From the time of settlement until the mid 1800s, settlers travelled by foot, horseback, horse-drawn wagon, or camel. The only alternative in those days was coastal shipping. A new era began in 1854 when the first steam train commenced operation in Australia, an era in which railway construction expanded rapidly in all of the country’s independent colonies. The earliest railways were built in the 1850s. Originally, rail tracks and carriages were imported from England and Ireland, but by the 1880s both track, carriages, and steam locomotives were manufactured locally.

Australia’s railway history is unique in that it reflects the way independent colonies were established in different parts of the continent. The earliest railways were built by private companies, but even when colonial administrators took control of rail construction they paid no attention to the fact that a national rail network extending across the entire continent would one day be needed.

In 1901 the Federation of Australia united the six British colonies into the Commonwealth of Australia. The former colonies became States that kept their system of government but were subjugated to a Federal Government, which became responsible for matters concerning the entire nation. Regardless, fifty years of independent railway construction in the former colonies continued after Federation. The principal differences concerned the choice of track gauge.

The difference in construction would become a major problem in the establishment of a nationwide rail network, because the track gauge used in different states were incompatible:

  • NSW used the European gauge standard of 1435 mm,
  • VIC, SA, TAS, QLD, and WA used the 1600 mm gauge from Ireland, and
  • In addition, several private and regional rail links were constructed with a narrow gauge of 1067 mm.

These differences in track gauge produced serious problems when the different states began interconnecting their rail systems. A traveller going by rail from Sydney to Perth in 1912 had to change train six times. By 1970, passengers were able to travel on the one train, but the problem with incompatible track gauges for interstate rail services was not completely resolved until 1995. Different states still retain different track gauges for regional rail services.

Apart from these initial problems, Australia’s rail history has all the traditions and transitions that characterises rail history anywhere in the world. Rail enthusiasts have lovingly restored steam engines and even constructed museums and dedicated rail tracks where tourists can ride steam trains in some of the original carriages.

Railway history in Australia’s different states

Steam engines powered Australian trains up until the 1950s, when they were gradually replaced by diesel locomotives. Steam engines were completely withdrawn in the 1970s, except for tourist tracks that are still operated by train enthusiasts in many parts of the country. Today, electric trains are most commonly used in state capital cities and surrounding areas.

The first railway construction in New South Wales commenced in 1849 by the Sydney Railway Company. The rail construction was eventually taken over by the NSW Colonial Government and a railway line between Sydney and Granville opened in 1855. At the time, there was a large colonial settlement in Parramatta, and it became the country residence of NSW Governors for seven decades. This is the likely reason why the first railway was constructed here. This line was progressively extended down the Macarthur region, an area that provided lush grazing pastures for cattle and sheep. Settlements grew here, and it became the region where Australia’s sheep industry was born.

The railway was then extended from Granville to:

  • Liverpool in 1856,
  • Campbelltown in 1858,
  • Picton in 1863,
  • Mittagong in 1867,
  • Marulan in 1868,
  • Goulburn in 1869,
  • Yass in 1876, and
  • Finally down to Albury in 1881.

The railway became known as the Main Southern Line. Currently, this line is electrified as far as Macarthur.

The southern line was connected to Victorian Railways in 1883 through a break-of-gauge transition point. A standard gauge line between Albury and Melbourne was completed in 1962 and became known as the Sydney-Melbourne railway.

Further expansion of the NSW railway system served industrial needs. The ports of Sydney and Newcastle were connected to rural areas, and the two cities were eventually connected by rail in 1889.

The construction of a Main Western line faced the difficulty of crossing the Blue Mountains. The solution was a zigzag line at Lapstone and Lithgow, which opened in 1867 and 1869 respectively. These lines were replaced by tunnel excavations in 1913.

The Western line commenced from Granville and reached:

  • Parramatta and Blacktown in 1860,
  • Penrith in 1863,
  • Bathurst in 1876,
  • Orange in 1877,
  • Dubbo in 1881, and
  • Bourke in 1885.

The Main North line commenced at Newcastle and reached the Queensland border at Wallangarra, where it connected to the Queensland Railways line to Brisbane at a break-of-gauge transition point.

