The grandeur of 19th century European and British railway stations reflected their importance in developing industrialised society. The Australian colonies required greater distances of tracks and fewer stations than the motherland, but even the most humble station was of vital significance for its local community in the transit of passengers and goods. By the 1850s, architects and engineers in Britain and Europe were grappling with the concept of vast spans of roof to cover the platforms and tracks of their stations. They needed to be high enough for soot and smoke to dissipate without causing fires, and to allow for light. The results of their efforts survive in the soaring glass and iron roofs which amaze travellers to European cities such as Lyon and Dresden. In 1845 John Dobson of Newcastle in England had invented a method of rolling iron into curved sheets which could be laid over expansive curved trusses and ribs moulded in iron. At the same time, new methods of glazing provided for large panes of glass which could be set into the iron framework.

Most stations in the Australian colonies incorporated the offices in the main building and provided shelter over the platforms, but trains were left out in the open. Even small country stations, however, proudly displayed carefully crafted framework supporting the iron roof. The major city terminals were graced with stained glass, polished timber fittings and every convenience for passengers. The service provided for travel by first or second class, and the cost reflected the standard of comfort. Although the architecture of the 19th century stations did not rival the majesty of their European counterparts, their facades provided a distinctive statement for their local communities. Some must rank among the most impressive of Australia’s 19th century buildings.

The station at Archer Park, which served the city of Rockhampton in Queensland, is a particularly fine example of Victorian railway architecture. Unfortunately, like many other stations, it is now unused and many of its original features can no longer be appreciated. The architect’s drawings were signed by Henrik Hansen, and, although this is not sufficient evidence to substantiate them as his design, he was obviously closely associated with it, as well as eight similar but smaller stations on the Central Line. The distinctive features of the timber facades of the Central Line stations were the verandahs and archway entrances constructed of cast iron pillars supporting a decorative cast iron frieze. The stations featured the high curved roof structure which protected the tracks as well as the platform. Fifteen stations in Queensland were built with roof spans which protected the tracks, although three of these, built in the 1860s, were designed with gable rather than curved roofs. The huge carriage shade of the Archer Park station spanned 13.7 metres and extended for 91.5 metres. The iron trusses of the roof supported the galvanised iron sheets and a skylight which ran the length of the platform. Ventilation was increased by an open vent along the ridge. Some government architects were involved in the design of railway stations, but when railways became separate departments, or separate branches within public works, railway engineers usually designed the stations.

For sheer grandeur, the station built at Ballarat in Victoria in 1877-8, and the one opened in Albury, New South Wales, in 1883, must rate mentions. Ballarat boomed from the gold finds and displayed its wealth in civic architecture. Albury acquired wealth and status because it was the station at which passengers changed trains when travelling between New South Wales and Victoria. The opening of this link was an historic event, seen by many to be a major step towards federation. Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia commented:

Thursday, the 14th of June, 1883, is a day to be remembered in the history of intercolonial railway communication in Australia. On that day there was celebrated at Albury, “the most southern town” of New South Wales, an event which was deemed of sufficient importance to bring together the Governors of two great colonies, and with them upward of a thousand representatives of Australian life and Australian interests...The true significance of the event was felt to lie in its prophecy of the union of the colonies. “We venture to express the hope,” said the Mayor and Aldermen of the Borough of Albury, in addressing the Governor of New South Wales, “that the connection of the two great lines of New South Wales and Victoria will greatly facilitate the large and important traffic between Sydney and Melbourne, and we trust that it may be only the forerunner of the repeal of the border duties and the federation of the Australian colonies”. 1

In 1886 a Custom House was established on the Albury station to check the movement of goods between New South Wales and Victoria and the platform was extended to 460 metres. It was not until 1901 that the dream of Federation and the abolition of border duties was realised, but it took many more years before the semblance of a co-ordinated rail service connected our capital cities.

Today we wonder how different our history might have been if, firstly, the colonies had co-operated more closely, and, secondly, if vital decisions, particularly on railway gauges, had been different. Douglas Lockwood in his book, The Front Door, discussing the history of Darwin from 1869 to 1963, describes early proposals for a rail connection between Adelaide and Palmerston (Darwin). In 1872 the South Australian government voted on a proposal for the line to go ahead, on the basis that land be granted to the contractor. It was defeated by one vote. Lockwood comments:

In retrospect, that vote seems to have been the most retrogressive in the history of North Australian settlement. It would be idle to prophesy what the Territory’s condition might be today if it had the benefit of 100 years of the adequate railway then proposed, but it is certainly true that the penalty for one negative democratic vote has been heavy. 2

It was not until 1999 that another serious proposal was put forward and the line was completed in 2003 by a private consortium. The size of the Australian continent has posed major problems for transport and telegraphic communications, and the small population has been hard pressed to meet the costs involved in thousands of kilometres of rail and wire. Traversing the vast spaces has required incredible feats of engineering and endurance. To understand our present communication needs and services, we benefit by looking at the past.

