The Australian Railway Story (Guide)

Chapters: • 1 • 2 • 3 • 4 • 5 • 6 • 7 • 8 • 9 • 10 • 11 • 12 • 13 • 14 • 15 • 16 • 17 • 18 •

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A Guide to the Australian Railway Story and Collecting of Railway Culture
Brian Dunnett

The information that can be found in various sections of this blog and on the Australian Railway Story website as told by musicians, poets, songwriters and the odd story teller began with a project established at the Chullora Railway Workshops in 1984 by 3,000 railway workers as the Railway Unions Cultural Committee. At the time Australian Railways were still one of the largest employers of labour and thousands of workers and their families could trace their personal history back over a hundred years or more, too the beginning of the steam era that ended the convict system in Australia.

Those who worked on this project at that stage to create what is now known as the "Trains of Treasure Exhibition" a collection of railway songs as poems presented visually and supported by 2 audio recordings. (1 of oral history) were not fully aware off how quickly knowledge on Australia’s Steam era was to be destroyed.

A new epoch of Australia's industrial history was to be ushered in. Not just of technical change like diesel or electrification that Australian Railways had already showed that they could cope with but an industrial that was dominated by private ownerships and denial of collective industrial strengths and achievements.

Even before Britain nationalised its early railway system Australian saw the advantage of public ownership of railways. That came about by the establishment of the first publicly owned railway in the world at the mouth of the Darling River in SA.

That experience of using "public" money to build necessary Australian infrastructure was quickly followed by State ownership of NSW and Victorian Railway systems.

In a little over 30 years the Australian railway system the basic foundation of Australiais industrial heritage has been allowed to run down and almost disappear out of site. Signs that this has begun to change are again appearing with signals from the Commonwealth Government that new rail infrastructure must be funded.

A central target for those who wish to destroy knowledge of the public contribution made to Australia's railway system was the "culture" that was produced for over 150 years. This is not to say that through this period that everything done in “State” controlled railways was good but knowledge of this culture rather than its outright destruction allows for an examination of both its strength and weaknesses.

Such an examination is not possible without the collecting and preservation of the raw culture material that was produced in this period on railway experience. The reader who follows this project through from its establishment in 1984 to to-day will see how the project has grown. The Chullora workers had some knowledge that there was a great deal of railway cultural material scatted in a hundred and one spots across Australia, particularly in the memories or railway workers and their families. They began by collecting scraps of papers out of dirty lockers.

Since that time the interest in collecting Australian railway, songs, poems music stories and other cultural items has grown. Several railway museums like the Werris Creek Museum in NSW are now becoming a home for Australian Railway Folklore.

This web site welcomes this interest in the collecting and recording of this rich culture. We now provide a link section in our ongoing efforts that will allow those who have material to share it not just with us but others who want to take up the task of collecting such material before it is lost.

The Australian Railway Story: as recorded and told through the eyes of poets, songwriters, story tellers and others.

To assist the collecting process, please see below eighteen Chapter Headings that were prepared as introductions to the Australian Railway Stories collection of about 300 songs and poems. We are using these chapter headings that summarised the content of these items too identify possible further sources and topics of Australian Railway songs poems music stories and other cultural material that can be added to collections. As time goes on we hope to introduce the titles of the 300 songs and poems that have provide the information for these chapters and add the full item music score, audio record and a photograph. (Addition items on these subjects are always welcomed).

Chapter 1 (see enlarged version)
The Foundation of a Nation and Australian Railway Culture

Despite early opposition to the exploitation of convict labour power from Governor Phillip, the Commander of the First Fleet, this source of labour was used to operate early 19th Century mine railways at Newcastle, New South Wales, as well as rudimentary passenger railway systems like that at Port Arthur in Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania).

Convicts such as Francis MacNamara (better known as Frank the Poet) had little control over their working conditions, and they faced a harsh life and an often early death. However, the spirit of resistance was ever present. MacNamara, in a letter to the superintendent of the Australian Agricultural Company, William Crosdale, bravely stated his opposition to the Company's practice of using men to pull railway trucks in their Newcastle coal mining operations. For this defiant act and others like it he was sentenced in 1842 to serve out his remaining time at Port Arthur, where similar carts were used to transport privilege people and those in charge.

Chapter 2  (see enlarged version)
They Laid The Steel Ribbons

During the first industrial revolution, railway navvies were recognised as the kings of labour. They were skilled in digging foundations for railway track, bridge building and tunnelling, with little more than a pick and shovel.