NSW rail stations

Sydney Central Station was opened in 1855 and is the oldest building in the NSW railway system. A railtrack that runs under Railway Square in Sydney connects to the City Circle, and following the completion of the Harbour Bridge in 1932, to the northern suburbs of Sydney and then onwards to the north of the state.

The first six stations built in NSW were:

  • Sydney,
  • Newtown,
  • Ashfield,
  • Burwood,
  • Homebush, and
  • Granville.

Suburban lines followed, connecting:

  • Richmond in 1859,
  • Brighton and Hawthorn in the early 1860s, and
  • Bendigo and Ballarat by 1862.

The first interstate connection was established in 1884 at Albury-Wodonga, where a break-of-gauge transition was installed. In 1887, the Intercolonial Express, now called the Overlander, connected Victoria and South Australia.

By the late 1890s, most of the colonial territory was covered by a railway network. In 1907, A2 class steam locomotives were introduced and operated until the arrival of the B class diesel locomotives in 1952.

Passenger services on Victoria’s rail network are today privately owned. Electric trains are owned and run by Metro Trains Melbourne, while diesel trains running in regional Victoria are operated by V/Line. Most regional lines still use the 1600mm gauge tracks, while interstate lines use the standard 1435mm gauge tracks that facilitate trouble-free interconnection with other states.

The Victorian Railway Timeline provides a complete list of all Victorian railway developments.

VIC rail stations

The first station, still standing today largely as originally constructed, is the Flinders Street Station. Other city stations, constructed in early stages, include Princes Bridge Station and Spencer Street Station.

Queensland’s first railway, from Ipswich to Grandchester, commenced operation in 1865. This line was later extended to Darling Downs and Brisbane in 1875. It ran on the narrow 1067mm track gauge.

By 1890, Queensland had eleven separate railway systems, all operated by Queensland Railways. These lines were not interconnected, a situation that caused problems with duplicated workshops and difficulties in moving rolling stock between the lines in response to shifting demands.

The 11 sections were:

  • Brisbane - Charleville, Warwick & Yandina
  • Cooroy - Gympie - Maryborough -
    Bundaberg
  • North Bundaberg - Mount Perry
  • Rockhampton - Longreach, Clermont &
    Springsure
  • North Rockhampton - Emu Park
  • Mackay - Eton & Mirani
  • Bowen - Guthalungra
  • Townsville - Hughenden
  • Cairns - Mareeba
  • Cooktown - Laura
  • Normanton - Croydon

In 1910, the Queensland Government passed the North Coast Railway Act to interconnect all the significant rail links shown above. As early as 1883, a time when Queensland was still a British colony, a decision was made to connect Brisbane and Gladstone by rail. By 1900, this line was to be extended to Rockhampton.

QLD rail stations

The priority for railway development was to provide the Darling Downs region with transport to a coastal port:

  • Main Line from Ipswich was extended to Cunnamulla, where livestock grazing was plentiful. This same line was extended to Brisbane in 1876.
  • Southern Line from Toowoomba reached Warwick by 1871, and was extended to the NSW border in 1887, where continued rail travel was subject to a break-of-gauge transition. This gave Queensland rail access to Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide.
  • Central West Line, going west from Rockhampton to Longreach was built between 1867-1892 and provided rail access to large areas of grazing land.
  • Great Northern Line between Charters Towers to Hughenden opened between 1884 and 1887, and was subsequently extended to Winton and Julia Creek by 1903. It also served the purpose of giving rail access to vast areas of grazing land.
  • Alberton Tablelands rail network was built to connect agricultural areas to port facilities.
  • Parochial attitudes being what they are, a Southwestern line was built to prevent freight, and especially wool, from being shipped out via NSW ports.

By the 1950s, main railway lines held airconditioned trains named the Westlander, Midlander, Inlander, and Sunlander. The first electric services were introduced and named the Spirit of Capricorn in 1989. This service runs between Brisbane and Rockhampton and was followed by Spirit of the Outback in 1993, a service between Brisbane and Longreach.

South Australia’s rail history began with a horse-drawn railway in 1854, running between the ports of Goolwa and Port Elliot at the mouth of the Murray River. It was a milestone in Australian rail history as it was the first track to be laid with iron.

The first steam powered train was introduced in 1856 and ran between Adelaide and Port Adelaide. Its claim to fame was that it was the first government built and owned steam railway in the entire British Empire.

