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Track Record: The Story of Australia’s Railways - Tethered to the World (1991)

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clip Trains in Australia's development education content clip 1

Original classification rating: G. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

Trains played a major part in Australia’s economic and social development. Development followed the railway line and exports boomed.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip begins with colour footage of 'Puffing Billy’ in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne in Victoria. This fades into black-and-white archival footage of other early steam trains and railways. A map of Australia illustrates the extensive network of 'pioneer lines’. Peter Gwynne, the narrator, highlights the opening up of Australia, and the social and economic benefits that resulted when the pioneer lines were built in the 1850s.

Educational value points

  • The clip features early Australian steam trains, first introduced from 1854 in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. They burned coal to produce steam, which powered their engines, a costly process that created environmentally unsustainable byproducts. 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, with diesel trains being used for country routes. Some heritage steam trains still operate as tourist attractions.
  • Steam trains and the rail network made a significant contribution to Australia’s economic and social development. The rail network established economic and social links between urban and rural Australia. Export routes for isolated communities encouraged economic prosperity. New areas were opened up for settlement and many existing communities were seen as more desirable destinations to visit or settle in as the train networks made them more accessible.
  • Different examples of steam trains and the railway tracks that they travelled on are shown. Three incompatible systems were used to build the railway network in Australia, requiring different types of trains and causing controversy and debate between state governments and the supporters of the different systems. The gauge systems include the standard gauge (rails 142.5 cm apart), broad gauge (rails 159.0 cm apart) and a narrow gauge (rails 105.0 cm apart). The narrow gauge was developed for use in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, while a combination of standard and broad gauges were developed in New South Wales, Victoria, Northern Territory and South Australia.
  • As early as 1855, planning commenced for an extensive network of railways that would crisscross the country and connect all the major settlements, increasing access to inland Australia and its resources. Approximately 20,000 km of track was laid, but because the operating systems were incompatible between states due to the different gauge widths, passengers and freight often had to transfer to another train at state borders. Gauge widths still vary for lines within states but all mainland interstate lines have now been standardised.
  • The term 'iron horse’ is used as a synonym for steam train and refers to the replacement of horses by steam trains. Before the introduction of railway lines, horses were used to transport freight to inland areas and distribution was limited by distance, terrain, time and cost. Transportation of stock such as cattle and sheep overland was particularly difficult and involved droving herds of animals over hundreds of kilometres as there were no other transport options available. The allusion to horses continued in the definition of an engine’s pulling power in terms of so many 'horsepower’.
  • The clip combines film, archival footage, maps and voice-over narration to create the story. Colour footage of the 'Puffing Billy’ and Belgrave railway line and station, in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne, fades into black-and-white archival footage of other early railway lines and steam trains of Australia. Archival footage used includes an early Adelaide steam train, the railway line from Cairns to Kuranda in Queensland, and the line from Normanton to Croydon in Queensland.
  • The Belgrave railway line, opened in 1900, is Australia’s oldest operating railway. It served the local timber and farming community and originally ran from Upper Ferntree Gully to Gembrook. After the Victorian Railways closed the line in 1954 following two consecutive landslides that had blocked the route, volunteers from the Puffing Billy Preservation Society restored the line and it continues to operate today as the second busiest steam railway for tourists in the world, with more than 250,000 passengers a year. 'Puffing Billy’ now departs from Belgrave and travels 24 km to Gembrook.

Starting with images of a coal-fuelled train engine and its driver, followed by images of trains and tracks with goods in regional Australia, then of goods at port being loaded onto a ship for export. The final image is a map of railway networks in Australia, accompanied by the following voice-over.

Narrator The coming of trains signalled an end to social and economic isolation and the beginning of a farming revolution. If the future of rail lies with long hauls and mainline routes, much of its past lay with tracks just like this one. They were never major rail corridors. They were called pioneer lines and, for many outback towns, they were the first reliable link with the outside world. Down pioneer lines flowed the wealth of a nation – from farm, forest and mine, from remote communities that would never have existed without their railway and could never have prospered without their trains.

Australia prospered too as the iron horse brought an ever-increasing range and tonnage of primary products down to the sea. Exports boomed. In every Australian state, pioneer lines rather than inter-capital city links were the government railway’s first objective – tracks that reached out both to open up the hinterland and to tap its wealth. Finally, pioneer lines alone would comprise a remarkable 20,000km of track. It seemed there was almost nowhere worth settling that railways couldn’t reach.

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