Pity someone needing to cross Australia in 1900. The choices were equally bleak. There was a journey of thousands of kilometres over rough desert terrain or a lengthy voyage across the Great Australian Bight, famous for its miserable choppy seas. Despite fierce opposition, Western Australia eventually voted ‘yes’ to join the Federation in 1901. An inducement was the promise of a train. It was a train that would connect one of the most isolated settlements on earth to the rest of the nation, with all that offered to the citizens of the new Federation to share in its growth and prosperity.
With legislation passed and the difficult survey work completed, in September 1912 at Port Augusta a small wheelbarrow carrying a spade was wheeled to a point on the survey line where Governor-General Thomas Denman turned the first sod of earth for this monumental project. He was flanked by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, the Federal Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley, Premiers, Port Augusta Mayor Thomas Hewitson and several hundred locals. It was a gathering that indicated the significance of the moment.
Despite the shortage of labour and materials during World War One, work continued and by 1917 the 1700 kilometres of rail line connecting Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie was completed. The line broke many records including, famously, the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world – 478 kilometres between Ooldea in South Australia and Loongana in WA. That record still stands a century later. It was also the longest stretch of railroad built in one project.
But what it meant was that Australians could now visit each other, trade with each other and post mail to each other with the ease of that grand mechanical work-horse, the train. It was also a line of defence. The Chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff, Lord Kitchener, who visited Sydney in 1911 warned: “Unless this line is built Australia will lie helpless before any aggressor…the country could be seized in 20 different places without one Australian defender appearing on the scene.”
The champion of the Trans-Australian Railway was the great Labor nation builder, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. Under his watch came a raft of achievements: the Commonwealth Bank, the Royal Navy, the founding of Canberra, maternity allowances and greater equality for women. Fisher believed that the new railroad would open up the interior so that cities could thrive, as happened in the United States. All that was needed was water. While his dream was never realised, the Trans Australian Railroad remains to this day one of the most important supply lines in the country.
Under this present Federal Labor Government’s watch, a record $36 billion is being invested in new roads and rail lines. No government in our history has invested this much. Rail is receiving $12 billion for new lines and upgrades. Urban rail, traditionally the responsibility of the States, has $7.3 billion committed to it. This is more than all previous Federal Governments combined since Federation. Work includes the Noarlunga to Seaford extension in Adelaide and Perth’s visionary City Link project which will see the sinking of the central rail line underground. The work in Perth will reunite the city with the entertainment precinct in Northbridge for the first time in more than a century, leaving the surface land free for commercial, residential and recreational use.
Our rail investment includes the rebuilding of one-third of the nation’s freight lines, some 3,800 kilometres. Millions of concrete sleepers have been laid, extra passing loops constructed and new sturdy track laid that doesn’t buckle under the Australian heat. All this allows freight to move faster and more reliably around the nation, making rail an increasingly attractive alternative to road transport.
The Trans-Australian line now has several new long passing loops allowing express trains to make the trip westward to Perth in 44 hours, rather than the usual 53. This valuable time saver has prompted Australia’s main parcel carriers to put their Perth-bound international deliveries off the highways and onto rail, joining sectors such as mining, agricultural and freight carriers like Woolworths who are increasingly turning to rail.
Today I will have the privilege of visiting Port Augusta for centenary celebrations where I stand in the shadow of those visionary leaders of a century ago. It is a chance to acknowledge their foresight in building a rail line that continues to serve this nation so well and to remember those who laboured to build the line under what must have been unimaginable conditions. It is also a chance to celebrate the resurgence of rail because this 19th century invention which heralded a new era of opportunity and nation building is once again entering a golden age.