Rail gauge in Australia
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Rail gauges in Australia display significant variations, which has presented an extremely difficult problem for rail transport on the Australian continent for over a hundred and fifty years.
Significant variations occur, where no one state has had uniform gauge throughout the state. South Australia has had 3 gauges operating for its whole rail history.
- 1 Track gauges and route kilometres
- 2 History
- 3 Recent projects
- 4 Communications
- 5 References
- 6 Additional reading
- 7 External links
Track gauges and route kilometres
- Standard gauge — 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge 17,678 km—mainly New South Wales and the interstate rail network.
- Narrow gauge — 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge 15,160 km—mainly Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania as well as some of South Australia. The term "Cape gauge" is rarely used in Australia.
- Broad gauge — 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) 4,017 km—mainly Victoria, some South Australia, some Victorian Railways branch lines extending into southern New South Wales. The term "Irish gauge" is rarely used in Australia.
- Narrow gauge — 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) 28 km (Victorian Railways narrow gauge)
- Narrow gauge — 2 ft (610 mm) 4,150 km (sugarcane tramways)
- Dual gauge — 281 km
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2002)
Of the networks constructed by the various government railways, there have been a variety of rail gauges:
- Cane tramways, mainly in Queensland are 2 ft (610 mm), but these carry very little through traffic so that the break-of-gauge is not a problem.
- Victoria had four short 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) lines for general traffic
- Private timber tramways used a variety of gauges
- Private, isolated and heavy duty iron ore mining railways all use the standard gauge of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm)
- Temporary lines at construction sites, such as the 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge railways used for the development of the national capital at Canberra between 1913 and 1927, including the original Parliament House and 2 ft (610 mm) construction line to Burrinjuck Dam
In 1846, a New South Wales newspaper discussed the same problem. 
In 1847, South Australia adopts the 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) gauge as law. 
In 1848 NSW Governor Charles Fitzroy was advised by Secretary of State for the Colonies in London, Earl Grey, that one uniform gauge should be adopted in Australia, this being the English standard 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) gauge. The recommendation was adopted by the then three colonies.   Grey notes in his letter that South Australia has already adopted this gauge.
At this stage only these three colonies of the then existing colonies were seriously considering railways, and Victoria and Queensland were still part of New South Wales. The overland telegraph communication with London was still yet to be built.
Origins of the gauge muddle
At that time the private Sydney Railway Company had begun building its railway line to Parramatta. The chief engineer of the company was Irish-born Francis Webb Sheilds, who persuaded the company and the NSW legislature to change to the Irish standard gauge of 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) instead. This decision was endorsed by the NSW Governor, and Colonial Secretary Earl Grey in London agreed in 1851. The other colonies also adopted this gauge (Victoria having separated from New South Wales in 1851), with the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company opening a 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) ("broad gauge") line in 1854, and South Australia using the 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge on its first steam-hauled railway in 1856.
However, Sheilds had resigned as engineer for the Sydney Railway Company when his pay was cut and the company appointed a new Scottish engineer, James Wallace, who preferred the English standard gauge. The NSW legislature was persuaded to make the change. Despite a request by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to reconsider this alteration, the NSW Governor William Denison gave the go-ahead in 1855, with the 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) Sydney to Parramatta railway opening in September 1855.
As early as 1857, the NSW railway engineer John Whitton suggested that the short railway then operating in New South Wales be altered from 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) gauge to 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) to conform with Victoria, but despite being supported by the NSW Railway Administration, he was ignored. At that time there were only 21 miles (37 km) of track, 4 engines and assorted cars and wagons on the railway but, by 1889, New South Wales under engineer Whitton had built almost 1,950 miles (3,500 km) of standard gauge line.
The 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) "narrow" gauge was introduced to Australia in 1865, when Queensland opened its first railway from Ipswich to Grandchester. This was the first narrow gauge main line in the world. South Australia also adopted this gauge in 1870 with its lines to Port Wakefield, Hoyleton, Broken Hill and Oodnadatta. Western Australia adopted it in 1879 with its lines from Geraldton to Northampton.
The island state of Tasmania opened its first railway from Launceston to Deloraine in 1871 using 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge, but converted to 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge in 1888.
