02 December 2010

Coonamble from the north

Given that there is a fair chance that sometime tonight parts of the township of Coonamble will subside into flood waters, I thought it timely to add a few words about the alternative railway lines proposed to get to that location. 

As I’ve blogged elsewhere, the line through Eumungerie to Coonamble was not the first option considered by colonial administrations.  The first route, one from the north, proposed a connection between Coonamble and northern New South Wales using the Werris Creek trunk line.  By 1882 this route had been extended from Werris Creek to Wee Waa.  From here, it was proposed that the 147 kilometres of railway line would proceed to the south and the south-west, following the southern bank of the Namoi River to Pilliga and then proceeding south-west through the great Pilliga forest.

While the initial agitation for this railway appeared in parliamentary debates in the mid-1880s it was to be a further decade before serious exploration of the route was undertaken.  The Department of Public Works undertook a trial survey at a cost of ₤150, bridging the two financial years to 30 June 1898.  The northern, or Pilliga, route was then considered by the NSW Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Works.  It tabled its report to the Legislative Assembly on 13 August 1898.

Little parliamentary consideration appears to have occurred in relation to this proposed extension of the rail network following tabling of the Committee’s report.  The recommendations contained in the report and reasons supporting such recommendations did not rate a mention in either that year’s the Department’s Annual Report or the NSW Parliament’s consideration of the survey.  In the absence of such it is still possible to surmise that there was an equivocal response to the survey of this route – as trial surveys ordinarily led to permanent surveys if a firm endorsement was the outcome.

The demise of the Pilliga route could also be a by-product of the vocal promotion of the alternatives from Dubbo and Mudgee.  Nevertheless it is almost certain that the Standing Committee would have noted that the Pilliga route was a most circuitous way to reach the colonial capital.  It would place Coonamble at a very distant 744 rail kilometres from Sydney - the equivalent of the distance from Sydney to Cobar.

Hypothetically the demise of the Pilliga route may also be partially attributed to the fact that such an extension would have likely caused the produce of the Castlereagh district to flow to the north-east rather than the south-east.  This may have benefited commercial interests in Brisbane rather than those of Sydney and elsewhere in eastern New South Wales.

Despite these drawbacks the Pilliga route still had its supporters throughout the period of deliberation.  During the NSW Parliament’s eventual consideration of the Dubbo to Coonamble route in 1899 the Member for Barwon confirmed his continued view of the viability of such a line.  The Department of Public Works’ Annual Report for that year also records an additional ₤3 3s in expenditure on the trial survey, which was unlikely to advance its consideration too much further.

The eventual construction of the Dubbo to Coonamble railway line did not diminish the ardour of some parliamentarians for a northerly route into the Pilliga district.  Echoing the June 1898 proposal in August 1901 a Mr Collins of the NSW Legislative Council questioned the NSW Government as to:

in view of the large amount of settlements and enormous quantity of valuable timber on the south side of the Namoi … (would the Government)… take into consideration a line of railway from Wee Waa to Pilliga?

The Secretary of Public Works declined to commit the Government ‘this session’ of the Parliament.

It is worth noting that, while not linked directly to the Coonamble railway, in June 1898 a parallel proposal was advanced for a pioneer railway leaving the north-western line at more eastern township of Narrabri.  This line was also proposed to pass along the southern bank of the Namoi River before reaching Pilliga and eventually Walgett.

This later proposed route also involved traversing an area north of Walgett in order to pass through Eurie Eurie.  It was this proposal that formed the basis of what eventually transpired.  In January 1901 a trial survey of a direct route from Wee Waa to Walgett was explored along with a branch line to Collarenabri.  By January 1908 trains were running from Narrabri to Walgett with Eurie Eurie as the penultimate stopping location.

The connection of Walgett to the Werris Creek line appears to have created a final breath of life for the Pilliga route in 1909/10 as the Department of Public Works again inspected its earlier work along the Namoi River.  Nothing more eventuated apparently from this proposal in the lead-up to the Great War.

So that’s enough for tonight... happy sailing, Coonamble!

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