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The Royal Visit of 1901 a Railway Triumph

The Royal Visit of 1901 highlighted the remarkable progress made by the Australian railways in general, and Victoria’s in particular. Just 33 years earlier, still within the careers of many railwaymen, the Duke of Edinburgh had been bounced around Victoria in small four-wheeled carriages drawn by imported locomotives on an embryonic network of 254 miles. The whole Royal Train of 1901 from powerful engine to brakevan was locally designed and constructed to exemplary standards, with carriages the equal of any in the world.

The planning and operation of rail services was first class. This was also perfectly demonstrated during the Royal Visit of 1901, when a sudden change of plans demanded the provision of three Royal Trains on three railway systems of three different rail gauges between Melbourne and Brisbane, and the mobilisation of thousands of men at very short notice to guard the line of over 1,300 miles, one man being placed as a picket every quarter mile.[1]

That Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane were linked by railway was itself a reminder of the crucial part railways had played in instigating the push for federation in 1883, when the first intercolonial link was made at Albury. For the railways, the Royal Trains of 1901 were a managerial, engineering, manufacturing, communications and operations triumph that marked their coming of age.

James Wallace and the Break-of-Gauge Blunder

But it was a flawed railway network as each state had a different track gauge! This was not meant to happen, as the need for uniform gauge was well and truly appreciated by engineers and was official policy. That did not worry James Wallace, who persuaded the ignorant directors of the Sydney Railway Company and the NSW Legislative Council to adopt 4’8½” gauge in spite of the Colonial Office’s ruling that 5’3” gauge should be adopted in Britain’s antipodean colonies.

There was no other railway engineer of note in Sydney to consult. Governor FitzRoy therefore countermanded the Colonial Secretary in London, assuming the governors of Victoria and South Australia would defer to his senior status. But due to a combination of infuriatingly slow communications, the chaos of the gold rush and strong contrary advice from their own railway engineers, Victoria and South Australia adhered to the ruling of the Colonial Secretary.

Short sighted politicians might be forgiven for not being unduly concerned about uniform railway gauge, for as Blainey points out, colonial Australia had ‘many isolated economies, each with a main port and hinterland’, and intercolonial ‘cargoes could travel more cheaply by sea than railway…’ [2] But railway engineers had no excuse. With tens of thousand miles of line already laid in North America and Europe, they knew the joining of the colonies by railway was inevitable.

The cost of rectifying the mistake would have been manageable, partly due to Wallace’s incompetence. In a typically headstrong decision, he had stipulated the whole length of the Sydney to Parramatta railway be laid with unproven Barlow rail. Within a few years this had to be pulled up and relaid with conventional track. Converting the gauge at the same time would have required only a marginal extra cost. Both New Zealand and Tasmania altered the gauge of their first railways. While the locomotive and rolling stock fleet was still small, conversion or replacement costs were manageable. But it was not to be, and serious efforts to unify railway gauges between the capital cities did not begin until the 1920’s and were not completed until 1995.

Private Railways Thwarted by the Melbourne Establishment

The first railways in the Australian colonies began as private companies, all authorised by government legislation. But most quickly failed, their collapse primarily due to their adoption of expensive British engineering. The choice of wrought iron and masonry bridges doomed the Melbourne Mount Alexander & Murray River Railway Co., (MMA&MRR), the Melbourne Suburban and the Sydney Railway Co. The Hobsons Bay Railway Co., on the other hand, crossed the Yarra on a simple timber bridge and thrived.

The Geelong and Melbourne Railway (G&MR) also eschewed expensive bridges and stations and might have thrived with their planned extension to the goldfields. But Melbourne merchants were apprehensive of their Geelong competitors cornering trade to Ballarat. Using their control of the unelected Legislative Council, Melbourne interests thwarted the expansion of the G&MR, and formed a pliant committee dominated by military engineers with no commercial sense to recommend a new railway policy. The colony’s financial difficulties that led to the Eureka rebellion made Governor Hotham hesitant about taking on the burden of railway building, but the vested interests on his Legislative Council had few qualms.

The committee’s recommendations were biased to costly British engineering standards beyond the means of private companies. Their recommendation that the government finance the line to the Murray River was initially rejected, but within months South Australian rivermen opened the Murray to navigation. The spectre of paddle steamers from South Australia supplying the Bendigo diggers and returning downstream with Victorian wool was alarming. The Melbourne establishment panicked, fearing the Murray would become the Mississippi of Australia, with South Australia syphoning or ‘stealing’ trade and Goolwa becoming another New Orleans.

