Australia's mixed gauge railway system: a reassessment of its origins.
In 1853 the Government of New South Wales chose a gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches for that colony's railways. Victoria, made a separate colony from 1 July 1851, opted for a gauge of 5ft 3in for its railways. These two decisions constitute the original rail gauge choices which led to the new federation's inheritance of colonial government-owned railway systems which, between the eastern states, used gauges of 5ft 3in (Victoria and South Australia), 4ft 8 1/2in (NSW), 3ft 6in (Queensland and South Australia), and 2ft 6in (Victoria).
Historical analyses of early rail gauge choice in Australia conventionally put forward three basic features of the decision-making processes. The first states that a despatch from William Gladstone dated 15 January 1846 and addressed to colonial governments advocated adoption of a standard gauge of 4ft 8 1/2in in the Australian colonies. The second allocates responsibility, solely or largely, for the choice of different original gauges to two engineers employed by the Sydney Railway Company, Francis Webb (later Wentworth) Sheilds and James Wallace. The third ascribes Victoria's opting for a gauge of 5ft 3in in late 1853 to preserving the value of orders already placed for locomotives and rolling stock at that gauge.
All three conclusions are explored and found to be invalid, based on a review of contemporary documentation. In particular, it was found that the choice of a gauge of 5ft 3in for Victoria was due entirely to the Lieutenant-Governor's unfettered exercise of his authority. The review found that previous writers have ignored key sources of railway history. Further, it discerned a tendency for some historians to have relied too heavily and uncritically on secondary sources.
Rail policy--Gladstone's role
In January 1846, William Ewart Gladstone, then the United Kingdom's Secretary of State for the Colonies, wrote to colonial governors on the subject of railways. (1) By that time, the United Kingdom had had 15 years' experience in England and Ireland of authorising the construction of railways by private sector organisations. Conventionally, those authorisations (Acts of Parliament) accepted the choice of rail gauge at the railway owners' discretion. As a consequence, several abutting railways had been built at different gauges. The most glaring example entails the 7ft gauge of the Great Western Railway (London to Bristol). At Gloucester, this railway met with the 4ft 8 1/2in gauge used by the various owners of railways of midland origin, causing considerable inconvenience at this interface.
A number of publications have since stated that this despatch of Gladstone advocated adoption of a gauge of 4ft 8 1/2in in the Australian colonies. It appears that the first such statement was in the first Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia, published in 1908. Note that this Year Book does not identify its sources. Explaining the significance of the choice of different gauges, the Year Book noted that:
Probably the most serious error committed in the railway policies of the States of the Commonwealth has been the adoption of a different gauge in each colony; the lack of foresight in anticipating the development of the railway systems of the Commonwealth and the ultimate need for inter-communication, as well as the excessive ill-feeling which arose between the States, as mentioned above, has been the cause of the large extra cost, delay, and inconvenience incurred at the present time by the necessity for transferring both passengers and goods at all places where there are breaks of gauge. (2)
The Year Book had previously observed that, 'In 1846 Mr Gladstone, then Colonial Secretary, recommended to the Governor of New South Wales that the 4ft 8 1/2in gauge should be adopted.' (3) Other writers who have made the same claim include Pratt, (4) Denniss, (5) Harding, (6) Harrigan, (7) Matthews (8) and Fearnside. (9)
In fact, the Gladstone despatch is silent on the matter of gauge.
Gladstone's despatch is a primer of how to manage a decentralised organisation (Britain's colonial empire). Its first paragraph acknowledges his government's recognition that conditions between the colonies vary so greatly that they cannot all be known in London, and therefore centralised decision-making about colonial railways would have been inappropriate. The despatch itself specifies that appended documents are for information only. In Gladstone's own words:
I find that the impulse which has been given in every other part of the Civilised World to plans of Railway communication has been felt in many of the British colonies ... To attempt to lay down any one set of rules or even a single rule, binding inflexibility on the Executive Governments of them all would obviously be futile and impracticable. But the experience of this Country has ascertained some general principles on the subject ... The object of this Despatch is to state, compendiously, what those rules or principles are. (10)
Moreover, the British Parliament had established a royal commission in 1845 to ascertain and recommend the most appropriate rail gauge for England and Ireland. That commission was still sitting at the time of Gladstone's despatch. It seems unlikely that he would have sought to pre-empt its findings.
