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Thomas Higinbotham and Richard Speight were as well-known to Victorians of their day as Harold Clapp and Reg Ansett were to later generations. It is barely conceivable that the man who symbolised the Victorian Railways for the inter-war generation and the post war aviation baron could be forgotten after two generations, but the men who shaped the Victorian Railways in colonial days are the dimmest of memories. The colony’s historian, H. G. Turner, writing less than 25 years after Thomas Higinbotham’s death, does not even mention his name, yet he directed an industry that alone accounted for ninety percent of Victoria’s national debt. The only railwayman mentioned by name is Richard Speight, but Turner has nothing to say about the great achievements under his leadership. Indeed, he devotes less than four percent of his second volume (1854-1900) to the railway industry.[1] The profound impact on railway development by politicians such as Francis Longmore, John Woods, Thomas Bent and Duncan Gillies is also largely ignored. Yet railway policy was a central plank of the radical liberal land reformers and protectionists, and their squatter and free trader opponents. More recent historians have added little to our understanding of the issues at the heart of this great political divide.[2]

But why were the early railways so expensive? Who made them so? How were they made cheaper? About these questions of cause, historians have been largely silent, probably because since their beginnings on the British coalfields over two hundred years ago, railways have grown behind a fence of jargon. Anyone wishing to closely observe their comings and goings must scale that fence to reach the mysteries of the workshop, locomotive depot, signal box, goods yard, gang shed and office. But historians have been content to look over the fence and occasionally purchase a platform ticket. That is, the scholarly historians have. There is a vast literature by dedicated enthusiasts who have been climbing through railway fences for generations! Their passion has been the documentation of railway technology, operations and infrastructure, but they are largely silent about the men and events that brought forth this technology, and gave it a unique character. The general objective of this work then is to throw some light on the blend of people, politics, and technology that formed the Victorian Railways in their first five decades, from 1854 to 1904, and also the other six colonies. The colonial railways were part of an international industry, the technology and know-how being obtained from Britain and to a lesser extent America. But those countries were long sea voyages away, and as railway engineering talent was scarce, there was a measure of cross fertilisation between the antipodean colonies. During this period Victoria was the wealthiest of the seven colonies, and it influenced and was influenced by all the others, including Western Australia and New Zealand, both of which could only be reached by sea and were more or less equidistant from Melbourne. The story does not stop at the Murray River, longitude 141° East, Bass Strait or the Tasman Sea!

The Colony’s first railway schemes were prompted by the atrocious roads, both in Melbourne itself and on the routes to the large inland gold mining centres. But the opening to navigation of the Murray River added another dimension to these plans. With a railway across the Great Dividing Range from Melbourne to Sandhurst (Bendigo), it would be an easy step to extend over the plains to Echuca and meet the paddle steamers laden with wool bales, which would otherwise face a voyage of over a thousand miles downstream to Goolwa in South Australia. The Melbourne to Echuca main line was therefore part of an integrated railway and river navigation system, serving the mining and pastoral industries. The joint servicing of these industries, and the populations dependent upon them, formed the basis of subsequent railway planning through the sixties.

The period opens with the gold rush, and follows its aftermath of radical liberal politics, where the great issues were the unlocking of the land for small selectors, and the protection of infant colonial manufacturing.[3] As the gold ran out, a loose alliance of selectors, manufacturers, professional men and workers developed against the conservative establishment of squatters and commercial interests. This alliance broke up in the early 1880’s, with the end of Graham Berry’s last term at the helm of a radical government, in July 1881.[4] One of its legacies was a fundamental change in the shape of the railway system.

Bogged coaches were a common problem on colonial roads.

Private Beginnings And Government Takeovers

At the inception of railway building in the colonies the work was entrusted to private companies, but a combination of inexperience, ignorance and overambitious projects led to most of them failing before a train ran. In Victoria, three private companies were authorised in February 1853; the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay Railway (M&HBR) became very profitable, the Geelong and Melbourne Railway (G&MR) could have been but was stymied by a combination of jealous political and mercantile interests, and the Melbourne Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway (MMA&MRR) failed long before its completion by adopting ruinously expensive engineering standards. A number of other private suburban railways were built in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs and opened in the first decade,[5] but over capitalisation and inept operation led to their takeover by the M&HBR, the expanded company being renamed the Melbourne & Hobson’s Bay United Railway (M&HBUR). Although a profitable company, political forces prevented its further expansion and in 1879 it was bought out by the government. In the northern suburbs, the Melbourne and Essendon Railway (M&ER) was built to stimulate land sales but managed only a trickle of revenue and closed after 3½ years. Its assets were eventually purchased by the government for a knocked-down price.

