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A train crossing the bridge over the Jordan River, 1878 (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

On 19 August 1869, passengers on ballast wagons hauled by a contractor's locomotive marked the dawn of mechanical transport in Tasmania, riding from Inveresk to Jingler's Creek, near St Leonards, on the partly completed Launceston-to-Deloraine railway. Opened by the Launceston and Western Railway Company in 1871 to convey agricultural produce to the port for shipment to ready markets in Victoria, the 45-mile line was constructed to high standards on a gauge of 5 ft 3 ins. The major engineering feature was the large iron bridge over the South Esk at Longford, still in use carrying today's far heavier trains.

The Tasmanian Main Line Railway Company (TMLR) opened its line from Hobart to Evandale Road (later Western Junction) in 1876, from where a third rail allowed its 3 ft 6 in gauge trains to run the final eleven miles to Launceston on the Launceston and Western Railway (L&WR). Compelled by economic necessity and challenging terrain, the TMLR resorted to the narrower gauge and a tortuous route through the southern midlands, including a three-quarter mile tunnel. Standards of alignment, permanent way and rolling stock construction were generally poor. Nevertheless, the railway reduced travelling time between Hobart and Launceston from at least fifteen hours (by coach) to seven.

The third pioneering railway was the aborted attempt by the Mersey and Deloraine Tramway Company to build a line of 4 ft 6 in gauge from Latrobe to Deloraine in competition with the L&WR. In 1872 the railway reached Coiler's Creek, 16 miles from Latrobe, attracted little traffic, resorted to the use of horses as motive power and soon closed.

Financial difficulties led to the government taking over the L&WR in 1888 and the TMLR in 1890. The gauge was standardised on 3 ft 6 in and the L&WR broad gauge reduced accordingly. In the years following 1882, parliament authorised the construction of numerous branch lines, the line to Scottsdale and extension of the Western Line along the north-west coast. These served agricultural and timber-producing areas and one or two mining fields. Most west coast mines were, however, served by private railways. By the mid-1920s this expansion stopped and, as road transport began to compete, some unprofitable railways closed, beginning with the isolated Bellerive–Sorell line in 1926, followed by branches to Apsley (1947) and Oatlands (1949). Other branches closed in later years. The most recent addition to the government system was the line linking Launceston to the deepwater port at Bell Bay, which opened in 1974.

Mining speculation and development on the west coast from the 1890s saw the development of numerous 2 ft 6 in gauge 'tramways' and 3 ft 6 in railways. The longest-enduring and most significant were the government line connecting the Zeehan mining field to the port at Strahan (1892–1960), the Mount Lyell Company's famous Abt railway from Queenstown to Regatta Point at Strahan (1897–1963) and the Emu Bay Railway Company's line from Burnie to Zeehan, opened in 1900 and still operating as far as Melba Flats, just short of Zeehan, under the ownership of the main system, Tasrail.

The railway to the Magnet mine, about 1900 (AOT, PH30/1/1861)

A myriad of narrow gauge lines served mines and smelters in the Queenstown, Zeehan and other west coast areas, ranging from the tramways to Lake Margaret and Lyell Comstock, with their altitude-gaining zig-zags, to the Zeehan–Williamsford line on which ran the first Garratt articulated locomotives in the world. Aerial cableways and self-acting funiculars served awkward situations at Mount Lyell, Mount Read and Rosebery. The narrow gauge Tullah tram from Farrell Siding on the Emu Bay railway provided the only access for both mine and community until 1961, with a diminutive locomotive named 'Wee Georgie Wood' after an 1890s comedian. In a region dominated by rail transport until the 1960s, the innovations of mine managers' motor cars adapted to run on the railway, and the use of rail-ambulances at Tullah and Rosebery, were viewed as unremarkable. Communities travelled to annual picnics at the Henty River and West Strahan Beach, often riding in wagons with hessian awnings. The Emu Bay Railway, until 1963 the only link from the west to the north-west coast, operated an astonishing variety of passenger rail motors and hauled ore trains with several large Garratt locomotives 85 feet long and weighing 119 tons. These required the labours of two firemen on steep sections of line.

Most remarkable has been the reconstruction and re-opening late in 2002 of the Mount Lyell Railway as a tourist attraction, costing $30 million in commonwealth and Tasmanian government funds. Interest lies in the beautiful rainforest and gorge scenery along the route, the use of the 'Abt System' of rack and pinion adhesion on the steepest four and a half miles of its 23-mile length, and the degree of authenticity achieved in the restoration.

The main Tasmanian system reached its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, radiating from its Launceston headquarters and extensive workshops at Inveresk, south to Hobart and the Derwent Valley, north-east to Herrick, east to St Marys and north-west to Marrawah. Smaller locomotives were supplemented by heavy goods and passenger engines. Bogie goods stock became common and high-standard steel passenger and buffet cars were introduced on the main routes. Road competition was countered by discriminatory legislation protecting freight traffic; and innovative petrol, diesel and steam rail motors improved passenger services on branch lines.

