The World’s First Mainline Narrow-Gauge Railway Began Its Life

July 31, 1865

In the northeastern section of Australia, the inaugural train run of the world’s first narrow-gauge mainline railway occurred on a Monday morning in the colony (present-day state) of Queensland. A large number of people gathered to witness the record-setting railway’s formal debut, which took place on what the Queensland Times called a day “of glorious sunshine, a clear sky, and light refreshing breezes.”

The initial segment of the Main Line railway covered approximately 19 miles (31 kilometers) between the municipality (now city) of Ipswich and the community of Bigge’s Camp (later renamed Grandchester). This line also had the distinction of being the first one to begin operations in Queensland.

A narrow gauge of 3.5 feet (1,067 millimeters) was selected for the Main Line railway due to both a very limited budget and the need for track gauge that could allow trains to better negotiate the mountainous and difficult terrain in that part of Australia. Consequently, the new railway route was constructed with such features as light iron rails and sharp curves. It was seen as vital for facilitating shipments through that part of the world – a key example involving the large amounts of coal mined in Ipswich.

“The arrangements for the day were admirably carried out,” noted the Queensland Times in recounting the inaugural festivities for the first part of the Main Line railway “The terminal station at Ipswich, in Ellenborough-street, from which the trains started, was decorated with bunting and foliage, and the engines themselves were similarly adorned.” The newspaper also reported, “The crowd of spectators assembled at the station was very large, and the first train, which left shortly after 10 o’clock, was greeted at its departure with loud cheers.”

Sir George Ferguson Bowen, first Governor of Queensland.

Those on hand for the celebration included Sir George Bowen, who served as the first governor of Queensland from 1859 to 1868, and his wife Diamantina. In his remarks to the crowd that day, he emphasized the growing importance of rail transportation in their part of the world.

Bowen proclaimed, “It seems to be now acknowledged that the most urgent need of the entire colony is the improvement of our internal communications – that iron roads are the best of all roads – and that those iron roads should be constructed in the manner best adapted to the peculiar circumstances of this country, and with the greatest economy that may be consistent with efficiency.” Bowen concluded his remarks by saying,” I now declare this railway to be open for public traffic.”

This railway eventually covered an extensive area of Queensland that went beyond just the original terminus at Bigge’s Camp. Over time, some notable changes were made to the line. These changes included replacing the light iron rails with heavier steel rails; making several of the sharp curves straighter; and creating tunnels to further smooth out the travel of trains along the tracks. The narrow gauge that helped make the railway a pioneer in the first place, however, remains intact.

For more information on the debut of the Main Line railway, please check out http://blogs.slq.qld.gov.au/jol/2015/07/16/railways-in-queensland-history-in-pictures/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Line_railway,_Queensland.

Additional information on the history of railways in Queensland is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Construction_of_Queensland_railways.

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