Evidence taken at the Bar, VPP 1871, D 4, p. 28.
  59. Select Committee on Railways, VPP 1871, D 5, Q. 1409.
  60. Railway Extension, VPP 1869, D 10, Q. 89.
  61. ibid, Questions 290-293.
    E.E. Morris, Memoir of George Higinbotham, London, 1895, p. 40.
  62. Age, 1 December 1893, p. 6. Cross examination of Charles Wm. Lawson in the Speight vs. Syme case.
  63. Victorian Railways: Report…30 June 1875. VPP 1875-76, No. 62, Appendix 3, pp. 19-20.
  64. Report of the Select Committee on the Railways of the Colony, Queensland Parliamentary Papers, 1866, Vol. 9, No. 38, 4 October 1866. Appendix M. This is a letter from Thomas Higinbotham to the Select Committee of the Queensland Parliament (before which he gave evidence on 20 August 1866). Average cost per mile, including stations, pier, goods sheds, workshops and all other works, but exclusive of rolling stock was put at £32,893. Average cost of the 56 mile Sandhurst to Echuca line was put at £9,670, excluding rolling stock. Rolling stock was valued at £605,500, or, £2,384 per mile.
  65. N.S.W. railways 143 miles, S.A. railways 56 miles. Other colonies nil.
  66. Department of Railways NSW, The Railways of New South Wales 1855-1955, Sydney, 1955, p. 37.
  67. VPD, 1868, Vol. 6, p. 883. Stated by Mr. Jones.
  68. Railway Extension, VPP 1864-65, D 24, Evidence of Thomas Higinbotham, pp. 2-4.
  69. ibid. pp. 12-15 and Recommendations. The Committee was strongly influenced by W.A. Zeal.
  70. ibid. p. 1. Report Findings.
  71. Thompson and Serle, pp. 234-5. Zeal later re-entered Parliament and had a distinguished career.
  72. Railway Extension, 1964-65, D24, p. 27.
  73. ibid, p. 17.
  74. Report of the Survey of the Woodend portions of the proposed North Eastern line of Railway VPP 1867, C 39. Copy of a letter from the Engineer-in-Chief to the Commissioner of Railways 21 May 1867.
  75. Memoranda on Railway Extension in Victoria, VPP 1868, A 13. Copy of a letter from the Engineer-in-Chief to the Commissioner of Railways, 2 September 1868, pp. 1-2.
  76. Railway Extension, VPP 1869, D 10, Q. 2538.
  77. VPD, 1868, Vol. 6, pp. 850, 866.
  78. Thompson and Seale, pp. 234-5.
  79. Argus, 12 December 1868, p. 5; 17 December 1868, p. 5.
  80. VPD, 1868, Vol. 4. p. 850. Speech by Hon. James McCulloch.
  81. ibid, p. 884.
  82. Correspondence in Relation to the Recent Construction and Working of Railways in England and Elsewhere, VPP 1869, No. 41. Letter from Jones to Thomas Higinbotham, 3 September 1868. The positions and titles of the Commissioner of Railways and the Minister of Railways were synonymous throughout this period and were used interchangeably.
  83. Recent Construction and Working, VPP 1869, No. 41, Thomas Higinbotham’s letter of 12 October 1868, and Jones’ letter of 13 October 1868.
  84. ibid, Archibald Sturrock’s letter.
  85. VPD, 1869, Vol. 7. The Cabinet is listed at the front of the volume.
  86. ibid, p. 755.
  87. ibid, p. 870.
  88. Recent Construction and Working, VPP 1869, No. 41, Higinbotham’s letter 28 May 1869.
  89. Railway Extension, VPP 1869, D 10, Q. 62.
  90. G. Smith, ‘Early Days of the Sydney Railway Company’ ARHS Bulletin, No. 159 (January 1951), p. 13, and No. 160 (February, 1951), p. 25.
  91. Age, 2 December 1893, p. 13. Mais’ evidence in the Speight v. Syme case.
    Sally O’Neill, ‘ Henry Coathupe Mais’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 5, MUP, 1974.
    Australasian, 30 April 1904, p. 34. Refers to Mais working with Cornish and Bruce.
  92. Railway Extension, VPP 1869, D 10, Questions 591-607, 711, 725, 727.
  93. ibid, Questions 672-689.
  94. ibid, Questions 696 -704.
    Argus, 21 June 1869, p. 6.
  95. Railway Extension, VPP 1869, D10, p. v (findings) and p. 28-34 (Zeal’s evidence).
  96. Geoffrey Bartlett, ‘James Macpherson Grant’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 4, MUP, 1974.
  97. VPD, Vol. 9, p. 1990. Francis Longmore, Minister for railways and Roads, when introducing the Second Reading of the Essendon and Upper Murray Construction Bill on 20 October 1869.
  98. ibid, p. 2057. Speech by Mr. Jenner when introducing the Second Reading of the Bill to the Legislative Council on 27 October. He said ‘…it is the wish of the Government …not to exceed £7,000 per mile…The Engineer-in-Chief has recommended that the cost should be £9,050 per mile…but he admits now that (savings) will reduce the cost to about £7,225 per mile altogether…’
  99. Evidence taken at the Bar, VPP 1871, D 4, p. 33.
  100. Age, 7 May 1870, p. 2.
  101. Argus, 17 December 1863, p. 5.
  102. Argus, 11 March 1904, p. 6.
  103. Argus, 14 September 1880, p. 6.
  104. Argus, 11 November 1859, p. 5. Also see Chapter 1 regarding this line.
  105. Murray, p. 8.
  106. Harrigan, pp. 46-48.
  107. Age, 26 November 1862, p. 5.
  108. On the South Australian Railways they became E10 and E13.
  109. Harrigan, pp. 65-67.
    Argus, 28 February 1861, p. 1; 30 June 1864, p. 6.
    Age, 3 September 1864, p. 4.
  110. Harrigan, pp. 48, 56, 58.
  111. Argus, 2 October 1866, p. 5.
  112. Argus, 3 June 1863, p. 5; 25 January 1866, p. 4.
  113. Argus, 5 February 1874, p. 6.
  114. Betty Malone, ‘Thomas Turner а’Beckett’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 3, MUP, 1969.
  115. Argus, 17 October 1873, p. 4.
  116. Argus, 5 February 1874, p. 6.
  117. Age, 7 May 1870, p. 2.
  118. Herald, 9 May 1862, p. 5.
    Harrigan, p. 52.
  119. Norman Cave, John Buckland and David Beardsell, Steam Locomotives of the Victorian Railways Volume 1: The First Fifty Years, Melbourne, 2002. pp. 11, 14.
  120. Herald, 23 May 1862, p. 5.
  121. Ballarat Star, 8 August 1866, p. 2.
  122. Victorian Railways: Report ..31 December 1878, VPP 1879-80, No. 9, p. 26, Appendix 2.
  123. Herald, 27 May 1862, p. 5.
    Argus, 14 June 1862, p. 5.
    Harrigan, p. 48.
  124. Launceston Examiner, 25 April 1865, p. 3.
  125. K.A. Austin, The Lights of Cobb & Co, Sydney, 1976, pp. 139-143.
  126. C.D. Gavan Duffy, The Block System in Victoria, ARHS Bulletin, No. 281, March, 1961, p. 43.
  127. Herald, 27 November 1862, p. 5; 24 December 1862, p. 6.
  128. Argus, 6 May 1870, p. 6; 7 May 1870, p. 6.
    Age, 7 May 1870, p. 2.
  129. Age, 6 June 1870, p. 2.