With the exception of these private suburban lines, by 1860 the government had assumed responsibility for all railways in the colony, as had the governments of NSW and South Australia. George Darbyshire had already surveyed the first trunk line to Sandhurst (as Bendigo was then known), and as the Victorian Railway’s first Engineer-in-Chief proceeded to build it to British mainline standards. He was replaced by Thomas Higinbotham before the work was finished. The new Chief had seventeen years’ experience behind him before his emigration. He had spent some of this time in the responsible position of Resident Engineer on a section of the Great Northern Railway, the most direct of the routes from London to Yorkshire, and a line built for speed. As Engineer-in-Chief he was confident of his professional ability, honest and unafraid of criticism. This formidable combination of virtues caused many government leaders to wither in an age when corruption was all too common. The original main lines of the Victorian Railways were not his conception, but he finished them off in the grand manner, with tunnels, soaring masonry and iron viaducts, imposing bluestone or brick stations, goods sheds and engine sheds. The locomotives ordered were among the most powerful British engines then made. The lines between Melbourne and Sandhurst and from Geelong to Ballarat were made with double tracks for safe operation at a time when safeworking arrangements and train braking were rudimentary, and also to provide for future growth. But their cost was nearly three times per mile that of privately built single line between Geelong and Melbourne. After the government purchase of the G&MR Higinbotham proceeded to bring their line up to British standards by replacing timber bridges with permanent structures and building a station and goods shed at Little River in bluestone, at substantial additional cost. But he made some economies when engineering the extension from Sandhurst to Echuca, building it as a single line, with some wooden station buildings and a timber truss bridge over the Campaspe River at Rochester. Within nine years of its opening, the Engineer-in-Chief was conceding that one of the double lines from Geelong to Ballarat was superfluous.[6]

The next thrust of railway building was intended to be a line to the Ovens diggings and pastoral runs in the north-east, followed by an extension of the Ballarat line into the western mining and grazing country. A railway to Gippsland would have completed the plan for four or five trunk lines; two of them connecting to neighbouring colonies. This network would have been adequate to service most of the colony’s pastoral and mining communities, but before the line to Echuca was finished, Victoria became embroiled in its first and longest constitutional crisis. The democratically elected Legislative Assembly and the wealthy squatter and merchant controlled Legislative Council were at loggerheads for over three years, during which government was paralysed and public spending squeezed. Railway construction stopped.

The first great achievement of the radical liberals in the Legislative Assembly after the disruption was the passing of the Land Act of 1869. Firebrands like Francis Longmore worked to wrest lands north of the Great Divide from squatters who paid a licence fee to control vast acreages for lucrative sheep runs. The radicals wanted to see the land opened up for farming, hitherto restricted to areas close to the metropolitan and goldfields cities.[7] By moving to larger blocks on the drier virgin soils further inland, farmers could grow bigger crops which would be less affected by rust diseases,[8] but little was to be gained by a selector on a block too far away from cheap transport, as no crops were valuable enough to stand the high cost of long distance road haulage to the colonial cities and ports.[9] So with the drive to open up the wheat country came the need for a network of closely spaced railways into the Wimmera, Mallee, North-Central and Goulburn Valley districts. This meant the cost of railway building had to be dramatically reduced, but standing in the way of this objective were the railway engineers. They were all schooled on the solid British railways and had an aversion to cheap and temporary construction. None of them had been to North America, and all harbored a prejudice against Yankee railroad technology.

