27 November 2010

Westward Ho!

I have been threatening a lengthy piece on the travails and machinations which brought the railway through Eumungerie.  So here’s a thousand words on the subject.

To understand why Eumungerie almost entirely missed out on its railway, it is necessary to first appreciate the rationale underpinning John Whitton’s earlier master-plan for a series of trunk railways radiating out from Sydney and Newcastle to the NSW hinterland.

The first 20 years of NSW railways had brought glacial-like expansion at considerable cost, largely due to Whitton’s ongoing insistence for reasonable standards of mainline railway construction.  A total of 954 route kilometres (468 miles) had been established by 1875, an average of only 35 kilometres (22 miles) each year.  These reasonable standards of railway construction came at a significant cost to the colony’s treasury, and railway construction was intermittently slowed or stalled due to the lack of available capital funds.

Other constraints on the rate of railway construction involved the geo-physical challenges caused by formidable natural features, particularly the Great Dividing Range in the west and the south, and the Hawkesbury River in the north.  Equally effective in slowing progress were the political debates over the relative merit of Whitton’s plans (against alternatives such as tramways, wooden-railed lines and horse-drawn railways) and the general level of uncertainty in applying what was, at the time, an emerging and largely untested technology.

These challenges were all addressed and all were largely conquered during Whitton’s administration. 

Looking westward, by February 1881 the railway had crossed the Great Dividing Range and reached Dubbo.  It had taken two and a half decades.  During the period of construction of the Great Western Line, as it was so-named, successive NSW governments also pursued construction of railway lines into the north-west of the State.  The line to Werris Creek was opened by October 1878 and the line to Mudgee was completed by September 1884.

Thus, by the late 1870s the base framework of western railway main lines was largely in place, or well under construction.  It involved a neat partitioning of the upper half of the colony west of the Great Dividing Range - the railway to Werris Creek produced a vertical boundary, the line to Dubbo was the horizontal axis and the Mudgee line approximately bisected the two.

With this trunk framework established in the late 1870s, political and public attention shifted to the development of branch lines which would facilitate settlement of the hinterland.  This attention produced 15 years of extraordinary railway construction from 1876 - with 2,814 kilometres (1,748 miles) of new lines being constructed at an average of 188 kilometres (117 miles) each year – over five times the rate of progress of the first two decades.

The first component of the westward expansion of the railway involved the extension of the Great Western Line beyond Dubbo to Bourke.  This was proposed to tap the primary produce then being carried down the Darling River from Queensland and New South Wales to Victoria and South Australia with a commensurate loss of excise royalties for the other colonial governments. 

Such inter-colonial rivalry was no abstract political concern.  In 1878, the NSW Parliament was told that ‘almost all’ of the 50,000 bushels of Wellington’s previous year’s wheat harvest had gone to South Australia, 1,271 road-kilometres away.  This was despite that Sydney lay only 270 kilometres in the other direction.  Of course the opening of the railway at Wellington in 1879 had an immediate, opposite and irrevocable impact on the direction of the flow of produce out of that district.

With such imperatives, the speed of railway construction was bound to increase.  Once established at Dubbo the Great Western Line was extended the further 361 kilometres (224 miles) to the Darling River at Bourke within only five years at an average of 72 kilometres (45 miles) each year for this line alone.  It is worth noting that Bourke was not intended by some to be the end of the line.  In 1894 brought two further planned extensions of this line to the Queensland border, with the Department of Public Works undertaking separate trial surveys from Bourke to Hungerford and Bourke to Barringun – into country which was truly the back of Bourke.

While the railway line from Dubbo to Bourke carried the designation of main line for the greater part of its life, its construction standard, goods carried and associated infrastructure meant that it was effectively the first of what would become a series of branch lines radiating from Dubbo.  Among the railway lines proposed to join the Bourke route was the Dubbo to Coonamble railway.

It was in the early stage of this initial period of growth during the early 1880s that a railway line north from Dubbo to Coonamble was first proposed.  In 1881 the Governor’s speech opening the NSW Parliament indicated the intention to construct a line from Dubbo to Coonamble as part of the Watson Government’s railway policy.  The Colonial Treasurer of the day, the Honourable James Watson, reiterated these plans.

According to Watson, the primary purpose of this line was not to open up the land surrounding Dubbo but to connect Coonamble to the NSW railway system.  At the time, Coonamble was the centre of the increasingly prosperous Castlereagh district.  The Castlereagh district was and remains broadly bounded by the river of the same name, which flows westward in a giant ‘U-shape’ from the Warrumbungle Range near Coonabarabran, southwest to Merrygoen, west to Gilgandra, then north through Coonamble before flowing into the Barwon River midway between Walgett and Brewarrina.  Eventually the waters of the Castlereagh River empty into the Darling River, then the Murray and onwards to the Southern Ocean in South Australia.

While the river system provided pastoralists with a lengthy river voyage to a sea-going port, the Castlereagh, Barwon, Darling and Murray were all navigable at certain times.  Thus the Government’s rationale for the Coonamble railway was consistent with its earlier decision of a railway to Bourke – to tether the western NSW sheep run to Sydney by rail and not to Adelaide by the Darling River.

This political will did not precipitate an immediate response from the bureaucracy.  The Government’s announcement of a railway to Coonamble was followed by a two-year interregnum which only came to an end when a survey for the route from Dubbo to Coonamble was authorised by the Secretary of Public Works, the Honourable F A Wright on 12 June 1883.  This survey was no speedy affair either as it was not completed until 1885.

In similar circumstances construction of a line would have followed within the next three to five years.  However, eleven further years were to elapse until 1896 when the Hon J H Young as Secretary for Public Works approved an amended survey which had been commenced in 1893.  This delay reflected the considerable political uncertainty about the railway’s route to the Castlereagh.

However, despite a number of false starts, the building of a railway line to Coonamble was never in doubt – the only disputed element was the way to get there.  At various times from 1880 onwards six definite routes were explored seriously to link Sydney with Coonamble – one each from the north and south and two each from the south-west and east!

Thank you for getting to the end of this - before I post details of the six routes to Eumungerie, I probably owe everyone (all 13 of you) a bit of light relief.

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