24 January 2011

The deeds of public servants

As discussed in the last post, its time to run through the process leading to the approval of the Dubbo to Coonamble branchline.

After years of direct political interference, the NSW Railway Act 1888 had created a degree of independence in the planning, construction and management of the railway system.  However, this statute also created a unique and somewhat convoluted governance mechanism for the development of railways. 

This new approval mechanism included the consideration of all construction by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works.  If acting within the spirit of the 1888 Act, it was incumbent on the Government-of-the-day to accept the recommendation of the Standing Committee.  Of course, this spirit was not always followed.

Forsyth’s unpublished Historical Notes on Railway Lines (which are available through the excellent NSW ARHS Rail Resource Centre) record that the Standing Committee on Public Works commenced its inquiry into the Dubbo to Coonamble route on 9 March 1899, and heard from 15 witnesses.  It is not known whether the Standing Committee held these proceedings in the area however it was not uncommon for the entire Committee to traverse the proposed route on foot in the course of its deliberations.

Local agitation for greater progress appears to have had some impact on these proceedings.  On 21 February 1898 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a:

public meeting of residents and settlers of the Balladoran, Coalbaggie and Gilgandra districts was held in Johnson’s Hotel, Balladoran, last Wednesday to arrange for collection of evidence and statistics to lay before the Public Works Sectional Committee in connection with the Dubbo to Coonamble railway line. 

Fully 50 prominent residents of the surrounding district attended.  Mr C W Brown JP (president of the Coalbaggie progress Association) was elected chairman.

Residents of the Gilgandra district did not wait for others to act.  They returned from Johnson’s Hotel to arrange for the founding of the Gilgandra Railway League at a public meeting in that town on 18 March 1898.

The Standing Committee’s deliberations took most of 1898, but resulted in a six to one vote of the Committee in favour of construction.  The Committee’s decision was conveyed to the Reid Government but not accepted.  Instead, the Government decided to again refer the question of the ‘expediency of constructing a railway line from Dubbo to Coonamble’ to a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works for a second time, three days prior to Christmas 1898.

In referring the proposal to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, Mr J H Young, the Secretary for Public Works, noted that he had twelve months previously submitted the question of a railway line from Warren to Coonamble to the same Committee, but that it had been rejected.  Instead, the Committee had proposed a Dubbo to Coonamble connection.

In referring the matter to the Committee, the Secretary also noted that the Dubbo route was preferable due to its more abundant grass, rainfall and the location to existing farming.

The Secretary’s decision to prefer the Dubbo route also appears to be based on a report, dated 8 December 1898, from the Engineer-in-Chief for Railway Construction, Mr Henry Deane, following his inspection of the route in the company of the Railway Commissioners.  The Engineer-in-Chief noted the Dubbo route as ‘very satisfactory’, although tactfully without expressing a preference for either route.

The Engineer-in-Chief estimated the cost of construction of a ‘single line of light railway from Dubbo to Coonamble, exclusive of land and compensation’ at ₤207,285, which equated to ₤2,215 for each mile of construction.

The Railway Commissioners estimated that total traffic on the route would require a tri-weekly service, resulting in ₤11,867 in revenue annually – 72 per cent of which was to be generated from the transport of merchandise and livestock, 17 per cent from passenger traffic and the remainder from mails and parcels services. 

Against this revenue, the Commissioners estimated the recurrent cost of maintaining the permanent way, locomotives and traffic at ₤7,219, and the cost of capital expenditure of ₤6,218, thus representing a 13 per cent loss on revenue earned.  Optimistically, the Secretary for Public Works noted that:

it is reasonable to assume that the construction of the line would lead to a development of the country and subsequent increase of business.

The second Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works endorsed the construction of the Dubbo to Coonamble line on 13 July 1899, again by a majority of six to one.  The Secretary of Public Works announced this result to the Legislative Assembly on 16 October of the same year. It is notable that the members constituting the two seven-person standing committees were exclusive of each other, with one exception. 

Prior to reviewing the Assembly’s consideration of the Committee’s proposal (in the next post, hopefully), it is worthwhile summarising the salient characteristics available of the four main routes to Coonamble.  The most favourable result in each category is shown in bold

Originating town
Wee Waa
111 miles
63 miles
147 miles
94 miles
Cost of construction
Not known
Cost per mile
Not known
Distance to Sydney
480 miles
416 miles
337 miles
371 miles
Ruling grade
Not known
Not known
1 in 80
1 in 100

This table shows that a rational decision would have preferred the Dubbo proposal.  Of course, it was not safe to assume that any legislature would apply a rational approach to the selection of the route to the Castlereagh district.

So folks, back to the history books to prepare the next installment….

10 January 2011

From the south

And now folks, its time to start telling the tale of a railway line that actually ended up being built – the line from Dubbo in the south to Coonamble in the north. 

As with the proposed railway line from Mudgee, parliamentary support for a route from Dubbo was decades old.  A proposal for a railway line from Dubbo to Coonamble had been a feature of an 1880 political manifesto.  That proposal involved a direct connection between the two townships.

This proposal sought a southern connection with the Great Western Railway at the eastern end of Dubbo yard.  From there, the branch line would pass through the established townships of Gilgandra and Gulargambone.  However, to get to Gilgandra the railway would need to traverse approximately 40 miles of largely uninhabited country which was variously described to the colonial parliament as ‘scrubby, poor, sandy and ridgey’.  To the east of this land there lay huge forests of ironbark which were noted as being able to provide a source of revenue.

The existence of competing proposals over the railway to the Castlereagh facilitated local and parliamentary conjecture over the preferred route which delayed construction beyond the 1880s, which was the first golden period of railway construction.  The debate over the Coonamble line thus progressed from a decade of economic prosperity and optimism into the 1890s which was marked as a decade of drought, slowing settlement, economic recession and, at best, muted railway development. 

The 1890s brought sporadic periods of railway construction across NSW – varying from 242 kilometres (150 miles) in 1893 and 1894, to no new route miles being opened in 1896.  The citizens of Coonamble were not to be amongst those favoured by this period of construction.

Thus it is fair to conclude that the railway nearly did not arrive in Eumungerie not just because of the competition from other routes, but also from the delay in timing associated with railway construction brought about by the economic malaise afflicting the colony in the 1890s. 

Indeed, the construction of the railway line to Eumungerie was so delayed that it eventually came to occur, not as part of the 1880s golden age of railway construction, but as part of the next great period of railway building, at the dawn of the 20th century.

The parliamentary vote rejecting the extension of the Mudgee line in 1890 led the then Secretary of Public Works, the Hon William Lyne, to propose the alternative Dubbo to Coonamble route in 1881.   

The Department of Public Works duly reported in June 1892 that a trial survey had commenced, with 30 miles (48 kilometres) complete.  In the following year’s Annual Report the Department announced that a survey of the full line was complete.  It was hardly an expedited process, especially when one considers the speed of the surveys over the Mudgee and Warren alternatives.  The slowish pace is most likely reflective of the alternative routes preferred by both the Railway Commissioners and the Standing Committee on Public Works.  Over the next couple of posts I will cover off the views of both of these groups in much more detail - there are a few rogues worth watching.