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Why Australia has three different railway gauges

Railways in Australia date from the 10 December 1831 when the Australian Agricultural Company officially opened Australia's first railway, located at the intersection of Brown and Church Streets, Newcastle, New South Wales. Privately owned and operated to service the A Pit coal mine, it was a cast-iron fishbelly rail on an inclined plane as a gravitational railway. The earliest railway in South Australia consisted of the seven-mile horse-drawn freight line between Goolwa and Port Elliot in South Australia, which began service on 18 May 1854, allowing steam ships to avoid the treacherous mouth of the Murray River. The first steam locomotive began service soon afterward between Sandridge (now Port Melbourne), and Flinders Street, Melbourne.

Sandridge railway, Melbourne. Illustration: National Museum of Australia

Consequently, Australians generally assumed in the 1850s that railways would be built by the private sector. Private companies built railways in the then colonies of Victoria, opened in 1854, and New South Wales, where the company was taken over by the government before completion in 1855, due to bankruptcy. South Australia's railways were government owned from the beginning, including a horse-drawn line opened in 1854 and a steam-powered line opened in 1856. In Victoria, the private railways were soon found not to be financially viable, and existing rail networks and their expansion was taken over by the colony. Government ownership also enabled railways to be built to promote development, even if not apparently viable in strictly financial terms. The railway systems spread from the colonial capitals, except in cases where geography dictated a choice of an alternate port.

The first public railway to be constructed in Sydney roughly followed the route of the first rural road built in the colony 60 years previous, linking Sydney and Parramatta. It was a single track line, built by a private company which went bankrupt 23 days before the inaugural train journey was scheduled to be made. The Government stepped in, enabling the project to be completed on time and the line to begin taking traffic in 1855. From thereon, the railway was to play a significant role in suburban development in Sydney's inner and outer west, and later the south and north. The railway, which got the green light in 1849, was intended to be Australia's first, but Melbourne was able to complete its first railway ahead of Sydney. It was a 3.2 km long broad gauge single line track from Flinders Street, Melbourne, across the Yarra River and through the sand hills of Port Melbourne to Hobsons Bay. The first service ran on 12th September, 1854.

The three major Australian colonies at the time failed to follow advice from the British Government to adopt a uniform gauge in case the lines of the various states should ever meet, though it came close to happening. The gauge originally chosen was the English 'standard' gauge of 1.435 metres. When Victoria and South Australia began building their own railways of their own they followed New South Wales' lead, settling on standard gauge for their railways. Sydney's city surveyor, Irish born Francis Shields, then successfully lobbied for the Sydney railway to be changed to the wider, Irish 'broad' gauge of 1.6 metres. Victoria and South Australia, which had already started laying standard gauge track, reluctantly carried the cost of changing their existing track to the broad 1.6 metre gauge to remain consistent with NSW.

After the original Sydney to Parramatta line had been laid as broad gauge, James Wallace insisted the track be lifted and changed back to the 1.435 metre gauge, because it was cheaper and was being adopted universally as the standard gauge for railways across the world. Victoria and South Australia refused to change theirs back again, leaving NSW out of step with all other existing railways on the Australian continent. This precipated the ludicrous situation of there being three different gauges used across Australia (Western Australia, Queenand and parts of South Australia settled on another, even narrower gauge when they built their railways) and the inconvenience of passengers having to change trains at state borders before a standard gauge for interstate services was adopted.

The different tracks at a 'break of gauge' railway station at Peterborough, South Australia, now part of the Steamtown Heritage Railway Centre

The colonial railways were built to three different gauges, which became a problem once lines of different systems met at Albury, New South Wales in 1881 and Wallangarra, Queensland in 1888. In the 20th century, the lines between major cities were converted to standard gauge and electrified suburban networks were built in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. In the second half of the 20th century, many rural branch lines were closed to passenger traffic or altogether in all states. On the other hand, long heavy-haul railways were built to transport iron ore in Western Australia and coal in Queensland to ports. In Western Australia these railways are privately owned.

In 1910, a conference of Railway commissioners chose 4 ft 8 1 D2 in (1,435 mm) to be the standard gauge. Over the decades, many plans were floated to fix the break of gauge. These failed, mainly because they were too ambitious and proposed to convert all lines, even lines of little economic value. In spite of this, the different state rail systems became more integrated, initially creating more breaks of gauge. In 1917, the Federal Government's standard gauge Trans-Australian Railway was completed between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta. However, this required a break of gauge at Kalgoorlie to reach Perth and breaks of gauge at both Port Augusta and Terowie to reach Adelaide. In 1927, the last section of the Sydney Broken Hill line was completed between Trida and Menindee meeting the South Australian Railways line at a break of gauge and requiring a further break of gauge at Terowie to reach Adelaide.