The role of the engineers of the Sydney Railway Company
Many commentators attribute responsibility for the initial choice of two rail gauges in whole or in large part, to one or both of the engineers of the Sydney Railway Company (SRC), Francis Webb Sheilds and James Wallace. Some (for example, Gilder, (11) Shann, (12) Rowland, (13) Paddison (14) and Birch (15)) hold them largely accountable. Referring to the SRC, Shann wrote: 'Its engineers earned eternal infamy for it by involving the two leading colonies in their disastrous choice of different gauges.' (16) Kernot, Melbourne University's Professor of Engineering, delivered an address to the Institution of Engineers in Melbourne on 26 August 1906. One avowed aim of this paper was 'to bring to light the true history of the lamentable break of gauge at Albury, and to exonerate Victoria from the blame attaching thereto'. (17) Of the SRC's James Wallace, Kernot said:
He was an intense partisan for the standard gauge, and left no stone unturned to bring New South Wales back to her first love, entirely regardless of keeping faith with the other colonies, whose railways were now progressing with comparative rapidity, and who had already reversed their policy once in order to keep in line with New South Wales. (18)
Noting the key role played by the SRC's two engineers, Fearnside (19) and Lee (20) note also that the SRC's directors played a key role in gauge choice. For example, Lee noted that, 'The company's directors accepted Sheilds' closely argued case for a gauge of 5ft 3in. The blame for allowing the adoption of two similar gauges in different Australian colonies lies less with Sheilds than with his successor, James Wallace, and with the company's easily swayed directors.' (21) Gunn's account of the directors' decision to seek approval for reversion to 4ft 8 1/2in leaves no doubt that while the directors formally accepted responsibility for the change, they had on both occasions been strongly influenced by recommendations from Sheilds and Wallace. (22)
Some writers, commenting on the early gauge choices in NSW and Victoria, acknowledge that contributions to those choices were made as well by colonial and UK government officials. These writers include Denniss, (23) Matthews, (24) Gunn, (25) Kain, (26) the Australian Heritage Commission (27) and Hagarty. (28) However, none of these sources seeks to analyse the relative significance of these participants' roles. As a result, this literature leaves unclear the process by which decisions taken about two gauges in NSW resulted in a Victorian choice of 5ft 3in. It is usually ignored (see, for example, Laird et al). (29)
The British colonial administrative apparatus retained the authority to make gauge decisions in the Australian colonies until 1853. In a despatch dated 8 November 1853, the Secretary of State for the Colonies requested the NSW colonial government to review its decision to revert to 4ft 8 1/2in, but did not direct the choice of any particular gauge--there or in Victoria.
Unfortunately, however, the Victorian Government, on the faith of the enactment of 1852, had ordered working stock from England for the Irish gauge (5ft 3in) to a large amount; while the Government of New South Wales, on the faith of the enactment of 1853, had ordered their stock for the narrow gauge (4ft 8 1/2in). It was difficult, therefore, for either colony to give way. (30)
It is clear that from then on, the colonial governments held and retained sole authority for gauge choice within their colony's boundaries. Even before then, it was constitutionally impossible for railway company directors or engineers to make decisions about gauge, other than to recommend their preferred choice to the colonial government.
The second point which is clear is that with the colony of Victoria separating from the colony of New South Wales with effect from 1 July 1851, the NSW government had no authority to make decisions in respect of Victoria from that date. The government of the colony of Victoria acquired the right and the duty to select a railway gauge of its own choice. It is argued below that the Victorian choice was not constrained by New South Wales precedent.
