The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 7 (November 1, 1928)
Australia's Railway Gauges
Mr. F. Vogel, of Kogarah, New South Wales, who has kindly favoured us with the following interesting historical account of the railway gauge question in Australia, has had a long and distinguished railway career. He arrived in New Zealand in 1863, and in January, 1864, joined the 3rd Company of the 3rd Waikato Regiment for service in the Maori War. Leaving New Zealand in 1873 he joined the railway service in Australia, in 1875, and retired in 1916 after 41 years’ service—37 of which were spent on the Railway Commissioners’ personal staffs. Mr. Vogel has contributed largely to the various railway publications in Australia, one of which—the “Railway Budget” (now known as “The Staff”)—he edited for 12 years. His wide knowledge of the inner history of the subject makes his article of particular interest.
Australia's First Railway.
Owing principally to the limited population of Australia in the early days of railways, no definite proposals for the construction of lines were put forward until 1845, when the railway mania in England had reached its greatest height. Several companies applied to the British Government for the necessary powers to construct railways in the Colony of New South Wales.
When this news reached Sydney the railway question was revived, and at a public meeting held in 1846, a Committee was appointed to collect information towards the obtaining of which the Government granted financial assistance.
In 1848 the Legislative Council, on the recommendation of a Select Committee which had investigated the subject, passed a number of resolutions affirming the necessity of constructing railways in the Colony, and also recommending the granting of financial assistance and a restricted area of land required for the way of the railroad. The Governor-General, in transmitting the resolutions to the Secretary of State in England, recommended that the encouragement offered by the Council to private enterprise be granted.
“The Sydney Railway Company Act” was assented to in 1849, and the Government granted financial aid and land for the right-of-way. The first sod of the railway from Sydney to Parramatta, 15 miles distant, was turned on 3rd July, 1850, but owing chiefly to the gold discoveries, which caused a depletion of the labour market, the Company found itself in such serious difficulties that it became evident that private enterprise could not carry out the construction of railways. The Government acquired, therefore, the whole of the Company's assets in 1854.
The Battle of the Gauges.
In a dispatch, dated 30th June, 1848, Earl Grey urged upon the Governor of New South Wales the adoption of one uniform gauge, with a view to the joining up at some future time (though probably distant period) of the lines not only in the same Colony, but with those constructed in adjacent Colonies, and he regarded the 4ft. 8 ½in. gauge prescribed in England, as the most desirable.
In 1850 the Company's engineer strongly advocated the adoption of the 5ft. 3in. gauge in preference to that recommended by Earl Grey, and the Company's manager urged that, as their railway would be the first constructed in Australia, a timely notification to the other Australian Colonies would prevent the occurrence of any inconvenience from the break of gauge. The application was forwarded to Earl Grey, who advised that Her Majesty's Government page 11 would not object to the 5ft. 3in. gauge for which such a decided preference had been expressed in the Colony. Thereupon the New South Wales Legislature enacted in 1852 that all railways in New South Wales should be built to the 5ft. 3in. gauge, and this decision was communicated to the Colonies of Victoria and South Australia.
The application was referred to the Legislative Council which passed an Act in 1853 repealing the former Act and making the 4ft. 8 ½in. gauge imperative in New South Wales. In terms of this Act, which had been referred to the Home Government for Royal assent, the Company ordered considerable quantities of materials suitable for this gauge.
The Fateful Issue.
The other Colonies resented this action, holding that the New South Wales Government, without having first obtained the concurrence of the other Governments, was not warranted in abruptly changing the gauge, which had been generally adopted throughout the Australian Colonies. Following upon this the Governor of Victoria transmitted a memorial from the Legislature to Earl Grey, praying that Her Majesty's consent to the New South Wales proposals be withheld. The gauge question having been re-opened, Earl Grey instructed the Governor of New South Wales to move the Legislature to reconsider the question for the sake of the neighbouring Colonies with which railway communication must sooner or later be effected. The Governor therefore transmitted to the Legislative Council a measure entitled “A Bill to repeal the Act for regulating the gauge of Railways.” But railway companies had, in the meantime, been formed in Victoria and South Australia, and these companies, relying upon the Railway Gauge Act of 1852, had adopted the 5ft. 3in. gauge and ordered from England rolling stock to the cost of #100,000. Such large sums having been invested in stock, neither side would give way, and as the Legislative Council did not proceed with the Bill for the altering of the gauge, the break was firmly established in Australia.page 12
Victoria has since adhered to the 5ft. 3in. gauge, while South Australia adopted two gauges, viz.:—5ft. 3in. and 3ft. 6in. Queensland and Western Australia adopted (for economical reasons), the 3ft. 6in. gauge, while the Commonwealth, although it adopted the 4ft. 8 ½in. as the standard, is actually constructing the South-North Railway through the centre of Australia, from Port Augusta to Port Darwin to the 3ft. 6in. gauge.
