the front of a blue diesel locomotive with Roma Street and Queenslander on signs

Evolution of rail in Queensland

Early beginnings

When Queensland was founded in 1859 the new government faced immense economic and geographical challenges deciding where to begin building a railway. Railways were seen as a way of creating prosperity by encouraging immigration, bringing goods to market and creating a communication network with the interior of a comparatively unknown and expanding settlement. After much debate it was agreed that work would begin on a line from Ipswich to Toowoomba.

The first stage of the railway, from Ipswich to Bigge’s Camp (now Grandchester), was opened on 31 July 1865. A line heading west from Rockhampton to Westwood was chosen as the next route for Queensland’s second railway and opened in 1867.

Queensland would eventually have three distinct, isolated railway networks; the Southern and Western Railway, the Central Railway and the Great Northern Railway, which connected Townsville to Mount Isa. These networks were gradually connected, but it was not until 1924 that passengers could travel solely by train from Brisbane to Cairns.

a black and white image of a old steam locomotive going over a bridge

A passenger train leaving Ipswich for Brisbane, c. 1920. The first railway line was constructed west of Ipswich towards Toowoomba to prioritise agricultural development on the Darling Downs. The line wasn’t extended to Roma St Station in Brisbane until 1876. Image: Queensland Rail/Queensland Museum.

A world first

The vast size of Queensland led to the early planners of the railway adopting something truly groundbreaking and a world first, the use of narrow gauge 3ft 6in (1,067mm) for a main line. The smaller sized gauge was chosen for purely economic reasons, as the narrower the gauge, the cheaper it would be to construct.

The older and wealthier colonies of New South Wales and Victoria had larger gauges, standard 4ft 8 ½in (1,435mm) and broad 5ft 3in (1,600mm) respectively. These different gauges would play havoc for generations to come, particularly after Federation when Australia became a nation in 1901.

a ruined train line falling off a mountain

Building railways in Queensland was challenging due to extreme weather. One of the most famous is the Cairns to Kuranda railway. Taking in the natural beauty of Barron Falls, the line is considered one of Australia’s great engineering marvels. Workers repairing sections of the line after being washed away in 1911. Image: Queensland Rail/Queensland Museum.

Between 1864 and 1900, nearly 4,500km of narrow gauge was constructed across the colony. The railway fast tracked economic prosperity, with the railway helping to move Queensland’s natural and agricultural resources to market. Individual industries, like timber, sugar cane and mining, built private networks to help increase productivity. These often used the narrow 2ft (600mm) gauge.

a black and white image of a bridge being constructed with a ferry full of people in the foreground

After a section of the Albert Bridge at Indooroopilly was washed away in the 1893 flood, repairing the railway link between Brisbane and Ipswich was a priority for the government. Crowds witness the launching of a new bridge span along the Brisbane River 1895. Image: Queensland Rail/Queensland Museum.

The workshops

Each of the separate state-run railway systems needed their own workshops. Ipswich, Rockhampton and Townsville were the homes of Queensland Railways in each system. For generations, the railway workshops were some of Queensland’s largest sites of employment.

During the Second World War, the workshops contributed to Australia’s military and armaments manufacturing. By the end of the war, due to the huge demand put upon Queensland Railways to run both civil and military services, the state’s rolling stock was in a poor condition.

The 1950s ushered in the beginning of the diesel era and a period of rapid modernisation commenced. This period is typified by the famous ‘Lander trains, (the Sunlander, Westlander, Midlander and the Inlander) and the introduction of air-conditioned long-distance services across the state. The new steel carriages provided passengers with an increased level of comfort, particularly compared to the old wooden carriages that had been in use.

5 men standing next to a large aircraft propeller

The railway workshops produced more than just locomotives, carriages and wagons. In 1920 Patternmakers at the Ipswich Railway Workshops constructed a new propeller for Keith and Ross Smith after they successfully completed the first England to Australia flight by an Australian crew in their Vickers Vimy plane. Image: Queensland Rail/Queensland Museum.

black and white image of a dining cart in a train

Introduced in the 1950s, air-conditioned steel carriages for the ‘Lander services modernised long distance railway travel in Queensland. The longest service was the Sunlander, taking 41 hours from Brisbane to Cairns. Serving meals in the dining car on the Sunlander 1965. Image: Queensland Rail/Queensland Museum.

The impact of roads

With the increased use of road transport, rural and regional branch lines were gradually closed from the 1960s. This shrinking of the network was offset by Queensland’s investment in coal and mineral extraction which necessitated the building of lines to coastal ports for export.

Coal trains and suburban services in the south-east corner of the state were electrified between the late 1970s and late 1980s. Along with coal trains, Queensland Rail invested heavily in tourist train services in the 1990s such as The Queenslander, The Spirit of the Outback, the Tilt Train and the short-lived Great South Pacific Express service.

a rail map of queensland

By the middle of the twentieth century, the network extended 10,398 km across the three railways. By the 1960s, regional and rural lines were gradually closed due to the increased use of road transport.
1950 Map of Railways in Queensland. Image: Queensland Museum.

Shaping Queensland

For nearly 160 years, railways have been an integral part of moving the people and resources of Queensland. Many of our towns and cities are the way they are today because of decisions made about where to lay these lines. From humble beginnings Queensland’s decision to adopt a smaller railway gauge than other colonies has resulted in one of the world’s unique main line railway networks.

a large train travelling directly down a main street

In Rockhampton part of the North Coast line still travels along the centre of Denison Street, one of the city’s busiest streets. Diesel electric 1200 class locomotive No.1207 hauling a goods train along Denison Street, c. 1965.
Photographer RG Henderson. Image: Queensland Museum.

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