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Rail Travel in Australia: The Railway Guage Fiasco


Triple gauge points, Port Adelaide, SA

Railways in Australia date from the 10 December 1831 when the Australian Agricultural Company officially opened Australia's first railway, located at the intersection of Brown and Church Streets, Newcastle, New South Wales. Privately owned and operated to service the A Pit coal mine, it was a cast-iron fishbelly rail on an inclined plane as a gravitational railway. The earliest railway in South Australia consisted of the seven-mile horse-drawn freight line between Goolwa and Port Elliot in South Australia, which began service on 18 May 1854, allowing steam ships to avoid the treacherous mouth of the Murray River. The first steam locomotive began service soon afterward between Sandridge (now Port Melbourne), and Flinders Street, Melbourne.

Consequently, Australians generally assumed in the 1850s that railways would be built by the private sector. Private companies built railways in the then colonies of Victoria, opened in 1854, and New South Wales, where the company was taken over by the government before completion in 1855, due to bankruptcy. South Australia's railways were government owned from the beginning, including a horse-drawn line opened in 1854 and a steam-powered line opened in 1856. In Victoria, the private railways were soon found not to be financially viable, and existing rail networks and their expansion was taken over by the colony. Government ownership also enabled railways to be built to promote development, even if not apparently viable in strictly financial terms. The railway systems spread from the colonial capitals, except in cases where geography dictated a choice of an alternate port.

The first public railway to be constructed in Sydney roughly followed the route of the first rural road built in the colony 60 years previous, linking Sydney and Parramatta. It was a single track line, built by a private company which went bankrupt 23 days before the inaugural train journey was scheduled to be made. The Government stepped in, enabling the project to be completed on time and the line to begin taking traffic in 1855. From thereon, the railway was to play a significant role in suburban development in Sydney's inner and outer west, and later the south and north. The railway, which got the green light in 1849, was intended to be Australia's first, but Melbourne was able to complete its first railway ahead of Sydney. It was a 3.2 km long broad gauge single line track from Flinders Street, Melbourne, across the Yarra River and through the sand hills of Port Melbourne to Hobsons Bay. The first service ran on 12th September, 1854.

The three major Australian colonies at the time failed to follow advice from the British Government to adopt a uniform gauge in case the lines of the various states should ever meet, though it came close to happening. The gauge originally chosen was the English 'standard' gauge of 1.435 metres. When Victoria and South Australia began building their own railways of their own they followed New South Wales' lead, settling on standard gauge for their railways. Sydney's city surveyor, Irish born Francis Shields, then successfully lobbied for the Sydney railway to be changed to the wider, Irish 'broad' gauge of 1.6 metres. Victoria and South Australia, which had already started laying standard gauge track, reluctantly carried the cost of changing their existing track to the broad 1.6 metre gauge to remain consistent with NSW.

After the original Sydney to Parramatta line had been laid as broad gauge, James Wallace insisted the track be lifted and changed back to the 1.435 metre gauge, because it was cheaper and was being adopted universally as the standard gauge for railways across the world. Victoria and South Australia refused to change theirs back again, leaving NSW in step with the world but out of step with all other existing railways on the Australian continent. This precipated the ludicrous situation of there being three different gauges used across Australia (Western Australia, Queenand and parts of South Australia settled on another, even narrower gauge when they built their railways) and the inconvenience of passengers having to change trains at state borders before a standard gauge for interstate services was adopted.


The different tracks at a 'break of gauge' railway station at Peterborough, South Australia, now part of the Steamtown Heritage Railway Centre

The colonial railways were built to three different gauges, which became a problem once lines of different systems met at Albury, New South Wales in 1881 and Wallangarra, Queensland in 1888. In the 20th century, the lines between major cities were converted to standard gauge and electrified suburban networks were built in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. In the second half of the 20th century, many rural branch lines were closed to passenger traffic or altogether in all states. On the other hand, long heavy-haul railways were built to transport iron ore in Western Australia and coal in Queensland to ports. In Western Australia these railways are privately owned.