The persuasive advocacy of Captain Andrew Clarke then swayed his Legislative Council colleagues, who stymied competition from both South Australia and Geelong by nationalising the MMA&MRR and the G&MR. This foray into ‘colonial socialism’ occurred a decade before the publication of Marx’s Das Kapital, and delayed the extension of railways to Western Victoria. Meanwhile, British funded private railways flourished in Argentina, a country and economy then not unlike Victoria.

George Darbyshire and Solid Engineering

Clarke was a military engineer and in his role as Surveyor General and member of the appointed Legislative Council, he convinced the government to build the goldfields main lines to very solid British engineering standards. He appointed George Darbyshire as Engineer-in-Chief of the infant Victorian Railways. Clark returned to England leaving Darbyshire to engineer the goldfields main lines to the standard stipulated by the government.

Darbyshire was a capable surveyor and engineer and saved money by specifying gradients which were among the steepest in the British Empire, and adopting timber construction for all the station buildings.[3] His provision of double track was a wise safety precaution for steeply graded busy lines in the days of very rudimentary train braking and haphazard train dispatching. The invention of telegraph block safeworking and continuous train brakes was still decades away.

With Clark gone, David Syme as editor of The Age blamed Darbyshire for the perceived excessive expenditure on the goldfields main lines. After his resignation in 1860, Darbyshire twice returned to the railways, and during the Speight regime had much to do with the design and construction of the ‘Octopus Act’ branch lines. Syme then continued his misguided campaign to discredit him. But these lines were not excessively engineered, and economies were plain to see – simple stations and timber bridges abounded, and sleeper spacing and ballast were almost parsimonious, as was later discovered when poorly balanced locomotives were introduced.

Darbyshire’s successor as Engineer-in-Chief was Thomas Higinbotham. He was even more firmly wedded to British engineering. His station buildings were excessive, as was his rebuilding of the G&MR line after its takeover. But the substantially engineered goldfields main lines quickly became the well-used corridors. As the railway network expanded north and west, these main lines funnelled the growing traffic to the seaboard. For a hundred years the line to Bendigo was the Victorian Railways ‘Main Line’, eventually providing the most ideal high speed Regional Fast Rail route, as it was the only line really suited to sustained 160kph operation. If it was a mistake, it was a most fortunate one!

Francis Longmore and Cheap Railways

The railways were the main engine of the colonial economy, and their control was vital to both the radical liberal and conservative agendas. The tussle over control of the railways was fiercest during the 1870’s and early 1880’s, with two Irishmen head to head. Francis Longmore was the first really effective political head and was a vitally important figure in Victoria’s early railway development. Twice Minister of Railways, his passion was to open the wheatlands for selector farmers, and he was determined to get new lines cheaply built so he could squeeze the maximum mileage out of available capital funds.

At a time when the American civil war and postwar reconstruction was curtailing the export of American light railway technology, the imagined economies of narrow gauge became Longmore’s ace card. The specter of break-of-gauge stations within a hundred miles of Melbourne forced fellow Irishman Higinbotham to abandon all his British engineering sensibilities except the preservation of a uniform broad gauge. This he achieved by single handedly convincing the Legislative Council to retain broad gauge.

But Longmore’s Railway Construction bill ushered in the construction of cheap light lines, and a quest to find locomotives suitable to work them. Efforts to find a balance between the first cost of laying down new lines and their subsequent efficient operation continued for thirty years as the network of branch lines grew. There were diminishing returns from a purely railway accounting viewpoint, but it was generally recognised that railways stimulated agricultural production and economic development.

Longmore forced reluctant railway engineers to find ways of making railways cheaply, thereby succeeding in the opening up the wheat industry, as hundreds of miles of light lines penetrated the wheat country, even during the depression of the 1890s. Dunsdorfs concludes that ‘the railways began to play a prominent role by opening up new wheat land further into the interior. In the seventies the continuous expansion of the wheat growing area despite declining yield resulted in a permanent surplus … which could be exported outside Australia.’ [4]

William Meikle: Father of Victorian Locomotive Manufacture

Longmore removed locomotives and rolling stock from Higinbotham’s domain. His selection of William Meikle as Overseer of Locomotives and Workshops was a key to making the light lines workable. Meikle was a good choice and became the father of the Victorian locomotive industry. His first two designs for the North Eastern line were practical, and led to the establishment of the Phoenix Foundry in Ballarat as the major locomotive builder for the colony. His encouragement of budding young engineers through the establishment of a School of Design at Williamstown is noteworthy, as was his management of his new Branch through seven turbulent years.