From 1849, when the first steam railway company was formed to build the Sydney Railway system, hundreds of these men and their families from the far ends of the Earth set out for 'Botany Bay' to become the builders of Australia's steam railways.

Reflecting some of the influence that the discovery of gold had on the newly established state of Victoria, Melbourne was to see the opening of Australia's first steam passenger railway on September 12th 1854. Sydney’s first railway open a year later. Today, the Navvies have disappeared, and concrete sleepers and railway tracks, are laid by giant machines that move forward along their own freshly laid railway lines.

Chapter 3
Early Australian Steam Railway Openings 1854 - 1871

The opening of the Sydney to Parramatta Railway Line in N.S.W. took place on the 2nd of October 1855. One highlight of the occasion was a military band in all its glory performing William Paling's 'The Sydney Railway Waltz'. This had been specially written for the occasion. Similar events were held whenever a new railway line was opened throughout Australia . The first song below commemorated such an event in Tasmania.

Chapter 4
Railways Push To The Outback and Its Social Impact

Australian Railway engineers were challenged from the very beginning by technical problems such as the need to cross wide rivers, and lay railways tracks over mountains and deserts. So great was the demand for railways at time little thought was given to a planning a standard Australian railway system but from the north to the south, railways once established operated in ever changing conditions of extreme heat and bitter cold. With the railways edging inland to service new industries and towns came different ways of looking at things and the foundations of a new society.

Chapter 5
The Australian Railway Workforce and their Families

Work skills required to construct and operate Australian railways developed a range of skilled workers who shared similar experiences from one side of the continent to the other. At one point in Australia’s history no industrial task was beyond this workforce who were called on to perform some amazing tasks to keep a nation moving. The industry was seen as a family affair with one generation after another being employed and trained in their operations. Family involvement frequently began as a result of the isolation where working problems of the day were often shared with wives and children. Many of the workforce classifications mentioned below have long disappeared from the modern Australian railway workplace.

Chapter 6
Engine Drivers, Their Mates and Locomotives

Engine drivers and their mates have stood out as skilled workers. As well as this, they were prolific poets, songwriters and storytellers. In an era when the huge steam locomotive became a symbol of power some of the mythology of these living beasts rub off on them often creating visions of supermen, who, no matter what conditions prevailed, would always get their locomotive through on time. In this atmosphere it was the dream of every boy and quite a few girls to become a locomotive driver.

Their work was physical and required a variety of skills. At least one union official over the years likened the skill to those needed by Airline Pilots. However, railway management took a different view and looked upon them as blue-collar workers. Like the workforce in general they faced poor working conditions and were victims of a centralised military style of management.

To deal with red tape generated by this system they became avid readers and writers. Following long shifts to reach a destination, many hours were spent waiting for a locomotive to return to home depots. In these circumstances there were very few alternatives to them. Time could be spent in the local railway hotel or whiled away with books, papers and a pen.

Their skills were often put to the test in clashes with the ‘bung’ clerks who demanded an explanation in writing for the most trivial occurrence that fell outside the scope of the rigid railway bylaws (see below). In this environment engine drivers learnt to work together and were responsible for forming the first Australian railway union in the industry (1869), that remains a major part of the Rail Tram and Bus Union today.

Chapter 7
Australian Railway Workshops

Maintenance and building of locomotives, freight wagons and passenger coaches required a huge infrastructure of workshops. At first locomotives were assembled and placed on the railway lines as they were constructed. Repairs were carried out on rolling stock equipment where it broke down. When the railway lines were pushed further inland, a system of repair depots was established. These depots supplied coal and water to locomotives and carried out repairs. As the size of locomotives developed depots were built approximately every 100 miles for this purpose.

Heavy maintenance like boiler repairs and whole replacements needed larger facilities where the locomotive could be stripped from top to bottom. Tasks of this size were carried out in large workshops. An even bigger task was the need in Australia Railway workshops where they also began to build new locomotives and rolling stock and manufactured the parts to repair all manner of railway equipment rather than import from overseas.

Many of these depots and workshops were not required after the introduction of diesel electric locomotives and were gradually closed.

Chapter 8
'Bungs' – Please Explain: Running an industry on fines, paper and red tape.

