The Trans-Australian Railway
General Jas. G. Steese, Sc.D., F.R.G.S.
(Feb. 1936 Dickinson Alumnus)

Based on a trip by the Author in 1930

Australia, though geologically the oldest of the six continents, is youngest in point of exploration and development. The highest mountain in Australia, Mount Kosciusko in New South Wales, with a summit 7,305 feet above sea-level, is the oldest land surface on the Globe. The Antarctic Continent is being disregarded in this connection because it is still unsettled and no present economic importance.

With reference to the Antarctic Continent, however, it is an interesting commentary upon modern progressiveness to note that less than two years after Admiral Byrd returned from his much advertised and highly expensive expedition a Dutch steamship line is running 20,000-ton cruising steamer to the Bay of Whales, as an incident of a four-months trip around the World. Therefore the ordinary tourists, mostly old ladies and children, may make a trip around the World including visits to Little America and other points in Antarctica made famous by recent polar expeditions in perfect safety, comfort, and even luxury, for as little as $2,500.

It is surprising to learn that Australia is almost exactly the size of the United States, and of about the same general shape. One realizes it however when one examines railway timetables and attempts to make a quick jump from one State to another.

From Fremantle, on the West Coast, to Brisbane, on the East Coast, is a rail journey of 3384 miles, just a little greater than the distance from San Francisco to New York City. It is possible furthermore, to make a continuous rail journey from Meekatharra in Western Australia, via Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and to Mount Isa in Queensland, a total distance of 5500 miles. This is comparable with the rail journey from Prince Rupert in British Columbia, via Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington, Boston, Portland, and Bangor, to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The mail steamers operating between the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Australia sail from London fortnightly. There are intermediate steamers by several lines which carry passengers, freight, and sometimes the mails The sailing time from London is 32 days to Fremantle, 36 days to Adelaide, 38 days to Melbourne, 41 days to Sydney, and 45 days to Brisbane. These boats usually call also at Gibraltar, Marseilles, Pt. Said, Aden. and Colombo. By sending the mail overland from London to Marseilles, and by utilizing the Australian railways, mail may reach Fremantle in 27 days, Sydney in 32 days, and Brisbane in 33 days.

In addition to the through trans-continental rail route in Australia, there are many hundreds of miles of branch lines to minor ports, mining districts, cattle and sheep stations, sugar centrals, &c Between Port Augusta and Sydney there is a subsidiary rail route some 1200 miles long via the important mining district of Broken Hill; there are two main lines over widely divergent routes covering the 700 odd miles between Sydney and Brisbane; and there is a 750 mile line running almost due north from Port Augusta into the heart of Central Australia. The present terminus of this line is at Alice Springs, located at an elevation of 2,000 feet above sea-level and almost exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn. The connecting line from Darwin, on the North Coast, has been put into operation as far as south as Birdum, and is under construction to Daly Waters, leaving a gap of about 500 miles which is on the approved program of construction for completion within the next few years. There will eventually then be a through transcontinental rail connection, north and south, for the 2500 miles between Darwin and Melbourne. During the dry season one may make the trip across the gap in the railroad by automobile.

The transcontinental service is surprisingly well equipped and comfortable, and compares favorably with similar long-distance rail travel in other parts of the World. Unfortunately the different Australian States began railway construction, as in other countries, using different gauges, so that it is still necessary to change cars several times on account of the difference in gauge.

Throughout there are compartment sleeping cars, and over most of the route dining cars and lounge cars. At other points the train stops for meals at railway station eating houses where excellent meals are served at very reasonable rates. On the sleeping cars there are shower baths and the conductor serves early morning tea in the compartments. In the lounge cars there are news bulletins and stock market reports several times daily.

Overseas passengers are given a double baggage allowance; there are reduced rates for automobiles when accompanied by passengers; and special cars are available, for hire by parties up to eight persons. These private cars contain special bedrooms, dining saloon, observation platform, bathroom (hot and cold water service), kitchen &c., all electrically lighted and heated. For an inclusive charge the party may be entirely self contained and independent of the rest of the train.

For the overland trip one buys a through ticket at Perth which includes rail transportation, sleeping car berth throughout, reserved seat for day travel, and all meals as far as Port Augusta.

The cost between Perth and Sydney between eighteen and nineteen pounds amount. In normal times this would amount about ninety dollars, but due to drop in the pound sterling, it cost only about fifty-five dollars. For similar trip, including a correspondence number of meals and berths, between New York City and San Francisco the charge would be about one hundred and fifty dollars. For the desert portion of the trip between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta, all passengers are required to pay for berth and meals in advance or they cannot board the train. There is however, both first and second class service, rail and sleeper. The second class rate is about sixty per cent of first class rate.

