Railway Visionary and Ridiculous

Dr. Lang on Railroads.

The Sydney Morning Herald

18 April 1845


I have just concluded the perusal of a letter in your journal of the 7th instant, bearing the signature of John Dunmore Lang, upon the subject of a railroad from the Hume River to Melbourne a distance of two hundred miles, which the rev. and honorable writer has succeeded in showing (no doubt correctly), could be completed for the very inconsiderable sum of 300,000 !!; and he appears to have argued himself into the belief that the Port Phillipians, his constituents, will support him in attempting to negotiate a loan for this trifle, upon the security of the Land Revenue of their district.

In order to convince the people whose interest he is bound to watch over, of the value to their territory, of a "railway", and the necessity (consequent on its formation) of incurring, a provincial debt of magnitude sufficient to paralyze all the efforts of the people for the next half century, he shows them that "railroads" in England are nearly twice as expensive as in America, and that in America they cannot be completed so cheaply as in the province of Port Phillip and neighbourhood of the Hume River.

He has also other reasons equally powerful why a "railway is absolutely indispensable to his constituents, and some of these are: that it will "render indispensable the introduction of labour" (as though without the railway such a matter were not equally necessary); that the loan for its completion can be effected in England under such very favourable circumstances, that the people will have but to pay 10,500 per year "for their whistle," and which in the opinion of the rev. statesman is merely a fourth of what that "whistle is worth!!"

He also conceives, (as the inland terminus of the railroad would form a "powerful point of attraction" for the whole of the produce raised within 190 miles thereof) that not only would the country be twixt the Hume and Melbourne be benefitted immensely, but also the "Murrumbidgee districts" and the country "lying between that and Yass".

In addition to all these important reasons for a steam carriage, the honorable and reverend writer imagines that "a railroad would materially increase the morality of those districts through which it passed, by "exterminating bullock drivers," and "dispensing with the horrid blasphemy now so lavishly expended on the poor bullocks'' and "therby lessening crime and dissipation!!"

These arguments (or rather opinions) of Dr. Lang are literally so visionary and ridiculous, that in common with many others who have the highest opinion of the rev. and honorable gentleman's abilities, I feel perfectly astounded that he should have sacrificed his valuable time to so little purpose in attempting to prove them tenable.

As to the "practicability" of executing a "railway" I have no more doubt than Dr. Lang, provided we had the labour within ourselves:- nor can I argue against the immense advantages derivable from the application of steam in this way to all countries and localities, which are in a position and sufficiently wealthy and extensive to employ them, but as the people of Port Phillip must first introduce labour to create a railway, and the district of the Hume, &c., is not in a position to support it when completed, the folly of the proposition is too apparent to render it worthy a moment s serious consideration.

I do not presume to place myself in comparison with Dr. Lang as a writer, or in opposition to him as a disputant; but as I condemn his proposition and project, as absurd, I am bound to afford such reasons, as, in my opinion, render it so.

Without, therefore, attempting an argument against the correctness of his estimate of the cost of a railway, (which, however, admits of much contradiction), let us allow that for 1500 per mile, the work could be executed, and that the whole outlay for the entire distance, 200 miles, would absorb no more than the 300,000, also, that he could obtain the cash at "3 1/2 percent," or "10,500 per year" interest upon the whole amount.

In yielding this, as a clear conclusion from an abstruse inference of the Reverend Doctor's, I am surrendering a strong ground of argument, for he gives us no legitimate reason why the expenses of a railroad in this colony should be less than in America, and, for aught he has shown to the contrary.

I believe they would far exceed them - people are not bound to take it for granted that the road would cost less here than there, or no more than 2,800 per mile, simply because Dr. Lang says so; the only basis he has for that opinion, being the fact that he has ridden several times in an American steam carriage!!

I have not the ability to argue with the Reverend Doctor on the subject of political economy, but, in reducing his estimate of expenses, &c., to the simple analysis attainable by "Wallkinghame's Assistant".

I think he has fallen into a very notable error in his calculations, which renders the whole affair a mass of absurdity.

It appears to me that in order to effect the investment of the 300,000 (at 300 per annum) for the special purpose of completing the railway only, the Port Phillippians must borrow contemporaneously other 300,000, also at 10,500 per year , this sum being indispensable for the procuration of labour requited on the road, and to employ the first loan.

Thus we have a grand sum total of 600,000 at 21,000 per year, the amount proposed by Dr Lang to be secured on the revenue of the district.

Doctor Lang evidently builds on the sale of land to the full amount of 600 000 in order to cover the expenses of the introduction of labour to the extent of one moiety of the loan, and although he does not say that the importation of immigrants to that amount is indispensible to complete the railway, it amounts to the same thing, seeing that the project in question will, according to his own letter, render the "contemporaneous" introduction of labour to the value of 300,000 "necessary;" and as there is an end to all "sales of land" under the present enlightened "better for worse" administration, the province of Port Phillip must bear the whole amount to the debit of the railway, chargeable upon its revenue, and which, of course, must ultimately come out of the pockets of the people.

