How Aussies Beat the Odds To Build The Trans-Australian Railway

The railway project that took 2.5 million hardwood sleepers and 140,000 tonnes of rail to connect Australia’s Eastern margins to the Western extremities celebrates its centenary.

“Crushed hands, cuts, head injuries and illness resulting from bad food or water accounted for many treatments. There was a shortage of materials, a shortage of men — it was a very awkward period for it to be built,” says Bob Sampson, executive officer at the National Railway Museum.

The Trans-Australian Railway line occupied 1693 km of the country’s most parched and remote landscapes. Completed on 17 October 1917, the project advanced Australian commerce and necessitated a sense of unity for the newly instituted Commonwealth.

The pre-federated country only permitted the connection between the western and eastern colonies by an inefficient and somewhat voracious sea passage and one lone telegraph line – both of which were critiqued copiously as key hindrances of monetary exchange and troop deployments.

By 1912 Australians drew closer together as the new railway line from Port Augusta in South Australia to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia began.

The construction of the tracks took place simultaneously from either side but the war in 1914 disrupted progression as resources,  funding,  food and water supplies were used for the war effort.

Thousands of labourers, workers, surveyors and project managers and their families lived along the skirts of the railway and were catered for by the Tea and Sugar train that would tend to the workers and their families on a weekly basis. Sometimes, sneakily, these trains smuggled in alcohol for the workers, resulting in drunken nights along the tracks and even drunker mornings.

Image: CAMEL TEAMS PLOUGHING THE TRACK OF THE TRANS RAILWAY, The Libray South Australia

Despite two outbreaks of typhoid, two strikes, a war and twenty deaths the final nail was driven into the last of the 2 and a half million sleepers, near Ooldea, a small colonised town of scrub country and sand, in rural South Australia on 17 October 1917.

Ooldea was part of the lands of the Kokatha people, serving as an axis for Indigenous trade and a sacred water source for thousands of years before European settlement. Upon the arrival of the train, they would assemble around passenger windows and exchange boomerangs, spears and handmade trinkets for cash, clothes and sweets.

Tragically by the year 1926, the maintenance of the trains had exhausted the town’s natural water supply.
Five days after the completion of this major endeavour, the very first passenger train left Port Augusta and arrived in Kalgoorlie almost two days later. 

The opportunity to travel along this railway was not tied to a specific class or social status. It provided Australia with a means for leisurely travel and put Western Australia on the map as a tourist destination.

Image: Map of The Trans-Australian Railway

The railway line was extended to Sydney in 1969, and further west of Kalgoorlie, all the way to Perth.

Lead Image: Railway workers on the line in 1914. Picture: State Library of South Australia

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