Word of cheap railways reached Victoria via the Californian ‘Forty-Niners’, attracted across the Pacific by the latest gold rush. The Americans astonished the colonists with Cobb & Co.’s leather sprung ‘Concord’ coach, which revolutionised road transport in the Australasian colonies.[10] Their tales of American railroads prompted colonists to float private railway companies to make similar light lines to the diggings.[11] However, when the colonists approached British investors and engineers for support and advice, they encountered a wall of prejudice against the American way of making railroads. In Britain, railways were made with the easiest gradients and curvature possible, to the most solid and durable standards. They called a line of rails the ‘permanent way’, and there was traffic aplenty in that crowded island to justify the huge investments made. When completed, these durable lines were low on maintenance and trains were run over their easy profiles with great efficiency.

The Americans called their lines ‘tracks’. From 1831 to 1850 they worked at perfecting trains that would not derail on their rudimentary railroads. Distances were so vast, population so thin, and capital so scarce, that the solid double lines of English railway were out of the question in North America. But rigid English locomotives would throw themselves off the lightweight American track, or else damage it so badly as to cause premature and expensive replacement. The solution was found a year after the California gold rush, when the Americans perfected the bogie locomotive. These engines were powerful, but spread their weight over more wheels, and were far more flexible than English designs. With them, the success of the light railway was assured, but they offered no advantage over a conventional English design if operated on a heavy duty ‘permanent way’. Two distinct and mutually exclusive railway technologies therefore emerged during the 1850’s, and the separation was only compounded by America’s introversion during its Civil War and Reconstruction in the Sixties.

To understand the reluctance of the seven Australasian colonies to adopt American railway technology, it helps to realise what sort of colonies they were. Not enclaves of settlers ruling a vastly larger population of different ethnicity and culture, as the British did in India. These colonies were like a piece of Britain transplanted in the Antipodes. With the native peoples overwhelmed, nearly the whole colonial population regarded themselves as British and had very little exposure to any other nation or culture. None of the leading figures who shaped the railways in Victoria during this period were native born, and in the decades before the rise of Australian nationalism the colonists repeatedly refer to Britain simply as ‘Home’.

Most of the early railwaymen received their training in England during the ‘railway mania’ of the 1840’s, and had sought their fortunes elsewhere in the slump of the 1850’s. Had they stayed at home, few if any would have achieved the career advances that Australasia offered. But the colonial promoters and legislators were well aware they were dealing with a professional ‘second eleven’,[12] and sought out heavy hitting consulting engineers from home. Stephenson, Brunel, Lock, Vignoles, Bidder, and Rennie were household names as the giants of engineering, and commanded substantial commissions.[13] Victoria engaged Isambard Kingdom Brunel for a five percent commission on capital costs. Such an arrangement hardly encouraged economy![14] Much of the remote advice given by consultants was quite inappropriate to local conditions. But the colonies were milch cows for the consulting engineers, and they were loath to refer their customers to their Yankee competitors.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel C.E.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel 1857, by Robert Howett.

So when Francis Longmore was appointed Minister for Railways in 1869 he found himself frustrated by Thomas Higinbotham, the most conservative of all the engineers. Nevertheless, he was able to make his Engineer-in-Chief concede some economies in the estimates for the North-Eastern mainline, which received legislative approval that year, but it was still solidly built. That same year the first trans-continental railroad was completed in America, but its lessons were lost on the Victorians.

Just as railway policy was of vital concern to land reformers, railways also became a focus of efforts to boost local manufacturing. With the decline of deep alluvial gold mining around Ballarat between 1870 and 1876, about 6,000 miners left the district, and the establishment of local manufacturing became a top priority to preserve the city’s fortunes.[15] As the railways were the colony’s major consumer of manufactured products of all kinds, the radical liberals embraced a policy of high import tariffs to protect and encourage local industry. With the exception of a handful of imports, locomotives were made in the colony after 1872, most of them by the Phoenix Foundry at Ballarat. Practically all the carriages and wagons for the railways were built in the colony from the early sixties, and Phoenix also got a share of that business. It was in the interests of selectors and manufacturers to cheapen the cost of railway construction, so that the maximum possible expansion of the network could be made in the shortest possible time. They formed a powerful political group, with David Syme, owner and editor of ‘The Age’ newspaper as a willing propagator of their schemes.