Further rail construction existed to serve the wheat and mining industries. The Kapunda railway station became the largest wheat collection point, and an extension built in 1870 reached the mines at Burra. It was eventually extended to reach Morgan, where it connected with the Murray River paddle steamers.

The Great Northern Railway was built to connect Port Augusta and Marree in 1883, and then Oodnadatta in 1891. This rail line served the pastoral and mining industries in the northern part of the colony.

After Federation the Commonwealth Government began to be involved in rail construction, making several contributions on their own. The Commonwealth:

  • Completed the Port Augusta
    to Oodnadatta link,
  • Built the Adelaide to
    Alice Springs line in 1929,
  • Completed the Trans-Australian Railway link
    between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie in
    1917, and
  • Completed the North Australian Railway
    extension between Pine Creek and Birdum
    in the Northern Territory.

Following sharp deterioration in the railway network because of declining income and the Great War, the network was rebuilt within a seven year period starting in 1922. Larger locomotives and carriages were added, bridges were widened and strengthened, diesel locomotives were added, and narrow gauge tracks were replaced by broad ones. During this period, the Adelaide Train Station was also constructed.

The Broken Hill mining operation had a need to transport iron ore to smelters located at Port Pirie in SA as early as the 1880s. The NSW colonial government, however, refused the South Australian Railways to extend a narrow gauge rail link across the border from SA into NSW. In response, a private company called the Silverton Tramway Company built and operated a 56 km rail link between Cockburn in SA to Broken Hill. This rail link was kept in operation from 1888 until 1970 when it was closed following the construction of a standard gauge railway between Broken Hill and Port Pirie in 1970.

Port Pirie saw further changes in 1982 when the broad gauge rail link to Adelaide was replaced by standard gauge. A further upgrade was completed as a result of the Federal Government’s One Nation in 1995, when the broad gauge link between Adelaide and Melbourne was changed to a standard gauge track.

The narrow gauge rail link between Marree in SA and Alice Springs, plagued by flooding and derailments, was upgraded to a standard gauge link in 1980, branching off the Trans-Australian line at Tarcoola.

As late as 1917, South Australia still had railway lines in three different gauges.

The first railway in WA was privately built in 1871 and ran between Lockwill and Yoganup south of Perth. Progressively, a network of 1067 mm gauge tracks were constructed across the southwestern part of the colony.

This was followed by a Government built rail link between Geraldton and Northampton in 1879. Perth and Geraldton were connected to the interstate rail network using 1435 mm gauge tracks in the 1900s.

Privately owned railways were built to serve the mining areas in the north part of the state using standard gauge tracks. A bogie exchange system was used to transfer locomotives and carriages to the narrow gauge network built by the government.

The most interesting and imaginative railway construction in Tasmania was the rail link between Queenstown and Strahan on the west coast of the island, built in the late 1800s. The initial requirement was to transport copper from the mines in Queenstown to the nearby port at Macquarie Harbour. The rail link was built across steep and inhospitable mountain territory with steep inclines. Some of these inclines were too steep for the steam locomotives to climb, and a unique rack railway sourced from Germany was installed to haul the train carriages up to the steepest slopes. Five specially designed steam locomotives operated this rail link for sixty years, up until 1962 when road transport became available.

The railway link was closed and dismantled, but has subsequently been reconstructed in the 1990s as a passenger and tourist venture run with restored steam locomotives.

The Launceston and Western Railway Company built and operated a 72 kilometre rail line between Launceston and Deloraine in 1868. The Tasmanian colonial government incorporated the Tasmania Mainline Railway and constructed a railway connecting Hobart and Launceston.

Ideas, promises, delays, and resurrected promises by various Federal Governments were finally turned to reality with the 2004 opening of a transcontinental railway connecting Darwin with Adelaide and the national railway system. Depending on which commitments are counted or discounted, the implementation was delayed somewhere between 90 and 140 years, but it has been established that the idea for a railway connection was first raised in the 1870s.

This railway finally links all State and Territory cities together. The railway, now named The Ghan, stretches 2, 979 kilometres and takes 54 hours to complete, with a four hour stopover in Alice Springs. It’s one of the most unique railway journeys in the world as it travels across different climates with spectacular scenery progressing from the temperate southern part of the country, to the Red Centre, and the tropical areas of the NT.