I have no experience in these matters, and am no engineer , but I should say, that from the period of effecting the loan in England, (and the consequent commencement of interest,) three years would be little enough to allow for the completion of the railway - and then operations would commence with an accumulated debt of 63,000 as interest on the loan at 3 1/2 per cent for three years, to which must be added compound interest at colonial rates, or say 5 per cent, making 6200 more, or a total of 69,200 for interest only!!

Will any man (not stark mad) presume to assert that for the ensuing three years the "separationists" will be in a position to spare from then "ordinary resources" the sum of 69,200 by yearly installments to meet the interest debt accruing by the creation of a "railroad" from which up to that day, they will not have received one pennyworth as a return?

Will Dr. Lang himself attempt to assert it? He will probably say, "We are secured." What is your security?

A mortgage for 600,000 at 21,000 per year held by the English capitalist upon your Land Revenue! - a revenue from which sufficient is not derived to pay the yearly interest!! and when the capitalist in England requires his cash and the Government in vain look for applications for the purchase of land at 20s per acre, and are compelled to encroach on their own "ways and means" to meet the demand, what is to become of you? Do you think they will be content to purchase your "steam carriage," and give you receipt in full of all I demands. Absurd!

I cannot conceive by what influence short of magic, Dr. Lang was actuated when he penned this letter- he talks of "40,000 per year" - "great points of attraction," and villages "along the line," as though he were inspired, and carries his ideas a full century further than the condition of the country justifies, urging his "hobby" over the wilderness with a "forty horse power."

I fancy, however, that the Doctor has another object in view than that of benefitting the interior by a railway: I believe that this chimerical suggestion proceeds from a desire on his part to be enabled again to attempt the notable scheme of "concentration."

The reported fate of the unfortunates whom he located on the Hunter ought to convince him, that if in that locality, which may justly be termed "the garden of the colony", the establishment of a "peasantry" failed, it is not likely to succeed in the depths and sterile wilds of the interior.

The Doctor objects to Pentonville exiles or (as he in an unchristian and unphilanthropical spirit terms them) "Pentonvillains," but would persuade confiding, simple families, whom he avowedly introduces for that purpose, to settle themselves "along the line" of a country between the Hume und Melbourne, (on Government land, I presume), as "dealers, mechanics, small farmers," &c, &c., where they must soon - aye, very soon - beg or steal for a living, or change their occupations and scatter themselves abroad over the face of the country; the husband from the wife, and the mother from her children.

The very circumstance which the reverend writer urges as the means of affording them a living, would annihilate them: for, by bringing, as he proposes, the whole extent of country between Melbourne and the Hume within a day's journey of Port Phillip, there would be no living for "little dealers," and as the Doctor proposes to "dispense with bullock drivers and their drays," the "mechanic's" loaf would be speedily abridged of its "full and fair proportions," and the prospects of the "small farmer" - which, Heaven knows, is deplorable enough even in the best positions- would here be bounded by the walls of the workhouse.

But, these sail people he would "locate along the line," where, with large families in straitened circumstances, beyond the reach of social, moral, or religious precepts, far from the control of our badly conducted police, removed from all judicial restraint, placed on the borders of large grazing establishments with but little money to buy food, and consequently in the midst of temptations;- these people, I repeat, he would throw upon the world in comparative beggary, heedless of the results to them; but in order to the prosecution of his theory, he would temporarily herd them together as a "peasantry," as the nucleus and basis of a new moral community, to which "blasphemous bullock drivers" must give place!

I would here ask, what right the reverend member has to expect that his constituents will suffer themselves to be involved under such an enormous liability, in the present condition of their colony, to foster a chimera, and introduce an unprofitable class of persons, merely that he may again attempt a scheme which has before failed, and (if report speaks truth) resulted almost generally in the ruin of the immigrants themselves?

There can be no doubt that Port Phillip, like all other parts of the country, requires labour; and to procure it the people would doubtless pledge themselves to any reasonable extent, backed by security of the land fund, but they will unanimously declare for productive and efficient labour, labour that will enable them to pay the interest on the loan, and not such as is to be employed for three years "squaring logs, &c," for railway at the end of which period the immigrants, instead of having contributed towards the payment of the expenses of their introduction or becoming available to the settler who has brought them here, they have actually increased the debt they owe the colony, and are to be located as "small farmers, dealers, mechanics, &c, and general employers of labour along the line," are really to be placed in a position to compete with those men who have brought them out here, for the consumption of the little labour we have.

Doctor Lang proposes to invest 300,000 specially in the construction of a railway, yet borrows 600,000; and as he intends to employ the immigrants brought out with the other moiety in operations on the said way, until it is completed, I contend that the railroad is fairly chargeable with the whole amount of debt and interest; therefore, he has made a slight mistake in the calculations of the cost; and instead of paying 10,500 for the interest, the province will have to pay 21,000.