Outsmarted by his Engineer-in-Chief who had managed to get the North Eastern mainline built to solid standards, albeit with a little compromise, Longmore seized on the narrow gauge propaganda then dazzling colonial legislators as a certain means of paring costs. Narrow gauge railway technology was developed in Britain during the Sixties, when it was becoming clear that cheap railways were a necessity, if not for the mother country, then at least for India and the colonies. Some British engineers, ignorant of American light railways which were based on the standard 4’8½” gauge, sought the answer by scaling down the components of track gauge, rails, bridges, locomotives and rolling stock. The leading exponent of this system was Robert Fairlie, an engineer and propagandist whose ideas caught the imagination of the Victorian parliament in the early 1870’s.

Narrow gauge was anathema to Higinbotham, who like Longmore was also of Irish stock. He was forced to sacrifice his convictions about substantial English permanent way, but steadfastly maintained his opposition to narrow gauge, which he saw as a shortsighted and problem-ridden solution to the quest for cheap railways. He knew the claims being made for narrow gauge were bogus, and opposed government efforts in the greatest battle of his career. At the eleventh hour, with a narrow gauge Fairlie locomotive already on order and a railway construction Bill locking in narrow gauge already passed the Legislative Assembly, Higinbotham single-handedly convinced Parliament to persevere with the broad 5’3” gauge. But in doing so he and his fellow engineers had to begrudgingly accept lower standards for new construction. They bided their time, knowing that much rebuilding would be necessary.

Nevertheless, the land reformers achieved their objective as the costs of making railways was lowered from about £40,000 to £5,000 per mile. In the 35 years of European settlement prior to 1869, about ten million acres of land had been purchased in Victoria, but in the next eleven years with railways being pushed into the inland, that figure doubled.[16] Victoria became a grain exporter for the first time in 1871,[17] as the promise of a railway encouraged selectors to take up land in advance of its coming. For instance, Horsham grew from a little hamlet of 200 souls in 1873 to a thriving town of 2,000 in 1878, on the eve of the railway’s arrival.[18] A similar story accounted for railway extensions to Avoca, St Arnaud, Inglewood, Deniliquin, Tatura and Numurkah up to 1881, at which time navvies were pushing yet further inland on new lines to Dimboola, Donald, Wycheproof, Boort, Kerang and St James.[19] Compared to this activity, railway building in those parts of the colony less well adapted to wheat was confined to the trunk lines originally planned, with one or two branches from each. While the impact of railways on the wheat industry was not fully felt until the eighties, there is little doubt that in serving the grain industry the Victorian Railways had found its raison d’être.

The process might have occurred faster if Higinbotham and his engineers had not been ignorant of American technology and opposed the simpler methods used by the only successful private railway company in the colony, the M&HBUR. Higinbotham travelled on their line daily from his home in Brighton and knew their engineer, William Elsdon, who was the only practicing colonial railway engineer who had been to the United States. Elsdon visited the America in 1870, and returned convinced that he had seen the answer to Victoria’s problem. Four years later, Thomas Higinbotham made the same journey, and he too returned with broken prejudices.

Higinbotham placed the first order for American type locomotives, and when these arrived at Williamstown in June 1877 Australasia caught up with American know-how after a lag of twenty seven years, or nearly a full generation. But it was too late. By 1877 every colony except Victoria and NSW had adopted narrow gauge in a wrongheaded effort to lower the cost of railway making. The Americans never found it necessary to use narrow gauge, except for a limited applications in the Colorado Rockies and Maine. By 1880 there were 93,267 miles of line in the U.S.A., six times the length in Great Britain, and all but a fraction was to standard or broader gauges.[20] All this was thanks to the American type eight wheeler locomotive and its bogie truck, in which the leading pair of closely placed axles and their wheels were placed in a sub frame with a central pivot. The whole forward part of the locomotive rested on this pivot, the bogie being able to swivel, turning into sharp curves or following irregularities in the track. Simultaneously the direction of lateral movement was transmitted through the pivot, thereby guiding the mass of the locomotive. Higinbotham later aptly termed it a ‘track feeler’.[21]

Between 1855 and 1880, over 20 different locomotive designs were introduced into Victoria. The number of designs grew every time a policy change occurred. Initially, the problem was to find an imported design that suited colonial conditions. When protectionists succeeded in forcing local manufacture of locomotives in 1870, Longmore removed the locomotives and rolling stock from Thomas Higinbotham’s jurisdiction and hired William Meikle as General Overseer of Locomotives and Workshops. Meikle was an experienced locomotive engineer and was able to prepare designs for local production, but the adoption of light railways called for hurried re-designs that when put in service proved a disappointment. The visit of the Engineer-in-Chief to North America resulted in the appearance of yet more variation. Were it not for the critically important relationship between locomotive designs and the location, standard and cost of making new railways, the confusing variety of locomotives might be thought a reflection of bad management, but the search for suitable locomotives was interwoven with the politics and engineering issues of the Sixties and Seventies.

