The challenge of distance - The development of transport networks and infrastructure in Australia

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1999

44 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents

1. Bringing a Country Together - The Conquest of Isolation
1.1 Unorthodox Steps to Conquer Distance - Early Settlement Support via Land and Water
1.2 "Port Capitals" versus the "Urban Frontier" - The Influence of Infrastructure on Australian Urban Development
1.3 Different Strokes for Different Folks - The Drawbacks of Diversity in Railroad Construction
1.4 A New Transport Era - All Aboard!

2. Moving Freight and People - Transport Across a Continent
2.1 Employment and the Transport Sector in the 20th Century
2.2 Sea Freight transport as a Viable Alternative
2.3 Air Freight Services by International Airlines
2.4 Passenger Air Transport
2.5 "Road Trains" and "Beef Roads" - Long Distance Truck Transport the Australian Way
2.6 On the Right Track – Reforms and Achievements of Rail Industry

3. The "Train of Dreams" – a Transcontinental Connection
3.1 A Journey into History
3.2 Along the Way: A Course in Aboriginal Language and Australian Politics
3.3 The Indian Pacific - Layout, Schedules and Fares

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Bringing a Country Together - The Conquest of Isolation

The size of the Australian continent is about 7.7 million square kilometers, which equals approximately the size of the United States of America excluding Alaska. Due to its extreme aridity, large areas of Australia are not populated or fit for agricultural and industrial use. Therefore, 86% of its 18.3 million inhabitants live in widely separated cities along the coastal regions, making Australia the most urbanized continent.[1]

Australia’s coastline has a total length of 36,735 km. Extreme distances between cities have made the transportation network a major concern of the Australian economy. In the more densely populated south-east area of the continent, the distance between Sydney and Melbourne is 880 km. Melbourne and Adelaide are 720 km apart, and from Adelaide to Perth it is 2,675 km along the southern fringe of the Nullarbor Plain. The connection between Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs spans a distance of 3,014 km, and between Perth and Darwin the western highway covers approximately 4,000 km.[2]

Today, Australia is spanned by approximately 810,000 km of roads and a rail network estimated at 40,000 km. According to Australian government publications from 1994, the industry sector supported by transportation networks contributes about six per cent to the total production value of goods and services.[3]

1.1 Unorthodox Steps to Conquer the Distance - Early Settlement Support via Land and Water

Since the establishment of the first British penal colony in 1788, settlement has been concentrated on the coastal areas along the eastern and south-eastern parts of the continent. The Australian west was claimed for Great Britain with the settlement and foundation of Perth in 1829.

At first, agricultural exports played a minor role in the development of the Australian colony. The extreme distance to Europe and the resulting problems in shipping cargo from and to the motherland often led to severe shortages in seeds, agricultural equipment and the amenities of civilization in Australia. Livestock from Britain often perished during the long journey, grains were spoiled by pests or humidity. On the other hand, the motherland’s interest in its far-off colony diminished with more and more incoming news about harsh climates, infertile soil and therefore low profit for the British crown. It soon became clear to the leaders of the colony that their entire existence depended on building up a form of trade with the far-away motherland which would make this colony a valuable asset for the British Empire. Extreme distance and agricultural limitations ruled out the export of perishables like fruit or meat. Tea, valuable spices and cotton were already brought in from India. Australia’s location "down under" as well as its initial lack of infrastructure turned out to be the first major challenge which would require unorthodox steps.