Early Means of Transport

Before a rail system of transport was developed in the Australian colonies, goods were moved by horse-drawn vehicles, bullock drays, river boats, or ships plying around the coasts. The most famous of the inland waterways, the Murray-Darling river system, which flowed through South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales, provided important links with country towns along tributaries such as the Murrumbidgee River. By the end of the 1850s the two major inland forms of transport were river boats transporting primary produce to market outlets, and Cobb & Co. coaches moving passengers between the major towns.

The development of the railway systems in the Australian colonies grew from technological advances in Britain. In the early 1800s, lines were in use in coal mines for trolleys pulled by men or horses, and static steam engines were being used to provide power for developing industries. The two practices were combined to achieve Britain’s first railway journey between Stockton and Darlington in 1825, followed by the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool railway in 1830. Railways opened the way to social and industrial change: fresh food produce could be transported for distances up to 300 kilometres; raw materials could be transported to the newly developing industrial centres; and prospective workers could travel from the country to the city with ease. The developing Australian colonies were not as industrialised as the mother country but the railways were the solution to many problems, particularly long distance transportation of goods. Many proposed routes were considered in relation to established transport links, particularly the river trade but, in time, the railways superseded paddle steamers altogether. Movement of freight was a major task for the growing rail services: supplies could be delivered to developing inland settlements and loads of grain, minerals, fruit and livestock carried in bulk to coastal centres.

First Lines.

The first primitive rail line was built in Van Diemen’s Land in 1836 to shorten the long sea journey from Hobart Town to Port Arthur. The Commandant of the convict settlement supervised the construction of the line, which was built with wooden rails and sleepers across the Tasman Peninsula. Passengers travelled by boat to Norfolk Bay where they boarded crude wooden trolleys set on four cast iron wheels. On either side of each double-seated trolley were two long handles which the convicts used to push it along the seven kilometre track to Port Arthur.

The next railway line was commenced by the South Australians. The transport of goods down the Murray River had one severe disadvantage - the mouth of the Murray into the sea was blocked by long sand bars. In 1849 a route was surveyed for a railway to run from Goolwa, near the river’s mouth, to Port Elliott, a safe coastal harbour only eleven kilometres away. Bullock wagons hauled the cargo until the line became fully operational in May 1854, and then horses pulled the rail carriages until locomotives were available. The first line out of Adelaide was to Port Adelaide in 1856 and the second was built to Gawler in 1857.

The colony of Victoria celebrated the coming of the iron horse in September 1854: ships in Port Phillip Bay were festooned with flags to greet the arrival of the train from Melbourne to the port, Sandridge, now called Port Melbourne.

In New South Wales an official holiday was declared when the first steam engine carried the Governor, his family and invited guests from Sydney to Parramatta in September 1855. Work had begun with surveys of the line in 1849; the construction required 50 culverts, 27 bridges, a tunnel at Redfern, a viaduct over Lane Cove Creek and six stations.

Private Railways

The line from Adelaide to Port Adelaide was the first state-owned line to be opened in the British Empire. However, with this exception, the initial burst of railway building was the preserve of private companies who raised money as required for their projects. Some of them, particularly the Midland Company in Western Australia and the Silverton Tram Company in New South Wales, continued as long-lived and successful enterprises. However, in the majority of cases the governments of the colonies found it necessary to take over responsibility for rail services. Many private companies ran out of funds and governments stepped in to ensure completion of the work; even when a line was successfully completed by private enterprise, the returns did not meet the expectations for viable management with the result that the company sold the assets to the government. Because many lines, built to encourage development, were speculative, private companies were not in a position to wait for potential returns. As a result, by the 1860s the government of each colony had undertaken the task of raising loans and establishing its own government department to administer its rail system. This has led to paradoxical results from which the nation still suffers.

Question of Gauge

Gauge refers to the distance between the tracks and, accordingly, to the distance between the wheels of the rolling stock. It was in the matter of gauge that differences between the colonies created a major problem. There are three gauges operating in Australia: New South Wales decided on 1435mm (four feet, eight and a half inches) known as ‘standard’, Victoria opted for 1600mm (5′3″) known as ‘broad’, and Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania built to 1066mm (3′6″) known as ‘narrow’.

