by Jeremy Lee
After eighteen months brilliant engineering the Alice-Darwin rail link
has been completed. One of the last great rail projects in the world has
been made to look easy.
Compare this latest success with the Trans-Continental railway, completed
some eighty five years ago.
On September 14, 1912, Australia's Governor-General, Lord Denman and Prime
Minister Andrew Fisher were in Port Augusta, South Australia, accompanied
by some 30 prominent politicians and more than 2,000 people. The Governor-General
(Lord Denman) was to turn the first sod in the immense task of building
a railway to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, thus completing a rail link
from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. A message from King Edward VI, commending
the project, was read at the ceremony.
They had a daunting task in front of them. Work teams were to start from
either end of the project. Their task was made more difficult by the fact
that the rail gauges at each end were different. This meant that the Commonwealth
Government had to design carriages which could cater for the difference.
Workers had to be assembled, an administration set up, catering and such
accommodation as was essential made ready.
In nine months only six miles had been completed.
The Minister for Home Affairs - the famous King O'Malley of Commonwealth
Bank fame - had imported from Chicago two giant American track layers,
the like of which had never been seen in Australia before. The Ruston
shovel, an Australian invention, which could shift 500 cubic yards of
soil per day, a steam crane which could lift 35 tons, and some second
hand rolling stock, bought in Australia, was the extent of mechanized
By early 1914, the eastern end of the railway had advanced some 140
miles (235 kilometres), having had difficulty with the Lake district
of South Australia which, after rains, became
flood plains for hundreds of miles. Fill from the Flinders ranges had
to be hauled by oxen or mules to build up suitable embankments.
The camps for workers were of an appalling standard, little more than
crude, corrugated iron lean-tos, with primitive sanitary arrangements.
Most slept under flimsy canvas. Food was expensive, and delivery unreliable.
There was no refrigeration. The flies and the heat, with temperatures
often exceeding 40 degrees, made living conditions unbelievable.
By 1915 a pattern had developed; an advance party of surveyors was followed
by a workforce of some 400 men, who formed the embankment for the next
party behind them, consisting of the track-laying machines and the wooden
sleepers, which had been transported thousands of miles. A steady two
miles of new railway was accomplished under this team work. Their best
day was two miles 40 chains, in one week they put down 14 miles 50 chains,
and in one year that accomplished 442 miles 44 chains - a record for
railway construction in Australia.
As was to be expected, the primitive living conditions resulted in disease.
On January 4, 1915, the first case of typhoid was reported, and the
disease raged all along the line. On the Eastern section, 102 typhoid
cases occurred, with seven deaths. The hospital at Port Augusta could
not cope with the influx of patients, and a temporary hospital of 51
beds was hastily erected, and 12 extra nurses and assistants engaged.
The South Australian Department of Health inspected working conditions
and forced a change to sanitation and cooking. Within three months the
disease was wiped out.
By April 1916 the party was approaching the second engineering challenge
- "The Sand hills" near Barton. Men had to be sent 100 miles
in advance of the tracklayers to prepare the way. Their supplies of
food and water were transported by camels. The gangs had to excavate
1,000,000 cubic yards of earth by hand within a distance of 25 miles
and face some of the larger cuttings with stone. This mammoth job was
finally accomplished, and the railway moved steadily towards Ooldea.
East and West
Meanwhile, work had also commenced from the Kalgoorlie end of the project.
The first sod was turned on February 12 1913, but by June 24 only eight
miles had been completed. The line crawled on, and on November 18 one
of the giant track layers ordered by O'Malley arrived. By December 15,
25 miles of track had been laid, and work was speeding up. In March
1914 the 60-mile peg was reached. By October 24, 1914, the railway was
at Zanthus, 125 miles from Kalgoorlie, and on March 25 1916 it had reached
Naretha, ready to start the long journey across the Nullarbor Plain,
400 miles from the scheduled meeting point between East and West.
This was 'No-man's land". On this Plain, for two-and-a-half years,
the men were completely isolated. Apart from the occasional newspaper
there was no literature. Sports and other entertainment did not exist.
Wireless (or radio as we now know it) was unknown. The only diversion
was the gambling game of "Two-up", on which wages and savings
were regularly won or lost.
By June 30, 1916 the railhead had reached Forrest, in the center of
the Nullarbor Plain, about 410 miles from Kalgoorlie. Twelve months
later it had reached a point midway between Cook and Fisher, some 540
miles from its starting point. It was not until October 1917, almost
six years after commencement - the same month that Lenin and his Bolshevik
revolutionaries seized control of Russia for Communism - that the two
weary teams from East and West met in Ooldea and the railway became
When the news broke through the achievement became the occasion for
national celebration. The men at the face were given a holiday, with
sports and a concert. The King cabled his congratulations, and Sir John
Forrest, speaking in Melbourne, said:
"I rejoice to see this day. Western Australia, comprising one-third
of the continent, hitherto isolated and practically unknown, is from
today in reality, a part of the Australian Federation. From today, East
and West are indissolubly joined together by bands of steel, and the
result must be increased prosperity and happiness for the Australian
The achievement was indeed immense. The total distance covered was 1,051
miles (1,755 kms) with about 1,000 miles of practically waterless desert.
Throughout its entire length it does not cross one permanent stream.