In 1910, a conference of Railway commissioners chose 4 ft 8 1 D2 in (1,435 mm) to be the standard gauge. Over the decades, many plans were floated to fix the break of gauge. These failed, mainly because they were too ambitious and proposed to convert all lines, even lines of little economic value. In spite of this, the different state rail systems became more integrated, initially creating more breaks of gauge. In 1917, the Federal Government's standard gauge Trans-Australian Railway was completed between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta. However, this required a break of gauge at Kalgoorlie to reach Perth and breaks of gauge at both Port Augusta and Terowie to reach Adelaide. In 1927, the last section of the Sydney Broken Hill line was completed between Trida and Menindee meeting the South Australian Railways line at a break of gauge and requiring a further break of gauge at Terowie to reach Adelaide.



In the 1950s, a parliamentary committee chaired by William Wentworth recommended a much more modest and affordable plan to gauge convert only the three main missing links. In 1966, a new mixed standard and narrow gauge Eastern Railway route was completed through the Avon Valley, east of Perth, two years later the Kalgoorlie to Perth line was completed and in 1969 the Broken Hill to Port Pirie standard gauge railway were opened, completing the Sydney Perth railway as a single gauge line. In 1962 the Albury to Melbourne standard gauge line was opened, completing the Sydney Melbourne railway. No longer did passengers have to change trains at Albury, which involved leaving one train, crossing the platform and boarding another, all done in the middle of the night if the train was an overnight express.

In the 1990s and the early 21st century, the traditional networks were reorganised and partially privatised. The interstate standard gauge network came largely under the control of the Australian Rail Track Corporation and private companies were allowed to operate on it for the first time. Some non-metropolitan intrastate networks became privately controlled and the operation of private freight and passenger trains commenced. Queensland Rail was left as the only government-owned operator of freight or rural passenger trains. The Melbourne suburban railways became the first urban rail system to be operated by private sector franchisees.

Break of gauge Towns



Albury, NSW
Albury-Wodonga is a broad settlement incorporating the twin Australian cities of Albury and Wodonga, built around where the Hume Highway cross the Murray River. Albury is separated from its twin city in Victoria, Wodonga by the Murray River. Together, the two cities form an urban area with a population of more than 80,000.

Albury Railway Station opened in 1881 with the arrival of the main line from Sydney. Two years later, the Victorian Irish broad gauge was built across the Murray River. At last, a rail connection was made between Australia s largest two cities, Sydney and Melbourne, thereby creating the famous break of gauge  on the New South Wales Victorian border that existed for the following 80 years. From 1883 until 1962, all through-rail passengers between Sydney and Melbourne had to change at Albury, across the long platform. New South Wales trains operated on the eastern side and Victorian trains, including the Spirit of Progress, on the western side.


The longest railway stationm platform in the Southern Hemisphere, where passengers crossed from a train on one side of the platform to join a train on the other

The long list of VIPs who became Albury train-changers includes Sir Edmund Barton, Agatha Christie (1920), the Duke of Cornwall (later King George V, 1901), Arthur Conan Doyle (1920), Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1934), D.H. Lawrence (1922), Rudyard Kipling (1891), Dame Nellie Melba (1931), Robert Louis Stevenson (1890), Mark Twain (1895), H.G. Wells (1939) and the Duke of York (later King George VI, 1927).

The 'break of gauge' at the New South Wales Victoria border was finally eliminated in 1962, when a single-track standard-gauge line was built between Albury and Melbourne, on the eastern side of the broad-gauge track.


Wallangarra, Qld
A small town that only came into existence because it was here, at the Queensland / New South Wales border, that the two different gauged railway lines of Queensland (1067 mm) and New South Wales (1435 mm) met. Wallangarra is Queensland's southern most township. Being 877 metres above sea level, it is also one of Queensland's coldest towns. The town was little more than a small cluster of buildings until the railway arrived.

The meeting of two different gauges here necessitated it becoming a railway junction where travellers had to change trains. This necessitated a town on each side of the border - Wallangarra in Qld and Jennings in NSW - with two schools, two police stations, two pubs, two railway ticket offices and a population of a few hundred between them. To change trains, passengers had to alight from one train, cross to the other side of the platform and board a different train. One side of the railway station platform was in Qld, the other side was in NSW - the style of architecture of the awnings on each side of the platform was different to let passengers know which state's train there were about to board! Just as passengers had to change trains at the break of gauge at Wallangarra so too did goods. In its heyday the double-sided goods platform would have been a hive of frenzied activity as goods were transferred from one train to the other.