Meikle rose to the challenge to design the first locomotives for the light lines while constrained by protectionist policies and an impossibly tight timeframe. They had to be powerful enough to haul decent loads, but light enough not to damage the flimsy track. Two designs were hurriedly produced, but the locomotives were too heavy and moved with a disconcerting oscillation. Nicknamed ‘Buzzwinkers’ after a notorious Ballarat woman, they were acceptable at low speeds but became track wreckers when driven fast by drivers over whom Meikle had no control.

These engines were pilloried by his engineering peers, but the four other designs he subsequently produced for light lines were quite sound. He became the scapegoat for the inadequacies of Longmore’s light lines, but took the criticism graciously. His wonderful send-off providing ample evidence of his colleagues respect.

Higinbotham’s Enduring Legacy

Higinbotham was constantly criticised for preferring solid, and therefore expensive construction. But despite manipulating the provision of adequate funds to engineer the North Eastern main line to a good standard, he made the line for a cost only a quarter that of the goldfields main lines. Its earthworks, bridges and stations were frugal, and only a single track was laid. But he made provision for the duplication he knew must come. The line soon became the busiest and most profitable in Victoria, and duplication commenced a decade after its opening.

Higinbotham’s preparedness to abandon his British standards to preserve uniform gauge, then to recognise the superiority of American locomotives for light lines prove him to be anything but pig-headed. His integrity was unquestioned but the undermining of his authority by Longmore’s successor John Woods was a bitter pill. Woods blamed Higinbotham for curtailing his engineering career. He courted a couple Higinbotham’s ambitious subordinates to keep him appraised of developments and counter the Engineer-in-Chief’s plans for a city terminal. Higinbotham’s vehement opposition to Woods’ intention to expand the Melbourne Yard made his dismissal on ‘Black Wednesday’ 1878 inevitable.

Higinbotham planned to bring the Gippsland main line into Melbourne via an Outer Circle line which would link into a major new passenger terminal near St Francis’ church. It made financial and operational sense in the mid 1870’s. The plan adopted by Woods involved the expense of developing the constrained sites at Spencer and Flinders Street Stations, their linking by the Flinders Street viaduct and the purchase of the private Hobson’s Bay lines. Once that course was set, the subsequent building of the Outer Circle made no sense at all, but by then Higinbotham was dead, worn out at sixty one.

Thomas Higinbotham’s legacy is profound. Without him, Victoria would have certainly created a mishmash of railway gauges with lines built to absurdly cheap standards, as occurred in neighboring South Australia. Single handed at the eleventh hour, he convinced the Legislative Council to retain a uniform railway gauge. He then labored to ensure light lines built to the uniform gauge were a success and could be economically worked. This saved generations of Victorian governments and taxpayers untold expense, but while his brother George is remembered for his legislative and legal reforms, Tom Higinbotham has been practically forgotten.

Woods: Engineer and Politician

Woods had worked as a railway engineer and was better informed about railway operation and management than any Minister before or since. He promoted men to do his bidding in each branch, including Solomon Mirls in the locomotive branch and the ambitious Robert Grey Ford to the new senior position of Engineer for Construction. Those who opposed him, including the incorruptible Higinbotham, were sacked.

Woods quickly grasped the need for a railway telegraph network and safe methods for dispatching trains, especially on single lines. But he had the misfortune to be Minister during the financial strictures of Graham Berry’s government without supply. He saw the need for continuous train brakes, and ‘invented’ one of his own, but it was really made workable by Mirls and his staff. It was cheap to fit and a big advance in train safety, but it was crude in its application and plagiarised elements of the internationally renowned Westinghouse brake, which had yet to be patented in Victoria.

Woods could not resist the temptation to micro manage his department, and sometimes made impetuous decisions, overriding his senior managers. He was a lifelong advocate of light railways, but only if they were the only way of providing transport to remote communities. He steered his radical colleagues away from ultra-light or narrow gauge lines and directed money into extra rolling stock and terminal facilities.