Higinbotham’s nemesis was John Woods, MLA, one of the very few politicians with an understanding of railway engineering and operations. He had visited America in the early 1840’s, before their unique railroad technology had been perfected, and then worked in engine foundries in England before emigrating during the gold rush in 1852.[22] Twice Minister for Railways, he held a deep resentment against the Engineer-in-Chief and finally sacked Higinbotham in the radical ‘Black Wednesday’ purge of government officers during the second constitutional crisis in 1878. The ensuing five years saw a number of senior railwaymen’s careers interrupted through suspension and forced resignations, but most, including Higinbotham, returned as the parliamentary balance of power shifted. Woods had befriended Robert Ford, a clever and ambitious engineer on Higinbotham’s staff, and elevated him to the new position of Engineer for Construction. Ford was resented by his more professionally educated colleagues and a period of intrigue, feuding and instability plagued the railways. Ford was suspended three times before being transferred to another department in 1882.

During Higinbotham’s absence Woods foisted his invention of a continuous brake onto his department. Safe braking of trains was the great railway engineering issue of the 1870’s, with compressed air, vacuum and water all being tried as mediums to activate brakes throughout a train. Woods lighted on the least promising, and sketched out an idea for a hydraulically activated brake. He had promoted the chief draftsman, Solomon Mirls, as Locomotive Superintendent after Meikle retired, and Mirls quietly managed to make Woods’s half-baked sketches workable. Woods patented ‘his’ invention and formed a company to market it, his own department being the only customer as hundreds of locomotives and carriages were fitted with the less than ideal brake. The conflict of interest was gross, even by colonial standards, and an ensuing furore resulted in an independent review by the Locomotive Superintendents from three other colonies. As the political climate changed the clearly superior Westinghouse compressed air brake was eventually adopted, but not without handsome compensation to Woods’ company!

Shortly before the end of the first three decades, the M&HBUR was purchased by the government, the last of the original railway companies formed in 1853. The integration of the M&HBUR into the government system was completed in 1880, after which all the railways in the colony were state owned.[23] William Elsdon succeeded Thomas Higinbotham as Engineer-in-Chief of the Victorian Railways upon the latter’s death in 1880, but his career with the government was brief. He resigned in 1881 rather than endure the underhand meddling in railway affairs of the infamous Thomas Bent, MLA. His departure seemed to finally give politicians the upper hand, but the burgeoning expansion of the railway network was exposing dangerous inadequacies. Direct political control by Ministers largely ignorant of railway technology and operations, together with scandals, the whiff of corruption and serious accidents forced the government to push through a Railway Management Act in 1883, establishing the Victorian Railways as the world’s first independently managed statutory corporation. The man selected as its Chief Commissioner was Richard Speight, Assistant General Manager of the highly regarded Midland Railway Company in England. Under his management the Victorian Railways were fashioned into one of the world’s best.

By the time of Speight’s arrival American locomotives were being introduced and the success of the light railway experiments of the Seventies seemed assured. The main trunk lines and the basic network of wheat lines had been laid down or authorised as the result of a succession of six major Railway Construction Acts between 1857 and 1880, but thereafter railway extension was largely devoted to a proliferation of branch lines or ‘cockspurs’, proposed by the notorious ‘Octopus’ Bills, the first of which was introduced by Bent in 1882.[24] The passage of the Railway Construction Act in 1884 was a veritable binge, with politicians gifting each other with railways in their electorates, all to be paid for with borrowed money. There was little Speight could do in the circumstance, but to convince the government to include a substantial sum for essential improvements to the core of the network.