The Colonial Office in Britain at first recommended the standard gauge for any railway construction in the colonies. However a uniform guage did not eventuate, and the confusion was to have such far-reaching effects on Australian communications. On the advice of an Irish engineer appointed by the Sydney Railway Company, it was decided to follow Irish specifications of the broad gauge for the construction of railways in New South Wales. No sooner had Victoria and South Australia decided to follow suit than New South Wales reverted to standard gauge. The reason for this, so the story goes, was that the Irishman died and the Scotsman, who was appointed to his position, changed the arrangements. Another key official in the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Britain died before Victoria could change back to the standard gauge, which had been its initial preference, and his successor allowed the discrepancy to proceed. Although South Australia chose the broad gauge for compatibility with the Victorian connection, it used narrow gauge for other routes. When the Queensland parliament considered the question of gauge for its railways in the Bill of 1863, the government backed the narrow gauge on the advice of its Irish engineer. Construction in narrow gauge was more economical; this was a major factor when long distances were involved. Strong opposition, mounted on the need to conform with the New South Wales gauge, led to a double dissolution of parliament, but the government was returned with a strengthened majority and opted for the narrow gauge. As a result of the colonies’ failure to co-ordinate, passengers were faced with the need to change trains in order to continue journeys encompassing more than one gauge. Even Tasmania with its small area was not immune: the first two lines into Launceston from Deloraine, 1868, and Hobart, 1876, were built by different private companies to different gauges.

Patterns of Development

New South Wales and Victoria developed railway grids which radiated out from the capital cities, but railways in the other colonies followed different patterns. In South Australia, Port Augusta developed as a major rail centre along with Adelaide, and in Tasmania, Launceston predominated over Hobart, because of its importance for mineral exports from the north and west of the island. Many of Western Australia’s first railways were built to transport timber and minerals. Private railways serviced the timber industry which was operating in the kauri and jarrah forests to the south of Perth: the first line was built over a 20-kilometre route from Lockville to Yoganup in 1871. The first government railway line connected the mining centre of Northampton to the port of Geraldton in 1879. Perth was connected with Geraldton in 1894 when a private company agreed to build a branch line from Midland.

Queensland’s railway system developed from the five main coastal ports to service the inland centres. It forms a pattern of parallel East-West routes with branch lines. The line connecting the coastal centres from Brisbane to Cairns, covering over 1600 kilometres, was built in stages with Townsville being connected to Brisbane as late as 1923. The first stretch of line opened from Ipswich, the largest city in the colony when it separated from New South Wales. It served as an important trading centre on the Bremer River from which goods delivered from inland centres could be sent downstream to the port of Brisbane. The initial line from Ipswich to Grandchester was constructed in 1863-1865, and then extended to Toowoomba by 1867. Ipswich and Brisbane were linked by rail in 1875. Queensland boasts the longest distance of rail track in Australia and the largest freight uplifts.

Despite the enthusiasm for railway construction, the lack of intercolonial co-operation meant that travel between colonies was most easily undertaken by sea. The situation was summed up by Anthony Trollope, writing in the early 1870s:

There is communication by coach from Brisbane to Sydney, from Sydney to Melbourne, and from Melbourne to Adelaide, supplemented in each case by the use of small detached railways; - but no-one travels in this fashion between any of those towns. There are steamers plying twice or thrice a week, and thus the journeys are made...in no instance does a railway run from the capital of one colony to that of another. There seems to be a feeling that were this done the intimacy would be too great. Sydney might run away with the trade of Brisbane, and Melbourne might destroy Sydney. The Australian railways are therefore bits of railways, giving a help here and there to the traveller who has to make his way inwards from the sea, bringing down wool and carrying back stores, but in no case joining together the great towns. 3

Expansion of the Railways

The second half of the 19th century is remembered in history as the great period of railway construction. By 1866 the colonies had built 460 miles of track, with lines reaching from Sydney to Penrith, Picton and Richmond; from Melbourne to Geelong, Ballarat and Echuca; from Adelaide to Port Adelaide and Kapunda; and from Ipswich to Helidon. Railway building was a major source of employment in government public works programs. Most routes followed hospitable terrain, but mountainous routes demanded incredible engineering feats and dedication of the workers, many of whom died on the job. Anthony Trollope, described the Western Line from Sydney:

At Parramatta the lines diverge, the Southern branch going to Goulbourn, and the Western across the Blue Mountains to Bathurst. The latter crosses the Nepean River at Penrith, and immediately ascends the hills. It is taken up by a zigzag ascent, and after running 60 miles through the mountains, by the only possible track which they afford even for foot travellers, it is brought down again by another zigzag. On the ascent from the Nepean the gradient is 1 in 30;- on the descent towards Bathurst it is 1 in 42. The whole work is said to be, and appears to be, a wonderful feat of engineering enterprise, - and is not the less so certainly because it cost 25,000 pounds a mile: whereas the portion of the line between Sydney and Parramatta, which cost double the money, runs through perfectly flat country. 4

