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Spirit of Progress: Australia’s Wonder Train (1937)

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clip Launching ceremony and inaugural trip education content clip 2, 3

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Clip description

The Premier of Victoria, Albert Dunstan, declares the Spirit of Progress ‘one of the finest passenger trains in the world’ in front of a large crowd. The inaugural trip departs Melbourne’s Spencer Street Station and is ushered on its journey across the state by enthusiastic onlookers.

Curator’s notes

The Spirit of Progress engaged considerable public interest when it first went into operation. On its inaugural journey, the train was opened for public for display, and over 56,000 visitors passed through its carriages. Today it is difficult to think of a comparable example of modern transport technology which would bring out the crowds that the Spirit of Progress did. However, the extension of the Ghan railway line from Alice Springs to Darwin in 2004 was certainly a significant development in public rail transport in Australia.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip from a narrated, black-and-white 1946 documentary shows Harold Clapp (1875–1952), chairman of the Victorian Railway Commissioners, and Albert Dunstan (1882–1950), Premier of Victoria, launching the Spirit of Progress, Australia’s first modern passenger train, in front of a large crowd at Spencer Street Station in Melbourne. The train steams out of the station and into the Victorian countryside, where people line up to watch it pass and to inspect it at country railway stations. The train then leaves on its inaugural trip to Albury, and footage of passengers and train staff is shown.

Educational value points

  • The Spirit of Progress, the passenger train that ran between Melbourne in Victoria and Albury in New South Wales, was launched in 1937. The Great Depression of 1929–33 had halted railway development; during that period no new locomotives or carriages were constructed. Recovery from the effects of the Great Depression was slow and the Spirit of Progress was the only new passenger train to be constructed in Australia during the 1930s. The train became a symbol of Australia’s modernism and technological achievement, and represented Victoria’s state pride and industrial development. Around 56,000 people enthusiastically greeted the train when it made its 38-hour journey around country Victorian towns for public inspection.
  • The Spirit of Progress was Australia’s first modern passenger train and had many innovative features. These included lightweight alloy steel carriages, shatterproof glass, air-conditioning, comfortable chairs, stylish fittings and a modern galley kitchen. The exterior of the Spirit of Progress was the epitome of streamlined 1930s design, a style that grew from Art Deco and Functionalist Modernism. Its clean, aerodynamic lines were futuristic and gave the impression of speed, while also reducing wind resistance.
  • As no new locomotives had been built since the Great Depression, the four 3-cylinder S-class steam locomotives that powered the Spirit of Progress, and that had been in service since 1928, had to be given a makeover. The locomotives’ appearance was altered by giving them a new streamlined exterior shroud and by painting on the new livery of royal blue and gold, so that they appeared as modern as the carriages.
  • In the 20th century, railways provided the infrastructure that linked rural communities economically and socially, both to each other and to capital cities. The rail network made a significant contribution to Australia’s economic and social development, providing hitherto isolated communities with a means, other than ship or inland river ferry, to deliver their produce. Trains also made many communities more accessible and therefore more desirable destinations, either to visit or in which to settle.
  • In the clip Sir Harold Winthrop Clapp, chairman of the Victorian Railway Commissioners from 1920 to 1939, launches the Spirit of Progress, a train that he had commissioned. A visionary entrepreneur, Clapp was involved in every technical and aesthetic detail of the Spirit of Progress. His innovations included the extension of the electrical suburban rail network and the introduction of better customer service with improved timetables and amenities, particularly with regards to passenger comfort. He expanded the use of freight and passenger rail services to help primary producers and also promoted tourism.
  • At the time the clip was filmed the dominance of railways was increasingly being challenged by road transport. Rail tracks were expensive to upgrade and state governments often neglected to maintain them. Great advances had been made in road construction, using bitumen and local gravels bound with tar and bitumen. In addition, there was increasing money for road development due to taxes on petrol from the Australian Government, and motor registration fees raised by the state governments. Increasing car ownership and expansion of bus routes gave passengers the freedom to choose when and where they would travel.
  • The Spirit of Progress's locomotives were powered by coal. Steam trains had been introduced from 1854 in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and the burning of coal to produce steam was a costly process that created environmentally unsustainable by-products. In the 1950s steam trains were replaced by cleaner and more efficient diesel locomotives. Electric trains followed, and continue to be used in urban environments, while diesel trains are used for country routes. Some heritage steam trains still operate as tourist attractions.
  • This documentary was produced by Herschell Films, a company run by Charles Herschell, who had been cinematographer on the silent black-and-white Australian film The Kelly Gang (1920). In 1931 Herschell Films joined with the Australian Herald newspaper to form Australian Sound Films, which produced The Herald Newsreel until the company was absorbed by Cinesound in 1932.

This black-and-white clip shows Harold Clapp and Albert Dunstan launching the Spirit of Progress in front of a large crowd at Spencer Street Station in Melbourne. The train steams out of the station and into the Victorian countryside, where people line up to watch it pass and to inspect it at country railway stations. The train then leaves on its inaugural trip to Albury, and footage of passengers and train staff is shown.

Narrator An official launching ceremony preceded the inaugural run. Mr Clapp, in introducing the Premier of Victoria, said: ‘This magnificent train has been produced entirely by Australian people in your railway workshops at Newport. The construction of this type of train is a very great step of pioneering and railroading in Australasia. I think you’d agree that it is a great achievement. It is not only the finest in the Southern Hemisphere but it’ll rank with any of the great modern trains of the world.’

Mr Dunstan, the Premier, in declaring the train open, said: ‘With the completion of this corten steel streamlined, airconditioned express, Victoria will possess one, if not absolutely the best, of the finest passenger trains in the world. From the point of view of beauty, utility and comfort, I have never seen its equal. I now have very much pleasure in christening this train Spirit of Progress.’

Mr Dunstan then formally unlocked the door of the parlour car to the citizens of Australia. The ceremony created great interest and a large crowd witnessed the departure of the train for Geelong. After the inaugural run, Spirit of Progress was placed on exhibition at Geelong, Ballarat, Castlemaine, Bendigo and Spencer Street. Some idea of the tremendous interest it aroused is revealed from the fact that 56,000 people passed through the train during the 38 hours it was open for public inspection. Even at roadside stations, crowds assembled to see the train. Children at Chewton picked this vantage point.

A crowd of 1,200 inspected the train at Castlemaine during the 35 minutes it was on exhibition. Although adults were more interested in the interior furnishings and the comfort of the train generally, the streamlined locomotive was not altogether overlooked. Many people admired its graceful lines from the track, while the children wanted to see what made the wheels turn. The train was placed on exhibition at Bendigo, where it also created a lot of interest. From the locomotive to the parlour car, not a part of the train was missed.

Spirit of Progress ready to leave on its first trip to Albury on November 23rd, 1937. Another innovation in Australian railway travel was the appointment of a stewardess to provide all comfort services to women and children. The driver gives the motion here, a final drop of oil, the whistle sounds, the throttle is opened and the train is off and the never-ending task of firing starts in earnest.

The smooth-riding qualities of the train at speed are apparent from the very slight movement of the flowers in the lounge of the observation car. The armchairs and settees are upholstered in fawn, blue and pastel green pin-weave tapestry. The wall panels are a black wood and the carpet is rust-coloured.

The smoking saloon is popular and large and comfortable easychairs create a club-like effect. The wall panels are of Australian cedar. The walls of the kitchen are of stainless steel and the red ironite floor is impregnated with carborundum to prevent slipping. The equipment represents the very latest in dining car design and a unique system of air circulation ensures a regular, draughtless filtered flow of air, automatically maintained at an agreeable temperature.

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