He was quick to see the potential of the American ‘Ten Wheeler’ locomotive, and against his protectionist friends he saw to it that a few were obtained for evaluation. Had they arrived a decade earlier, the success of light railways would have been guaranteed from the outset. British engineering prejudice has blinded the colonists to their worth.

Thomas Bent’s Pragmatic Contribution

Thomas Bent succeeded Woods as Minister of Railways. He connived with his predecessor to allow the continued installation of the Woods brake, personally gaining as a shareholder. Woods was a constant presence in the railway offices during Bent’s Ministry, as Bent knew practically nothing about railways and looked to Woods for advice. In his bluff and high handed manner, Bent ordered modern locomotives and carriages from English and American builders, defying the ascendant protectionist mood. He solved infighting among his engineers by the golden handshake, transfer to other departments and dismissal.

Bent courted political support by introducing a colossal railway constriction bill. With branch lines reaching into every electorate, some wit dubbed it an octopus bill. It was blatant log rolling and failed to pass. But under his watch cronyism and the whiff of corruption became disturbingly apparent. Then two fatal train wrecks occurred within months of each other, prompting urgent calls for management reform. So unwittingly, Bent delivered the coup de grâce to political control of the railways. It was probably his major contribution!

Solomon Mirls: Underrated Mechanical Engineer

Mirls owed his position as Locomotive Superintendent to Woods, who extended him favours and used him to advance ‘his’ brake. Mirls and his artisans were the real developers of the brake. Although he lacked professional qualifications, Mirls was nevertheless a competent enough engineer. His carriage designs were good for their day, and the ‘X’ class locomotive designed under his supervision for local manufacture was the best and most powerful yet delivered. The American ‘Ten Wheeler’ locomotive he adapted for local production was not as successful, although fit for purpose.

Mirls’ greatest concern was the inadequate Williamstown workshops, but his urgent appeals for improvements were ignored. He was gentle with his men, perhaps to a fault, as discipline was lax and things were getting dangerous as traffic density grew. His enormous funeral cortege was in part due to genuine affection, but also a veiled protest against the very necessary disciplinary action taken by his assistant, Allison Smith.

The Victorian Railways: World First Statutory Corporation

Prior to 1883 the political head of the Railway Department had changed over thirty times. With the exception of Woods, all of these men struggled to grasp the complexity of the railway business. By 1883 the railway had grown too large and complex even for the old brigade of managers. Where once they had understood its components and workings in their heads, and been personally acquainted with most of the employees, it was now beyond intuitive management. Furthermore, protectionist policies and political control had made the Railway Department a technological backwater by 1883. This was starkly evident by the trains from Sydney and Melbourne that met for the first time at Albury that year. The serious accidents at Jolimont and Hawthorn also exposed alarming safety issues, and led to the recruitment of a professional manager.

The statutory corporation established by the Railway Management Act of 1883 was a world first. Richard Speight was recruited from the Midland Railway in England to become the first Chairman of Commissioners. Under his management the Victorian Railways underwent a radical transformation, enabled by a flourishing colonial economy. Speight convinced politicians of the need for a program of ‘new works’ to enhance the neglected core of the network. These endured for upwards of seventy years.

Responsibility for the ‘Octopus Act’

The vast expansion of the network authorised in 1884 at the same time as the ‘new works’ was not Speight’s doing. Nevertheless, he was made the scapegoat for the burden of interest payment incurred by building dozens of ‘cockspur’ branch lines. The authorisation of these ‘Octopus Act’ lines in 1884 was squarely the responsibility of the politicians, and nothing could have deterred them. When a parliamentary committee was subsequently appointed to investigate over 5,000 miles of proposed new lines in 1890, it took several years and held hundreds of meetings all over the colony, yet they still managed to recommend some poor investments. Speight and his officers had neither time nor resources for such an exercise.

The ‘Octopus Act’ lines were engineered responsibly, with a view to their ongoing efficient operation, but The Age singled out George Darbyshire for supposed excesses. But old George was untouchable, disarmingly confident in his decisions, even to his earlier engineering of the Bendigo and Ballarat lines. He was proved right in the longer term. As for extravagant standards for building, this was another beat-up by The Age, as any perusal of the station facilities, track and bridges, reveals.

The cost overruns were more a function of Land Boom price increases in an overheated economy. The large acreages purchased for some stations were due to greedy land owners determined to milk the public purse for every penny at a time before compulsory land acquisition had been legislated. Maryborough station is held up as a famous example of engineering extravagance, but it was in the Premier’s electorate. Duncan Gillies is primarily responsible. Station facilities were generally moderate and some were downright austere.

