24 April 2011

Dubbo's planned branchlines 1920 - 1930

If Eumungerie was conspicuous by its absence in discussions over railway expansion in the first twenty years of the 20th century, this was to change.  Indeed, notwithstanding the competing claims from Gilgandra and Coonamble itself, during this decade Eumungerie vied for the epicenter of railway boosterism in the Castlereagh region – ultimately unsuccessfully, of course. 

A proposal for a junction at Eumungerie was proposed as part of a railway to Quambone in 1924.  Its prospects for success could be adjudged as slim given the number of other attempts to establish a railway to Quambone from other locations.  In order to sort out the mess of competing claims, the Public Works Committee journeyed to Dubbo to take evidence in October 1924.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Public Works Committee took evidence on 6 October 1924 specifically concerning the Warren to Quambone railway, against the alternative railway proposals.

A Mr Charles Henry Clemson indicated to the Committee that the line should start between Dubbo and Eumungerie, and go through Collie to Quambone. This would negate the necessity for a separate bridge over the Macquarie River, entailed by an alternative route from Narromine and would save a larger area of agricultural country.  Mr Clemson apparently noted that to go round by Narromine would increase the distance to Sydney, which was a party to 70 per cent of the trade in the area.

A Mr Doe drew the Committee’s attention to the alternative route through Gilgandra, as authorised by Parliament. Presciently he noted that the current suggestion would nullify that. Witnesses before the Committee alleged that farmers served by Mr Doe’s alternative route were already hauling their produce 20 miles to the railway.

Mr Charles Cadell supported a line from Eumungerie or Talbragar, nearer Dubbo, noting it would pass through first-class agricultural land as far as Collie. From there to Quambone was first-class pastoral land, in Mr Cadell’s opinion. 

There was further support for the Eumungerie option - Mr A T Blackett, president of the Dubbo Progress Association, said that a larger area of wheat land would languish if the line was built from Gilgandra. This allegation was well-supported by Mr T A Nicholas, who was the secretary of the Progress Association.  Mr Nicholas produced statistics to show that there were 43 landholders having 20,250 acres under wheat. This would increase threefold to 61,000 acres if the line was built from Talbragar to Collie, and then to Quambone.

Nought came of these deliberations.

A further three years passed before the Sydney Morning Herald could again report that a deputation had met with a new Minister for Works and Railways (Mr. Buttenshaw) to advocate the construction of a cross country railway line from Gilgandra to Walgett to connect the western and north-western railway systems.  The deputation was alleged to represent the various railway leagues in the districts which would be served by the proposed lines.  The deputation argued that the proposed line was an absolute necessity and, if constructed, would be particularly useful in time of drought. 

While what was being suggested was not a pioneer line, apparently the Minister replied to the delegation that he had called for a report on the suggested line from Eumungerie
to Collie, and indicated that he would also procure a report on the line from Walgett.  He undertook to give their representations earnest consideration and stated that the policy of the Government was to construct lines such as these for the reason that they would open up fresh settlement and especially give transport facilities to districts which were not already served.

Again this talk led to little immediate action.  This was to change a year later, where a ‘special representative’ filed two long stories to the Herald in June (1928) under the byline ‘Railway Proposals in the North West – A Neglected Corner’.  The representative indicated that he had spent five days in the region, as the guest of the rather enterprising railway leagues of Collie, Bullagreen, Quambone, Carinda and Walgett, who were co-operating by this time.

While the report published on 12 June 1928 laid out the general propositions surrounding extending railways in the area, in the following day’s report no punches were pulled.  Noting that the junction of a proposed line to Collie would be of utmost importance as it would determine the country through which the line would bisect, the representative argued persuasively for Eumungerie’s case. 

Noting that the Railway Commissioners had already selected Eumungerie as the junction point, the representative seeks to explain why.  Given the significance of this decision, a lengthy extract from the Herald is warranted and is so provided:

With few distinguishing features to differentiate it from hundreds of Australian townships, Eumungerie is favoured with a school apparently out of keeping with its immediate surroundings.  The reason for this is not far to seek.