Working relations of the Australian Railways were established directly out of the earlier Shop and Factories Acts of the industrial revolution that swept through Britain and Europe in the early 1800s. The workforces of that revolutionary change in work methods were subjected to a range of disciplinary measures in order to ensure they met the new production targets. Every perceivable activity that was likely to occur in this workplace or railways in general was subject to Parliamentary Acts.

These in turn were enforced by a legal system often involving a system of fines and other state powers including dismissal and jail sentences. A 'please explain' on an employee's record would often mean they were overlooked for a job or sent to some out of the way location to serve out a sentence.

An army of railway clerks were employed at the bottom end of this disciplinary structure skilled in a knowledge of the various railway rules and regulations. Often lacking the wider experiences of skilled tradespeople, guards, station masters, engine drivers and other railway staff, many clerks took to the job with great gusto in the use of power. A battle of wills, use of language and abuse flowed backwards and forwards over the years between various groups of railway workers and the 'bung' clerks. The following is several responses to the bung clerks demand to "please explain".

Chapter 9
Radical People and Events Linked with Australian Railways

This period deals with the influence of Eureka, the formation of the Commonwealth, the First World War, the 1917 Strike and other issues.

('Radical'- roots, origins; by extension, those who search out the roots of a problem; politicians of advanced liberal views [The Oxford English Dictionary])

Chapter 10
And Nothing was Cheaper than Men - The Depression

In the early 1930s the development of Australian country music was taking place alongside the worst economic depression in Australian history. ‘Riding the rattler’ became a common way for the unemployed to travel. Many young Australians were travelling the countryside in freight wagons. The over one third of the Australian workforce on the dole were pushed in this direction, as one of the conditions to collect the dole required single people leave home and seek work from town to town. The experience of train jumping in various parts of Australia provided Tex Morton and others with the background for several railway songs including 'Sergeant Small' and 'Railway Bum;.

At the same time one of the founders of the Australian Bush Music Club 'Duke' Tritton was working on depression relief works, building a new railway line at the back of Newcastle NSW. Here he wrote his famous railway poem/song 'The Sandy Hollow Line'. Those railway workers still employed also suffered, with worsening working conditions and cuts in the hours of work that were not enough to feed their families. They also put pen to paper about their experiences and events occurring around them during these gloomy days.

Chapter 11
The Second World War

The poor image of railways was to continue into the Second World War when Australian troops being prepared to fight the Japanese were moved north on Queensland Railways and the old Ghan and old Darwin railway lines. Country music was taking hold and many of those involved with it like Buddy Williams moved north with the Armed Services. Australian Railways were running to their limits, overloaded with tanks and other military equipment. At the same time as Australia was cut off from overseas imports Australian Railway workshops were turned into production units for the building of tanks, guns and aircraft.

Chapter 12
The Post Second World War Era

The post-war era of the Australian Railway Story impressed many country music songwriters, inspired by the nation-building project to establish a standard railway gauge (4'8") that would link Eastern and Western Australia. This period of Australian Railway history commenced in the late 1950s but it wasn’t till January 1970 that the first freight train ran from Brisbane to Perth on a standard gauge line. With little electrification between city and some suburbs many workers still started the day with on a steam railway service.

In this new era trains, larger locomotives and new railway services were seen as a symbol of Australia's progress. And people like Slim Dusty sang about it. But this was short lived. The lack of funding for services and maintenance, the availability of more personal access to motor vehicles, and air travel, pushed railways into the background for many travellers. However, the role of railways remained as an efficient way to move huge quantities of freight, particularly coal, ore and wheat, but this was often hidden from public view.

Chapter 13
Trains Trains Trains

From the very first railway services in Australia trains and what occurred to them and on them have stood out in Australians’ minds. Many trains were given special nicknames that related to the function they performed. Names like the "Fish and Chips" (the two special trains that brought passengers to the city to work from the Blue Mountains in NSW), the Comet (The Broken Hill diesel service) the Sprite (short for the Spirit of Progress used between Melbourne and Albury) the Sunlander and the Ghan crept into everyday use in the Australian language.

The operation of special purpose trains like the funeral trains that ran from Central Sydney to the Rookwood Cemetery and the special prison trains that relayed convicted prisoners to notorious jails like Grafton were closely observed by poets and song writers.