Speight’s Reforms and Achievements

Speight was quick to put a stop to political cronyism in the recruitment of employees, by introducing entrance exams, and he immediately recognised the need for strict adherence to train operating rules, which were often flouted under the supervision of Mirls and the Traffic manager, John Anderson. He was diplomatic in his dealings with these officers, both of whom were popular with the men, but were in failing health and reluctant to adopt efficiency improvements. Speight appointed assistants who would succeed them. He was also diplomatic with politicians and unionists. He was often accused of politely deflecting requests for additional train services and enhanced facilities, and yet he is remembered as caving in to political pressure, most notably to Bent’s request for additional services on the Brighton line.

Protectionism had prevented the adoption of modern locomotives and rolling stock. Further, there was a profusion of different classes, very few sharing common parts. Speight moved to correct this by obtaining plans for five new English locomotive designs with interchangeable and standardised parts. He also found it necessary to look to free trade South Australia for carriage designs for the new Adelaide Express. He recruited Victor Siepen from the South Australian Railways to assist in the rolling stock design office, which soon became a leader among the seven colonies, with all the new locomotives and carriages built locally.

Speight’s choice of Allison Smith as Assistant Locomotive Superintendent was a good one. But he earned the ire of unionists and labor members of parliament, resentful of discipline and his sometimes abrasive manner. Allison Smith probably holds some sort of record for the public servant most repeatedly attacked under parliamentary privilege, but he was instrumental in providing a new ‘National Workshops’ at Newport. His impressive locomotive depots were among the best in the railway industry.

Speight and Smith were working to replace obsolete locomotives, carriages and trucks with modern high capacity vehicles with standardised features. The scrapping of the obsolete stock was much misunderstood and criticised, especially by men with a bone to pick. Syme became their advocate. He focused his newspaper’s attention on alleged railway ‘mismanagement’ and excesses instead of going after the real Land Boom rogues that brought the colony to its knees in 1892.

Speight’s Fight with David Syme

Speight was distracted by the attacks of The Age, and instead of remaining cool he sought to defend his reputation. He was slow to make necessary service and staff cuts as the economy began to fail. Like many at the time, he underestimated the seriousness looming financial collapse. The Shiels government, heavily influenced by Syme, forced Speight’s resignation. Rather than accept a position in another railway jurisdiction, he made the unwise decision to fight Syme in the courts at the most inopportune time imaginable.

Speight was indeed libeled multiple times, despite only one charge being ‘proved’ with an insulting pittance awarded as damages. The drawn out legal proceedings cost him his fortune, as the case did not hang on the truth or otherwise of The Age’s allegations. The legal issue was about what constituted a newspaper’s right to publish ‘fair comment’, defined as what ‘a reasonable man’ might honestly conclude from his observations, even if he was in error. The jury found that none of The Age’s charges against Speight were substantially correct.

The preposterous allegation by the defence barrister James Purves that Speight should be blamed for the 1890’s Depression was typical of his below the belt courtroom tactics, prejudicially reported daily in the defendants newspaper. But it influenced the juries, both at the time and ever since, in the courtroom of history. Moving to Western Australia, Speight salvaged his reputation but not his wealth, and died before he could make his mark as the Member for North Perth. He was arguably the greatest railway manager in colonial Australasia.

Allison Smith’s Dismissal: a Miscarriage of Justice

Allison Smith was also forced out of the railways following libels by The Age. Once Speight resigned, he no longer had a free hand to direct the Locomotive Branch, and soon fell foul of the new Acting Commissioner, William Kibble. Both men had abrasive personalities and had some fiery clashes. Smith understood the need achieve efficiency improvements with modern rolling stock. But Kibble was not an engineer and had a myopic view of efficiency. With Kibble and union discontents determined to get rid of him, the government instituted an inquiry into the Locomotive Branch.

In all but name it was a criminal trial of Allison Smith, but without a charge it was a gross miscarriage of justice. Finally, Smith was retrenched but did not go quietly. He sued Syme and without a private fortune and unassisted by legal counsel, he achieved rough justice, proving a libel and inflicting a severe blow on the newspaper man’s finances. Moving to Western Australia, he found work but never recovered his railway career.