On its journey northwards, the daily train makes a couple of stops which find no mention in the timetable. On the first occasion a glance from one window reveals no adequate reason for this delay. Anxiety to acquit the railway staff of more caprice leads to a look on the other side, when it will be found that several children are clambering from the rail level on to the train en route for school.  This incident is repeated later, and on arrival at Eumungerie the youngsters who have (been) collected from sidings and impromptu stopping places troop off to their classes. By accident or design, the returning train arrives at an opportune moment in the afternoon and teachers are on hand to bid farewell to their charges.

In this way the Railway Commissioners are co-operating in effective and symmetric fashion with the Education Department in coping with the difficult problem of providing school facilities in the sparsely populated centres. Without the railway the education of hundreds of country children would be sadly hampered.

So, while the raison d’ĂȘtre for the line to Collie was the economic imperative to encourage closer settlement of the region, it was actually the social imperative of improving the education of the settlers’ children which dictated its path!

The Herald report continued to provide startling revelations about the proposed route:

The official attitude towards the choice of Eumungerie as a starting point (for the Collie line) is indicated in a letter from the Minister for Works and Railways (Mr Buttenshaw) to the local member (Mr Thorny).  This has naturally gratified the residents along the route from that centre to Collie.

In this letter he states: "I have already intimated my decision to refer to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works the proposal for the construction of a line from Eumungerie, via Collie, to Quambone.  As a matter of fact, the Railway Commissioners have submitted to me their statutory report on the proposal, and all would be in readiness for a reference to that committee when other proposals are being placed before that body in the next session of Parliament. The suggested line from Quambone, via Carinda, to Walgett has formed the subject of deputations to me, and I have informed those advocating the line that I would obtain a statutory report from the Railway Commissioners."
With regard to suggested alternative routes to Walgett, via Gilgandra, Talbragar, or Narromine, Mr. Buttenshaw stated that those three proposals served similar country to the Eumungerie-Walgett proposal for the greater part of their length. They only differed in regard to their commencing points, and Eumungerie was chosen as the junction on the recommendation of the Commissioners...

The residents (along the proposed railway)... comprising the little centres known as Cobboco and Kickabil, have struggled manfully for years to get their claims for better communication recognised.  Now that they have allied themselves with their bigger brothers further north, their objective is appreciably nearer.

Thus, once again, the idea of a pioneer line was shifting towards a much larger cross country railway. 

Unsurprisingly, this later proposal gained little support from places to north of Eumungerie.  The same report noted that:

The branching-out of the line further south does not accord with the wishes of Gilgandra, whose representatives claim that a line direct to Collie, 24 miles distant, would be a cheaper and more obvious route. The history of this proposal has been a distinct disappointment to them, as the line was favoured by the Works Committee of the day, and Parliament decided on its construction. A start was made just previous to the outbreak of war, when the shortage of rails necessitated a postponement. Subsequent promises have been made by Ministers for Works and Railways that the line would be proceeded with.

Local people claim that all the circumstances which then favoured the Gilgandra connection still remain, but with even more convincing force, owing to the greater development of the town and district that has taken place in comparison (against the alternatives).

A further claim for the Gilgandra connection is that the sleepers for the construction
of the line could be obtained more easily and in greater numbers from the Gilgandra
depot than from depots further south, where the ironbark resources have been depreciated to a much larger extent...

The business people of Gilgandra claim that its resources as a commercial and social centre,
with flour mills, wheat silos, and hotel accommodation, warrant very careful consideration before the selection of any alternative starting point for the Collie railway.

In the face of this opposition and logic, the option of further debate was always likely.  Still, the Herald could report 14 months onwards, that:

The Public Works Committee commenced operations today at Eumungerie inspecting and gathering data for alternative railway routes from Eumungerie to Collie, and from Talbragar to Collie. The work will continue for about a week.

At the end of all the controversy, Quambone never got a railway, and neither did Collie.  Residents of Carinda in the north west, and Cobboco and Kickabil just to the west of Eumungerie, remained untroubled by the shrill steam whistle.  Perhaps these lines would never have turned a profit, though it seems equally likely that the State missed a clear opportunity to bring closer settlement to an area the equal of the Coalbaggie in terms of agricultural production.

