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The East West Line

Updated on October 6, 2015
Gwenneth Leane profile image

Gwen enjoys writing about history. She believes that much can be learnt by looking back at the past

The East West Rail Line

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The Rail Sidings marked on the map

The Maiden Voyage

The engine belched smoke and steam and screamed a warning, like some angry monster. The train was preparing for its maiden voyage across the Nullarbor Plain from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia to Port Augusta, South Australia. The day was the 25th October 1917.

The twin rails had taken about five years to complete, and twice as many more, as the politicians debated the pros and cons of a rail link across the desert.

The work force of 3,500 men and 750 camels sweated, toiled and died across the water-less, treeless desert. At times, camels were engaged in carrying steel rails, wooden sleepers, water, food and other supplies to the men. The harsh land ground man and beast down to shadows of their former selves.

Henry Lawson summed up the feeling of the day in his poem, “The Roaring Days,”

“The flaunting flag of progress

Is in the West unfurled,

The mighty bush with iron rails

Is tethered to the world”

Progress is Impossible Without Change

The East-West rail line united Australia. It cost more than just finance. The cost was high in human effort but without that effort Australia would never have been united.

An Historic Moment

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Tethered to the World

Australia was now tethered to the world, the continent tamed; a time to celebrate. Firstly, the Overland Telegraph Line from Darwin to Adelaide linked north and south and now the Trans Australian Railway Line from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta linked east and west. To maintain the twin rails, fifty-two rail sidings were created across approximately 1063 miles of saltpan, limestone plains, sand dunes and granite outcrops. Many of the sidings bore the names of illustrious Prime Ministers such as Deakin, Curtain, Chifley and other Parliamentarians.

Amongst the heroic team that went, ‘out on the line’ was a honeymoon couple, Doreen and Gordon Ellis. Haig, Western Australia, was their destination. Their honeymoon suite was a one room humpy built of railway sleepers for walls and a tent that served as a bedroom.

“Not bad when you get used to it,’ Doreen shrugs philosophically today but in those days it wouldn’t have been fun. Doreen arranged her little home as best she could, the flood came and her household treasures, so loving collected over the years, looked a sorry sight floating in the muddy water. The second day of the flood, found Doreen dressed in a raincoat, brolly unfurled, sitting on her bed trying to keep dry. Eight hours is a long time in such a position on your own. When Gordon, a linesman, and his mates came home from work, they rescued Doreen.

“The men were very kind, they put on a new roof and a put in a new stove,” Doreen smiles at the memory of the kindness of the men. She thought she was a queen with the new additions.

The heat of midsummer was killing. The Mercury soared 116Farenheight, at times reaching 130F. For months, the temperature never dropped below 100F. Doreen wore wet towels draped around her head and shoulders to keep cool. Innovation was the name of the game and holes were dug in the ground with bags stretched across the top to keep the food cool and meat was a thing of the past.

Unifying the Nation

In 1901, the six Australian colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia. At that time Perth, the capital of Western Australia, was isolated from the remaining Australian States by thousands of kilometres of desert terrain and the only practicable method of transport was by sea, a time-consuming, inconvenient and often uncomfortable voyage across the Great Australian Bight a stretch of water known for rough seas. One of the inducements held out to Western Australians to join the new federation was the promise of a federally funded railway line linking Western Australia with the rest of the continent.

Legislation allowed surveying of the route in 1907.

The survey completed a proposed a route from Port Augusta, the existing railhead at the head of Spencer Gulf in South Australia's wheat fields via Tarcoola to the gold mining centre of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, a distance of 1063 miles (1711 km). The line was to be to the Standard gauge of 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) even though, at the time, the state railway systems at both ends were narrow gauge. The project cost £4,045,000.

The Andrew Fisher Government passed legislation authorising the construction in December 1911. Work commenced in September 1912 in Port Augusta by the Commonwealth Railways established to build the line.

Work proceeded eastwards from Kalgoorlie and westwards from Port Augusta through the years of the First World War. By 1915, the two ends of the line were just over 600 miles (966 km) apart with materials delivered daily. Construction progressed steadily as the line was extended through dry and desolate regions until the two halves of the line met on 17 October 1917.

Towards the end of its life as a passenger service between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta and usually known as the Trans-Australian, the service operated as a dual service, known as the Indian Pacific from 1970 until 1991.

From the start of construction until 1996, the Tea and Sugar Train carried vital supplies to the isolated work sites and towns along the route.

The final distance was 1051.73 miles (1692.60 km), slightly less than the original survey. At no point along the route does the line cross a permanent fresh watercourse.

Established at intervals, were bores and reservoirs. The water was often brackish and unsuitable for steam locomotive use, let alone human consumption. In the days of steam locomotion, about half the total load was water for the engine.

According to Adelaide-born astronaut Andy Thomas, the line is identifiable from space, because of its unnatural straightness. “It’s a very fine line, it’s like someone has drawn a very fine pencil line across the desert,” he said.