The Reattempt at Political Control

The demise of Speight and Allison Smith came in a similar manner to Higinbotham’s two decades earlier, with politicians and journalists seeking out disgruntled subordinate officers for ammunition to use against them. Syme achieved his objective of reasserting political control. Richard Richardson, the new Minister and admirer of The Age, was determined to be boss.

With the depression biting hard, retrenchments and service reductions were mandatory. Richardson’s hatchet man was Kibble, whose short sighted views had led him to white-ant Speight’s efforts to create new export opportunities for the dairy and meat industries, and also to oppose Allison Smith’s policy of replacing obsolete small trucks and carriages with larger and standardised designs.

Richardson’s tenure only lasted a year, his attempts at micro-management even exasperating Kibble and finally putting paid to the notion that the political management was feasible. But the miserably underpaid Acting Commissioners were retained for four years in a desperate effort to cut costs. All to no avail, as railway finances remained in free fall with revenue declining faster than costs.

Furthermore, the attacks by The Age did not staunch demand for new railways. The Shiels government appointed a Standing Committee on Railways that included the very men most critical of the Speight administration: William Zeal, Woods and Bent. Yet they proved themselves less able to resist pressure for works of dubious benefit than professional managers. Woods died before the bank crashes, and Bent lost his seat, but Zeal, by then the ‘genial autocrat’ of the Legislative Council, re-emerged as a powerful narrow gauge crusader.

Revival under John Mathieson

Four years after Speight’s removal, the Victorian government finally appointed his replacement. John Mathieson gained his railway experience in Scotland before being appointed Commissioner of the Queensland Railways. Taking the reins in Victoria he did not have the free hand enjoyed by Speight. Throughout his term as Commissioner he was hobbled by the Standing Committee on Railways, which had to approve all significant expenditure.

Under Mathieson’s management the deficit was wound back, main lines were strengthened, modern safeworking implemented and new locomotives and rolling stock put to work. The Royal Train of 1901 was the product of improvements made during Mathieson’s term, but he found the political interference trying, and jumped at the offer by the Midland Railway Company in England to become its General Manager.

Politicians Finally Foist Narrow Gauge on the Railways

Engineer-in-Chief Rennick and Chief Mechanical Engineer Woodroffe fought a rear-guard against Zeal’s narrow gauge lobbying. Rennick successfully found ways to lay new broad gauge lines for costs unimaginable a decade earlier, and by clever maneuvering ensured the Warburton line was built to broad gauge. He also maneuvered to widen the narrow gauge from 2’0” to 2’6” and had the bridges built to standard broad gauge designs without the politicians noticing.

By adopting the economy of using second hand (but heavy) rail released from the main lines, he ensured the feeble Decauville gauge lines proposed by Zeal and authorised by parliament were standard branch lines in all but rail gauge. This enabled Woodroffe to order locomotives designed for wider gauges. The Baldwin works in Pennsylvania merely converted a 3’6” gauge engine to 2’6” gauge by placing its wheels inside its frames. Compared with Decauville locomotives it was a giant!

Nevertheless, the false economy of the four narrow gauge lines quickly became evident. They incurred continuous gauge transfer costs and their operations required at least twice the locomotives and rolling stock that would otherwise have been needed had they been made to the uniform broad gauge. That mountainous country could be negotiated by broad gauge was subsequently demonstrated by the building of the line from Tallangatta to Cudgewa.

In-house Design and Construction Achieved

During Mathieson’s term his Chief Mechanical Engineer ordered powerful American ‘Consolidation’ locomotives which spread their weight over ten wheels and were ideal for light lines and the South Gippsland coal traffic. Woodroffe was denied the purchase of more than one, but he wangled the order with enough spare parts for Phoenix to build a complete new engine! That was followed with a repeat order from the Ballarat builder.

Woodroffe’s Chief Draftsman Victor Siepen and his team had been experimenting with rebuilding several existing locomotives. The results were impressive and by 1902 they had designed a completely new locomotive that was powerful and suitable for lines laid with 60 lb rails. Newport then built the prototype. This proved the capacity of the Victorian Railways to economically design and build its own locomotives and rolling stock. The writing was on the wall for Phoenix. Their last locomotive was completed at Ballarat by Christmas 1904.

Professional Management Delivers

That the Victorian Railways was among the world’s best by the end of the nineteenth century is evidenced by the Midland Railway, arguably the foremost English railway company, recruiting Mathieson for its top job in 1901. Then Thomas Tait, number two man of the Canadian Pacific, one of the giant railroads of North America, crossed the Pacific to take the top job in Melbourne. Before his arrival, Bent, once again Minister of Railways, overrode the moderate advice of his Heads of Branches and provoked a strike by the railway enginemen. It was ruthlessly put down in a week and was followed by cruel recriminations.

