COMMENT: 2017 is a big year for rail anniversaries in Australia, some important, some not so important, some to celebrate and some, well probably best if you make up your own mind. Mark Carter reflects on three of the most notable milestones.
Most would agree the anniversary of greatest significance will be the this year’s centenary of the Trans Australia Railway (TAR) which was completed in October 1917.
Events planned for this October to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the standard gauge railway between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie are quickly gaining pace.
On 17 October 1917, two track laying teams, one working eastward from Kalgoorlie and the other westward from Port Augusta, met near Ooldea on the Nullarbor Plain. There was no official opening at the time, no doubt due to the nation’s involvement in the First World War. Five days after the rails were joined, the first transcontinental passenger train departed Port Augusta for Kalgoorlie on 22 October 1917.
Fifty years later the 50th anniversary of the joining of the rails was commemorated by the former Commonwealth Railways with the installation of two monuments at Ooldea in 1967, though over time these timber structures have virtually disintegrated under the harsh outback conditions.
Australian Rail Track Corporation has manufactured two replicas of the 50th anniversary monuments, which will be unveiled at the same site on Tuesday 17 October, to commemorate the ‘joining of the rails’ and all of the track workers who over the years have maintained this important link.
Well over 500 people are expected to travel considerable distances to attend the unveiling at this remote location, with the event sponsored by businessman and philanthropist Dick Smith.
Further celebrations are expected to follow at Port Augusta on 22 October to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the departure of the first westbound passenger train. The nearby Pichi Richi Railway intends to operate a special steam train to Port Augusta from Quorn to coincide with displays and exhibitions mounted at the Port Augusta railway station.
The National Railway Museum at Port Adelaide will be launching a special Trans Australian Railway Centenary Exhibition from Friday 22 September, culminating with a formal TAR Centenary cocktail function at the museum, sponsored by Bowmans Rail, on Friday 13 October for special guests and rail industry participants.
The 1700km long TAR was completed long before the phrase ‘’nation building’’ entered our vocabulary, but obviously the term would be every appropriate providing it providing the first reliable land link between the east and west of the country across incredibly hostile terrain, and all achieved during a time of war.
Unfortunately, one gets the feeling that if this kind of project was put forward in today’s political climate the chances of getting it off the ground would be slim. It is worth remembering that for much of its early life the TAR was primarily a passenger carrier and much of the freight was supplies to keep the railway running.
It was only after dieselisation in the 1950s that it started to develop as a freight route to eventually grow into the strategic corridor it has become today, commanding as it does over 80% of the East West land transport freight task.
It is a tad ironic that less than a month after theses celebrations it will be the 20th anniversary of the break-up of the federally owned Australian National (AN), the direct descendant of the Commonwealth Railways which had been established in 1917 to administer the TAR.
The events leading up to the sale of AN in 1997 are complex. A good doctoral thesis could be written on AN’s demise which would have to draw on the early days of competition policy, the move to separation of above and below assets, and the sale of government business – all of which have brought huge changes to the industry in the last 20 years.
The sale of AN heralded the privatisation of much of the Australian rail industry. AN’s mainland freight assets were sold off to US regional operator Genesee & Wyoming Inc; the interstate passenger assets to a consortium operating as Great Southern Railway; and the Tasmanian assets to US railway mogul Ed Burkhardt’s Australian Transport Network.
The interstate track controlled by AN stayed in government hands through its shareholding in Australian Rail Track Corporation, and remains so to this day. And of course, ARTC has since grown to encompass the entire interstate network west of Kalgoorlie through to Brisbane.
It’s interesting to reflect that of the original purchasers of the AN business only G & W has survived. The interstate passenger business has seen its ownership structure modified several times and is now in the hands of private equity. Tasmania’s rail services have gone full circle and are now back in government ownership.
And of course, this also means that G & W will celebrate their 20th anniversary in Australia in November as well. The wave of major US railroads rumoured to have been coming to Australia’s shores back in the 90s never materialised and after a few other early starters fell by the wayside it was left to regional operator G &W to fly the US flag for many years until the more recent arrival of Watco in Western Australia
Over those 20 years G & W has done well for itself. There have been ups and downs, but their Australian operations, fluctuating exchange rates aside, have always been one of the company’s biggest money spinners. Things of course got even bigger last year with their latest acquisition of the Glencore rail business and assets in the Hunter Valley.
While the Trans Australian Railway has well and truly met the test of time, the jury is still out on whether the gradual privatisation of the nation’s rail freight assets that started with the sale of AN, was a good idea. Fair to say it’s not been the rip-roaring success promised at the time, but with the way things were going under government control back in the 1990s, things could have turned out a lot worse.
It will be interesting to see if the TAR is around in another hundred years’ time and whether its ‘nation building’ status will have been matched by that of the long anticipated Inland Rail project?