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.