He had arrived not long after the first linking of Victoria with a neighboring colony by railway. This occurred in 1883 with the largest gathering of notables yet witnessed in the antipodes and precipitated the first significant movement to federate the Australasian colonies, with Albury as its capital. The event also highlighted the six and a half inch variation in railway gauge of the two systems, which was to dog railway development for nearly a century. South Australia had fallen for the narrow gauge propagandists, but had sensibly retained broad gauge for its link with Victoria, which occurred at Serviceton in 1887. The rolling stock for the overland express train was first class, much of it being designed by South Australian engineers and built in Victoria at the new Newport Workshops. By the mid-1880’s railways in the Australasian colonies were cross-fertilizing their engineering departments. Speight hired Allison Dalrymple Smith, Locomotive Superintendent of the New Zealand Railways to work as Mirls’s assistant and eventual replacement. Smith set about strengthening the dangerously lax discipline that permeated railway operations, earning the ire of some enginemen and their fledgling Union.

Speight was not an engineer, but was a ‘walking encyclopedia’ on all aspects of railway management. His arrival marked the start of an engineering ‘counter revolution’ in the Victorian Railways, as light railways were rejected and British standards reasserted, albeit adjusted to the realities of the sparsely settled young colony. The new lines were well built but of greater significance was the building of new workshops and locomotive servicing depots, supervised by Allison Smith, plus the redesign and interlocking of major junctions, new bridges, line duplications, greatly improved safeworking and the building of the Railway Administrative Offices in Spencer Street. This surge in railway investment coincided with the Land Boom of the late 1880’s which resulted in a serious overreaching of colonial finances that produced the devastating economic collapse and depression of the Nineties. Melbourne lost its status as Australasia’s largest city as Victoria experienced a loss of population.

David Syme, editor of The Age, disapproved of independent railway commissioners and published a series of muckraking articles alleging mismanagement. As the reckless optimism of the Land Boom had infected everything, including railway management, it was not hard for Syme’s journalists to uncover instances of extravagance and favours granted by the Commissioners to friends and politicians. As the banks began to collapse in mid-1891, William Shiels, the new Minster for Railways, demanded cost reductions but Speight failed to see the seriousness of conditions and offered only token economies. Following Shiels election as Premier, he suspended all three Commissioners in March 1892. They subsequently resigned.

Many of the politicians who had authorised the spending splurge of the Railway Construction Act of 1884 were the real scoundrels behind the economic collapse, but they largely escaped, with many making secret bankruptcy settlements for a few pennies in the pound. Speight and Allison Smith were scapegoats and tried to rebuild their careers in Western Australia, but while they were impoverished their legacy enriched Victoria with a first class railway network. Speight’s demise is the saddest chapter in Victoria’s transport history. In an era when personal honour and integrity were core virtues in society, he sued David Syme for libel. Two prolonged trials ensued while Victoria was in the depths of depression, Syme publishing the proceedings in a manner that often mocked the prosecution. Speight was granted only a pyrrhic victory, his achievements ignored. His Locomotive Superintendent, Allison Smith, also sued Syme for libel and suffered a similar result. In the meantime the Acting Commissioners oversaw economy drives until John Mathieson was appointed Commissioner in July 1896, but with reduced powers.

Mathieson had been Commissioner of the Queensland Railways, and under his management, the Victorian Railways slowly recovered momentum. He found the political interference difficult, and in 1901 resigned to take up a position as General Manager of the Midland Railway in England. The Midland had given Victoria Speight, and now Victoria gave them Mathieson. It is doubtful the Midland would have recruited him had not Speight overseen the emergence of the Victorian Railways as a modern and respected system.

As the depression of the Nineties forced the railways to economise a second attempt was made to embrace light railway construction, with four branch lines even being built to narrow gauge at the turn of the century. But by then the railway network was largely complete, with British engineering standards and operational methods firmly entrenched. The recovery from austerity was marked by the reequipping of the Sydney and Adelaide Expresses from 1897 with a new design of gas lit corridor carriage, introducing higher standards of convenience than hitherto experienced. This occurred under the regime of Thomas Woodroffe, the VR’s first Chief Mechanical Engineer. By 1904 the engineers and draftsmen in his Branch had introduced four new classes of locomotive, including Australia’s most powerful goods engine and the ubiquitous 4-6-0 Dd class. The first batch of Dd’s was built at Newport Workshops and marked the end of the Phoenix Foundry’s dominance of locomotive construction.


