Skip to content


My youthful interest in railways awakened my interest in history and took me all over mainland Australia and to New Zealand. After three university vacations working in the parcels office at Flinders Street Station my career began by working as a graduate in the Commonwealth Department of Shipping and Transport. In 1970 I joined the Victorian Railways, which after several reorganisations morphed into the Public Transport Corporation. As a Rail Business Analyst my main tasks were the preparation of capital investment appraisals. Privatisation interrupted my railway career in 1997, but I returned in 2005 with an engineering consultancy.

My railway career has involved working closely with engineers and taught me to look for the reasons underlying decisions and practices. Something that looks less than ideal may be entirely valid when technicalities are examined carefully, or might have been before circumstances changed. I also learned to appreciate the role of politicians. What to me was an open and shut economic decision required the messy and difficult task of negotiating with often opposed interest groups with agendas that cannot be quantified in dollars. I witnessed many decisions stalled and sometimes stymied by that process!

The historian must therefore search for evidence and try to understand the often elusive reasons for past decisions. These may include the personality and temperament of people involved. I am acutely aware that in writing about people, I am prosecution, defence, jury and judge: an impossible burden, especially given the scrappy evidence available. I hope I have not wronged any of them. A few people in this story were rogues, but even they made valuable contributions. Most tried to do their work as best they could, and should we meet them, we might be surprised how well they did in the circumstances. So, dear reader, go easy on them all.

After 1904 the Victorian Railways underwent a radical transformation into its Second Age, so that by the early 1920’s much of the old rolling stock and methods had been replaced. J.C.M. Rolland witnessed the Victorian Railways in the 1890’s and tried to describe it over fifty years later to a gathering of railway enthusiasts whose experience was limited to a standardised and rather worn-out railway.

‘[In 1900] it was possible to come across, say, on a visit to Newport, about 40 different types…of engines not only handsome in design and livery, but equally striking in the polished care taken in them. The prevailing colour was a rich bronze-green lined out in white, and with red-brown framing garnished with a polished brass dome and bands around the boiler barrel. ‘Them were the days’ and I feel some pity for those that never saw them…’  [1]

This care and pride lavished on locomotives was also evident in every aspect of railway rolling stock and infrastructure in the days before the motor car and aeroplane. My career took me into the Third Age; the privatised, lean and stripped down network with train weights and speeds which would have seemed fanciful even in 1970. Most of the old infrastructure has now been closed, demolished or rebuilt. The First Age is fading.

My hopes of expanding and publishing my Master of Arts thesis were long deferred by the priorities of my railway career and family, but now retired with many grandchildren, the task is completed. With drafts posted chapter by chapter on my WordPress blog, it has been reviewed and corrected over four years, and while it remains an eBook might be further improved: something not possible with print media. Being digital, there are no page numbers, but the whole is capable of word searches.

My wife Cynthia has been supportive during the preparation of this work, and my son Henry, webmaster and creator of the Engineers & Politicians WordPress site, has digitised the text and helped with numerous IT issues. My old friend Dr. Neil Powers has been a sounding board as the story was shaped, blow by blow. Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison and the late Dr. John Fogarty were the supervisors for my two theses at the University of Melbourne, and Graeme has continued to encourage, guide and correct, especially in connection in relation to wider historical questions.

Contributions, comments and text corrections have been appreciated from Phil Dunn, Robert Carlisle, Frank Stamford, Phil Etherton, Peter Barry, Tony Vowles, Fraser Brown, Bob Taaffe, Geoff Winkler and Trevor Till. Neil Powers, Kevin Crockett, Alison Griffiths and Ronald Woods have assisted with proof reading. Janette Agg, Rod Clarke and John Thompson have helped with illustrations and Andrew Waugh has specially prepared several maps.

I have benefited from the ideas and insights of many railwaymen and enthusiasts I have worked and yarned with over my career, but I do look back with special gratitude for the hours spent talking with the late Norman Cave, the Victorian Railway’s Rolling Stock Engineer, and late railway enthusiast historians Les Poole, John Buckland and Jack McLean. Although never a railway employee, Jack was an expert on safeworking matters and I sometimes rang him for professional advice!

For technical information, I am particularly indebted to the work of C.D. Gavan Duffy, J.C.M. Rolland, [2]  M.H.W. Clark, Arthur Madden and Leo. J. Harrigan. All are long deceased and were early members of the Australian Railway Historical Society, but Leo was also a railwayman and was commissioned to write the official history, Victorian Railways to ‘62. This has been my most frequently consulted reference, especially his chapters on private railways and his Appendices. Were it not for the pre-war efforts of these men and their friends to search out, document and classify information about the locomotives, safeworking and other technical aspects of the colonial railways, much of what is now known would be permanently lost, as most railway files and documents relating to that period were pulped during the paper drives of the Second World War.

But with the advent of the National Library of Australia’s digital newspaper resource ‘Trove’, the previously laborious and often frustrating search of original newspapers has been eliminated; I can remember the Newspaper Room on the ground floor of the Melbourne Public Library, where the actual papers would be brought out! (The room is now full of computers). When the papers were microfilmed it certainly protected the originals but microfilm viewers were tiresome to use.

Now treasures of information previously buried are accessible for free on your home computer. Sometimes it forces a re-evaluation of earlier conclusions, as with my thoughts about William Meikle and Richard Speight, key figures in this story. My rather excessive use of footnotes is intentional, as a guide to others who may like to delve deeper into the ‘Trove’ mine.

The online photographic resources of the Public Records Office Victoria, the State Library of Victoria, and Museums Victoria and some other sources credited in the text have been invaluable. I have digitally restored some high resolution scans to eliminate the accumulated scratches, blotches, dust and fading produced over a century of use and storage. The eBook contains many illustrations, with links to high resolution maps and restored photographs.

My hope is that this work will help to provide context for the numerous articles about particular aspects of the colonial railway published in railway historical journals, and support the general history of the Victorian Railways by Robert Lee, the history of colonial locomotives by Messrs.Cave, Buckland and Beardsell and that of the Phoenix Foundry by Messrs. Butrims and Macartney. [3]

End Notes

  1. J.C.M Rolland, ‘Fifty Years Ago on the Victorian Railways’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, No. 160, February 1951, p. 22.
  2. Foundation President of the Australian Railways Historical Society.
  3. Robert Lee, The Railways of Victoria 1854-2004, Melbourne University Press, 2006. Norman Cave, John Buckland and David Beardsell, Steam Locomotives of the Victorian Railways Volume 1: The First Fifty Years, Melbourne, 2002. Robert Butrims and David Macartney. The Phoenix Foundry: Locomotive Builders of Ballarat. (ARHS, Williamstown, Victoria). 2013.