The Victorian choice
In September 1853, Lieutenant-Governor Charles LaTrobe caused the appointment of a Select Committee of the Victorian Legislative Council. Its purpose was to inquire into, and recommend, the best rail gauge for the colony. This committee reported on 27 October 1853. It recommended adoption of the 5ft 3in gauge. Specifically, the committee's report said:
Your Committee therefore, taking into consideration that the Gauge of five feet three inches had already been agreed to by the Governments of the Australian Colonies; that it had received the sanction of the Home Government; that the railways in course of construction in this Colony are of that Gauge, and that the balance of the evidence given before your Committee greatly preponderates in favour of the adoption of a uniform Gauge of five feet three inches, your Committee feel no hesitation in recommending to your Honorable House, that in all future enactments authorizing the construction of Lines of Railway in this Colony, a strict adherence to the Gauge of five feet three inches should in every case be insisted on. (31)
Many writers, when explaining Victoria's choice of the 5ft 3in gauge, have noted that by the time the committee reported, Victorian railway companies had already placed orders for locomotives and rolling stock at the 5ft 3in gauge. They have further noted that the choice of 5ft 3in was motivated by the need to protect those companies' investments. These writers include Australian Year Book, (32) Pratt, (33) Coghlan, (34) Denniss, (35) Matthews, (36) Kain (37) and Australian Heritage Council. (38) These writers all appear to have assumed that the Victorian railway companies' orders for locomotives and rolling stock were based solely on the New South Wales precedent choice of the 5ft 3in gauge prior to Victoria's becoming autonomous, and prior to New South Wales' reversion to 4ft 8 1/2in.
This assumption appears to be incorrect. Lieutenant-Governor LaTrobe was presented with an unconstrained choice of a rail gauge for Victoria in February/March 1853. He sought advice from Victoria's three railway companies, but their advice was conflicting, and LaTrobe made an individual choice of 5ft 3in. He communicated that choice to Victoria's railway companies at the end of the last week in March 1853.
Much of the evidence for these assertions can be found in the Report of the Select Committee referred to above. This report included copies of correspondence from the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales advising LaTrobe of New South Wales' choice of the 4ft 8 1/2in, (2 February 1853), and from LaTrobe advising the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales that he, LaTrobe, 'cannot feel himself at liberty to advocate adoption of the narrow gauge' (4ft 8 1/2in). This letter was dated 28 July 1853, and indicated that LaTrobe's decision to adopt the 5ft 3in gauge for Victoria was made in advance and independent of the recommendation of his Select Committee.
Further evidence for this finding can be found in the minutes of the board meetings of the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company, now held in File No. VPRS 1281/P/1000 of the Victorian Public Records Office. These minutes make it clear that LaTrobe sought the opinion of the company as to the proposed reversion to 4ft 8 1/2in in March 1853, that the company advised him that it was indifferent as to the choice of gauge, and that LaTrobe himself decided that Victoria should adopt the gauge of 5ft 3in. Relevant quotations from those minutes are reproduced below.
The engineer produced the plans and specifications and orders for machinery and other materials required to be imported, together with estimates of their costs. They were approved and two fire engines and ten sets of iron work for trucks ordered to be added.--Third meeting, 28 February 1853 A letter from the Colonial Secretary with copies of one from Colonial Secretary of New South Wales and of an extract from a report by the Railway Engineer in Chief at Sydney upon a proposed change in the railway gauge was read together with an acknowledgement of its receipt sent out by the Manager. The consideration of the subject was deferred and the Engineer desired to report upon it.--Sixth meeting, 14 March 1853. The Manager was instructed to write to the Colonial Secretary and include a copy of Mr Chauncey's report upon the change of gauge: to state that the Directors of this Company are prepared to accept any gauge that may be decided upon as most eligible for general use in Australia, to request an intimation of the course intended to be pursued relative to this subject, and to press for an immediate answer that orders for machinery may be despatched by the Chusan.--Seventh meeting, 21 March 1853. A letter from the Colonial Secretary's Office was read, which stated that His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor intends to recommend an adherence to the gauge of five feet three inches.--Tenth meeting, 4 April 1853.
