Today marks the 150th anniversary of railway transport in Tasmania. The first line was opened on February 10, 1871.
Originally it was a private line of a 5'3" gauge and ran for a short distance of 45 miles between Launceston and Deloraine.
Amazingly, the first thought of such a railway was way back in 1857 (The Examiner, August 29) and was a major topic through the years until its completion in 1871.
It was operated by a number of prominent local investors. Tasmania's population at this time was just under 100,000.
Just five years later in 1876 another line operated from Launceston to Evandale, but on the narrower gauge of 3'6" dubbed the "Irish Line".
The main purpose of the line was to transport produce to the port of Launceston, so that exports could be efficiently shipped to Victoria. The coming of the railway was a great boom naturally to producers and farmers between the two centres.
Even though it was a private company, the shareholders of the Launceston and Western Railway Company raised only a ninth of the capital required with the Tasmanian Government raising the rest.
One must give credit to the initiative of the investors and government alike for implementing such an enterprising concept.
Financial difficulties, however, were continually experienced even from its first year of operation.
The line continued as a private one until 1890 when it was purchased by the government, later to be known as the Tasmanian Government Railways which existed until 1979.
One of the main problems was that there was as difference in gauge. The Tasmanian Government had decided to use the more suitable narrow gauge of 3'6" because of the many mountainous aspects of the island.
The Premier at the time was James Milne Wilson who left office in 1872. As the original line was a private affair he did not play a major part in it. However, he had the vision before he left office to pass the Launceston-Hobart Railway Act.
A second private line was a more ambitious undertaking from the short 45 miles Launceston run to Deloraine. This line was of 123 miles from Western Junction to Hobart.
There were considerable problems of contour survey because of the high plateau lying across the route.
The Tasmanian Main Line Railway Company opened for traffic in 1876. This second line was of the 3'6" gauge which presented a problem at Western Junction with the larger gauge coming from Deloraine. This was overcome by laying a third line between Western Junction and Launceston of the larger gauge thereby having a dual gauge.
From 1876 right through the 1880s the railway expanded rapidly, with the state government taking on responsibility. From 1890 they had taken over the Launceston-Deloraine Railway. The Launceston-Deloraine gauge was converted on August 18, 1888. On October 1, 1901 the Tasmanian Government Railway came into being - peaking in the 1930s.
Fifty years ago in 1971 there were great celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the pioneering railway line between Launceston and Deloraine.
The track may have experience difficulties during its day, but there is no doubt it was a great asset to the producer and passenger alike. Now of course the steam engines have long gone, but so are the passenger trains together with the private rail companies and the 679 miles of government line.
We still have freight trains, but the glory days have vanished. Too, have the rail machine shops located in Launceston and Hobart.
And who remembers the Tasman Limited? After all it's not all that long ago. From Hobart, the trip was five hours to Launceston and another three to Burnie, making a total trip of eight hours.
Like the romantic days of the picture theatre and the heyday of local regional football, Tasmanian rail travel is a ghost of the past.
- Reg Watson is a Tasmanian author and historian.