A favourite of outback children was the circus trains that were travelling Zoos of performing circus animals, clowns and brass bands. These trains were the basis of many Australian suburban and railways myths, like the story that all elephants had to travel in the guard vans of the train to prevent them drinking the locomotive tenders dry and escaping. Another well-known story put about by railway boilermakers concerned the railway clerk who was eaten by a lion from the Wirth's Circus train and was not missed for several weeks, as he did nothing in the workplace other than write ‘Bungs’.

Below we look at a number of the observations made by poets, songwriters and storytellers of trains and related events that have contributed to the Australian Railway Story.

Chapter 14
As the Passengers see them

Love them or hate them over the years the hundreds of thousands of people that have travelled on Australian Railways with mix feelings. Some people have no alternative to using a train... Others have alternatives but would travel in no other way to see the Australian Bush and country side Some feel the excitement offer by the daily trips to school or work to mix and socialise that is lost in a car journey, Others are turned of by the fact that are often no seats in peak hours or even no trains at all. . Transport service, a social mixer -- how do they see those train journeys?

Chapter 15
Railway Accidents – Chance, Bad Luck or Calamity?

A train delayed by a simple faulty switch, railway signal or even a cow on a railway track is enough to hit the headlines of the daily newspaper if an editor is short of a story. Many of these stories tend to under play the seriousness of railway accidents that have been a problem for 150 years.

Unfortunately when a major railway accident occurs (unlike most road accidents) it can affect hundreds some time thousands of people who share a common bond. A range of books and endless pages of newspaper stories and Coroners reports have been written on Australian railway accidents and disasters. Much of these details are serious attempts to get to the bottom of a problem that effect both workers and those using the service alike. In recent days the focus on the cause of railway accidents has turned towards the need for a safety culture but is the problem more complexes that this. Describing many of these events poets and songwriters often challenge the very concept of the meaning of accidental, chance, or bad luck and often point to poor maintenance procedures and even a culture that puts economic cost cutting above important safety needs as a cause of major railway accidents like Glenbrook or Granville.

Chapter 16
Only Rust and Memories

Many poets songwriters and artists recorded the demises of Australian Steam Railways in many ways. The steam engine as we have seen many times is felt to be a live living creature whose very sound can induces nostalgic feelings and excitement into young and old alike. The lifeless railway yards, railway towns and the rust how ever is about more than just the disappearance of steam locomotives and their replacement with lager powerful diesels engines. Many feel that economic decisions on the closure of much of the railway systems were made on poor economic information and a failure to see the wider social costs of such a decision. Some of those social costs to Australia are described below by those who felt them.

Chapter 17
The Hundred Year Old Dream

The linking of Australia's north to south has long been a dream of Australian Railway builder. Under the control of the South Australian Government, the famous Ghan narrow gauge line edged its way north from Adelaide from 1879.

Eight Years later, in 1887 Chinese labour was used to construct the beginning of a railway south from Darwin. Over several years, this line reached as far as Larrimah, but was closed in 1981.

The Commonwealth Government resumed work on the earlier Ghan Railway in 1926 and it reached Alice Springs (Stuart) in 1929. A new standard gauge line, from Tarcoola was finally established to Alice Springs in the 1980s where the progress to Darwin was stopped despite the huge assembly of skilled labour modern railway track laying machinery.

After many political battles and reports that proposed several routes for a railway line to link Darwin with the Eastern States a decision was taken to extend existing Ghan line from Alice Springs to Darwin in 2000 and was complete in 2003. Yes the song writers and poets were there for the occasion.

Chapter 18
The Future for Australian Railways and Their On Going Cultural Influence

As several State Railways celebrate their 150 Years history (or more) and the influence they have had on moulding many aspects of Australia’s way of life, Australian Railway operators, Governments and the Australian people are once again debating the future direction of Australian railways and the dream goes on. The future for many existing Australian Railways and new service remain unclear on where this debate is leading. On the positive side new technologies are available to railway builders that can now provide new railway services in a very short time providing there is the will to do this. While many important projects remain on the drawing board at least one large new railway associated with Iron Ore in Western Australia has moved towards the track laying stage and talk about fully automotive trains. While influential new players have entered the national debate, following the privatisation of many former publicly owned state railway services, Governments still have a major say in the future of railway development and operation both in the cities and other regions. A recent development has been an early signal from the Federal Government of an increased national approach to Australian railway infrastructure. A further factor in the debate is the role that railways can play in reducing Australia carbon footprints.

The poets the song writers and the story tellers are beginning to look at these development and express their opinions.

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