The Board took this as a clear signal of LaTrobe's intention. At its 11th meeting on 18 April 1853, the manager advised the board that the engineer had despatched duplicate sets of orders for plant and machinery to the United Kingdom via the Chusan, which sailed on 7 April 1853. (39)
The other two companies presented varying opinions as to the choice of gauge. The Select Committee's report included a copy of a letter dated 26 March 1853 and accompanying engineer's report, from the chairman of the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company to the Victorian Colonial Secretary. This company's engineer advocated selection of the 5ft 3in gauge. It also incorporated a copy of a chairman's letter dated 29 June 1853, and accompanying engineers' report from the Melbourne Mt Alexander and Murray River Railway Company. This report advocated the 5ft 3in gauge as technically superior to 4ft 8 1/2in, but concluded that Victoria should adopt the 4ft 8 1/2in gauge in order to avoid 'the mischief and expense consequent on a break of gauge' with Sydney's railway. The Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company's orders on UK suppliers for equipment left Melbourne on the Ambrosine, which sailed on 17 August 1853.
In summary, Lieutenant-Governor LaTrobe made a unilateral choice of the gauge of 5ft 3in for Victoria in the last week of March 1853, having been supported only by the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company.
Thus the notion of Victoria opting for a gauge of 5ft 3in in order to preserve the value of orders already placed by railway companies is invalid. Victoria's choice of 5ft 3in as the best gauge for its railways was made before any orders for equipment were placed, almost four months before the Governor-General was apprised of it, and seven months before the Legislative Council's select committee affirmed LaTrobe's choice of gauge.
The Australian Year Book of 1908 appears to be the source on which proponents of Gladstone as instigator of the 4ft 8 1/2in gauge in Australia have relied. Coghlan's recounting of events may also have had some influence:
Major Robe [Acting Governor in South Australia], when he received Gladstone's despatch in reference to railways, introduced, among the 'rules and orders to be observed in the introduction of railway Bills into the Legislative Council of South Australia', a rule 'that the gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches be the gauge to be used in all public railways hereafter to be constructed in this Province', and in June 1848 Earl Grey wrote to his successor, Sir Henry Young, that he had consulted the Commissioners of Railways 'not only with reference to South Australia, but also with a view to the general extension and probable junction eventually of those lines in the different colonies'; and they had recommended a gauge of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. Earl Grey wrote also to Fitzroy, the Governor of New South Wales (which then included Port Phillip), urging the desirableness of a uniform gauge, and suggesting 4 feet 8 1/2 inches, partly because it had been adopted in South Australia, and partly because it was thought better adapted to a somewhat undeveloped country than a wider gauge, with heavier rolling-stock. (40)
Unlike Victoria, South Australia had been chartered as a separate colony, independent of New South Wales. Major Robe was its Acting Governor in 1846. Some of the writers referred to above may have connected South Australia's adoption of 4ft 8 1/2in with receipt of Gladstone's despatch, even though Coghlan did not in fact make that connection. Coghlan's reference to Earl Grey's sponsorship of 4ft 8 1/2in is correct, and Grey appears to be the official who stimulated initial adoption of 4ft 8 1/2in in South Australia and New South Wales' choice of 4ft 8 1/2in at first. (41)
In 1850, the Sydney Railway Company's board of directors, the New South Wales Governor, and subsequently the United Kingdom's Secretary of State for the Colonies all concurred in its replacement by a gauge of 5ft 3in at the recommendation of the SRC's first engineer, Francis Webb Sheilds. (42)
At this time, the colony of New South Wales incorporated the Port Phillip District, which on 1 July 1851 became the colony of Victoria. Victoria thus inherited the gauge of 5ft 3in from its erstwhile parent. Its emergent railway companies adopted this gauge for planning purposes. As indicated above, the Governor of the new colony was advised in February 1853 by the NSW Colonial Secretary of New South Wales' intention to revert to 4ft 8 1/2in. The Colonial Secretary of NSW wrote this letter to LaTrobe on behalf of Sir Charles Fitzroy as Governor General.