Paralysing Effects of Different Gauges.
As a result of the break of gauge rolling stock has to be maintained to meet the maximum requirements of any of the States. Whether business is brisk in one State and slack in another, whether one State is pressed to its utmost while another State has rolling stock lying idle, there can be no change of stock. The effect of this is most seriously felt in the transport of interstate goods, produce and livestock (more especially in drought times) as transhipment at the border stations causes serious delays and heavy expense.
Early Unification Plans.
The question of adopting a uniform gauge in Australia was not seriously entertained until the late Mr. Eddy, Chief Commissioner for Railways in New South Wales, urged (early in 1889) upon the Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, the great need for the unification of the railway gauges. He advised the appointment of a commission of railway officials in each Colony to consider and advise on the matter. He suggested that the Colony which found it desirable for the present to make narrow gauge lines in outlying districts, should arrange its stations, tunnels and bridges in such a way as to enable the uniform gauge to be laid down at a later date without incurring any additional expenditure in enlarging such works. Unfortunately his suggestions were not acted upon.
The matter was not further considered until a meeting of the Federal Convention was held at Adelaide in 1897. The Premiers of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia remitted the question to their Railway Commissioners, who met in conference at Melbourne in 1897, and advised that, in view of the contemplated Federation of the Australian Colonies and the desirability of providing the utmost facility for intercommunication, they were impressed with the necessity of having, as soon page 13 as possible, a uniform gauge. The estimates then framed were very low indeed in comparison with those submitted by the Royal Commission in 1921. Time went on but no definite action was taken. Conferences were held, and the urgent necessity for the work was confirmed at each, but nothing was accomplished.
Uniform Gauge Essential to Development and Safety of Commonwealth.
The railway experts submitted their report, but in an addendum they questioned the wisdom of adopting the 4ft. 8 ½in. gauge as the standard in preference to the 5ft. 3in. gauge. When the report was considered at a Conference of the Commonwealth and State Ministers it was resolved that, having regard to the disagreements as to gauge, two experts from outside Australia, and an Australian outside the Australian railway services, be appointed to report upon the unification of the gauges; the question as to what gauge it is desirable to adopt, and the question of cost of conversion.
The report of the Royal Commission was submitted in September, 1921, and was considered at a Conference of the State Premiers with the Prime Minister, when it was resolved:
“That the adoption of a uniform gauge is, in the opinion of this Conference, essential to the development and safety of the Commonwealth.”
“That the Commission's recommendation of a 4ft 8 ½in. gauge be accepted.
“That steps be at once taken by the Premiers of all the States to consult their Governments with regard to the said agreement, and the financial obligations of the parties thereunder, and that the conclusions arrived at shall be communicated to and considered at a further Conference in January, 1922.”
The Conference was held in Melbourne, but no decision was arrived at.
One of the schemes recommended by the Commission embraced the conversion of the 3ft. 6in. gauge railway from Perth to Kalgoorlie (Western Australia), part conversion of the line from Port Augusta to Adelaide, conversion of the whole of the 5ft. 3in. gauge lines of South Australia and Victoria, and the construction of a 4ft. 8 ½in. gauge railway from South Brisbane to Kyogle in New South Wales, linking up with the North Coast railway from Sydney. The cost page 14 of this scheme was estimated at #21,600,000. This would have given a 4ft. 8 ½in. gauge railway from Brisbane, in Queensland, to Perth, in Western Australia, a distance of 3,476 miles.
Cost of Converting All Lines to 4ft. 8 ½in. Gauge.
The cost of converting all lines to the 4ft. 8 ½in. gauge was estimated at #57,200,000, made up as follows:—
|Alternations to existing lines and structures||#48,355,000|
|Any new lines necessary||2,596,000|
|Adjustment of Rolling Stock||6,249,000|