Defining Moments in Australian History: The Trans-Australian Railway

By AG STAFF 26 October 2023
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1917: A rail link between Western Australia and the eastern states is completed.

In 1912 work began on a new railway line between Port Augusta in South Australia and Kalgoorlie in Western
Australia. Stretching across 1693km of Australia’s driest and most isolated terrain, the Trans-Australian Railway was completed on 17 October 1917, providing a link between the eastern states and WA and helping to give the newly-formed Commonwealth a sense of national unity.

The Trans-Australian Railway was the first major work of a federated Australia. Before Federation in 1901, WA
had made the construction of a railway linking the nation’s eastern and western colonies a condition for joining the Commonwealth. At that time, the west was linked to the eastern cities only by a rough sea voyage and a single telegraph line. This inhibited commerce between the colonies and made it difficult to quickly move troops to defend Australia’s southern and western shores.

In 1907 surveyors and engineers began to mark a route across the Nullarbor Plain and four years later the Australian government authorised construction of the railway. Commonwealth Railways (CR) was established in 1912 to oversee the planning and implementation of the Trans-Australian Railway. And on 14 September 1912 governor-general Lord Thomas Denman turned the first sod at a ceremony in Port Augusta to officially begin construction of the railway from the eastern end.

Tracks were built simultaneously in both directions, west from Port Augusta and east from Kalgoorlie. The outbreak of war in 1914 made it difficult for CR to source labour and materials, but by 1916 more than 3400 workers were employed on the project. Maintenance crews lived along the line at intervals and were supplied by the weekly Tea and Sugar train, which later serviced railway workers and their families.

It took five years for teams of rail workers to lay the 2.5 million hardwood sleepers and 140,000 tonnes of rail
needed to finish the 1693km job. The last railway spike was hammered into place outside the tiny settlement of
Ooldea in remote SA on 17 October 1917. Five days later the first passenger train set off from Port Augusta, arriving at Kalgoorlie 42 hours and 48 minutes later.

The new line dramatically shortened travel and communication time. Mail delivery from Adelaide to Perth was cut by two days, and eastbound travellers who took the train arrived in Melbourne three days earlier than those making the journey by ship. Passengers enjoyed the first hot showers ever installed in a rail carriage, ate meals in the dining cars, sang along to the piano or had a quiet drink in the lounge car before resting in comfort in first-class sleeping cars.

But the railway was not only for wealthy travellers. It provided all Australians with greater opportunities for recreational travel and helped WA become a tourist destination. In 1969 the rail line was extended east from Port Augusta as far as Sydney, and west of Kalgoorlie all the way to Perth, making it possible to catch a train from the Pacific Ocean across the continent to the Indian Ocean. This led to the naming of the Indian Pacific, the famous passenger train that now runs along the route.

Ooldea, on the eastern edge of the Nullarbor, was the centre of a vast, ancient Aboriginal trade network and the
site of a permanent water source. It provided the steam locomotives with water for their boilers. During the line’s
construction, Aboriginal people using the soak began interacting with the rail workers and by 1917 a semi-permanent settlement had formed.

Aboriginal people would trade traditional handmade goods with passengers for food and money. By 1926 servicing of the trains had drained the soak dry, and today Ooldea no longer supports a permanent population.

Daisy Bates, a self-taught anthropologist, linguist, journalist and author, lived at Ooldea from 1917 to 1934, providing food, clothing and medical attention to the local Aboriginal community. She entertained many Trans-Australian Railway visitors to Ooldea.

During the 1920s J.C. Williamson’s theatre company travelled to and from Perth on the railway. Tenor Herbert
Browne formed a friendship with Daisy, photographing and filming Aboriginal community members, and collecting boomerangs, shields, spears and spear-throwers.

The Trans-Australian Railway’ forms part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments in Australian History project.