Equally incredible feats were undertaken on the Kuranda Railway which climbs up the Barron Gorge from Cairns to Herberton in north Queensland. This line was commenced in 1886 to service the Atherton Tableland and the Herberton tin mines, at a time when the great depression of the eighties had stalled most construction. Despite the deaths of many men, it was seen as a major triumph in railway construction. 1500 men used picks and shovels, hand drills, and dynamite lit by hand to dig the track and 15 tunnels. In one 24 kilometre section it curved sharply ninety eight times. Hand forged iron work created the bridges which spanned the precipitous gorges. By the nineties, renewed confidence and investment saw increased rail construction in all the colonies with Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, completing 1700 miles of new track by the end of the century.


Although the railways have remained the responsibility of the states, they became a commonwealth issue in the campaign for Federation. In response to Western Australia’s lack of interest in Federation, a rail connection between Perth and the eastern states was offered as an inducement. The connection was promoted for its economic and defence advantages for the whole country. Despite these promises, it was not until 1911 that the Commonwealth passed the necessary legislation for the construction of the Trans-Australian Line which was finally completed in 1917, linking Kalgoorlie in Western Australia with Port Augusta in South Australia. The Indian Pacific has proved to be one of the most popular of Australia’s rail journeys.

The Commonwealth extended its involvement with railways when the line from Queanbeyan to Canberra was opened for goods in 1914, and passengers in 1923. The Commonwealth operated the line as partners of the railway department of New South Wales, but in 1985 control was handed to New South Wales. The Commonwealth took control of the line from Darwin to Pine Creek in 1911, and extended it to Birdum in 1929 but later closed it. In 1975 the Commonwealth took control of the non urban railways of South Australia, the most notable being the Ghan which runs to Alice Springs, and in the same year it assumed responsibility for Tasmania’s railways.

The states and Commonwealth have continued to work towards a more unified system addressing the major task of correcting the gauges. By 1970 it became possible to travel from Perth to Brisbane on a uniform standard gauge. In 1975 the Commonwealth Railways became known as the Australian National Railways, and the Overlander between Adelaide and Melbourne became a joint venture between it and Vic Rail. Heavy losses were sustained on some of the passenger services, however, and in 1997 a private operator, Great Southern Railways paid $16 million for the passenger lines, acquiring the Overlander, the Ghan, and the Indian Pacific.

The economic constraints of operating such extensive distances of track in the face of competition from road transport led to the closure of many small branch lines. This was not achieved without vociferous opposition from local communities who saw the rail connection as their life support. The railways opened up country areas, enabling rural and commercial enterprises to flourish, and provided an important link in defence capabilities. Their future lies in continued co-ordination with road transport, adaptation to improved means of freight handling such as containers, a well co-ordinated national grid, and fast, comfortable and reliable passenger services.


1 Australia’s First Century, 1788-1888, pp. 395, 397.

2 Douglas Lockwood, The Front Door, Darwin, 1869-1969. Rigby, 1969, p. 96.

3 Simpson, D.H., (ed.), Australia and New Zealand by Anthony Trollope, The Colonial History Series, 2nd edn, Dawsons of Pall Mall, London, 1968, first published London, 1873, vol. 2, pp. 191, 192.

4 ibid, vol. 2, pp. 254, 255.


Australian Encyclopaedia, vol. 7, Australian Geographic, Australian Geographic Society, Terrey Hills, NSW, 1988.

Australia’s First Century, Facsimile of Cassell’s Picturesque Australasia, Child and Henry, NSW, 1980.

Brooke, Stephen, The Railways of Australia, Dreamweaver Books, 1984. Burgess, H.T., I.L.D., The Cyclopedia of South Australia, Cyclopedia Co., Alfred G. Selway, Adelaide, 1907.

Carroll, Brian, Australian Railway Days. Milestones in Australia’s History, Macmillan, 1976.

Lockwood, Douglas, The Front Door, Darwin, 1869-1969, Rigby, 1969. Rienits, Rex & Thea, A Pictorial History of Australia, Hamlyn Publishing Group, Middlesex, 1969.

Scott, Ernest, A Short History of Australia, Oxford University Press, 1929. Sheppard, Charles, Railway Stations, Masterpieces of Architecture, Universal International, 1996.

Simpson, D.H., (ed.), Australia and New Zealand by Anthony Trollope, vol. 2, The Colonial History Series, 2nd edn, Dawsons of Pall Mall, London, 1968. First printed, 1873.

Kuranda Commentator, Kuranda Commentary train.

Tourist information from Queensland Rail.