Whereas the major focus of politicians was on network extension and the tussles over rolling stock manufacture and railway management, the safety of train operations was often ignored. Like the road toll a century later, railway accidents were accepted as unwelcome but largely unavoidable. In the early days safeworking procedures were haphazard at best, and often downright dangerous. Two head-on collisions occurred within weeks of each other in May 1862 and in November that year a rear-end collision occurred at North Melbourne. Many stations had no signals, and even large stations seldom had more than one. There was a heavy reliance on timetables, but late running or unscheduled trains made things risky, especially as rules were sometimes vague and were open to interpretation. Most large stations functioned as agents for the Post Office and Telegraph Department, receiving and despatching public telegrams as well as using the telegraph for railway business. This helped dispel some of the uncertainty from railway safeworking, but only if used with great discipline. The opening of the single track North Eastern mainline in April 1872 was quickly followed by another head-on collision and led to the adoption of the ‘ Staff and Ticket ’ system of safeworking, which ensured only one train at a time could occupy the ‘block’ between two stations by carrying a unique token, known as the Train Staff. This system gradually spread to other single lines, but stationmasters were able to use their discretion to suspend the rules, resulting in another head-on at Maryborough in 1875 and rear-end collisions at Broadford in 1877 and Burnley in 1883. The last straw occurred one rainy night at Little River in 1884 when the stationmaster’s seventeen year old daughter sent a ‘line clear’ telegram in error, with terrible results. Thereafter newly arrived Commissioner Richard Speight had the Staff and Ticket system rigidly enforced.

On the double lines separate tracks separated trains in the Up (towards Melbourne) and Down (away from Melbourne) directions, eliminating the danger of head-on collision, so a Train Staff was unnecessary, but there was no way of knowing when a train had reached the next station. The best they could do was allow a following train to enter the block after a time interval. It was up to the engine crews to be on their mettle to avoid colliding with a slow moving or delayed train in front. Stopping depended solely on the hand operated brakes on the locomotive tender and the brake van. Add wooden brake blocks, fog, dark and stormy nights, unsynchronised station clocks and incompetent employees and it is a wonder there were not more accidents! As traffic increased so did danger, with rear-end collisions on double lines at Sunbury in 1872, Riddles Creek in 1876 and Windsor in 1887.

The danger was not lessened as trains entered stations, especially at complex junctions. Until the late 1870’s most stations had only one signal, which was to advise drivers that a train was present. Points were set by ‘pointsmen’, who manually set turnouts and crossovers for trains and signalled All Clear to drivers. There were between forty and fifty pointsmen in the Spencer Street passenger yard alone,[25] and as traffic increased and yards became more complex, accidents happened. This led to the introduction of interlocked signals and points controlled by signalmen in signal boxes, the first of which was erected at Spencer Street in 1876. From the mid 1880’s an accelerated program of interlocking of yards and junctions was implemented throughout the Victorian Railways network.

The adoption of rigorous safeworking technology and rules went hand in hand with improved communications. Although the M&HBR was quick to install a dedicated railway telegraph, it was not until 1878 that the Victorian Railways established a dedicated Telegraph Branch, and began to rapidly build its own independent telegraph system, which was subsequently adapted for telephone messages. As telegraph depended on electricity, the Telegraph Branch became the guardian and promotor of electrical technology, Spencer Street station being electrically lit in 1882 and Winter’s electric block instruments connecting signal boxes on double lines first introduced in 1883. By the late 1880’s most stations and signal boxes were linked by telegraph, which combined with block working on double lines and Staff and Ticket on single lines, radically improved the safety of train operation. After the Windsor accident of 1887 it was twenty years before another serious collision occurred, but the systems introduced in the 1880’s and 1890’s ensured remarkably safe operations thereafter.

