Rail Road to Port Phillip?

To the Editor of the Port Phillip Patriot

The Sydney Morning Herald

5 April 1845

Sir,- Having stopped short for a day or two at this incipient inland town on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River, on my overland journey from Port Phillip to Sydney, I beg to suggest, for the consideration of your numerous readers, an idea that has struck me very forcibly since my return to the territory of New South Wales proper, and the adoption of which, it appeals to me, might tend most materially to advance the interests of Port Phillip, and promote the settlement of that district with reputable free immigrants from the mother country, to a degree scarcely conceivable under the existing circumstances of the province.

The boundary of the Port Phillip district to the northward is the Hume River; which, I am happy to observe, from a recently published letter of Captain Sturt's to Lord Stanley, is allowed by that eminent Australian traveller to retain the name which was given it by its original discoverer, Mr. Hume, of Appin, in this colony, so early down as the year 1825, to the point of its junction with the Murrumbidgee. This is worthy of a generous mind, like Captain Sturt's, and I trust the colonists generally will follow the example he has so worthily set therein in thus doing justice to a meritorious colonist by giving the name he has immortalised to the great river he discovered so long ago, and under circumstances so very unpropitious. W

e shall thus have a distinctive name for each of the four rivers that effect the drainage of the Snowy Mountains or Australian Alps, and the various subsidiary ranges connected with them to the northward and westward- I mean the Goulburn, the Ovens, the Hume, and the Murrumbidgee - while we shall also have the common designation of the Murray River, which was given it by its discoverer, Captain Sturt, to the confluence of all these streams, from the point of junction with the last of them, the Murrumbibgee, to its embouchure in the Lake Alexandria, in the neighbouring province of South Australia. Let the Hume River, therefore, be the name of the river first mentioned down to the point of its junction with the Murrumbidgee, and let no colonist be guilty of the injustice of plucking the well-merited laurel from the brow of a native of the land. For if Captain Sturt, the discoverer of the Murray, willingly accords this merit to Mr. Hume, surely no other party should refuse to follow his example in doing honour to so deserving a colonist.

From the Hume River to Melbourne the distance is, in round numbers, two hundred miles; and as the banks of the river for two hundred miles above the crossing place at Albury, and for a greater distance below it, are occupied with sheep and cattle stations, while the intervening country between Melbourne and Albury is for the most part remarkably level; the idea that occurred to me in traversing this portion of the territory was, that the communication between Albury and Melbourne might be effected, even in the present circumstances of the province, by means of a railway, at a comparatively small expense, and with inconceivable benefit to the whole district.

The desirableness of such an improvement, for the province of Port Phillip especially, will scarcely be denied even by those who may perhaps question its practicability - I mean under the existing circumstances of the province.

(1.) It would reduce the period of communication with Melbourne for all persons residing near the extremity of the line to a single day, and to a still shorter period for those residing at intermediate places on or near the line.

(2.) It would thus bring the whole extent of country to the northern extremity of the district, within reach of all the appliances of civilization.

(3.) It would open up the whole of that country, including the fertile banks of the Hume River, for a hundred miles both above and below the crossing place, for the speedy settlement of an agricultural population, wherever this might be practicable or desirable.

(4.) It would enable the colonists to dispense with the services of a large proportion of the bullock drivers that are now employed in maintaining the communication with Melbourne under the existing system; allowing a large majority of these persons to be transformed into shepherds, stockmen, or agricultural labourers; dispensing with the horrid oaths and blasphemy that are now so liberally and so profanely expended upon the unfortunate bullocks, as well as with much of the thieving and dissipation that take place along the line; and thereby removing a fruitful source of moral debasement from the community.

(5.) It would render Melbourne the shipping port not only for the whole extent of the Hume River, but for that of the Murrumbidgee also, and probably for much of the intervening country between the Murrumbidgee and Yass; for the city or town at the inland extremity of the railroad would immediately become a powerful centre of attraction for the whole produce of the country for at least a hundred and fifty miles beyond it on the route to Sydney. In short, the advantages likely to result to Port Phillip from such an undertaking as I have suggested, if carried into effect, would be incalculable.

In regard to the practicability of such an undertaking in the existing circumstances of the colony, I would observe, that no person who has merely seen or heard of railways in England can have any idea of the applicability of such constructions to countries so very different as the Australian colonies. Having travelled, however, myself, along some of the principal lines in the United States - a country very similar in many respects to our own colonies- I shall briefly enumerate the points of difference between an English and an American railroad, from which, I flatter myself, it will clearly appear that the difficulties in the way of such an enterprise in a British colony, are much less formidable than might be supposed.