It runs for 330 miles (550kms) without a bend or a curve - the longest
straight stretch in the world. It is said that a politician, traveling
across it, said he had never runs so straight in his life!
Manpower and other barriers
The obstacles, both natural and man-made, had been immense. An entirely
separate industry was established cutting sleepers. An attempt by a
private monopoly in Western Australia to corner this market was successful
for two years. Hundreds were employed at miserable wages to cut jarrah.
They slept in bark shelters cut from timber scraps, for which they were
then charged rent. The combine charged exorbitantly, finally forcing
the Commonwealth to set up its own industry, cutting jarrah and karri
from the south-west. Altogether, 1,900,000 sleepers were cut, hauled
from forests and then delivered to rail heads hundreds of miles away.
Water was an immense problem. It had to be carted 500 miles on the Western
division and 337 miles in the East. It had to provide not only for men,
but horses, livestock and machinery. A number of dams were built, lined
with bitumen, and one was covered by a corrugated iron roof in an effort
to minimize evaporation. The mineral content of the water played havoc,
and over 2,000 boilers were corroded and had to be replaced. Finally,
a water-softening plant was built at Augusta, with condensation plants
along the line.
As soon as the project commenced the steel magnates increased their
prices for steel, causing King O'Malley to exclaim on August 8, 1912:
"I am up against the trusts of the world, which have laid themselves
out to make this railway so costly it will be a dead failure".
But the monopolists controlled the market, and the price had to be paid,
raising the original costs. After the outbreak of World War I the price
rose further and steel became almost unobtainable. Plate laying ceased
altogether in the Western Division for seven months. In 1915, BHP finally
began to supply rails, and within a year was the sole supply. But delivery
was often erratic. Wartime demands resulted in many claims for steel.
Rolling stock on the completed sections faced increasing pressure. At
one time on the Eastern section supplies were being carted for 1,200
men, an uncertain number of women and children, plus livestock, plus
materials for building. Individual engines were often doing 5,000 miles
The attrition rate amongst such an immense labour force was so great
that finally living conditions were improved. Tents were replaced by
"boarding houses", the largest of which housed 500 men. Food
was improved as well as sanitation.
A Commonwealth Bank rail car ran up and down the line, taking deposits
and withdrawals, and making loans. Two hospital cars were put in constant
motion, with doctors and staff, and doctors were appointed to specific
locations. Altogether, there were over 900 accidents with 20 fatalities,
apart from the typhoid cases and fatalities mentioned earlier.
. This landmark achievement, of which all Australians should be proud,
should be compared to the only other comparable railway project ever
attempted in Australia - the Alice to Darwin railway just completed.
A rail like Alice
The first sod of the Alice to Darwin rail link was turned by the Prime
Minister, John Howard, in April 2001, and within 15 months, by July
2002, 304 kms of track had been completed, 921 kms of corridor had been
cleared, 747 kms. of embankment built, 591 kms. of the capping layer
completed and 30 of the 97 bridges built.
The challenges were different. This was not flat country, but marked
by ranges, gorges and rivers.. Unlike the Transcontinental, it was not
financed and built by Australia. An international consortium called
the Asia Pacific Transport Company, comprising Halliburton KBR, Barclay
Mowlem, the John Holland Group, MacMahon, Australia Railway Group and
SANT, with Australian tax money thrown in, undertook the job. The consortium
will own and use the railway for 50 years before finally returning it
to the South Australian and Territory Governments.
Again, this project started from each end. In total, it employed 1,200
people, only 100 on the actual track-laying operation.
At 8.30 am on September 13 2003 - 30 months after commencement - the
Southern team laid their last rail and welded it into place. Those who
had worked on the project lived in insulated comfort, with superb meals.
Instead of flies they had air-conditioning and refrigeration. Instead
of open wood fires for cooking they had the latest microwaves. Instead
of the lonely harmonica beside a camp fire they listened to the best
Philharmonic orchestra, available in stereo. Television was always available.
Working hours were reasonable, with regular leave in either Darwin or
The Northern Section will meet the completed rail line before the end
of September. All that remains is electrical installation for such things
as lights and direction, signs for drivers and other directional equipment.
The railway will officially open at the beginning of 2004 - a nice New
Year's present to Australia. Already the first $5 million's worth of
tickets for the journey have been sold and paid for.
It is a staggering achievement. But, unlike the Transcontinental, it
won't be Australian owned and operated until the second half of the
How did we pay?
The total bill for the Transcontinental railway was approximately $14
million. Of this, $2.4 million came from taxes. The rest came from the
Note Issue Department, which had resumed the right to create Australia's
money-creation needs from the private banks. The debt, recorded between
two government departments, was progressively written off. The real
costs were the materials and the sweat expended in building the railway.
(The full story is told in D.J. Amos's booklet "The Story of
the Commonwealth Railway and the Note Issue", available from
Comparison of the two railways reminds us of two facts that no politician
dares mention today. Firstly, a nation such as Australia does not have
to borrow to capitalize its own development, provided it has the material
and know-how for any project it wishes to undertake.
Secondly, the belief that giant public or private works can re-create
full employment has been made meaningless by the state of technology,
which has increasingly displaced human labour. This is an achievement
by governmental insistence that full employment is the only way to live.