However, Australians soon discovered a non-perishable and easily transportable export product that laid the foundation for the young nation’s economic survival: in 1797, a few years after the foundation of Sydney, the British navy officer Captain Waterhouse smuggled the first fourteen Merino sheep from South Africa to New South Wales, an action which could easily have cost him his military career. The Merinos were crossed with sheep from the British Islands and started a sturdy breed that yielded a fine wool which could be hauled by oxcart over rough terrain to the ports and from there by ship to Great Britain, where it provided a valuable income for the new colony.[4]

As a result of the soon flourishing trade, Australia’s tertiary sector turned out to be an important economic factor. In contrast to many other countries of that time, administration, property and business services, storage, trade, and transportation (all parts of this sector) became major elements of the Australian economy. Employment in these fields rose to the incredible rate of 53 percent in Victoria in 1851. The gold rush of the 1850s brought a certain change in favor of the primary sector, making Australia the world’s most important exporter of gold between 1865 and 1875. However, by 1891 transportation and trade had established itself at an impressive 39.4 per cent.[5]

With the majority of settlements located on the coastline, coastal shipping was the most convenient mode of cargo transportation during the first one hundred years of Australian history and played an important role in the upcoming domestic trade of the young nation. Consumer goods as well as building materials, livestock and farming equipment were imported from the motherland and other countries such as South Africa, then distributed along the coast. Passenger transportation by ship was convenient and speedy compared to traveling by horse, coach or oxcart.[6]

During the 19th century, short and medium range inland transportation was mainly accomplished by oxcart. Due to bad road conditions, between eight and sixteen animals were needed to pull the carts. Flash floods sometimes made the primitive roads impassable, and natural obstacles such as gorges, mountains or deserts had to be bypassed. The gold rush of the 1850s brought an explosive increase in population which created new challenges in food supply and transport of goods. At that time, approximately 125,000 people worked the gold fields in Victoria and New South Wales, at a distance between 100 and 300 km from Melbourne.

In 1853, the American brothers Cobb started the first regular stage coach line (Cobb & Co. Coaches) between Melbourne and the Forest Creek field. It covered the 160 km Melbourne-Bendigo connection in 9 1/2 hours and soon became a life-supporting artery for the entire region.[7]

Places where the river Murray had to be crossed became of major importance for cargo transportation. Raft ferries, also called "punts", were established near Echuca-Moama and Swan Hill. In 1853, enterprising and fun-loving businessmen supported a paddle steamer competition which started inland navigation first on the Murray, later on the Murrumbidgee and the Darling. It flourished only for a few decades during the middle of the 19th century. Towards the end of the 1850s, the town of Echua, with a population of 5,000, became Victoria’s second largest harbor city (following Melbourne), and also Australia’s largest inland port. Due to the highly fluctuating water levels of all three rivers, however, inland navigation was limited to the months of June through December. Wood and wool were transported to the nearest harbors by paddle steamers, then loaded onto trains or oxcarts. The improvement of road and train networks drove this mode of transport out of business. Today, tourism has prompted a revival of river boat cruises along the Murray and the Darling rivers.[8]

1.2 "Port Capitals" versus the "Urban Frontier" - The Influence of Infrastructure on Australian Urban Development

In the mid 1850s, Australia entered the age of the railway. Initial purpose of the rail development was to connect the hinterland with the major export seaports which, in most cases, were the capital cities. Construction of railway projects started in several capitals simultaneously.

The first lines were limited to coastal areas (e.g. Melbourne-Geelong), due to an initial lack of inland trade or agricultural centers, and they still form star-like patterns from the hinterland towards the cities, today.

Again, it was the gold rush of the 1850s that started a rapid economic development and a significant increase in population. This was supported by the start of the railway era. Before 1871, only 4% of today’s railway net had been opened, followed by a 10 % increase until 1881. In the historic year of 1901, 46% of the existing railway lines were already in operation.[9]

Railways promoted the development of wheat farming and of numerous agricultural townships with population between 1,000 and 10,000. Still, this did not change the dominance of the coastal metropolis. The star-like pattern of railway lines facilitated connections between rural towns via the capital. Queensland was an exception to the rule, since the most important lines ran from the hinterland directly to seaports like Townsville and Rockhampton, instead of aiming for Brisbane.[10]