In common with many railway systems, Tasmania's was of necessity exploited by overuse and under-maintenance during the Second World War. The economic lifespans of older locomotives and passenger stock were far exceeded, and management resorted to importing second-hand engines. Track was patched, rather than reconstructed and re-aligned according to modern standards, although relatively short deviations which reduced gradients on the Hobart–Launceston line had been constructed as work-creating projects in the early 1930s. By the end of the war the system required major rejuvenation.

Electrification was briefly considered, but discarded in favour of new diesel-electric technology. In a bold move, 32 diesel-electric locomotives of 660 horsepower and eight diesel shunters were introduced in 1950–54, making Tasmania's the first Australian government railway system to change from steam power. Concurrently, 18 large new steam locomotives were imported from England for both goods and passenger service. The diesel-electric units were highly successful, and eight larger locomotives were built at Launceston from 1961, allowing the phasing out of the remaining steam locomotives by the end of the decade. In 1953 the Tasman Ltd, operated at first by articulated rail cars which reduced travelling time from Hobart to Launceston to four and a half hours and then by locomotive-hauled carriages built at Launceston, afforded very comfortable, if leisurely travel between Wynyard, Launceston and Hobart.

In the 1970s passenger patronage continued to decline and the last passenger train, from Wynyard to Hobart, ran on 18 July 1978. However, freight tonnages increased, principally for bulk commodities such as timber, cement, coal, paper and shipping containers. In 1978 the commonwealth government's Australian National Railways assumed control of the Tasmanian Government Railways. The new administration began the long and drastic process of modernising the system. Very powerful diesel-electric locomotives were imported from Queensland. The 1980s saw rationalisation of services, with longer, heavier trains of around 2000 tons, hauled by three locomotives each of 2000 horsepower, replacing more numerous trains limited to about 300 tons. Cumbersome vacuum brakes were superseded by efficient air brakes, and high capacity wagons were introduced. In a far-reaching overhaul of infrastructure requirements, most wayside stations were closed and fewer, but much longer, passing loops installed. Most railway buildings, houses, stations and sheds were sold or removed. Train control passed from lineside signals, telegraph and section staffs to radio communication and train orders authorising movements. Trains no longer had guards or their vans. Administration, maintenance and construction of rolling stock moved from Inveresk to expansive new facilities at East Tamar Junction at Newstead.

The demise of the steam locomotive and passenger trains as well as increased historical consciousness led to the running of chartered enthusiasts' special trains from the 1960s and, from the next decade, the preservation, restoration, display and operation of railway memorabilia. The Derwent Valley Railway Preservation Society, the Don River Railway and the Tasmanian Transport Museum all experience increasing interest in their collections, and the demand for 'rail tourism' is stretching the capacities of volunteer operators.

Having abandoned private ownership by 1890, the Tasmanian railways returned to it with the takeover of the system by the Australian Transport Network in 1997. Operating as Tasrail Ltd, the new owners continued modernising and reducing employee numbers. Further reconditioned locomotives were introduced from New Zealand and Western Australia and the radio control network was improved. The programme of permanent way improvement, begun with the transfer to Australian National, continued and most of the system now has heavy, long-length welded rail. The increased use of northern Tasmanian ports in preference to Hobart for interstate trade has seen very large tonnages of shipping containers on the railways. In 1998 ATN purchased the Emu Bay Railway and introduced to it the modern operational practices and locomotives of the main system.

In its day, the Tasmanian Government Railways was a major employer, offering a huge range of jobs: train crew, tradesmen, engineers, apprentices, fettlers, signalmen, clerks, braided stationmasters and ubiquitous 'lad porters'. Apart from goods of every description, the railways carried passengers to factories, schools, the Royal Show and on excursions. For the first time, the railway enabled ordinary people to travel for holidays or pleasure. There was a sense of occasion at the departure of the Launceston Express or the Boat Train. Dress was formal with suits, hats (and hat boxes) in evidence. One sat down to lunch in the buffet car – the alternative was patronage of the refreshment rooms at Parattah, famous for 'cool tea and warm beer'.

As the first effective means of land transport, railways 'got the world out of the mud' and had no initial competitor. No longer legislatively protected from road competition and in the face of vast sums spent by governments on major road development, today they do well what they do best: transport in bulk over long distances. Tasmanian railways succeed in this despite using route alignments almost unaltered since the nineteenth century. (See also Railway Accidents.)

Further reading: H Stokes, A century of Tasmanian railways, [Hobart, 1971]; G Cooper & G Goss, Tasmanian railways, Devonport, 1996; L Rae, A history of railways and tramways on Tasmania's west coast, Hobart, 1983; The Emu Bay Railway, Sandy Bay, [1991]; and The Abt Railway, Sandy Bay, 1988.

Graham Clements