Well-worn Rail Tracks of the Past Lie Idle

The Canberra Times

 26 June 1994

A century ago, railways were the life-blood of rural NSW. Norman Abjorensen traces their colourful history, their rise and fall.

In its heydey, the now abandoned siding at Batlow, was used to transport fruit and timber from the area.

A century ago, the marvel of the age, the railway, was spreading its steel tentacles in a criss-cross pattern over the land, connccting hitherto isolated towns to the burgeoning network, and revolutionising communications and commerce in the process.

It was, of course, a case of over kill on a grand scale, a spectacular piece of late Victorian indulgence; speculators and landowners as well as their political allies had a vested interest in the coming of the railway, and in the rush to become part of the boom, many careless decisions were made.

The rail building program did not disappear with the Victorian era. In the 1920s the NSW Parliament was as keen on railway expansion as it had ever been, and a proposal to build a line (subsequently not proceeded with) from the Rand to Bull Plain drew this acerbic comment from The Bulletin on January 8,1925: "The existing iron way to the Rand covers neither interest nor working expenses. The extension will be an addition to a maze of scraps, stumps and dead-ends such as Cootamundra-Tumut, Gilmore Kunama, Wagga-Tumbarumba, Culcairn-Corowa, Culcain-Holbrook, Narrandera-Tocumwal and The Rock-Oaklands - all heavy losers and four of them not only paying nothing to wards interest, but charging a great part of their expense bills to the Treasury. In that corner of NSW railways are almost as numerous as persons who want to be unpaid aldermen."

But up until after World War II the railway was a seemingly permanent feature of Australian country life, carrying passengers at greatly subsidised rates and ferrying freight along lines supported in the main by the taxpayer. The coming of the family car and real competition from road hauliers which had been, in many instances prohibited by government regulation from competing with railways, sounded the death knell for the system.  

With passenger traffic now confined to main routes, and uneconomical branch lines closed in the interest of public sector efficiency, the railway is fighting back as a viable force in transport - but the history of its heyday is very much in evidence.

Within a few hours' drive from Canberra in most directions are plaintive cries from a bygone age when the train was king, abandoned lines rusting in fields as memories of their vibrant and dynamic days fade like old sepia photographs.

The nearest railway relic to Canberra is the Captains Flat line, a line built long after the boom had subsided and for a specific commercial purpose.

In 1937, Lake George Mines Pty Ltd had resumed mining operations at Captains Flat, and pay able quantities of copper, lead and zinc were being extracted.

The following year the NSW Government agreed to build a branch line to Captains Flat - a 37km spur from Bungendore on the main Goulburn-Queanbeyan Cooma line built largely with heavy-duty (40kg a metre) rails. Goods operations began in November, 1939, even though the line was not formally opened until June, 1940.

A small passenger platform, the ruins of which remain, was built at Hoskinstown and a stopping place was provided at Foxlow, the only breaks between Bungendore and Captains Flat where the station buildings, complete with platform and signposts, are now a private residence.

The wartime demand for metals provided a boom for Captains Flat, and in its first year of operation some 70,000 tonnes of concentrates were sent out on big 640-tonne goods trains. A thrice   weekly passenger service by rail motor was also provided.  

By 1951 mine production was in full swing, necessitating two goods trains each weekday running return between Goulburn and Captains Flat.

But the good times ended rather abruptly and 1960 the rail motor passenger service was withdrawn in favour of a locomotive-hauled passenger train on Mondays, and a goods train with carriage on Wednesdays and Fridays.

In 1962, the mine closed down but trains continued to operate to Captains Flat carrying small loads of superphosphate inwards and wool outwards with a further reduction in services.

In 1965, local residents success fully resisted an attempt to close the line, but in August, 1968, the end finally came.

A final role for Captains Flat line. The Captains Flat branch line, however, was to have one more flicker of life and glamour: in August, 1969, it was used for the filming of train sequences for the film Ned Kelly, starring Mick Jagger, during which the junction points south of Bungendore were temporarily reconnected to allow a vintage steam locomotive and a couple of antique carriages to be "robbed" by the Kelly Gang.

To this day the tracks remain as silent reminders of Captains Flat's brief era of glory.

South of Canberra, the railway once ran to Bombala, and there were even ambitious plans, made to continue the line down into Victoria.

It reached Cooma in 1889 and was extended to Nimmitabel in 1912 with a further and final ex- tension in 1921 to Bombaia, where the line terminated. Trains plied to Bombala until the mid 1980s, when the Cooma-Bombala section was closed, and to Cooma until it was closed beyond Queanbeyan in 1989.

The railway reached Gundagai in 1886 via a branch line built from the main southern line at Cootamundra. It took a further 15 years before the Government could be persuaded to extend it to Tumut. The first train arrived there on December 2, 1903. The line operated until 1989. In 1923; a further extension was built, taking the line from Tumut to Batlow and beyond to Kunama. The Batlow-Kunama, a sparsely-used section for transporting timber, closed in 1957.

Since 1980, the future of the entire line was in the balance, with services reduced and freight revenues falling (tonnage dropping from 90,000 in 1979 to 20,000 in 1984), and passenger services ceased in 1983.

By 1936, the Monday-Friday mixed goods-passenger service and daily return rail motor service from Tumbarumba to Wagga had been cut to twice weekly.

Passenger services peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1970s services had been scaled back, and in 1974 passenger services were discontinued altogether. Severe storms in October that year resulted in several washaways of the line, and it was decided to close it.

The 1980s were a time of rapid rationalisation of country rail services in NSW. The decade saw the closure of the quaint connection to Yass, the so-called Yass Tramway that once connected Yass town with the main southern line at Yass Junction. The line remains intact, a museum has been established at Yass Town station, and plans are afoot for restoration and tourist-train running.

The 1980s also saw the closure of the short branch lines to Holbrook and Boorowa as well as the Goulburn-Crookwell line.