The enormous project that spanned the entire Australian continent from north to south was completed in stages:

  • Construction began in 1878 and reached
    Oodnadatta from Adelaide in 1891. This link
    was extended to Alice Springs in 1929,
  • In 1889, a 253 kilometre railway line
    opened between Darwin and Pine Creek,
  • In 1929, a 511 kilometre line opened
    between Darwin and Birdum, and
  • The line between Alice Springs and Darwin
    was finally completed in 2004.

The first railway construction in the capital territory was a standard gauge line connecting Canberra and Queanbeyan in 1914. Subsequently, additional railway links connected the territory to the Australia-wide rail network.

Break-of-gauge solutions

Incompatible railway lines intersected at state borders, a problem that restricted Australia’s economic development. Difficult and cumbersome solutions had to be invented for trains to pass from one gauge to another. Several different solutions, each inconvenient and difficult, were considered:

  • Double and even triple gauge tracks were laid,
  • Engines and carriages were fitted with variable width axles, and
  • The train bogies, which includes the entire undercarriage of engines and carriages, were removed and substituted.

Break-of-gauge stations were therefore established. Terowie in South Australia was the first of these stations, with others implemented in Hamley Bridge, Wolseley, Gladstone, Port Pirie, Port Augusta, and Marree. Triple gauge track transitions were also built at Gladstone and Peterborough. These problems were largely eliminated in 1995 following the construction of standard gauge tracks between the states.

A single national interstate railway network

In 1998, the Federal Government established the Australian Rail Track Corporation Ltd (ARTC) with a mission to manage Australia’s interstate railway network. ARTC is tasked with managing interstate rail tracks through direct ownership or long-term lease arrangements with the states.

One of the primary responsibilities of ARTC is to implement uniform operating standards and rules. The National Rail Safety Regulator (NRSR) commenced operation in 2008 with a mission to implement consistent regulatory practices in all states and territories.

Modern long range Australian train journeys

The Ghan

The Ghan is a passenger train that runs between Adelaide, Alice Springs, and Darwin. Operated by Great Southern Rail, it takes 54 hours to travel the 2,979 kilometres with a four hour stopover in Alice Springs.

Beginning operation in 1929, the Ghan ran on a 1067 mm narrow gauge rail line called the Central Australian Railway between South Australia and Alice Springs. In 1957, a 1435 mm gauge line between Stirling North and Marree opened. However track incompatibility restricted the Ghan to operate only north of Marree.

Following the construction of a standard gauge line laid to the west of the original line, the connection was extended northwards from Alice Springs to Darwin. The complete Darwin to Adelaide transcontinental railway opened in January, 2004.

Today, the Ghan has the reputation of being one of the greatest rail journeys in the world. It has captivated travellers and those seeking an authentic Australian experience since the day the first section of the railway opened in 1929.

The Indian Pacific

This train journey starts in Sydney, travels through the Blue Mountains and passes through Broken Hill, Adelaide, Kalgoorlie, and then on to Perth. It’s one of the longest train trips anywhere in the world. The entire trip is 4,352 kilometres in length and takes three days and nights to complete. The passage across the Nullarbor Plains is the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world.

The Overland

This rail journey runs between Melbourne and Adelaide has been operating since 1887. It passes through the towns of Murray Bridge, Bordertown, Nhill, Dimboola, Horsham, Ararat, and Geelong. The service runs twice a week and connects with the Indian Pacific running between Sydney and Perth, as well as the Ghan running between Adelaide and Darwin.

The Spirit of Queensland

In December 2014, this rail journey replaced the train trip between Brisbane and Cairns that was previously called The Sunlander. The previously named service had been operating since 1953. The journey covers 1,691 kilometres and takes 24 hours to complete. It features seats that convert to a flat bed for overnight travel.

The Tilt Train

This is a modern railway service that offers passengers the comfort of personal entertainment screens, laptop connections, and the option of in-seat dining. It traverses the Queensland coastline past destinations such as Hervey Bay, Fraser Island, and the Whitsundays. The service runs twice a week from Brisbane and Cairns, and Brisbane and Rockhampton.