Towards a network
Until this time the gauge issue was no major problem, as there were no connections between the separate systems. The governments of the 1850s did not visualise the need for either inter-city passenger or freight services. It was not until 1883 when the broad and standard gauge lines from Melbourne and Sydney met at Albury, and in 1888 narrow and standard gauge from Brisbane and Sydney met at Wallangarra. The issue of rail gauge was mentioned in an 1889 military defence report authored by English army officer Major General James Bevan Edwards, who said that the full benefit of the railways would not be attained until a uniform gauge was established. It needs to be remembered, however, that until federation the benefits of a uniform gauge were not immediately apparent, as passengers would have to pass through customs and immigration at the intercolonial border, meaning that all goods would have to be removed for customs inspection. It was only with federation, and free trade between the states, that the impediment of different gauges became apparent.
By the time of Federation, standard gauge was used in only NSW, but was favoured for further work. Work on gauge conversion was assisted by section 51 (xxxiii) of the Constitution of Australia, which made specific provisions for the Commonwealth Parliament to make laws with respect to railway acquisition and construction. An agreement was made with the South Australian and Western Australian governments for the Trans-Australian Railway from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie, with work started in 1911 and completed in 1917.
In 1921 a Royal Commission into rail gauge was delivered, recommending gauge conversion of large areas of the country. It stated "that the gauge of 4-ft. 8.5-in. be adopted as the standard for Australia; that no mechanical, third rail, or other device would meet the situation, and that uniformity could be secured by one means only, viz., by conversion of the gauges other than 4-ft. 8.5-in." Following the Royal Commission, agreements were made for a standard gauge line from Kyogle to South Brisbane (completed in 1930) and from Port Augusta to Port Pirie in 1937.
By World War II there were 12 break of gauge locations, with upwards of 1,600 service personnel and many more civilians employed to transfer 1.8 million tons of freight during the period. The breaks of gauge (BG=Broad gauge, NG=Narrow gauge, SG=Standard gauge) were at:
- Kalgoorlie—SG, NG
- Port Augusta—SG, NG
- Port Pirie—SG, NG, BG
- Gladstone(S.Au.)—NG, BG
- Terowie—NG, BG
- Wolseley—NG, BG
- Mount Gambier—NG, BG
- Broken Hill—SG, NG
- Tocumwal—SG, BG
- Oaklands—SG, BG
- Albury—SG, BG
- Wallangarra—NG, SG
- South Brisbane—NG, SG
- Clapham (Brisbane) post 1930 for SG, NG.
- Hamley Bridge had ceased to be a break of gauge in the 1920s, NG, BG.
- Roma Street (Brisbane) SG extended to NG station for passenger use only.
- Acacia Ridge—SG, NG—was developed as a break-of-gauge in the 1970s to relieve overcrowding at Clapham.
- Fishermans Island (Sea Port) developed in 1980s, NG, SG
- Bromelton—SG, NG—is being developed in 2010 to relieve overcrowding at Acacia Ridge.
In 1922, 273 inventions to solve the break-of-gauge had been rejected, and none adopted.
In 1933, as many as 140 devices were proposed by inventors to solve the break-of-gauge problem, none of which were adopted.
Even dual gauge with a third rail for combining Irish gauge and standard gauge was rejected as too reckless, as the gap between these gauges of 6.5 in (170 mm) was too small. Dual gauge combining Irish gauge and narrow gauge where the gap was 21 in (530 mm) was also rejected.
Opposition to Third Rail
While Prime Minister Hughes had expressed support for the idea of a third rail solving the break of gauge difficulty, the predominant opinion of senior officers of the railways was to oppose it.
After the wartime experience, a report into the Standardisation of Australia's rail gauges was completed by former Victorian Railways Chief Commissioner Sir Harold Winthrop Clapp for the Commonwealth Land Transport Board in March 1945. It included three main proposals:
- Gauge standardisation from Fremantle and Perth to Kalgoorlie, all of South Australian and Victorian broad gauge lines, all of the South Australian south east and Peterborough division narrow gauge lines, and acquisition and conversion of the Silverton Tramway. Costed at 44.318 million pounds.
- New standard gauge "strategic and developmental railway" from Bourke, New South Wales to Townsville, Queensland and Dajarra (near Mount Isa) with new branch lines from Bourke via Barringun, Cunnamulla, Charleville, Blackall to Longreach. Existing narrow gauge lines Queensland would also be gauge converted, including Longreach – Linton – Hughenden – Townsville Dajarra and associated branches. The overall cost was 21.565 million pounds.
- New standard gauge line to Darwin, including new line from Dajarra, Queensland to Birdum, Northern Territory, and gauge conversion of the Birdum to Darwin narrow gauge line. Cost of 10.868 million pounds.