In the 1950s, a parliamentary committee chaired by William Wentworth recommended a much more modest and affordable plan to gauge convert only the three main missing links. In 1966, a new mixed standard and narrow gauge Eastern Railway route was completed through the Avon Valley, east of Perth, two years later the Kalgoorlie to Perth line was completed and in 1969 the Broken Hill to Port Pirie standard gauge railway were opened, completing the Sydney Perth railway as a single gauge line. In 1962 the Albury to Melbourne standard gauge line was opened, completing the Sydney Melbourne railway. No longer did passengers have to change trains at Albury, which involved leaving one train, crossing the platform and boarding another, all done in the middle of the night if the train was an overnight express.

In the 1990s and the early 21st century, the traditional networks were reorganised and partially privatised. The interstate standard gauge network came largely under the control of the Australian Rail Track Corporation and private companies were allowed to operate on it for the first time. Some non-metropolitan intrastate networks became privately controlled and the operation of private freight and passenger trains commenced. Queensland Rail was left as the only government-owned operator of freight or rural passenger trains. The Melbourne suburban railways became the first urban rail system to be operated by private sector franchisees.

Break of gauge Towns

Albury, NSW
Albury-Wodonga is a broad settlement incorporating the twin Australian cities of Albury and Wodonga, built around where the Hume Highway cross the Murray River. Albury is separated from its twin city in Victoria, Wodonga by the Murray River. Together, the two cities form an urban area with a population of more than 80,000.

Albury railway station is on the main Sydney-Melbourne railway line. Originally, New South Wales and Victoria had different track gauges, which meant that all travellers in either direction had to change trains at Albury. To accommodate this, a very long railway platform was needed; at 450-metres, it is the longest covered railway platform in the southern hemisphere. The broad gauge section of track between Seymour and Albury has now been converted to standard gauge, so there is no longer a break-of-gauge at Albury station. The station is today served by a three daily V/Line train services from Melbourne (terminating at Albury) and the NSW TrainLink Melbourne-Sydney XPT service, which runs twice daily in each direction.

Wallangarra, Qld
A small town that only came into existence because it was here, at the Queensland / New South Wales border, that the two different gauged railway lines of Queensland (1067 mm) and New South Wales (1435 mm) met. Wallangarra is Queensland's southern most township. Being 877 metres above sea level, it is also one of Queensland's coldest towns. The town was little more than a small cluster of buildings until the railway arrived.

The meeting of two different gauges here necessitated it becoming a railway junction where travellers had to change trains. This necessitated a town on each side of the border - Wallangarra in Qld and Jennings in NSW - with two schools, two police stations, two pubs, two railway ticket offices and a population of a few hundred between them. To change trains, passengers had to alight from one train, cross to the other side of the platform and board a different train. One side of the railway station platform was in Qld, the other side was in NSW - the style of architecture of the awnings on each side of the platform was different to let passengers know which state's train there were about to board! Just as passengers had to change trains at the break of gauge at Wallangarra so too did goods. In its heyday the double-sided goods platform would have been a hive of frenzied activity as goods were transferred from one train to the other.

The ridiculous ritual of buying separate tickets and crossing platforms took place from the completion of the railway in 1887 until common sense prevailed in 1930 and a common gauge was adopted. Not surprisingly the town's most distinctive feature, and its only real attraction, is the rather grand Victorian-era railway station. Take a walk through the abandoned railway yard and you'll come across dual guage points and sections of track in the former goods yard.

Terowie, SA
Terowie was established in the late 19th century as a railway junction for NSW and SA lines. It became one of the major break of gauge locations on the railway network, with large rail workshops and a population of 2000. The tracks of the two different states were different gauges and people had to change trains at Terowie. In March 1942 the eyes of the world descended upon Terowie. When General Douglas MacArthur was changing trains at Terowie from Darwin on his way south, he gave his first Australian press conference on the station uttering the famous words,"I came out of Bataan and I shall return."

Re-routing of the Alice Springs railway line in the 1950s, moving the change-of-gauge to Peterborough in 1970 and the bypassing of the town by the Barrier Highway in the 1960s all contributed towards the town's demise. These days, it is only its historic buildings and galleries which occupy them that keep the town alive.

Peterborough, SA
Peterborough is a railway town at the junction of the Port Pirie to Broken Hill line and the Adelaide to Quorn, Port Augusta, Hawker, Leigh Creek and Marree. The town services an important grain-growing and pastoral region. Its greatest claim to fame is that it is one of only two places in Australia (the other is Gladstone) where three railway gauges met. It is entirely appropriate that one of the main attraction in this old railway town should be its railway museum - Steamtown - housed in the railway workshop.

Formed in 1977 Steamtown was created to run a steam train service between Peterborough and Quorn with rolling stock dating from 1920s. It runs from Peterborough and Euralia and Orroroo providing visitors with the experience of an old-style railway journey. The Museum's heritage listed Roundhouse with its 23 bays, a 3 gauge turntable (the only one left in the world) and parts of the original workshops now display a wide range of historic rolling stock, mainly from the original Ghan which once passed through the town.

Platforms at Peterborough station where the change of gauge took place

Switch points using 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) / 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1 D2 in) track, between the roundhouse and the Peterborough West washout facilities, Peterborough, South Australia

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