1. In England the ground traversed by the railway is all private property, and must be purchased by the Company forming the road, generally at an enormous cost; in America, on the contrary, it costs nothing, whether private or public property, and it would cost equally little in these colonies.

2. In England the denseness of the population, and the frequent passing and repassing of trains along the line, render a double line of railway indispensably necessary in every instance - a circumstance which nearly doubles the cost of construction, as compared with America, where a single line, with turnings-off at regular distances, is always found sufficient.

When two trains moving in opposite directions meet on an American line, one of them has to back her engine till it reaches the first turning-off place, where it moves off the line for a minute or two till the other is past.

3. In England the velocity with which the train moves along the railway- at the rate of twenty-five, thirty, and sometimes even forty miles an hour- renders it absolutely necessary that the road should be perfectly straight, as the slightest deviation from a right line would infallibly throw an engine moving at such a rate off the rails, and thereby endanger the lives of all the passengers.

Causeways must, therefore, be formed at prodigious expense through intervening mosses or swamps, in constructing railroads in England, as in the case of the causeway across the Chat Moss between Liverpool and Manchester; and hills that lie in the route must also be tunnelled or bored through. But as railway trains in America are prohibited by an Act of Congress from moving at a more rapid rate than fifteen miles an hour, to prevent accidents from trains moving in opposite directions on a single line, all this expensive work is unnecessary, and the American railroad is merely made to wheel round the hill or swamp, instead of being carried through the one or across the other.

On the line from Baltimore to Washington, the direct route would have carried the road right across a deep and apparently impracticable swamp of a circular form, and of a mile or two in diameter, nearly surrounded by hills of moderate elevation; but as this would have been a great deal too costly, besides being quite unnecessary, the railroad is carried round the swamp, and almost describes a circle.

4. In England the rails generally rest on blocks of granite, cut to the requisite dimensions, and brought frequently at vast expense from a great distance; but in America, the only materiel required in the construction of a railway (besides the iron rails, which are imported ready cast from England) is timber, which is found upon the spot almost universally, the only cost being that of cutting it and squaring it into logs of a certain dimension, and laying them down.

From all these circumstances combined, railroads, in England at least, generally cost from 15,000 to 25,000 a mile whereas in America, the whole line from the Roanoke River in Virginia to Cape Fear River in North Carolina - along which I travelled repeatedly myself, through a country whose climate and soil are pretty much like those of this colony- cost altogether only 7000 dollars, or about 1700 per mile, for a distance of upwards of 160 miles. Besides, the Australian timber is much fitter for such a purpose than the American, and will probably last four times as long.

In constructing a railroad in America the first thing requisite is to clear the line of all standing timber, and then to level it to the breadth required. Sleepers, formed of the timber, on or near the line, and squared with the axe to a breadth of about six inches, and a little longer than the width of the road, are then laid down across the intended line at about three feet apart; and a longitudinal sleeper, to bear the rails, is laid across these, and properly pinned down upon them towards each extremity of the transverse sleepers.

The cast iron rails, which are all imported ready made from England, are then fixed down upon the longitudinal sleepers, and the road is finished. Where deep gullies or other great depressions of the surface occur, they are bridged over with a light framework of timber, and the vast expenditure incurred in such cases in England is saved to the country.

Now, looking at the Port Phillip country, from the Hume River to Melbourne, and considering the level character of a large portion of its whole extent, and the comparative facility with which the hills and swamps in the direct route could be rounded; considering also the abundance of timber, of the best quality for such a purpose, along the greater part of the line, and the comparatively small cost at which sleepers of the requisite dimensions could be supplied, at so much per thousand, by our bush carpenters; as well as the practicability of bridging over the numerous gullies that form deep watercourses in times of flood, without impeding the rush of the waters; taking into consideration all these particulars, it appears to me that a road from the Hume River to Melbourne might be constructed at probably not more than 1500 per mile, that is, about 200 per mile cheaper than the American line, from the Roanoke in Virginia, to Wilmington in North Carolina. I have no idea, however, what the rails would cost here.

In America, - as in England, lines of railway are constructed by private companies, each of which obtains an Act for the purpose, from Parliament in the one case, or from the Legislature of the State traversed by the line in the others. In France, however, the cost of constructing the railway is borne partly by the Government, which forms the line and builds the engine and carriages, and partly by the department traversed by the line, which furnishes the land. The line, when completed, is farmed out by the Government for the benefit of both parties; the department electing a board of management, of which the Government appoints the President.

Something like the French system would be preferable, and would indeed be the only practicable scheme, for this colony; and the means I would propose for effecting the object would be a loan from England, secured on the land revenue of the District, under the guarantee of the home Government.

