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Trans-Australian Railway Centenary

Mr TRELOAR (Flinders) (12:46): I move:

That this house–

(a) acknowledges the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Trans-Australian Railway at the ‘joining of the rails’ site near OoIdea on 17 October 2017;

(b) recognises the national significance of the completion of this railway; and

(c) congratulates the work of the National Rail Museum and Regional Development Australia in Whyalla and Eyre Peninsula in commemorating this historic event.

I am, in fact, very fond of trains. I am a train buff and was first approached a couple of years ago by, firstly, a resident of Ceduna and, secondly, a resident of Adelaide, who indicated to me that the centenary would be coming up. , so I have been keeping an eye on the development of this and am pleased to support it.

In 1912, work began on a new railway line between Port Augusta in South Australia and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. They were the two railheads and, interestingly, both those towns were connected to their capital cities by narrow-gauge railways. I will come back to that. The Trans-Australian Railway stretches 1,693 kilometres—or, as it once was, just over 1,000 miles—of Australia’s driest and most isolated terrain. It was completed on 17 October 1917 and provided a link between the Eastern States and Western Australia. It gave the newly formed commonwealth a sense of national unity. Treasurer Sir John Forrest said on that day:

Today, East and West are indissolubly joined together by bands of steel, and the result must be increased prosperity and happiness for the Australian people.

People were happy that they could catch a train right across Australia. It was arguably the first major work of a federated Australia. Before Federation in 1901, Western Australia had made the construction of a railway linking the nation’s eastern and western colonies a condition for joining the commonwealth. At the time, the west was linked to the eastern cities only by a rough sea voyage and a single telegraph line. Quite rightly, many argued that this inhibited commerce between the colonies and made it difficult to quickly move troops to defend Australia’s southern and western shores.

In 1907, surveyors and engineers began marking a route across the Nullarbor Plain. Four years later, the Australian government authorised construction of the railway. In 1912, the Commonwealth Railways were established to oversee the planning and implementation of the Trans-Australian Railway. On 14 September 1912, Governor-General Lord Denman turned the first sod at a ceremony in Port Augusta to officially begin construction of the railway from the eastern end. Tracks were being built simultaneously in both directions—west from Port Augusta and east from Kalgoorlie.

Of course, the outbreak of war in 1914 made it difficult for the Commonwealth Railways to source labour and materials, but by 1916 more than 3,400 workers were employed on the project, so in fact this construction project was being undertaken at the very time when Australia’s resources were being stretched maintaining the war effort.

Maintenance crews lived along the line at intervals and were supplied by the weekly tea and sugar train, which later serviced railway workers and their families. In fact, it was quite an institution and well known throughout Australia not only for bringing supplies but also because each and every Christmas, Father Christmas would board the tea and sugar train and visit all the families that lived at the siding settlements along the way.

It took five years for the teams of rail workers to lay 2½ million hardwood sleepers, and 140,000 tonnes of rail were needed to finish the 1,700-kilometre job. The last railway spike was hammered into place outside the tiny settlement of Ooldea in South Australia on 17 October 1917. Five days later, the first passenger train set off from Port Augusta, arriving at Kalgoorlie 42 hours and 48 minutes later. The Trans-Australian Railway line radically shortened travel and communication time. Mail delivery from Adelaide to Perth was cut by two days and east-bound travellers who took the train arrived in Melbourne three days earlier than those making the journey by ship.

Many people, including federal politicians and members of the royal family, travelled on the line. They enjoyed the first hot showers ever installed in a rail carriage, ate meals in the dining cars, sang along to the piano or had a quiet drink in the lounge car before resting in comfort in the sleeping cars. It sounds like quite a hoot. The railway was not only for the wealthy. It also provided Australians with greater opportunities for recreational travel and helped Western Australia become a tourist destination.

In 1969, the standard gauge railway network was extended east from Port Augusta as far as Sydney and west of Kalgoorlie all the way to Perth, making it possible to catch a train from the Pacific Ocean and cross the continent to the Indian Ocean without changing trains. This has led to the naming of the Indian Pacific, the passenger train which now runs along that line.

Ooldea, a remote soak amongst the sandhills that mark the eastern edge of the Nullarbor Plain, is part of the lands of the Kokatha people. For thousands of years, it was the centre of a vast Aboriginal trading network and a reliable source of water. Ooldea became a vital stopping point for the railway, providing steam engine locomotives with fresh water for their boilers. Although there was brackish water along the way, it had to be of a suitable standard to boil for the locomotives. In the very early days, up to half of the weight of the train was taken up carrying water for its own use—extraordinary.

During the line’s construction, Aboriginal people arriving at the soak began interacting with the rail workers, and by 1917, a semipermanent settlement had formed. When a train arrived, Aboriginal people would gather around the passengers’ windows trading handmade tools, such as boomerangs, spears and shields, for sweets, money and clothing. By 1926, servicing the trains had drained the soak dry and it no longer supported the population. Daisy Bates, a self-taught anthropologist, linguist, journalist and author, lived at Ooldea from 1917 until 1934. She worked to provide food, clothing and medical attention to the local people and entertained many Trans-Australian Railway visitors to Ooldea.

My congratulations go to the RDA and also the Railway Museum in organising an event to celebrate this. I note with interest that the first seven prime ministers of Australia are all memorialised in the naming of sidings along the way. It will be an exciting day for all those who are able to get there and for train buffs, I am sure, all over Australia.

Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN (Stuart) (12:54): I am very grateful to the member for Flinders for putting this motion forward. I know he has great interest and great knowledge in this area. It was very interesting to hear the many comments he made and the information he shared with us.

Deputy Speaker, as you know, many towns in the electorate of Stuart have a very strong railway history. I think about Port Augusta, Peterborough and Terowie to begin with. I think about all the towns along the old Ghan railway. We had a very extensive network of rail that was used for freight and passengers throughout our electorate. Alas, most of that is not there at the moment, but the Trans-Australian Railway certainly still is, and that is what this motion is about.

While I join with the member for Flinders in supporting this motion, I would also like to support and recognise Mr Kym Welsby from Port Augusta, who, over the last few years, has put an enormous amount of work into arranging a commemorative weekend in Port Augusta, on 21 and 22 October this year. That will be an absolutely outstanding event for local people, for people from further afield in South Australia and many interstate and international people, no doubt, will be very interested in that. I thank Kym enormously for putting together this event to celebrate the commemoration, which the motion of the member for Flinders celebrates as well. Thank you.

Mr TRELOAR (Flinders) (12:56): Thank you for the opportunity to put this motion to the house and for the support of the member for Stuart, through whose electorate some of the railway passes. I note that he mentioned the upcoming celebration in Port Augusta, as well as the one at Ooldea on the actual day, 17 October 2017. Those celebratory events are being organised at the moment.

The intention is to have a South Australian sculptor design and build two identical sculptures using the existing concrete and steel bases of the original monuments. The sculptures will be constructed in robust, long-lasting materials, preferably steel, and based on a design concept that uses the linking of the railway as a symbol or motif to represent the economic development and regional growth.

There was a similar event for the 50th commemoration of the rail linkage on 17 October 1967. Unfortunately, the monument that was unveiled at that time has fallen into disrepair. I am not sure that it is even still there. The new sculptures will commemorate this significant achievement, which is a real milestone in the development of Australia as a country and as a nation.

Motion carried.

Sitting suspended from 12:58 to 14:00.


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