The only land in the Indian Ocean between Colombo and Fremantle is the Cocos Isles, two tiny specks which are ordinarily not visible from the steam ship route. After ten days of open ocean, therefore, the sight of the Australian Coast is very welcome, and one is very glad to get ashore and change to land travel, even across the desert.

Fremantle is a prosperous and growing port, with substantial looking buildings, great wool warehouses, and excellent bathing beaches. Two improved highways, one on each side of the Swan River, lead to Perth, twelve miles inland and the capital of Western Australia. Perth is a modern city of nearly 200,000 inhabitants. From Perth to Kalgoorlie is an overnight ride on the train.

Kalgoorlie is a typical western mining town and the supply centre for a large mining district. All around one sees operating and also worked-out mines.

From Kalgoorlie, the real trans-Australian journey begins. To Port Augusta is 1,051 miles through very sparsely inhabited country. There are no important towns, but many stops when one sees tracks leading off to the hinterland where mining, cattle, or sheep raising is in operation. Along this route one gets one 's first glimpse of the Australian Aborigine.

For the first 150 miles eastward from Kalgoorlie the line crosses a granitic plateau covered fairly thickly with salmon gums and other eucalypts running up to 50 or 60 feet in height. Then follows a limestone region, the Nullarbar Plain. For 450 miles there is not a tree nor a high bush, and very little vegetation of any kind. It is not a dead level but rolls away mile after mile, in very gentle undulations. Through this limestone region there are many great caves which have not yet been completely explored. In this section there is one stretch of railway track 300 miles long without a curve.

Next we have a belt of sand hills about fifty miles wide, succeeded by about 400 miles of better looking country. Timber reappears, black oak, Myall, and occasional eucalypts. It is well grassed, makes fine pastoral land, and in time no doubt a great deal of it will be successfully cultivated. As we come closer to Port Augusta, there are numerous large shallow lakes. On the whole, this entire desert stretch resembles very much the desert country of the southwestern United States, specially Nevada and California.

Water, as in the western United States, is the eternal problem. Much geological work remains to be done to locate subsurface supplies, as the annual rainfall is most everywhere less than ten inches. In the immediate vicinity of the railway line artesian water may be obtained most anywhere by boring, and much work has been done in the construction of dams and reservoirs to conserve the supply.

Port Augusta is another big mining camp and the distributing point for prosperous workings in all directions. From Port Augusta to Adelaide, the country becomes more thickly settled and more prosperous looking. It is intensively cultivated over large areas;
the higher and poorer land being devoted to pasturage for countless flocks of sheep.

Adelaide is the capital of South Australia and the first really big city on the route. It is an important port and railway center. It has the general appearance of a big western American or Canadian City.

From Adelaide to Sydney the railway passes through the richest and most thickly settled parts of the Commonwealth. Melbourne with a population of around a million people, is next to Sydney the largest city of Australia. It is the capital of Victoria. From Melbourne there is a frequent boat service to Tasmania.

Sydney contains nearly one-fourth of the total population of Australia, and is its principal port. It is just about half-way around the World from London and gets mail via Suez, via Panama , and also via New York and train service across the North American Continent to Vancouver or San Francisco. It is the capital of New South Wales. From Sydney boats also sail for Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand.

Within New South Wales also is located the Federal District containing the new Commonwealth capital, Canberra. Canberra started out to be a model city, is still more or less in the chrysalis stage, and, due to the post-war depression, somewhat of a white elephant.

Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, is the last port of call of the mail boats from the west. It has a large trade of its own and frequent boats to more northerly ports of Australia, to the numerous islands of the South Seas, to the Ditch East Indies, and to Singapore.

North Queensland is a tropical country of great promise. Already there are great sugar centerals, in addition to the great Australian industry of wool-growing. Next to wool and sugar, the most important exports of Queensland are butter and meat. There is a growing mining industry especially in the recently discovered Mount Isa region.

Considering that its serious colonization and development began only with the discovery of gold in 1851, Australia has made very satisfactory progress. Much of the country is relatively barren like our own great west of three generations ago, and its growth is bound to be slow. Even in the United State we still have several states with insufficient population to justify the one irreducible congressman, and at least one state with less population than a generation ago.

Like all new countries, the pioneer spirit still predominates in Australia and the people are impatient to our strip Canada, South Africa, and other countries which had an earlier start in the race. Their ambition, combines with easy credit conditions, has led them into excessive borrowing abroad, with the resultant over-expansion in published works construction and its accompanying extravagance, and they are now having a hard time digesting their heavy foreign loans. Also their politicians seem to be no better than those playing similar roles in older so-called democratic countries.

End Notes and Bibliography