The report wrote that if only main trunk lines were converted, it would introduce a multitude of break of gauge terminals and result in greatly increased costs. It also recommended abandoning part of the existing Perth – Kalgoorlie narrow gauge line, and build a flatter and straighter route using 3rd rail dual gauge, as modernisation was just as important as standardisation.
South Australia was unhappy with the report, as the link to the Northern Territory would not run though its state. Western Australia and Queensland both saw no advantage in the report, as they already had a common gauge in their states, and only one main break of gauge. NSW entered into the agreement to advance gauge standardisation in Victoria and South Australia, but did not ratify it.
Gauge conversion did continue, with the South Australian Railways south east division from Wolseley to Mount Gambier and associated branches converted to broad gauge in the 1950s, on the understanding it would again to standard gauge at a later date. Standard gauge lines were also built, with the line between Stirling North and Maree opened in July 1957.
In 1956 a Government Members Rail Standardisation Committee was established, chaired by William Wentworth, MP. It found that while there was still considerable doubt as to the justification for large scale gauge conversion, there was no doubt that work on some main trunk lines was long overdue. Both the committee and the Liberal party then in power strongly supported three standardisation projects at a cost of 41.5 million pounds ($83 million):
- Wodonga to Melbourne (priority 1)
- Broken Hill to Adelaide via Port Pirie (priority 2—built 3rd)
- Kalgoorlie to Perth and Fremantle (priority 3—built 2nd)
The Commonwealth, NSW and Victorian governments were first to start work, with the first goods train to Melbourne operating in January 1962 and the first through passenger train in April 1962. Over the next 12 months net freight tonnage was up 32.5% and to 1973 there was an average increase of 8.6%.
The work in Western Australia was done in conjunction with a new iron ore mine at Koolyanobbing and an accompanying steel mill at Kwinana. A new dual gauge line was built through the Avon Valley from Midland to Northam on 1 in 200 grades instead of 1 in 40; and a new line was built from Southern Cross to Kalgoorlie though Koolyanobbing. Officially opened in August 1969, Kalgoolie – Perth freight train times were reduced from 31 hours to 13 hours, and passenger trains from 14 hours to 8 hours.
In South Australia work on Port Pirie to Broken Hill did not start until 1963. The narrow gauge lines from Gladstone and Peterborough were not converted, with triple gauge yards provided. Standard gauge access to Adelaide was not provided. From Cockburn to Broken Hill a new railway was built on an improved alignment, avoiding the private Silverton Tramway route. The completion of this link enabled the first Indian Pacific to run across the nation in March 1970 from Sydney to Perth.
A new line between Tarcoola and Alice Springs was given the go ahead by the Whitlam Government in 1974. Built to replace the narrow gauge Central Australia Railway the 831 kilometre long line was completed by 1980, see Adelaide-Darwin Railway.
Work on standard gauge access to Adelaide started in 1982, with a new line from Crystal Brook near Port Pirie. Freight trains began using the line in 1983 with passenger trains following the next year. With benefits exceeding the cost by 2.8 times over 25 years, the Australian National Railways Commission was able to obtain a loan for the funding of the work.
One Nation project
The One Nation project was carried out under the Keating Government from 1991 to 1996. The Melbourne-Adelaide railway line was converted to standard gauge in 1995, at a cost of $167 million. A few broad gauge lines such as the one to Portland were also converted. A standard gauge/dual gauge link was also opened to the Port of Brisbane in 1997.
Gauge conversion of 2000 kilometres of track in Victoria was announced by the State Government in May 2001 but did not proceed due to the difficulty of achieving any agreement with then track manager, Freight Australia. In 2008 the conversion of the North East line in Victoria was announced, covering 200 kilometres (120 mi) of track between Seymour and Albury to provide double track along the section. In the same year standard gauge access was provided to the Port of Geelong, 13 years after the conversion to standard gauge of the Western standard gauge line between Melbourne and Adelaide, which runs through the northern suburbs of Geelong.
The Oaklands branch line has been converted to standard gauge as part of the project to standardise the North East line, to prevent that branch becoming isolated.
Since the Australian Overland Telegraph Line and cable communications with England did not open until 1872, communications regarding gauge between 1847 and 1871 has to be carried out by much slower sea transport.
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- John Ayres Mills: The Myth of the Standard Gauge: Rail Gauge Choice in Australia, 1850-1901