Albury Railway Station, the changeover point for passengers from Melbourne to Sydney, 1910. Photographer: Bonsema Studio. Museums Victoria, MM 6168

Inches Apart: Railways & Federation

History major Patrick Gigacz explores the history of the state borders in Australia through the prism of the 1921 Royal Commission over railway gauges in this prize-winning essay produced for the subject Controversies in Australian History (HIST30064) in 2021.

The pandemic has reminded many Australians that they live in a federation of states. Passionate public arguments between the premiers have dominated headlines and exposed deep rifts in our national psyche; a significant minority of people identify with their state before their country. The impact has not just been rhetorical: travel permits, armed guards and concrete checkpoints have physically reinforced the borders that divide the continent.

A largely forgotten Royal Commission in 1921 tried to resolve a much older obstacle to travelling across state borders: the differences in railway gauge between Australia’s mainland states. Victoria and New South Wales, in the early years of their separation, had selected a different gauge for their railways – 5’3” and 4’8 ½” between the rails, respectively – and refused to negotiate a compromise. When Queensland chose an even narrower gauge, hoping to save money, Australia’s chances of ever developing a truly national railway network were forever crippled. People and freight alike were forced to change trains at the border.

Railway engineers knew that aligning gauges was expensive but feasible, even between massive systems. In 1886, dozens of private American companies had agreed to unify hundreds of miles of track in just two extraordinary days. But Australia’s railways, run by politicians and powerful public servants from the coastal capitals, had little interest in changing anything. From the Victorian Railways’ palatial headquarters on Spencer Street, ministers and commissioners could watch hundreds of trains arriving at a vast terminal complex, loaded with goods that would concentrate Victoria’s economic wealth in Melbourne – and keep it away from Sydney.

The stretch of land between the Melbourne city centre and the port, now the Docklands stadium precinct, was once occupied by Melbourne Yard: dozens of sidings and sheds where the produce of Victoria’s regions was delivered, c1930–1950. Victorian Railways Photographer, H92.301/377

Some advocates for federation of the colonies were alarmed at the gauge muddle’s impact on their cause: military hawks were worried about swiftly moving an army across the continent; farmers wanted economic barriers in the inland removed but needed transport systems to match. In the end, though, it was the men of the metropoles who shaped a compromise that suited their interests: the Commonwealth would have little power to intercede in railway matters outside wartime and the states would continue to wield their railway empires as a tool to implement their preferred economic ideologies.

Several early prime ministers tried to spearhead nation-building interstate railway projects but made little progress persuading the premiers to cooperate. A miners’ strike in 1920, though, forced the NSW and Victorian governments to exchange precious coal across their woefully inefficient border, and brought the problem into the headlines. The premiers, encouraged by Prime Minister Billy Hughes, agreed that gauge unification was a necessity, and funded the Royal Commission on the Matter of Uniform Railway Gauge, with two international railway engineers and an Australian banker to investigate the best way forward.

The Commission’s composition suggested that railway gauge was an engineering problem first and a social and economic matter second. The banker, John Joseph Garvan, was ‘prudent … broad-minded and well-equipped’ to deal with this latter aspect, according to the financial press, and was the son of an ardent federationist who had been instrumental in convincing Henry Parkes to smooth over the disagreements of protectionist and free trader blocs. Even though they had a majority, the engineering establishment bitterly resented being watched by someone attuned to the wider consequences of technical decisions: it was ‘not logical to thus put a businessman’ wrote one terse journal editor.

Map of Australia showing railways systems (and detail), 1921. Royal Commission on Uniform Railway Gauge. National Library Australia, MAP J.Y. Harvey collection/4

The engineering commissioners drew up a solution in a matter of weeks during a handful of closed hearings, solving the infrastructure problem at the lowest possible cost by recommending every state convert its lines to the New South Wales gauge, splitting the cost equally. When the report was handed to the premiers, though, it came with a brief but incisive objection penned by a frustrated Garvan.

The main problem, he wrote, was that the Commission hadn’t bothered to investigate whether the social and economic benefits were worth the enormous cost, even though their terms of reference had suggested it. Without detailed reasoning or public hearings, too, they had been able to ignore other popular technical solutions, like a three-rail system where border regions could access two capital city markets.

Garvan’s concerns were prescient. When the report was published, it united politicians and commentators across states and parties – in parochial anger. NSW parliamentarians detested the idea of funding railway works entirely in other states; Victorian legislators couldn’t see the point of upsetting the comfortable economic balance between Melbourne and its regions. A handful of NSW senators who backed the plan admitted they only did so because they thought it would make Sydney the heart of a national market. Western Australians, who had stonewalled efforts to build a transcontinental line for years, couldn’t see the point: they were quite self-sufficient.

A series of wild newspaper articles in the Riverina, which claimed a shadowy cabal of Newcastle steel interests had orchestrated the entire affair to drive up prices – even though the Commission’s solution meant moving the old rails, not casting new ones – illustrated just how disastrously the Commonwealth had miscalculated. Railways and their borders were more than an engineering problem in a textbook: they were a symbol and concrete realisation of the complex regional identities of a newly federated nation. The premiers, alarmed by the backlash, all refused to comment on the report to the press, let alone adopt it as policy. Hughes, desperately trying to salvage a positive spin on the debacle, organised a celebratory lunch for the commissioners with sympathetic politicians in the Albury engine sheds, just metres from the nation’s most notorious break of gauge. Garvan wasn’t there.

Luncheon to members of the Uniform Railway Gauge Commission, 10 October 1921. Only two of the three commissioners posed for the photo, together with a group of federal politicians, to celebrate handing down their report. Photographer unknown. National Library Australia, PIC/7995 LOC Drawer PIC/7995

A century on, just a handful of lines have been converted to the New South Wales gauge, giving Australia a skeletal national railway. Still, from the footbridge at Southern Cross Station, you can watch the train to Sydney trundle off on its own tracks, separated from the rest of Victoria by just six and a half inches. Australia’s railway borders show that we are still deeply uncomfortable with a true national identity.

In 2020 Patrick Gigacz was the recipient of the Gyles Turner Prize, awarded annually for an undergraduate essay in Australian history, and the R.G. Wilson Scholarship for Third Year, awarded annually to the best third-year History student. This article is a revised version of his prize-winning essay. In 2022 he is pursuing the social history of infrastructure, writing an honours thesis on the construction of Melbourne’s City Loop.


Feature image: Albury Railway Station, the changeover point for passengers from Melbourne to Sydney (detail), 1910. Photographer: Bonsema Studio. Museums Victoria, MM6168