Urban development was strongly influenced by the growth of the railway net. In 1860, lines started spreading from the city of Melbourne towards the surrounding farmland, first connecting the town of Essendon, 10 km north-west of Melbourne, with the center. This development continued in 1861 with the connection of Hawthorn, 8 km east of Melbourne, and Brighton, 13 km to the south-east. It was an official goal of the railway companies to promote suburban settlements in sparsely populated areas. Special incentives were free train tickets or free food and drink at the end of the trip in order to encourage people to buy the land around the new railway stations. This early rise of commuter cities kept most Australian capitals from developing the typical "old town center" atmosphere of European towns.[11]

The special situation of cities like Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth can be explained by their status as "primary centers", a phenomenon that is unique to Australia. Unlike in the United States, where the "urban frontier" moved in a western direction across the entire continent, in Australia only small or medium sized towns grew at a distance of more than 100 km from the coast. While the settlement of the United States saw the foundation of coastal cities (Boston, New York, Baltimore), then moved steadily towards the hinterland (Philadelphia, later Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, followed by Chicago, St. Louis and Denver), Australian cities defended their position as "port capitals", seats of government, and exclusive centers of urban life.[12]

1.3 Different Strokes for Different Folks - The Drawbacks of Diversity in Railroad Construction

Initially, railways were operated by private companies. Most of them soon ran into financial difficulties due to a "shortage of speculation capital"[13] and were taken over by the individual colonial governments. Unfortunately, planners gave little thought to connecting their railways with those of the other colonies. Against all warnings from the motherland which by the way suffered from similar difficulties, three different gauges were used: tracks in New South Wales (NSW) were built with the European standard gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches (1435 mm). Victoria and South Australia preferred the broad Irish gauge of 5 feet 3 inches (1600 mm). Queensland, Western Australia, and parts of South Australia adopted the narrow 1067 mm gauge, because it was easier to use in mountainous regions.[14]

When the different railway nets of Victoria and New South Wales were first connected in the border towns of Albury and Wodonga in 1883, the respective railway companies did not foresee the immense difficulties of reloading cargo or retracking entire train cars. By the time Australia became a federation in 1901, more than 20,000 km of track had been laid; and all Federal States except Western Australia were linked by rail. However, the different gauges created costly and time-consuming interruptions of interstate rail operation. "In 1917, a person wanting to travel from Perth to Brisbane on an east-west crossing of the continent had to change trains six times."[15] Therefore, some state governments agreed to connect their capitals by a standard gauge. Already in 1930, Brisbane was linked directly to Sydney. It took until 1962, however, to reach Melbourne by standard gauge. The Sydney-Perth connection could be used, without changing trains, for the first time in 1969. But it was not until June of 1995 that people could travel between Brisbane and Perth via Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide on a standard gauge track.


[1] numbers from: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia in Brief, 43rd ed. (Canberra 1998) 53

[2] all distances in: Löffler, Ernst und Grotz, Reinhold, Australien (Darmstadt 1995) 293

[3] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia in Brief, 41st ed. (Canberra 1994) 78

[4] Hofmeister, Burkhard, Geographie: Kulturlandschaft, in: Bader, Rudolf (ed.), Australien (Trier 1996) 22-23

[5] Hofmeister 22, also: Festing and Weber, Die australische Wirtschaft, das Finanzwesen und der Aussenhandel, in: Bader 201

[6] Löffler 293

[7] Hofmeister 23, also: Löffler 294

[8] Hofmeister 23

[9] Hajdu, Joseph and Ritter, Gert, Australien, Beiträge zur Agrar-, Stadt- und Fremdenverkehrsgeographie, Geostudien 11 (Köln 1988) 108

[10] Hajdu et al. 109ff

[11] Hajdu 108-109 and 129

[12] Hofmeister 23-24

[13] 2: The Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional


[14] Löffler et al., 294

[15] 2

Excerpt out of 44 pages


The challenge of distance - The development of transport networks and infrastructure in Australia
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistics)
Hauptseminar Cultural Studies III
1,0 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Australia, Hauptseminar, Cultural, Studies
Quote paper
Cornelia Peters (Author), 1999, The challenge of distance - The development of transport networks and infrastructure in Australia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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