Soon afterwards Tait arrived and quickly made it clear he had no intention to be a ‘Minister’s Deputy’. He was always ready to pack his bags, knowing he would be welcomed back by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Premier Irvine quickly moved Bent to another portfolio and made Shiels Minister of Railways. He gave the Canadian a free hand to implement the transportation productivity methods that had made him well known in North America. These methods achieved significant reductions in the number of goods trains run, while ensuring the wheat harvest was efficiently moved to waiting ships with increased revenue from rate revisions.

The Victorian Railways was in the hands of a thoroughly competent professional. Tait came to a basically British railway, which had only dabbled with American technology in a belated effort to make light lines workable. But the American model was not just about light lines. By 1904 they were operating the heaviest locomotives in the world.[5] Tait quickly introduced American methods and terminology, and encouraged his managers to move away from the British model. A good start was made during his term as Commissioner, but its full realisation would take several generations to achieve.

Resolution of the Light Lines Controversy

During the early years of the depression Rennick built broad gauge branch lines in the Mallee for a cost per mile that radicals of the 1870’s would have thought impossibly low. The 50 lb iron rails laid on the first light lines in 1873 were soon worn out by overweight locomotives being driven much too fast. Marginally heavier but stronger 60 lb steel rails were then adopted and widely used. As traffic developed the main lines had to be relaid with heavier rail.

But 60 or 66 lb steel rails proved sufficient for branch lines, even when heavier locomotives were obtained. All that was needed was some extra sleepers and ballast. These lines then functioned for decades without much additional expenditure, despite increased traffic. Many lines eventually closed still with the rail originally laid down. Even many of the portable timber station buildings survived for over seventy years, with others replaced by larger accommodation if traffic warranted it.

The great contribution of the radical politicians was to force railway engineers to build more economically and find locomotives that could work them efficiently. The great achievement of the engineers was to ensure the basics remained sound. Branch lines were surveyed with gradients and curves that could be economically worked, and the rails used proved strong enough to carry the new Dd class locomotive designed by Victor Siepen’s team in 1902. These became the ‘go anywhere’ locomotives, with 261 eventually being built. Not only were they able to carry efficient loads on all lines, but they negated the need for special light lines engines, greatly improving operational efficiency.

Ready for the 20th Century at a Cost

The railway of 1904 remained essentially unchanged and took Victoria through two World Wars and the Great Depression. But this achievement came at the cost of the interrupted or ruined careers of Darbyshire, Higinbotham, Meikle, Elsdon, Rennick, Watson, Speight and Allison Smith, among others. Zeal was one of their harshest critics, but had his vision been realised, Victoria would have ended up with the mixed gauge mess that bedeviled South Australia. Speight’s son, who had migrated to Perth along with his father, summed up the toxic attitude of politicians and newspapers that proved too much for another truly great engineer.

The lamentable death of Mr. C. Y. O’Connor draws attention to the fact that Australia should be careful of the way she treats good men. In this instance, as in other instances, you have had a man faithfully and conscientiously discharging the duties which devolve upon him, but subjected to such bitter and unfair attacks that even a well-balanced mind ultimately succumbed. I fail to see where irresponsible criticism benefits the State, and the death of Mr. O’Connor is an evidence of a man being crucified by people who are not capable of understanding the great and beneficial works which he has had under his control.—Yours, etc., R. SPEIGHT. Perth, March 11, 1902. [6]

End Notes

  1. Bradshaw’s Guide 1906, p. 46. Melbourne – Sydney 582½ miles.
    The Telegraph (Brisbane), 2 November 1926, p. 12. Sydney – Brisbane via Wallangarra 715 miles.
  2. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, Sun Books, 1966, p. 247.
  3. The substantial stone or brick stations north of Woodend and on the Geelong to Ballarat line were designed by Darbyshire’s replacement, Thomas Higinbotham.
  4. Edgars Dunsdorfs, The Australian Wheat Growing Industry 1788-1948, Melbourne, 1956, p. 186.
  5. Alfred W. Bruce, The Steam Locomotive in America, New York, 1952. Plate 63, pp. 314-315.
  6. West Australian, 12 March 1902, p. 7.