Finally the most logical railway proposal from a geographer’s aspect was to extend the existing railway beyond Coonamble along the Castlereagh and Barwon Rivers.  This would have taken the Coonamble railway into regions subsequently occupied by the pioneer lines from Narrabri to Walgett and Collarenabri, and Coonabarabran to Gwabegar.  Again this proposal also lays within the definition of a cross-country line, but this time in a north-south direction.  However it would seem that its eventual proponents were more modest and provincial in their aims.

No record of departmental work in relation to a northward extension to Walgett features in reports immediately beyond 1903 which is somewhat surprising.  Similarly, no record of extensive parliamentary debate over an extension of the Coonamble railway along this type of proposal could be uncovered though it was the subject of several questions raised by relevant local members prior to 1925.


This brings to an end, for the time being, a ramble through a few historical sources, testifying to the grand plans of the people of the Castlereagh over a 50 year period from 1880.  The Great Depression and the Second World War brought an end to this railway boosterism in the region.  By the time that Australia recovered from these two great interruptions, other modes had made significant incursions into the Castlereagh's passenger and freight transport task.

Dubbo's planned branchlines to 1920

Happy Easter to one and all... its time for an Easter double dose.  Here's the first half...

The previous post described the Dubbo to Coonamble railway within a wider historical context.  It mentioned the popularity of pioneer branch lines radiating from trunk routes.  This posting lists some of the more significant or advanced proposals for pioneer railways around Dubbo, the Coalbaggie and Castlereagh districts, or servicing those districts.  It does not quite justify Dubbo as the ‘Chicago of NSW’, but it demonstrates a level of activity perhaps only equaled in the Werris Creek and Junee areas.

Pioneer lines were recognised as likely to generate low levels of traffic, except in seasonal peaks.  Consequently, few were expected to prove profitable in recouping the operating expenses or the cost of capital construction. 

At the time of construction of the Dubbo to Coonamble railway, work was also proceeding on the following proposed railway lines:

Warren to Coonamble – during 1898 another trial survey of this line was commenced;

* Narromine to Coonamble – during 1899 a full survey was completed between these locations;

* Mudgee to Coonamble– during 1898 a trial survey of this line continued; and

* as part of the Mudgee to Coonamble proposals considered in the Legislative Assembly, the extension of the railway from Coonamble to Walgett.

Of these, only the Mudgee to Coonamble railway could be considered to be as anything greater in status than a pioneer line.  Nonetheless, the completion of the Dubbo to Coonamble railway encouraged reconsideration of these railway proposals, and the development of others.

After a slight hiatus between 1905 and 1910 the subsequent decade brought forth numerous proposals for railway lines associated with the Dubbo to Coonamble railway.  With one exception, none of the proposed railways deviated from the Coonamble line while it passed through the Coalbaggie district.  However if built all of the planned railways would have generated additional traffic through Eumungerie, as all were planned to link from Gilgandra or further north.  Some of the proposed lines were no more than reincarnated proposals from the 1880s and 1890s, while others were planned to exploit countryside to the north and west of the new railway.

Amongst the first of these proposals involved three competing lines to Quambone which lies to the west of Coonamble on the eastern edge of the fertile Macquarie Marshes.  The Department of Public Works reported that a good deal of effort had been allocated to assessing the competing routes from Warren, Gulargambone and Coonamble during the 1909/10 financial year - the latter two branching from the Dubbo to Coonamble railway. 

The Department had yet to reach a decided view over the superiority of any of the claims by June 1910.  Two years later in 1912 the NSW Parliament was informed that the route from Warren to Quambone would cost ₤183,000 to construct, and operate at a starting loss of ₤3,000 annually.  Presumably as the Gulargambone and Coonamble routes were shorter these proposals would likely have been of a lesser cost.

More came of the Gilgandra alternative than its more northerly rivals.  The genesis of this line can be traced to April 1911 where the Railway Leagues of Bullagreen, Collie and Gilgandra endorsed this route.  In June and November of the same year the State Parliament received petitions in support of this railway’s construction.  In 1912 the NSW Parliament had been informed that this railway would cost ₤277,000 to construct and would operate at a modest annual loss of ₤2,000.

