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It was a project almost equal in size to the Snowy Mountains Scheme that followed it.
It was the project that arguably led to the Federation of Australia from six colonies to a commonwealth.
It was the project that connected WA to the Eastern States, where before a trip from Perth to Sydney was only viable by sea through a time-consuming, inconvenient and often uncomfortable journey across the Great Australian Bight, a stretch of water known for its rough seas.
It was a project of which the repercussions are allegedly more important today than they were in the years after it was first completed.
Driving in the last spike to join the eastern and western sections of the Trans-Australian railway line, October 1917.Picture: WA NewsThe Trans-Australian Railway, built over five years overlapping World War I by men and camels inching through the Nullarbor desert, was completed 100 years ago on Tuesday. That day, the workers from Port Augusta in the west met those from Kalgoorlie in the east to join the 1690km line linking WA with the rest of the country.
It was officially completed at 1.45pm on Wednesday, October 17, according to a telegram from Captain FWT Saunders.
The first train arrived in Kalgoorlie on October 24, 42 hours and 48 minutes after leaving Port Augusta.
Those 42 hours and 48 minutes were the result of years of gruelling work in harsh conditions. Men died. Many others were sick. There were strikes, for causes both as noble as wages and conditions and as seemingly petty as “an incident involving indecent language”.
Well before Federation in 1901, explorers had mapped a path across the arid Nullarbor Plain.
The rail link posed many advantages — it would reduce travel times between Sydney and Perth, it would encourage WA to join the Commonwealth and it would support the Goldfields development around Kalgoorlie.
It would provide WA with a strong defence in times of war by allowing for the transport of men and equipment.
Trans-Australian railway siding, Forrest Airport, Nullarbor Plain. Picture: John Riley, of DuncraigPicture: John Riley of DuncraigIn 1907, the parliament passed the Survey Bill — by March 1909 it was complete.
The project represented an estimated 1711km of railway for a cost of about £4000 (and ended up totalling 1690km for £7000).
On Saturday, September 14, 1912, then governor-general Lord Denman turned the first sod.
Work had already begun on July 31 of that year.
By then, the construction teams were already familiar with the challenges they would continue to face over the next five years.
The first train steams out of Kalgoorlie in 1917 on the new track joining the town with Port Augusta in South Australia. The 1682km Trans-Australia line, long championed by John Forrest, includes the longest stretch of railway in the world.Picture: The West AustralianThe lack of water, particularly across the Nullarbor Plain.
The climate, which delivered dust storms and intense summer heat often reaching the mid 40Cs.
And, as the railway edged deeper into the plain from both extremities, the isolation.
Both teams walked towards each other, moving the earth with teams of horses that pulled the “tumbling tommies”, knowing they would eventually meet, though no one knew where.
“Two Roberts track-laying machines, brought in from the United States, sped up the track laying process,” writes Patricia Cree in The Trans-Australian Railway: Bringing the Nation Together.
“After a few months, the track-laying teams were able to boast a steady rate of a mile a day. The machines carried the sleepers and rails from the flat bed trucks behind them to the front, where workers manoeuvred them into place and secured them.
“Once the rails were in place, the whole procession moved forward on the newly laid track and repeated the performance.”
Railway workers on the line in 1914. Picture: State Library of South AustraliaPicture: AustraliaThe eastern and western survey parties both used teams of up to 90 camels to carry loads and people.
Thousands of men, some accompanied by their families, worked around each rail head.
Workers lived in a tent city that was constantly on the move.
CAMEL TEAMS PLOUGHING THE TRACK OF THE TRANS RAILWAY.A handwritten newsletter called The Desert Echo kept the workers somewhat connected with the rest of the country. Government stores sold clothes, tobacco, soft drinks and magazines. Alcohol smuggled along the railway track made for amusing drunken nights — and the occasional drunken day.
Men gathered around forbidden games of two-up at weekends.
Railway workers on the line in 1914. Picture: State Library of South AustraliaPicture: AustraliaThe first wedding held over the Trans-Australian Railway was in October 1915. There were grim times, too. Twenty funerals for men killed in accidents.
“One of the most serious incidents was a derailment that claimed four lives east of Kalgoorlie in 1915,” Ms Cree writes. “In another, two telegraph linesmen died after apparently being struck by a construction locomotive at night.”
Australia $1 stamp. To The West - Trans Australian Railway.And despite the rough conditions, the heat and the intensive daily labour, hygiene was one of the biggest threats to people’s safety. Three men died in the first typhoid outbreak in 1912 near Port Augusta — another 12 in the second outbreak three years later, in which 120 men were also hospitalised.
“Crushed hands, cuts, head injuries and illness resulting from bad food or water accounted for many treatments.”
There were two strikes — one in 1914 stopped work on the line for three months, and another three months before completion halted construction for six weeks. Much of the railway was built during WWI, when Australian troops were fighting on the Western Front, at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. The war effort had inevitable effects on recruitment, supplies and costs for the project.
“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.
“Even the steel rails used to build the track were in very short supply. A lot of the rails were imported from America, from Tenessee. And those actually survived a long time — well into the 1990s, our trains were still driving on American rails.”
By 1916, costs were rising, production of urgently needed locomotives was delayed, and political intervention was needed to ensure continued supplies of rail.
But after years of work, the result is a line that achieved exactly what it set out to do and revolutionised WA’s means of connection and communication with the east.
According to Mr Sampson, however the line is more important today than it was back then or than it has ever been in all its history.
“About 85 per cent of all freight that goes into WA today comes by rail,” he said.
“That means between 80 and 90 freight trains a week.”
Mr Sampson said when the project finished 100 years ago there was no huge fanfare.
No celebrations. The war was still raging in Europe and it was no time for popping champagne.
“A low-key, formal dinner was held in Perth, but that’s about it,” he said.
Not so this year. On Tuesday, hundreds of people will gather in little old Ooldea to recognise the track workers who built the line and those who maintained it.
“It’s going to be the largest gathering of people in such a remote location in Australia’s outback I can think of,” Mr Sampson said.
This article first appeared on thewest.com.au
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