The ridiculous ritual of buying separate tickets and crossing platforms took place from the completion of the railway in 1887 until common sense prevailed in 1930 and a common gauge was adopted. Not surprisingly the town's most distinctive feature, and its only real attraction, is the rather grand Victorian-era railway station. Take a walk through the abandoned railway yard and you'll come across dual guage points and sections of track in the former goods yard.


Terowie, SA
Terowie was established in the late 19th century as a railway junction for NSW and SA lines. It became one of the major break of gauge locations on the railway network, with large rail workshops and a population of 2000. The tracks of the two different states were different gauges and people had to change trains at Terowie. In March 1942 the eyes of the world descended upon Terowie. When General Douglas MacArthur was changing trains at Terowie from Darwin on his way south, he gave his first Australian press conference on the station uttering the famous words,"I came out of Bataan and I shall return."



Re-routing of the Alice Springs railway line in the 1950s, moving the change-of-gauge to Peterborough in 1970 and the bypassing of the town by the Barrier Highway in the 1960s all contributed towards the town's demise. These days, it is only its historic buildings and galleries which occupy them that keep the town alive.


Platforms at Peterborough station where the change of gauge took place

Peterborough, SA
Peterborough is a railway town at the junction of the Port Pirie to Broken Hill line and the Adelaide to Quorn, Port Augusta, Hawker, Leigh Creek and Marree. The town services an important grain-growing and pastoral region. Its greatest claim to fame is that it is one of only two places in Australia (the other is Gladstone) where three railway gauges met. It is entirely appropriate that one of the main attraction in this old railway town should be its railway museum - Steamtown - housed in the railway workshop.



Formed in 1977 Steamtown was created to run a steam train service between Peterborough and Quorn with rolling stock dating from 1920s. It runs from Peterborough and Euralia and Orroroo providing visitors with the experience of an old-style railway journey. The Museum's heritage listed Roundhouse with its 23 bays, a 3 gauge turntable and parts of the original workshops now display a wide range of historic rolling stock, mainly from the original Ghan which once passed through the town.


Switch using 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) / 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1 D2 in) track, between the roundhouse and the Peterborough West washout facilities.

The turntable and roundhouse are the main features of the exhibit. The turntable is unusual in that it accommodates three rail gauges: Narrow gauge (1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)), standard gauge (1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1 D2 in)) and broad gauge (1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in)). In Australia there were only two similar turntables (located at Port Pirie and Gladstone); all three were on the same line, with the one at Peterborough the only one remaining. This unique situation arose from the standardisation project of the late 1960s. At this time the broad gauge line was extended from Terowie to Peterborough and the Port Pirie to Broken Hill section (passing through Peterborough) was replaced by standard gauge line. The Peterborough to Quorn section remained narrow gauge.

After track rationalisation some years ago, only the standard-gauge is active and most of the other 2 gauges on the ground have been lifted and are gone from the active mainline trackage area at Peterborough.



Gladstone, SA
Gladstone is located on the main Crystal Brook-Broken Hill railway line, with branches going north and south. Originally, all the lines were 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge narrow gauge railways, starting with the line from Port Pirie in 1875, extended to Petersburg (now Peterborough) in 1880 and to Cockburn (on the state border near Broken Hill) in 1888. A branch from Gladstone to Laura in 1884 was extended to Wilmington in 1915. The line from the south (extending the line that terminated at Blyth) was completed in 1894. In 1927, the line from Hamley Bridge through Blythe to Gladstone was converted to 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge, making Gladstone a break-of-gauge junction.



Gladstone was then colloquially known as "Spaghetti Junction" with any and all trackwork combinations of the 3 gauges and associated pointwork in the station vicinity and another triple gauge turntable. It was a platelayer's (track maintainer's) worst nightmare.

In 1970, the line from Port Pirie to Broken Hill was converted to 4 ft 8 1 D2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge making Gladstone into a rare three-gauge break-of-gauge junction as the Wilmington railway line to the north remained an isolated narrow gauge line. In the 1980s, the broad and narrow gauge lines were closed, leaving Gladstone as a purely standard gauge station.