Two hundred miles of railway, from the Hume to Melbourne, at the rate of 1500 per mile, would cost 300,000; but the expenditure of that amount entirely in the cost of labour, with the exception of the cost of the iron rails to be imported from England- would create a prodigious demand for labour in the province, and would render the contemporaneous importation of numerous free immigrants from the mother country absolutely necessary.

These immigrants would find employment in clearing, levelling, squaring timber, and constructing bridges, &c, &c, during the progress of the undertaking; and at its completion, if not long before, they would be able to settle themselves along the line as small farmers, mechanics, dealers, &c, &c. Now, as the Land Act requires that one-half of the proceeds of all land sales shall be appropriated for the promotion of immigration, while the other half may be devoted towards internal improvements.

I would propose that an application should be made by the Port Phillippians, through the Legislative Council, to the Home Government, for authority to borrow 600,000 or thereby, on the security of the land revenue of Port Phillip; one-half of that amount to be expended in conveying free emigrants and not Penton-villains from the mother-country to the province, and the other to be expended in some such work as the one proposed to secure these emigrants profitable employment on their arrival, and the means of settling themselves advantageously during its progress.

With a guarantee from the Home Government for the payment of the interest of a loan for such a purpose, the requisite amount could be borrowed in London with perfect facility at 3 1/2 per cent. This would be only 10,500 for the interest of the whole amount required for the railroad; and whether the Government retained the management of the road in its own hands or farmed it out to contractors, I have no hesitation in predicting that a revenue of at least four times that amount would be derivable from it in the first instance.

At all events, the interest of the loan could be paid with perfect facility, even in the present condition of the province, from the conveyance of passengers, produce, and supplies along the line; and a sinking fund could be established for paying off the principal. It would be desirable I conceive for the Government to retain the property and management of the road in its own hand; for in proportion to the cheapness of the rates of conveyance would the land and town allotments along the line increase in value. Indeed, the whole cost of such an undertaking would very soon be defrayed from the increased value which it would infallibly give to all land and town allotments along its whole course.

The town of Albury is on this side of the Hume River; this part of the colony would therefore participate in the benefits derivable from that town's becoming so great an emporium of inland commerce as its situation at the inland extremity of the line of railway to Melbourne would imply. It would infallibly become a great city, and the fertile plains on the Hume would very soon be occupied by an industrious agricultural population.

Now as all great cities in this climate should have facilities for bathing or ablution, it is comfortable to reflect that the government has actually provided for this desideratum already; for it so happens, as I am credibly informed by a competent authority, that the town of Albury will, equally with this of Gundagai, be under water during every inundation, with the exception of Brown's public house,- this, it is said, is the only allotment in the township above the reach of floods,- where of course it is advisable that the strong waters should not be to much diluted.

The same surveyor, it seems laid off both towns; but although His Excellency may now tell the un- fortunate purchasers of the town allotments in both cases that they purchased them "for better for worse," it is undeniable that, (as the negro said of his wife, when reminded of the terms of his marriage contract, on expressing a wish to get rid of her,) they are "all worse and no better." The next Governor, however, will in all likelihood rectify all such matters as these, and His Excellency is certainly very considerate in securing him before hand so large an amount of popularity as he will be sure to reap from a few acts of common justice at so very small a cost.

Should my suggestion approve itself to the Port Phillip colonists generally, I should propose that a petition on this subject should be forwarded to the Legislative Council as early as possible during the ensuing session, requesting the recommendation of the measure to the Home Government. I am quite sure the whole of the Port Phillip members would warmly support it.

If it should be said that we ought to have good common roads, I would answer that the very best common road would do very little towards opening up the northern interior and concentrating its commerce upon Melbourne, in comparison with a rail road. The latter would bring Albury within twelve hours of Melbourne, and would place the Murrumbidgee, virtually, within a hundred miles of the southern capital.

The former would in no respect change the position of these localities in respect of each other, for with the best possible common roads the Murrumbidgee would still be as far from Melbourne as it is from Sydney- about three hundred miles or thereby. Besides, it is irrational to argue that because common roads were in use in England long before railroads, we ought to be content with common roads in the first instance here; for in a country so admirably fitted for railway communication as Port Phillip, the sooner the great lines of communication are formed on that principle the better, for the common roads would then be all subsidiary, as they ought to be, to these lines, and a vast expenditure would then be saved to the country in the end.

Nay, the objection supposed would hold equally good against our using printing machines for books and papers in the colonies, because books were multiplied for many centuries before the invention of printing, by the slow process of manuscript at home. In short, we have an inherent right to all the improvements of the civilization of our age, whether at home or abroad, and we are arrant fools if we do not avail ourselves of them whenever we can.

I am Sir, Your most obedient servant, John Dunmore Lang. Gundagai, 10th March, 1845