LaTrobe's opinion on the proposed change was not sought, nor was he requested to confirm any intention he may have had in respect of a gauge choice for Victoria. The NSW Colonial Secretary seems to have assumed that Victoria would follow the New South Wales lead at the direction of the Governor General. But LaTrobe acted as though his choice of gauge was unconstrained by the New South Wales precedent, or by the need to follow the Governor General's lead. He sought an expression for gauge preference from the three most prominent railway companies incorporated in Victoria. As indicated above, none had made commitments to ordering locomotives and rolling stock at any gauge as at March 1853, so there was no question of a gauge choice causing a write-off of expenditure on an alternative gauge. When advised in July of Victoria's intention to stay with 5ft 3in, the Governor General advised LaTrobe that he (Charles Fitzroy) would refer the matter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies for adjudication.
There seems no obvious reason why LaTrobe would have caused the establishment of a select committee to report on a matter in which LaTrobe had made a decision seven months prior, other than perhaps to strengthen his hand if the Secretary of State were to have become involved in resolving a dispute between the two colonies.
The so far unchallenged view of Gladstone as the initial source of authority for adopting a rail gauge of 4ft 8 1/2in reflects some looseness on the part of researchers. Generations of writers appear to have satisfied themselves by reference to secondary sources. No attempt to consult the readily available primary source material seems to have been made. Further, generations of writers have been content to argue that Victoria's choice of 5ft 3in was made in order to protect investments in commitment to suppliers of locomotives and rolling stock in the United Kingdom.
It now seems clear that the select committee which LaTrobe established provided him with an ex-post justification of his selection of the 5ft 3in gauge. There is no record that any student of Australian rail history consulted the minute book of the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company, the prime original source. Had they done so, LaTrobe's commitment to a gauge of 5ft 3in before the placement of such orders would be clear. The connection to the New South Wales precedent would have been clear, and it would have been clear that LaTrobe's choice of gauge was unconstrained.
In this context, the role of the Sydney Railway Company engineers in producing mixed gauge systems is of considerably reduced significance. In any event, much writing about the origin of the different gauge seems to display a less than adequate understanding of the institutional administrative apparatus within which those engineers and their companies worked. They were certainly influential, the more so perhaps because they were the only source of technology-based expertise between their company and the advisers to the president of the Board of Trade, six months away in London. Their role was no more than that of making recommendations for action which they certainly had no authority to direct.
Member RAHS University of Queensland
I am grateful to Associate Professor John Forster, Griffith University Business School, and an anonymous referee for their valued criticisms. I am responsible for any errors.
Public Record Office Victoria: Victorian Railways Department; Secretary's inward correspondence; VPRS 421.
Public Record Office Victoria: Miscellaneous Railway Series; Melbourne and Hobson's Bay Railway Company; VPRS 1281.
State Records NSW: Sydney Railway Company; Minutes of Proceedings of Directors 11.09 1848-03.09 1858; NRS 12811.
State Records NSW: Sydney Railway Company; copies of outwards correspondence 20.09 1848-01.12.1854; NRS 15087.
Report from the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Gauge for Railways, 27 October, 1853. Votes and Proceedings, Legislative Council, Victoria.
Colonial Secretary NSW to Colonial Secretary, Victoria, No. 53/73, 10 October, 1853, p. 73.
Secretary of State for the Colonies (Earl Grey) to Colonial Governors, No. 106, 30 June 1848, 1853, p. 73.
Colonial Secretary NSW to Colonial Secretary, Victoria, No. 53/9, 2 February 1853, p. 84.
Colonial Secretary, Victoria to Colonial Secretary NSW, No. 53/8666, 28 July 1858.
Secretary, Geelong & Melbourne Railway Company to Colonial Secretary Melbourne, no reference number, 26 March 1853, p. 75.
Chairman, Melbourne, Mount Alexander, and Murray River Railway Company to Colonial Secretary Melbourne, no reference number, 29 June 1853, p. 77.