The Second Age Dawns

Thomas Tait was recruited from the Canadian Pacific Railway to take over as Commissioner in April 1903, arriving soon after a weeklong strike by enginemen that stopped all services. It was the first time such dramatic action had occurred, and marked the growing power of railway unions. Later that year the railway was opened to Mildura in the far north-west, the last trunk line to be completed. After a year at the helm, Tait was managing a network of 3,380 route miles, 550 locomotives, 1,640 carriages and vans, and 10,025 goods wagons. In the 1903-04 year, the railways carried over 54 million passengers, and over 3,400,000 tons of goods and livestock.[26] The extent of the network and its basic infrastructure would not change much in the years to come, although much of it would be strengthened to carry heavier and faster rolling stock which would be almost exclusively made in its own workshops. The Victorian Railways would embark on its Second Age as a vertically integrated industrial powerhouse.


  1. H.G. Turner. A History of the Colony of Victoria, Volume II, 1854-1900 (London, 1904). The railwayman discussed is Richard Speight, Chairman of Commissioners during the Land Boom years.
  2. Robert Lee’s biography of John Whitton, the Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales Government Railways ‘Colonial Engineer’ is an exception, but does not deal with Victoria.
  3. Robin Gollan. Radical and Working Class Politics (Melbourne, 1960). p.61.
  4. Robin Gollan. Radical and Working Class Politics (Melbourne, 1960). p.66-67.
  5. Leo J. Harrigan. Op.Cit. p.38-40, 46-47, 51-54, 65-66. These sections refer to four private railway companies operating in Melbourne by 1860.
  6. V.P.P. 1871. Vol. 1, D.5. ‘Report of the Select Committee on Railways”, 31 August 1871. Minutes Q.182.
  7. Edgars Dunsdorfs. The Australian Wheat Growing Industry 1788-1948 (Melbourne, 1956), p.123-124, 128.
  8. Edgars Dunsdorfs. The Australian Wheat Growing Industry 1788-1948 (Melbourne, 1956), p.133, 135.
    J.M. Powell. The Public Lands of Australia Felix (Melbourne, 1970), p.176.
  9. Geoffrey Blainey. The Tyranny of Distance.(Melbourne, 1966), p.123-124.
  10. K.A. Austin. The Lights of Cobb & Co. (Sydney, 1976), p42-43, 48.
  11. K.A. Austin. The Lights of Cobb & Co. (Sydney, 1976), p. 49-50. George Francis Train is an example of a go-ahead Yankee, who is mentioned as having joined the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce three days after his arrival in May 1853, and having agitated for progress in many spheres.
  12. A cricket club’s reserve team – not their best players.
  13. The Argus, Thursday 4 September 1856, p.5. The writer refers to these engineers assuming they were household names.
  14. V.P.D., 1871, Vol. 2, p.640-641. Brunel’s commission was over £15,000. .
  15. J.E. Parnaby, ‘The Economic and Political Development of Victoria 1877-1881’ Ph.D. Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951. p.205.
  16. J.M. Powell. Op. Cit., p.188.
  17. E. Dunsdorfs, Op. Cit., p.162.
  18. J.M. Powell, Op. Cit., p.174.
  19. Victorian Railways. Annual Report for the year ended 30 June 1895. Appendix 12, p.33. This is a chronological listing of lines opened, and their authorising Acts of Parliament.
  20. John Marshall. The Guinness Book of Rail Facts and Feats, 2nd Ed. (London, 1978), p.108.
  21. ‘Report on the Observations on Railways’ Op. Cit., p.4.
  22. Table Talk, Friday 8 April 1892, p.1. John Woods, later Commissioner of Railways, had briefly been in America after his work on the Leipzig and Dresden railway, which was completed in 1839. He then returned to England.
  23. The Argus, Thursday 4 December 1879, p.9. M&HBUR employees were to be given equivalent status to V.R. employees from 1st January 1880. The M&HBUR takeover was authorised by Act No. 617, assented to on 14th November 1878. From that date, while formally placed under V.R. control, it seems to have retained a certain autonomy under the management of William Elsdon, at least until his appointment as Engineer-in-Chief for the V.R. in September 1881.
    Victorian Railways: Report of the Board of Land and Works for the Year Ended 31 December 1878, p. 20 and 31 December 1879, p. 13.
  24. M.A. Venn.‘The Octopus Act and Empire Building by the Victorian Railways During the Land Boom’, Master of Arts Preliminary Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1973. p.1.
  25. The Herald, Thursday 7 January 1875, p.3.
  26. Victorian Railways. Annual Report for the year ended 30 June 1904. p.6., Appendix 8, p.19-2033.