Tethered to the World

Australia was now tethered to the world, the continent tamed; a time to celebrate. Firstly, the Overland Telegraph Line from Darwin to Adelaide and now the Trans Australian Railway Line from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta. To maintain the twin rails, fifty-two rail sidings dotted approximately 1063 miles of saltpan, limestone plains, sand dunes and granite outcrops. Many of the sidings bore the names of illustrious Prime Ministers such as Deakin, Curtain, Chifley and other Parliamentarians.

Amongst the heroic team that went, ‘out on the line’ was a honeymoon couple, Doreen and Gordon Ellis. Haig, Western Australia, was their destination. Their honeymoon suite was a one room humpy built of railway sleepers for walls and a tent that served as a bedroom.

“Not bad when you get used to it,’ Doreen shrugs philosophically today but in those days it wouldn’t have been fun. Doreen arranged her little home as best she could, the flood came and her household treasures, so loving collected over the years, looked a sorry sight floating in the muddy water. The second day of the flood, found Doreen dressed in a raincoat, brolly unfurled, sitting on her bed trying to keep dry. Eight hours is a long time in such a position on your own. When Gordon, a linesman, and his mates came home from work, they rescued Doreen.

“The men were very kind, they put on a new roof and a put in a new stove,” Doreen smiles at the memory of the kindness of the men. She thought she was a queen with the new additions.

The heat of midsummer was killing. The Mercury soared 116Farenheight, at times reaching 130F. For months, the temperature never dropped below 100F. Doreen wore wet towels draped around her head and shoulders to keep cool. Innovation was the name of the game so holes were dug in the ground with bags stretched across the top to keep the food cool and meat was a thing of the past.

First Christmas

“I’ll never forget my first Christmas,” Doreen gives a wry smile. The allotment of her new five roomed weatherboard house coincided with Christmas and called for a shopping spree.

Doreen caught the train to Kalgoorlie, the nearest city. Having made her purchases and stacked them in the waiting train, ready to return home, Doreen remembered one to two last items. As the connecting train was running late, she returned to the shop. Reaching the station for the second time, she faced an empty platform. The train had departed without her. The next train to Haig was not until the day after Christmas. There was nothing for Doreen to do but retrace her steps to the boarding house and send a message to Gordon to collect her parcels from the train. Christmas was a bleak and lonely time for Doreen, stranded without money, clothes or food. “It wasn’t funny, at the time, “Doreen admitted, “I can laugh about it now though.”

Haig originally boasted of four tent homes, divided each end for bedrooms. The kitchen built separately of galvanised iron to eliminate the danger of fire. Doreen and Gordon’s ‘house’ made the fifth. Civilisation came to Haig when the Railways built twelve new weatherboard homes of five bedrooms each. The new home though, did nothing to alleviate the monotony of the landscape. The plain stretched into forever. Unless houses remained in sight, going for a walk was a recipe for getting lost because of the sameness of the terrain; landmarks were non-existent.

Doreen's little daughters, a sacrifice to building the East West Line

Source

Buried Dreams

A great part of Doreen’s heart lies buried on the Nullarbor. Two of her three children, daughters, occupy lonely graves. A surreptitious tear lies in the corner of her eye and covers a broken heart, which she hides and never talks of. Doreen refuses to dwell on her grief and remembers, “The saddest thing was the death of four children in one family.”

Transferred from a hostel interstate, a migrant family relocated to one of the sidings on the line. Even though the children were not well, the family still had to travel out. At Cook, one of the sidings the Medical sister had taken two of the children from the train. The mother insisted that she keep the others with her. The next day the parents returned accompanying the body on one of their children.

Life along the line had moments of humour. Doreen kept a herd of goats for fresh milk. The herd and the dunny were in the same enclosure. The billy ruled his harem with a sharp horn and anyone else venturing into his territory must be brave enough to run the gauntlet of his charge. One day, Doreen became a victim of the billy. Doreen made it safely to the dunny but found herself imprisoned for several hours before the billy lost interest and returned to the care of his wives. Doreen and Gordon spent nineteen years on the Trans Australian Railway, leaving in 1958.

Using Camels as Beasts of Burden

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Salute to the Pioneers

The twin rails have been given several titles, the current being Pacific National. Modern technology has replaced personnel and many sidings are just a name on the map and live only in the memory of people like Doreen and Gordon. Lonely graves are markers of the courage and stubbornness of the men, women and children who went out into the desert to keep the connection between west and east open.

Banjo Patterson, in his poem, ‘The First Surveyor’ expresses the feeling that these people probably felt about life along the twin rails.

“We’ll do without the bands and flags, the speeches and the fuss.

We know who ought to get the cheers – and that’s enough for us.”

The Modernized East West Rail Link, using continuous rail and cement sleepers

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