Australian heritage and tourist railways

Puffing Billy

This is the most famous steam train journey in Australia today. It runs for 24.5 kilometres along its original track, through rainforest and mountain villages in the Dandenong Ranges of Victoria. The line was built in the early 1900s as one of four trial lines and has been meticulously maintained.

The Zig Zag Railway

This is a tourist railway that can be boarded from the town of Clarence, ten kilometres east of Lithgow in the Blue Mountains of NSW. The rail track was built in 1860 but was updated in 1910 with the addition of ten separate tunnel divisions. The original track, engines, and carriages are maintained by Zig Zag Railway Co-op, a voluntary non-profit cooperative. The train originally ran every day of the year, but a bushfire in 2013 destroyed much of the rolling stock. The volunteer organisation is determined to restore and restart operations.

The Savannahlander

This railway is operated by the Cairns Kuranda Steam Train Ltd. and runs between Cairns and Forsayth in QLD. The journey takes 16 hours over two days, and covers a distance of 423 kilometres. It runs three times a week with an additional service to Townsville. The train is driven by a 1960 Rail Motor that travels at a leisurely 50 km/hour through World Heritage listed rainforests and the savannah of Outback Australia.

Kuranda Scenic Railway

This scenic railway was constructed in 1913 and travels from Cairns to Kuranda, a village situated within a rainforest. The Kuranda station is world famous for its tropical gardens and history, and the station building is the only remaining one of its type in Queensland. The journey passes by stunning waterfalls and runs into the attractive Barron Gorge. Tour guides accompany the trip and provide commentary about the railway and surrounding area.

Pichi Richi Railway

This is a heritage steam train journey and rail museum located in Quorn in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. It is operated by the Pichi Richi Railway Preservation Society. It runs along the oldest remaining part of the old, narrow gauge Ghan railway between QUorn and Port Augusta. Amongst the fleet of steam engines is one called the ‘Coffee Pot’, which is the only operating steam engine of its kind in the world.

Bellarine

This site features a historic steam train railway running between Drysdale and Queenscliff in Victoria.

Hotham Valley Tourist Railway

This railway operates both steam and diesel locomotives. Operated by a group of rail enthusiasts, it runs along a 32 kilometre stretch of the Pinjarra to Narrogin railway line. The railway is entirely staffed by volunteers. After 2011, it was the only railway in the state laid with 1067 gauge tracks.

The SteamRanger ‘Cockle’ Train

This heritage railway operates steam and diesel tourist trains between Goolwa and Victor Harbour in South Australia, travelling along the Southern coastline. The railway is the oldest steel track laid in Australia and dates back to 1887.

West Coast Wilderness Railway

This steam powered train journey operates between Queenstown and Strahan on the west coast of Tasmania. The original railway went into service in 1897, transporting copper from mines in Queenstown to Macquarie Harbour at Strahan. This railway was demolished when road transport to Queenstown became available in 1932. The original train line has been rebuilt and uses the original steam engines. The unique feature of this railway is a ‘rack’ system designed to haul the train up steep hillsides which the steam engines cannot climb with their own power.

The Gulflander

This is a heritage listed railway that runs between Normanton and Croydon on the Cape York Peninsula in north Queensland. It has been called one of the last great characters of the railway world. Normanton was the centre of the Croydon gold rush, and the rail journey exposes train passengers to an area steeped in pioneering history. Station 119, for example, was the most northerly camp erected by the famous explorers Burke and Wills. This railway was never connected to the Queensland railway network but exists in isolation. Guides accompany the trip, which only takes a limited number of passengers.

Railway museums have been established in various parts of Australia to preserve rail history, and especially the old steam engines and their carriages. Some museums include:

  • Archer Park Railway Station
  • Australian Railway Historical Society Museum,
    Champion Road, North Williamstown
  • Canberra Railway Museum
  • Dorrigo Steam Railway & Museum
  • Lachlan Valley Railway
  • New South Wales Rail Transport
    Museum, Thirlmere
  • National Railway Museum, Port Adelaide,
    Port Adelaide
  • Rail Motor Society, Paterson
  • Rosewood Railway Museum,
    Rosewood
  • Steamtown Heritage Rail Centre
  • The Workshops Rail Museum, Ipswich,
    Queensland
  • Valley Heights Locomotive Depot
    Heritage Museum

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