So, Gilgandra seemed to be close to being the epicentre of this phase of railway boosterism.  In 1910 the Department of Public Works enhanced this status by surveying a line eastward from that town, going north-east to Tooraweenah.  Shortly after this one of the most-developed railway lines destined never to be built involved the proposal for a westward spur from the Coonamble railway at Gilgandra.  This proposal was developed to the stage where funding for the railway was authorised by the State Parliament, in the Gilgandra to Collie Railway Act 1915.  This legislation proposed a line proceeding west from Gilgandra to cross Marthaguy Creek and Calf Pen Creek, then proceeding north-west to Collie.  The total distance of the line was approximately 39 kilometres (24 miles), and the estimated cost was ₤105,000.  The 1917 Annual Report of the Railway Commissioners noted that this ‘extension of 24 miles is authorised for construction but work has not yet commenced’.

Dithering over the construction of this railway continued into the 1920s.  Its failure to be delivered did not prevent the consideration of additional branch lines.  For example, the Gilgandra to Tooraweenah route was seen as an alternative to the more easterly Mendooran to Tooraweenah route.  The matter was referred to the Public Works Committee on 20 December 1920.

It took more than four years for the Committee to determine that the construction cost of the Gilgandra to Tooraweenah line was anticipated to be ₤220,089.  The Committee also estimated that an annual expenditure would approach ₤15,250, and would return a paltry ₤3,000 in revenue.  On this basis the Committee voted that it was ‘not expedient to construct this railway’ at this time.  Thus was the end of the Gilgandra to Tooraweenah railway.  Incidentally, its rival suffered the same fate – while the 1928 Annual Report of the Railway Commissioners notes that the trial survey and permanent pegging of Mendooran to Tooraweenah route.  This was perhaps its last mention in those pages.

Further impetus for the expansion of railways in western New South Wales arose due to the 1917 Royal Commission which proposed a number of pioneer railways to encourage closer settlement of the Castlereagh region.  One railway proposed built on the earlier work of the Gilgandra to Tooraweenah pioneer line.  It resulted in the Gilgandra to Curlewis Railway Act.  This proposal evolved into more than a pioneer line as should be more properly classified as a cross-country railway however its initial plans were proposed only a as pioneer line from Gilgandra to Tooraweenah and Coonabarabran.  Work on this railway commenced shortly thereafter the passage of the legislation but ceased apparently due to the First World War.

Another railway recommended by the 1917 Royal Commission was the Gilgandra to Quambone railway, travelling via Collie using the 1915 legislation.  It probably came as a surprise that the Government of the day did not act upon the Royal Commission’s recommendation as similar marginally unprofitable lines were constructed.

In the next post the post war expansion years will be considered.

16 April 2011

Dubbo: The Chicago of NSW

It appears reasonable to distinguish between three distinct periods of heightened political agitation in New South Wales for railway development west of the Great Dividing Range. Each period arose for a different combination of reasons.

As described in a previous posting, the first golden period of construction in western New South Wales occurred between 1875 and 1890.  It occurred principally to turn back the westward flow of primary produce in the colony.  It was an economic imperative for Sydney, the centre of the colony, to capture the product of New South Wales in order to consolidate its prominence as an Antipodean centre of trade.

The second golden period of railway construction in western New South Wales occurred around the commencement of the twentieth century, from 1896 to 1905.  It involved, using Henry Lawson’s words, the ‘tethering’ of the bush.  A fundamental shift from livestock to grain production drove the economic imperatives of this period.  Unlike most livestock, crops cannot walk to regional markets – transport was required.  The parliamentary debates of the time brought forth various views however it was clear that all accepted that railways were required to be brought to within 100 miles (and preferably fewer than 20 miles) of the crop to make it sustainable farming land.  These limitations were a reflection of the primitive road transportation of the time as much as the nature of the produce.

Simultaneous to this change in land use was the entirely political decision to encourage closer settlement of the land.  The vast sheep runs of the first century of colonial civilisation were coming to be seen only as encumbrances on the proper development of the colony.  Smaller, closer plots of farming land were seen as a more profitable use of what was in places land clearly able to support more intensive farming methods.  Greater populations could also be located and sustained by this closer settlement. 

The second golden period was also in part motivated by the anticipated consequences of the impending federation of the Australian colonies.  The commerce, excise and bounties accruing from land near the State’s northern and southern borders would cease.  Western NSW was required to support the State’s treasury.  In short, if the British Empire was to be firmly established in Australia and NSW at the centre of Australia, it was necessary for the former colony to promote aggressive land use, commercial and social policies consistent with the goal of fast-moving settlement of the State.

