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This book is an outgrowth of a long interest in railways and their history which started as a schoolboy in 1957. The initial infatuation with the romance of railways was tempered after 1970 by my experience as a professional railwayman, first with the Planning section of the Victorian Railways, initially to work on the Bland Report, and later a secondment to a working group of rail and road people to work on the first benefit-cost analysis for a large Australian project – the replacement of the Marree to Alice Springs railway. After preparing a number of disinvestment reports that led to the closure of some branch lines, I had a three year secondment to the Australian Railways Research and Development Organisation. This involved my working for the other Australian railway systems, particularly the narrow gauge Queensland Railways. During my service the Victorian Railways underwent a number of re-organisations and eventually, as the Public Transport Corporation, even included Melbourne’s tram network, for which I prepared a number of capital investment appraisals. After ‘taking a package’ (retrenchment) in 1997 and working in private business, I joined the rail group of consulting engineers WorleyParsons Pty Ltd in 2005 as a Rail Business Analyst and soon found myself in Saudi Arabia evaluating a projected railway. Many other assignments followed until 2013.

This working ‘on the inside’ has emphasised the interaction between individual people and technology that was an underlying theme of my Master of Arts thesis ‘Engineers and Politicians’, which complemented my Preliminary thesis about the Railway Construction Act of 1884 (the so-called ‘Octopus Act’). Together they form the nucleus of this history of Victoria’s railways in the Nineteenth Century, which might be thought of as its First Age, characterised by network expansion, moderate traffic and small, basically British rolling stock and operational methods.

Not an engineer myself, 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 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! If this was true during my career, it was even more so in colonial times.

The historian must therefore search for evidence and try to understand the often elusive reasons for past decisions. These often 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; we may meet one day hereafter! 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 VR 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 VR 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.

I finished at the PTC at the dawn of the Third Age; the privatised, lean and stripped down network with train weights and speeds which would have seemed fanciful even in 1970. Although the Second Age was built on the infrastructure of the Nineteenth Century, by the Twenty First Century most of the old infrastructure has been closed, demolished or rebuilt. The First Age is fading.

My hopes of expanding and publishing my thesis were long deferred by the priorities of my railway career and family, but now retired with many grandchildren, the task is being completed. I shall post chapter drafts on my ‘Rail Story’ blog, and will value comments and corrections. Once complete I will have to think about publication, but in what form?

My thanks are extended principally to my wife, Cynthia, who has been most supportive during the preparation of this work. Dr. Graeme Davison and the late Dr. John Fogarty were my supervisors at the University of Melbourne, and both were helps and encouragers during the preparation of my two theses. To single out railwaymen and enthusiasts who have contributed ideas and insights would be unfair to so many who I have worked with 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 VR’s Rolling Stock Engineer, and 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!

The main sources of evidence used when writing my thesis were the numerous Parliamentary Papers on railway matters and Hansard. The daunting pre-digital era task of extracting every reference about railways from the Argus newspaper from the inception of railways until the 1880’s was undertaken by the late Arthur Madden. These comprise four typed Volumes, and were an invaluable assistance in the initial research prior to 1981. [2]

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 own computer. My rather excessive use of footnotes is intentional, as a guide to others who may like to delve into this mine.

For technical information, I am particularly indebted to the work of C.D. Gavan Duffy, J.C.M. Rolland, [3]M.H.W. Clark and Leo. J. Harrigan. All are long deceased and were early members of the Australian Railways 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. Were it not for the pre-war efforts of these men and their friends to search out, document and classify information about the locomotives 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.

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, that of the Phoenix Foundry by Messrs. Butrims and McCartney.


  1. J.C.M Rolland ‘Fifty Years Ago on the Victorian Railways’,The Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, No.160, (February, 1951), p.22.
  2. Copy held in the JCM Rolland Collection, La Trobe Library, Melbourne.
  3. Foundation President of the Australian Railways Historical Society.