Serviceton, Vic
Serviceton is a small town located near the Victoria-South Australia border. Due to an error in calculating the SA/Vic border, this town has been deemed to be in both Victoria and South Australia, even though it has never moved! So how did this town in Victoria end up being listed as a South Australian town in the South Australian regional guide? Well you may ask. The border between Victoria and South Australia was intended to be on the 141° east meridian but, owing to an error first made by NSW surveyor Charles James Tyers and then by surveyors sent in to correct Tyers' mistake, border markers were placed 3.6 km west of the meridian. When Victoria was proclaimed a separate province from New South Wales in 1851, the western border of the latter was defined as the South Australian border. Specific reference to the 141° east meridian was deliberately omitted, as South Australia and Victoria were in dispute as to where that border was.

When South Australia and Victoria built their respective railway lines up to the border in 1887, the border was in dispute, so the station linking the two lines and the town that supported it were built as near as possible to the centre of the disputed territory - a strip of land 4.5 km in width which stretched along the total length of the SA/Vic border. In pre-Federation times, border towns like Serviceton were important customs stations where excise had to be paid on goods passing between the colonies. Everything was unloaded and put onto another train, hence the sizeable railway station complex.

The town's early population comprised of railway staff and customs officials from both Victoria and South Australia who lived in the parts of the town they each considered was on their side of the border. When the station was built, there were also two engine sheds, one for each state 's trains.

Customs excise laws proved difficult to enforce because the town was in the disputed territory. Upon reaching the station, those bringing goods to Serviceton from South Australia told the Victorian customs officers they were not crossing the border, but were in fact already in Victoria, and therefore no duty was payable. Those bringing goods from Victoria into South Australia told the South Australian customs officers they were still in Victoria and had not crossed the border into South Australia, therefore no duty was payable. The Victorian customs officers were all too quick to confirm this. Smuggling was therefore a very profitable business.

A High Court judgement in 1911 eventually ruled in Victoria s favour, establishing that the border was where it had originally been surveyed. Serviceton was now legally fully in Victoria. Nevertheless, the South Australian Railways and its successors continued to claim ownership of the railway line to Serviceton, as according to them, the town is in South Australia, even though the High Court s ruling places it in Victoria.

The station is not used any more but The Overland train passes through the town. Inside the station complex is the old customs house, a mortuary for bodies being shipped across the border and a lock-up to house prisoners during the transfer of passengers and goods from one state's train to the other.



Wolseley, SA
Whereas Serviceton was built in the disputed territory on the SA/Vic border, the neighbouring town of Wolseley had always been in South Australia. The town was surveyed in 1884, and initially named The town was surveyed in 1884, and initially named Tatiara, which was described as an "Aboriginal word from the Jackegilbrab Tribe. A new railway station building was erected and named after Lord Wolseley, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army when No. 12 Inland Aircraft Fuel Depot was established at Wolseley in February 1941. The name of the town was changed to match the name of the station at that time.

In the early 1880's long distance railways were being built across the countryside, and the South Australia Railways built a broad gauge line to Tatiara while Victorian Railways completed their line at Serviceton, both believing that they had stopped on the border. Despite the gauge being the same, the 4km distance between the towns across the disputed territory was debated until the South Australians took the upper hand and built the track that joined the two lines (see 'Serviceton' above). At the same time that the broad gauge line was being built, a narrow gauge line was laid from Mt Gambier to Wolseley thus leading to a break-of-gauge junction, often the cause of much angst, delays and challenges.



During World War II in the face of a pending invasion of Australia, it was deemed appropriate that 31 inland aircraft fuel depots should be built at strategic locations (next to rail lines) where defence of neighbouring countryside and shores could be achieved. Wolseley was an obvious place, being remote, yet connected to Melbourne and Adelaide by a railway line. No. 12 Inland Aircraft Fuel Depot was established at Wolseley, with an initial capacity of 280,000 gallons (approx. 1,273,000 litres) in three tanks camouflaged to look like farm buildings. The depot started operations in 1942 and three additional tanks were added later. It was disbanded on 14 June 1944. The the tanks and barracks were discreetly abandoned; the tanks survive and can be seen beside the highway.



After the war, the narrow gauge Mt Gambier line was converted to broad gauge and the break-of-gauge junction was abandoned. This lasted 40 years until 1995 when ironically, following a direction from Canberra, the Melbourne to Adelaide line was converted to standard gauge, a direction which signalled the closure of the Mt Gambier line, which was abandoned.

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