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The Search For A Standard In Australia

Locomotive and Engine shed, Strathalbyn, 1890
Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia. SLSA:B 32222/30


Written by John Osmon 

For a long time in Australia, there were no less than three railway track gauges.

In the 1930s, if you wanted to travel across Australia from Perth in Western Australia to Sydney (New South Wales) you would need to do the following:  Board the narrow gauge (3’6”) Western Australian Government Railways train to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.  Changing to standard gauge, you would have taken the Commonwealth Railway across the Nullarbor Plain (which incidentally contains the longest straight stretch of rail  at 297 miles or 478 km) to Port Augusta in South Australia. A change to narrow gauge on the Commonwealth Railway you ride to Port Pirie in South Australia. Yet another change of gauge, this time to broad gauge, you travel to Adelaide and on to Melbourne in Victoria. Then journey to Albury (Victoria)/Wadonga (New South Wales) still on broad gauge.  Then it's back to standard gauge to Sydney, little wonder the movement of people and goods was largely by ship.  

The building of railways in Australia started in the 1850s.  The colonial government oversaw several private companies which undertook railway construction projects. Very few railways got beyond the construction stage before going broke or being taken over by the colonial governments.

South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales had agreed upon the emerging standard of 4' 8-1/2" gauge. In 1852 the new Chief of Engineering in New South Wales, Irishman Francis Shields, convinced the three colonial administrations that Irish Broad gauge of 5'3" was the way to go.

After only a year in the job, Shields was replaced by James Wallace from England.  Wallace promptly changed the New South Wales back to 4' 8-1/2".   Victoria and South Australia were already committed to an order for 5’3" gauge locomotives from England. But, several colonies would go with the smaller gauges, which they were free to do.  Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland all decided to build their state railways at the cheaper narrow gauge of 3' 6". These states also developed smaller narrow gauges of 2' to 2'6" to serve the mining, logging and sugar industries.  

First South Australian horse drawn tramway, Goolwa to Port Elliot, 1854.
Photograph courtesy of the
State Library of South Australia  SLSA:B 32222/30

As it turned out, the colonial administration in South Australia was short of cash .  Also, development of the colony started from the coastal ports and went inland. The result was that the administration built cheap narrow gauge railways (3'6") from these ports without consideration for an intra-colonial network, let alone an inter-colony rail system.  None of these systems were connected at this stage. In the 1880's, when the railways did eventually reach the colonial borders, there was a break of gauge.

After twenty plus years of bickering, in-fighting, and just plain bad temper, comes nationhood.  On 1 January 1901, the 6 colonies which made up Australia became the Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia .  Some commentators expressed the opinion that Australia achieved nationhood without a war of independence or a civil war.  However, if they had looked closely at the 20 plus years of bickering, in-fighting, and what was loosely called civilised debate,  maybe they would have had second thoughts. It took a referendum, which was narrowly won, for the various colonies to finally agree to federation. Western Australia nearly seceded, but agreed on federation, on the provision of the railway between Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and Port Augusta in South Australia.  In South Australia, the colony agreed to federation, on the condition that the commonwealth government build two railways -  one from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia to Port Augusta, South Australia and the other from Marree, South Australia to Darwin, Northern Territory.

The first of these two railways was completed in 1917 as standard gauge and connected at both ends to the state system, which was all in 3'6" gauge at that time. The second was opened in February 2004 and is standard gauge all the way through (which just goes to show you that you can't trust the bloody politicians, unless you nail them to the nearest tree).

In South Australia, the broad gauge has remained in the suburban network and in one or two rural lines. The once extensive rural network has been closed and ripped up and goods, such as wheat and fertiliser, have been shifted to road.  The rest of the system has been privatised with the Commonwealth Government retaining the trunk routes and the State holding the closed railway formation.  Various private companies are running the trains, ie. Freight Corporation, Great Southern Railway, Western Australia, Tasmanian and Queensland have all retained their narrow gauge (3’6”) suburban and rural networks, but with the closure of some rural routes. 

In Victoria, there was an extensive broad gauge system. Since standardisation, there remains a broad gauge network and standard gauge system existing, in some places, side by side.  There has been a conversion of broad gauge to standard gauge of the interstate lines, whilst the Melbourne suburban network still exists as a broad gauge system, along with some rural networks. In the State of Victoria, prior to standardisation, the railway network remained largely a broad gauge except for a small network of 2’6” gauge logging and goldfield railways, of which the Puffing Billy  Railway is the last remaining well know example.  The state capital of Victoria, Melbourne, was eventually linked by standard gauge in the 1950’s, previously there was a break of gauge at the border town of Albury (Victoria) / Wadonga (New South Wales).  It was then possible to travel between Melbourne (Victoria) and Sydney (New South Wales) without changing trains and gauges at the border.  One could in the 1880’s take a train between Adelaide and Melbourne on the broad gauge.

Western Australia

  • Midland Railway Company

  • Western Australian Government Railways


  • Tasmanian Government Railway

  • Emu Bay Railway Company (a large private company)

  • Queensland Government Railway
  • various 2’0” gauge sugar cane railways, serving local sugar mills
South Australia Broad Gauge
  • The Broad gauge radiated out of Adelaide (Capital City) to the copper mining centres of Burra Burra an Kapunda (the first workable find of copper), then to Port Pirie and Port Broughton. Followed by the links to Melbourne (Victoria) in the late 1880s. Also from this line were the links to the Riverland and Murray Mallee, to bring out the goods like wheat, sheep and wool. 
South Australia Narrow Gauge
  • Eyre Peninsular (This still remains doing, what it was intended for the shipping of wheat wool and fertiliser.)
  • The Northern division once consisting of the Broken Hill to Port Pirie-Port Augusta to Alice Springs system is no more. All that remains is the Pichi Richi Railway and Steamtown.
  • South East division from Naracoorte on the Broad Gauge line to Melbourne, to Mount Gambier Kingston SE and Beach Port and Robe.

These last three (Eyre Peninsular, The Northern division and South East division) were port for the transport of wool cheese and wheat and timber. After the first and second world wars there was a shortage of softwoods plantation of the Radiata pine were established. In the South East of South Australia the network was converted to Broad gauge between 1955 and 1956. This gave an outlet to Adelaide or Portland (Victoria), via Mount Gambier. This division was close with the standardisation of the Adelaide to Melbourne line although there is a push to re-open the railway to Portland for wood chip freight. The State government is being asked to come up with the cash to service this route.  

Railway locomotive 350 miles south of Alice Springs. 1950
Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia. SLSA: b 32222/30



Written by John Osmon 

Encyclopedia of Railways, editor O. S Nock and Locomotives of Australia
by Leon Oberg, Pubilsher AH & AW REED PTY LTD 
Special thanks to Mortlock Library of Sth Australia
Photos curtsey of the State Library of South Australia

Special thanks to
Michael tablot

the end



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