Today marks 160 years since the first railway officially opened in New South Wales on 26 September 1855 between Sydney and Parramatta.
As the North West Rail Link (now called Sydney Metro Northwest) continues to be constructed by the NSW Government in 2015, providing much-needed public transport, NSW’s first railway to Parramatta wasn’t for commuters but the first step in a line destined for Bathurst and Goulburn. This was to transport the valuable wool clip to Sydney by train instead of carting it at great expense overland in drays and wagons, before shipping off to the English textile mills. Construction of the line was driven by wealthy pastoralists but ultimately funds from Sydney investors were raised and the Sydney Railway Company incorporated in 1849 to undertake it.
Building the line
At a special ceremony on 3 July 1850, not far from Sydney’s Devonshire Street pedestrian tunnel, the Governor’s daughter turned the first turf. The project almost stalled before it had even begun as railway gangs downed tools and headed off to the goldfields in 1851. The original engineer resigned, the initial contractors were incompetent, there were cost blowouts and delays so that public interest waned and soon turned to criticism.
The situation was saved by the arrival of the contractor, William Randle, who began construction of the line at the Sydney end to remain visible to the public and closer to the labour force. He opened quarries, built brickworks, set up workshops and a steam sawmill for sleepers and temporary track. Most importantly, he brought out from England 500 indentured labourers, both navvies and tradesmen, guaranteeing them accommodation and immediate employment. They lived in company-built camps alongside the route.
Few people had any idea how to run a railway. William Sixsmith, the Railway’s best driver who had driven locomotives in England and France only arrived in Sydney after failing on the Victorian goldfields. He taught all the drivers and firemen how to run their engines.
The opening day
At last the great day arrived. A holiday was declared and all the critics and cynics of the railway suddenly became supporters. Shops and offices were closed and houses and carriages were decorated, ships in the harbour were gaily dressed with bunting, and flags flew around the station. The weather was wet and gloomy but this did not deter the many thousands of spectators crowding onto every vantage point around the Sydney terminus and engine sheds.
The Governor, Sir William Denison, arrived just before 11 am dressed in full Windsor uniform, usually only worn at Windsor Castle. He was escorted from Government House to Sydney station by the Yeoman Cavalry, while the Mounted Police lined the route and the New South Wales Rifles formed a guard of honour at the station. A grand procession of the Ancient Order of Foresters added to the pageantry and a fanfare of trumpets and a 10-gun salute fired by the Volunteer Artillery Corps heralded his arrival. Once the Governor was seated with his party in the viceregal carriage there was a scramble for the remaining seats. Passengers literally dived into the third class carriages, through the window openings, not even waiting for the doors to be opened. A second round of 21 guns announced the train’s departure 20 minutes late accompanied by the shrill whistle of the engine, the waving of flags, hats and handkerchiefs and the cheering of the crowd.
The official train was pulled by Locomotive No. 3 with 2 first class, 4 second class and 5 third class carriages. Locomotive No. 1 (proudly on display at the Powerhouse Museum) was not in steam that day as it had worked hard during the line’s construction and trials. William Sixsmith was the driver, William Webster the fireman and the guard was Richard Darby. The driver and guard were given silver-cased pocket watches by the government. As few people owned watches, the railways brought universal time to the colony with the need to run to a timetable. The stationmasters and other railway staff were dressed in flamboyant uniforms of ‘stovepipe’ top hats, frock coats and bell bottom trousers.
The journey took about 45 minutes and on the opening day the trains did not stop at the intermediate stations. Spectators crowded the bridges and along the length of the line, many travelling a great distance and camping overnight. As the train neared the temporary Parramatta terminus near Dog Trap Road (now Woodville Road, Granville) the crowds defied the steady rain. Some on horseback galloped like Wild West outlaws line-side in an impromptu guard-of-honour. On arrival, the viceregal party was entertained at Williams’ Family Hotel for a ‘cold collation’ and congratulatory speeches. During the day some of the spectators amused themselves at various sports and games including quoit throwing, climbing a greasy pole and sack races!
A total of 3,554 passengers travelled aboard 6 trains on the first day of operation hauled by Locomotive Nos 2, 3 and 4, paying four shillings, three shillings or two shillings for first, second and third class tickets, respectively. A week after the opening a grand public ball was held at the Prince of Wales theatre. At midnight the colony’s elite danced to William Paling’s specially-composed waltz dedicated to William Randle complete with locomotive sound effects. On the same day Randle, ever conscious who the real builders of the line were, organised a feast of roast and boiled beef, sucking pigs, mutton and plum puddings in the Cleveland Paddocks for his railway labourers.
An engineering marvel
The Sydney to Parramatta line wasn’t the first steam railway in Australia as Melbourne has that honour, opening their little 4.5 km line the year before between Flinders Street and Port Melbourne operated by a small locally-built engine. The NSW project was an enormous infrastructure achievement for the fledgling colony with 21 km of track, terminus stations at Sydney and Parramatta, intermediate stations at Newtown, Ashfield, Burwood and Homebush, a tunnel under Cleveland Street, a magnificent brick viaduct with 8 graceful arches over Long Cove Creek near present-day Lewisham, 27 bridges and 50 culverts.
Today NSW once again leads Australia in rail construction with the Sydney Metro Northwest line being the largest rail project in the nation. Four tunnel boring machines, capable of boring 120 metres each week, are digging the 15 km of double tunnels between Epping and Bella Vista, In all, 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of crushed rock will be excavated. The tunnel boring machines are named Elizabeth, Florence, Isabelle and Maria. Florence is after Florence Taylor (1879-1969) Australia’s first female engineer and architect. I’m fairly sure William Randle would have approved.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, September 2015
- Listen to the Sydney Railway Waltz
- ‘Locomotive No. 1’, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2005.
- ‘On the move: a history of transport in Australia’, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004.
- ‘Rail Tales: Emily’s big train ride’, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2013.