NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Michael MurrayNews Weekly
Railway Infrastructure: history shows it can be done
, October 6, 2001
The case for major infrastructure programs in Australia - particularly an Asia Express railway from Darwin to Melbourne via Queensland and New South Wales - is sometimes met with the argument that such investments are beyond the nation and would take several lifetimes to achieve.
On the face of it that may well be the case given our most recent past.
But it wasn't always thus. In a report made to the Victorian Parliament by the now defunct Victorian Railways on the Summary of Work and Results for the seven years July 1, 1903 to June 30, 1910 showed that the Ways and Works Department had constructed over 192 miles of new track, duplicated 13 miles more and opened the St Kilda to Brighton electric railway.
In addition to this, over 106 miles of sidings were constructed and approximately 575 miles of line had been re-laid with heavier rails.
A total of 1,450,059 cubic yards of ballast renewed with over two million sleepers installed.
Forty-four passenger stations were built, 211 platforms lengthened with goods sheds provided at 92 paces and 31 locomotive sheds constructed.
Fifty-one new bridges were constructed, 275 bridges strengthened, 102 culverts provided, not to mention the construction and maintenance of over 85 signal boxes and the associated signalling and safe working equipment for the operation of a modern state of the art railway. The new rolling stock that was constructed included 132 locomotives, 183 carriages, 116 vans, 2661 trucks plus 51 other vehicles of various classification with all rolling constructed at the Railways workshops with the exception of just 13 locomotives.But wait, there's more!
Over 1,210 carriages and vans were fitted with gas and incandescent burners for lighting and heating. 213 locomotives were fitted with boilers of increased capacity, 2340 goods trucks were provided with stronger axles and over 3,000 trucks fitted with failsafe air brakes. Workshops increased in size by 80 per cent and the number of employees increased by over 144 per cent.
All this and more was achieved in just seven years. This same story was repeated in every State across the continent with some states surpassing even these achievements.
At the time, Australia's total population did not exceed four million.
The construction of railways across the continent opened up the inland for communication and trade and development boosting agriculture and manufacturing alike.
The State railway policy of self-reliance, that is the building of manufacturing plants and workshops to meet local demands, would later play a vital role in the following two world wars, particularly in military ordinance production.
Once again, as is often the case, the past can show us the way forward and that nation-building projects can be achieved if there is the political or national will.
In 1903, most of Australia was either horse-drawn or steam-driven. Could this explain why governments are reluctant to undertake large-scale infrastructure projects such as the Asia Express and the redirection of the northern rivers, as there is a distinct shortage of steam-driven traction engines and draft horses in this the 21st Century?