He offers it as his decided opinion, in order to satisfy those who have no opinions of their own, that 40,000 will be returned from the operations of the steam-carriage, for which he has allowed no expense, neither has he calculated store houses, fuel, wear and tear, engineer and superintendent's salary, together with the other numerous extras which should be added thereto.

He affirms, also, that the railway would have the effect of drawing the trade of the "Yass and Murrumbidgee Districts" to the "Southern Capital."

(The Doctor, methinks, as a "separationist" rather overshot his policy in making this remark.)

Both the concentration of the trade and his 40,000 per annum are fallacious.

Much of the country he purposes to benefit in this way, and bring within his "strong point of attraction" lies at least 150 miles from the proposed terminus of the railway, with a bad country intervening, and two rivers to cross: and is not above 200 miles from Sydney, and I will ask any reasonable man how the railway can benefit the people residing on it?

It is worse than preposterous! It would not have the moral advantage of "exterminating the bullock drivers" even!

The old stockholders who have had their business connexions formed in Sydney for years, would not break off those connexions for the slight advantages of the railway, seeing they must still maintain their working oxen and their "blasphemous drivers," to carry their produce 150 or 180 miles to the terminus, and bring their supplies back, &c, &c.

Carriage is now also so cheap, that responsible men are to be had to convey goods betwixt Gundagai and Sydney at 6s. 6d. per cwt., and the carriage by steam, I suspect, would amount to as much.

In fact, I am convinced the railway, in the present condition of the country, would not pay its expenses; there is not trade sufficient, nor is the traffic continuous. Graziers send their produce, of necessity, periodically to market, and get back a half-year's supply of goods.

I consider the steam carriage per railway would take down to Melbourne in twenty-eight days, all the produce raised betwixt the Hume and Port Phillip in a year, and bring back all the supplies required; for the other eleven months it would be idle: there is no agricultural produce to send down, nor sale for it if there was; nor are there, as in America and England, streams of passengers and luggage to assist in maintaining the conveyance.

I am at a loss to know what Dr. Lang means by saying that "the railway would open up the district," &c. It is already so well known, and thickly stocked, that no new stations can be found.

The public conveyance, the mail, answers all general purposes admirably, and is found sufficiently roomy for all the passengers who require to come from Melbourne to Sydney at one time.

(Should one present himself, big with a steam carriage, I cannot say then how far it would answer.)

Communication between the two capitals is found to be sufficiently rapid and frequent, and cheap withal.

The settlers find no great difficulty in drawing their produce and supplies along our bush roads; but they feel the want of labour, not "dealers, mechanics," &c., (for there are already more "on the line" than can well live; but shepherds - let Doctor Lang place shepherds at the disposal of the graziers, and (if he have descendants) some of his great great-grand children may, when a steam carriage is in operation "on the line" between Melbourne and the Hume, point to the records of our early Council, and exalt in the fact that his worthy ancestor had first recommended its use.

Doctor Lang observes, "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"; also, that 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.

Roads, on which neither art nor labour are expended, are natural loads, and are of the first importance to all new countries - a country which boasts good natural roads, possesses immense advantages as facilities for carriage of produce to market, lessens the expense of production, and increases the profit thereon.

We of Australia possess this blessing in an eminent degree, and well for us it is so, as were it otherwise we could not afford to repair the thoroughfares.

Our natural roads are good throughout the interior, they cost us nothing, and answer all our purposes.

Our means of communication are not rapid, but they are sufficiently so; and no good end would be attained, in the present state of the colony, by increasing our movements to railway speed.

Countries, like men, must crawl until they walk, walk till they run, and run until they can ride.

He who beggars himself to buy a horse, when he could do his business profitably afoot, deserves to become bankrupt. I consider it a perfectly rational argument, that as we cannot afford to obtain a railway at a cost of 600,000, we should be content with our "common roads" in the "first instance."

The railways of England and America are the results of their great wealth and enormous inland trade, and it is ridiculous in the extreme to draw a comparison betwixt two such mighty nations and this pigmy colony.

We are doubtless entitled to participate in "all the improvements of the civilization of our age" that are within our reach, but we are equally "arrant fools" whether we attempt to soar beyond all attainable objects (as instanced in the Fable of the Ox and the Frog) or rest content in weakness and ignorance, when we might, by exertion, grasp on knowledge and power.

Some mechanical improvements have reached a degree not to be attained by young countries, and which, in fact, from their expense, me suitable only to great and populous nations: the steam carriage is one of these, and until Port Phillip has increased her exports by several hundreds per cent., can raise the necessary funds for a railway within herself, and a continuous stream of emigration has set its current towards her shores, she will not be in a position to dispense with her "natural roads" or employ a "steam carriage."

I have waited until now, under the impression someone interested in Port Phillip, and more competent to portray the fallacy of Dr. Lang's propositions, would have taken the matter up; but as it is not so, I have troubled you with this lengthy epistle to be inserted in your journal should you deem it worthy of publication.

I remain, Gentlemen, Your most obedient servant,

Fred. A. Tompson

From the Bush, April 16