Underpinning the drive to rapid and permanent settlement of the hinterland, the second golden phase of railway construction in western NSW featured the development of ‘pioneer lines’ radiating from regional centres.  These pioneer lines minimised the cost of investment, whilst maximizing the route mileage attainable.  Such railway lines were always single-tracked, constructed of light weight and often second-hand iron rails and bereft of other improvements, such as ballast.  Almost universally the lines were unfenced.  Given the slow speeds attained by trains traversing such lines and the sparse populations in those areas, the lack of fencing only posed a problem to those livestock who were unable or unwilling to yield to an approaching locomotive.

The third golden age of railway development in western NSW occurred from 1910 to 1925.  This age was a hybrid.  It carried on with the ‘pioneer lines’ approach to development, particularly following the completion of the First World War.  However, while the political desire for closer settlement was certainly driven by economic imperatives, social considerations were also emerging in this period.  Settlement of the land was a means to enable the easier readjustment from wartime to peacetime economy and to provide a reasonable avenue to repay the efforts of servicemen and their families for their war service through the provision of discounted land and access to subsidised capital for land improvements.  The latter part of this period was also fuelled by a determined move by many workers to relocate from the perceived unhealthiness of the cities where devastating influenza epidemics were underway.

However the third golden period of railway development also displayed an embryonic maturity in its promulgation of decentralised trunk routes.  That is, until 1910, everything was built to connect to Sydney or to a very much lesser degree Newcastle.  After 1910 an emerging argument for decentralised transport infrastructure crystallised.

Thus the third age of railway development in western NSW also featured the promotion of a series of competing and complementary ‘cross country lines’.  It was an attempt to reduce seasonal traffic congestion on the Great Western Line but it was also much more.  Inevitably the push for trunk routes to a series of coastal deep-water ports reflected the development of the agricultural markets as an export industry.  It also reflected growing political agitation in seaboard areas outside of Sydney to seek public infrastructure as a means to consolidate civilisation in their own regions.

So where does the Dubbo to Coonamble railway fit within this paradigm?  The decision to construct a railway between Dubbo and Coonamble in no way marked the end of debate about railway transportation around the Coalbaggie and Castlereagh districts.  Rather it provided a greater impetus for those who planned the further expansion of railway construction across central western New South Wales.

At a first assessment its original rationale for the Dubbo to Coonamble railway is entirely consistent with the second age of western railway development, linking the Castlereagh with Dubbo (or Mudgee or Nevertire, for that matter).  The eventual route linked the three established and further emerging townships of Coonamble, Gulargambone and Gilgandra with the regional centre of Dubbo.  It also enabled the close settlement of the Coalbaggie, Mogriguy and Balladoran districts, along with the exploitation of the ironbark forests of Gilgandra and beyond.

However the Dubbo to Coonamble line contributed to the third period of railway development as a possible source for additional ‘pioneer lines’.  Areas to the west of the route were opened progressively for settlement from 1900.  Farmers in those districts had the option of transporting their produce east to Gilgandra or Coonamble, south to Warren or even west to Cobar or Bourke.  Inevitably political agitation arising in these areas sought closer access to railways.

The Dubbo to Coonamble line was also encouraged by the supporters of decentralism during this third period of railway development.  When combined with the other profitable branch lines radiating outward from Dubbo the significant levels of commerce generated by the Coonamble railway contributed to the need for additional west-east cross-country lines.  That is, the traffic levels generated by rail users out of Dubbo had an inevitable impact on the need to upgrade capacity on the Great Western Railway but also to provide railways to alternative destinations.  In this regard the Dubbo Liberal noted on 18 February 1903 that:

In September 1901 an agitation was commenced in Mudgee for the connection of that town with Dubbo; and the project as forming part of the scheme for making Dubbo the ‘Chicago of New South Wales’.

It was not just west to east traffic considered at this time.  In this vein, the proposed extension of the Coonamble railway to Walgett would provide a vital link for the proponents of a north-south traversing of the State.  In time, the Walgett extension would be considered as an option for a much greater rail journey linking Melbourne and Brisbane.