The enviro-economic history of railways in Australasia

Abandoned track and water tank at Beaudesert, Queensland, December 2008. Locomotives consumed vast amounts of water across Australasia from watering stations like this. Although I took this photo only five years after a heritage organisation ceased using the line, nature was already busy reclaiming the infrastructure.

From colonial times, Australians and New Zealanders have used railway construction to alter not only their economies and polities but also their environments. Although the consequences of large infrastructure projects are vast, they are often understood poorly.

This project uses the development of railway networks to interrogate the strong and enduring linkages between economic growth and environmental change. The effect of railways cannot be judged by direct profit or loss alone. My research exposes how economic growth has large consequences for the environment, reveals the ways that large nation-building projects induce or quicken environmental change, and engages readers with accounts of the dirty, grimy conditions that characterised the steam railway. It emphasises that interaction was mutual: the environment changed railways even as railways changed the environments through which they ran.

I focus on three themes in my research:

  1. Railways as a carrier: the role of rail in deepening regional settlement and providing cost-effective transport of agricultural, pastoral, forest, and mineral products.
  2. Railways as a consumer: each colony’s network became a major industry unto itself with a vast demand for natural resources, especially coal and timber.
  3. Railways as an environment: the effects of weather, waterbodies, and geology on railway infrastructure, and the effects of railways on their surrounding environments, including ocean reclamation, fires, and modification of floodplains.

My archival research for this project is largely complete, although covid-19 has interrupted the final stages. I am currently writing a book manuscript provisionally entitled Scars in the Country: Railways in Australian and New Zealand Environments, 1850s–1915. I plan to approach publishers shortly, and welcome contact from any interested press.

I credit the origins of this project to a symposium at the Hocken Library, Dunedin, in 2014 called “The Colonial World: Elemental Histories”. I presented on the role of forest policy in the demise of New Zealand’s provinces, and at the time my mind was abuzz with ideas for postdoctoral research. I had been working on a proposal about railways and colonial politics, but it lacked a spark. In a conversation with Otago University’s esteemed historical geographer Peter Holland, I had a moment of inspiration: had anyone studied the environmental history of railways in Australasia? Peter said he did not know of much work on the topic, and encouraged me to do it. He was generous and supportive thereafter, and his death in 2019 saddened me; we lost a great scholar and even greater person.

This project became a blend of environmental and economic history, hence my description of “an enviro-economic history of railways”. Simon Ville was tireless in his efforts to aid me in securing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wollongong, which I held 2017–20. I have a quip that this project will not be economic enough for economic historians, not environmental enough for environmental historians, and definitely not political enough for the political historians, but, I hope, it will be an engaging synthesis for readers of all stripes.

I originally intended this project to encompass the period to 1930, as I figured it a logical cutoff for two reasons: the Great Depression as an economic rupture, and the rise of motor vehicles meant that railways lost their near-monopoly on land transport. I compiled information from New Zealand, Victoria, and (partially) Tasmania before I changed the terminal year to 1915. World War I provides the neatest cutoff: the story becomes quite different from that point, especially as motor vehicles proliferated during the 1920s. This, fortunately, did not mean a lot of wasted effort: my data collection from New Zealand inspired my project on that country’s shrinking passenger rail network.

I am also quite proud to say that an essay based on this research won the 2020 Wollongong Local History Prize. If you are in the Illawarra, you can read my essay at the Wollongong city library; I intend to publish it more widely.

My publications on the enviro-economic history of railways

  • ‘“The Exceptional Circumstances Under Which We Are Working”: Railways and Water in Australasia, 1870s to 1914’, History Australia, 17:3 (2020), 489–509, read online (paywalled).
  • André Brett and Simon Ville, ‘Coping with Climate Extremes: Railways and Pastoralism in the Federation Drought, 1895–1903’, Environment and History (2020), online fast-track (paywalled).
  • ‘Railways and Floods in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand’, New Zealand Journal of History, 53:2 (2019), 5–31. Read online (paywalled now; open access two years after publication).
  • ‘Railways and the Exploitation of Victoria’s Forests, 1880s–1920s’, Australian Economic History Review, 59:2 (2019), 159–80. Read online (paywalled).
  • ‘Lahar Meets Locomotive: New Zealand’s Tangiwai Railway Disaster of Christmas Eve 1953’, Arcadia, 31 (2018). Read online (open access).
  • ‘“Playing Sad Havoc with Our Forests”: Foresters Versus Sleeper Hewers in Late Colonial Victoria’. In Australia’s Ever-Changing Forests VII, edited by Sue Feary and Rob Robinson. Canberra: Australian Forest History Society, 2016. Read online (open access).

What’s in the pipeline?

The most significant output from this research will be my book manuscript, Scars in the Country: Railways in Australian and New Zealand Environments, 1850s–1915. I am also working on a number of journal articles, and I have collected plenty of archival material in the course of my research. I am confident it will keep me busy for years to come, and it provides a basis for fruitful collaboration with any other historians whose research interests intersect with mine. Drop me a line if you would like!

Railways in the landscape

Unsure what you’re looking at here? Fair enough. This is a view from the top of an old ballast crusher on the slopes of Mount Taranaki, New Zealand. A short branch ran from the main line near Stratford to a quarry on the slopes of the mountain. It existed from 1908 to 1951, and now a walking track leads to the impressive remnants of the crusher. I took this photo in October 2018.

The railway from Mount Barker to Victor Harbor as seen from a Red Hen railcar at its highest point, Bugle Ranges, in June 2019. This line connected Adelaide to South Australia’s oldest railway, a horse-drawn line at Goolwa built to help the colony capture trade on the Murray River.

When I won my postdoc, a colleague joked that I would expose the environmental dark side of Puffing Billy. So, it seems fitting that I include one of my photos from Puffing Billy’s terminus in Gembrook, Victoria, as seen in October 2013. This narrow gauge railway (2’6″ or 762mm) transformed the economy in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.

PS Lionel Frost has already done a great job on Puffing Billy’s enviro-economic contribution in his chapter “The Railway Corridors” in Outside Country: Histories of Inland Australia, eds Alan Mayne and Stephen Atkinson.

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