John A. Mills, 'The Myth of the Standard Gauge--Rail Gauge Choices in Australia 1850-1901', unpublished PhD thesis, Griffith University, Brisbane, 2007.
(1) Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol. 24, p. 708.
(2) Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia 1908, p.555.
(3) ibid., p.554.
(4) E. A. Pratt, The State railway muddle in Australia, London, 1912, p. 65.
(5) A. G. Denniss, 'History of the break of gauge in Australia', Journal of the Institute of Transport, December 1942 p. 54.
(6) E. Harding, Uniform railway gauge, Melbourne, 1958, p. 25.
(7) L. J. Harrigan, Victorian railways to '62, Melbourne, 1962, p. 193.
(8) R. Matthews, Public investment in Australia: a study of Australian public authority investment and development, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967, p. 96.
(9) G. H. Fearnside, All stations west--the story of the Sydney-Perth standard gauge railway, Sydney, 1970, p. 1.
(10) Gladstone to Sir George Gipps, 15 January 1846, Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 24, p.708.
(11) G. A. Gilder, 'The early history of the railways of New South Wales', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 17, 1931, pp. 215-38.
(12) E. Shann, An economic history of Australia, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1948.
(13) E. C. Rowland, 'The story of the New South Wales railways', Royal Australian Historical Society Journal & Proceedings, vol. 40, part 5, 1954, pp. 245-86.
(14) L. I. Paddison, The Railways of New South Wales 1855-1955, Sydney, 1956.
(15) A. Birch, 'The Sydney Railway Company', Part 2 1848-1855, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal & Proceedings, vol. 43, 1957, pp. 49-92.
(16) Shann, An economic history of Australia, p. 289.
(17) W. C. Kernot, Railway gauge, Proceedings, Victorian Institute of Engineers, 26 August and 7 September, 1906, p. 11.
(18) ibid., p. 5.
(19) Fearnside, All stations west.
(20) R. Lee, The greatest public work: the New South Wales railways 1848-1889, Sydney, 1988.
(21) ibid., p.18
(22) J. Gunn, Along parallel lines--a history of the railways of New South Wales, Melbourne, 1989, p. 28.
(23) Denniss, 'History of the break of gauge', pp. 54-5.
(24) Matthews, Public investment in Australia, p. 96.
(25) Gunn, Along parallel lines, p. 20-1.
(26) J. Kain. A spirit of progress? Assessing Australian rail transport policy, Research Paper No. 31, Parliamentary Research Service, Canberra, 1995, p. 4.
(27) Australian Heritage Council, 'Linking a nation: Australian transport and communications 1788-1970', www.ahc.gov.au/publications, ch. 4, p. 4.
(28) D. Hagarty, Sydney railway 1848-1857, Sydney, 2005, chs. 4-6.
(29) P. Laird et al, Back on Track, Sydney, 2001, p. 185-6.
(30) J. Rae, Report on the origin and progress of the railways of New South Wales from 1846 to 1864, inclusive, Sydney, 1866, p. 12.
(31) Report of the Select Committee on the Gauge for Railways, 1853, p. (iv), Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council 1853 (Victoria).
(32) Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia 1908, p. 554.
(33) Pratt, The State railway muddle, p. 66.
(34) T. A. Coghlan, Labour and industry in Australia: from the first settlement in 1788 to the establishment of the commonwealth in 1901, Melbourne, 1969 (first published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1918), p. 842.
(35) Denniss, 'History of the break of gauge', p. 55.
(36) Matthews, Public investment in Australia, p. 97.
(37) Kain, A spirit of progress?, p. 4.
(38) Australian Heritage Council, 'Linking a nation', ch. 4, p. 4.
(39) M. A. Syme, Shipping arrivals and departures, Victorian ports, Volume 2, 1846-1855, Roebuck Society, Melbourne, 1987.
(40) Coghlan, Labour and industry in Australia, p. 843.
(41) Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol. 26, p. 468.
(42) Hagarty, Sydney railway 1848-1857, ch. 4.