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A short history of Australia’s railways

A short history of Australia’s railways

Australia’s love affair with the iconic Cobb & Co coach was intense but short-lived, dampened by the arrival of the next transport revolution: railways.

Between European settlement and the mid 19th century, people used coastal shipping services and horse-drawn transport to travel around Australia. Cobb & Co coaches were a transport of choice for many. The business was established in 1853 in Victoria by Freeman Cobb, a 23-year-old American who saw a need for regular transport between Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields.

Cobb & Co quickly gained a reputation for speedy journeys, owing to Cobb’s imported American Conrad coaches that outperformed the English models (designed for smooth, paved roads) used by other coach companies in Australia at the time. Cobb also placed changing stations at more frequent intervals than those of competitor companies, which meant fatigued horses could be changed more regularly, and high speeds maintained.

By 1854, the journey from Collins Street, in Melbourne, to the Castlemaine goldfields took less than 12 hours by Cobb & Co coach, with nine stops along the way. At the time, this was an efficient way to travel long distances, but the arrival of Australia’s first steam railway line in Melbourne, also in 1854, caused much fanfare and excitement. The Hobson’s Bay Railway Company opened the four-kilometre line between Flinders Street Station and Sandridge, which is now known as Port Melbourne.

While the track was imported, the train built especially to travel this line was made by a local Melbourne company, Robertson, Martin and Smith Engineering Works, and was the first to be made in the Southern Hemisphere. The maiden journey on this new line was an occasion of grand celebrations, with 300 prominent Melburnians invited to hop aboard at Flinders Street Station and travel to a large banquet at Sandridge. The journey from Melbourne to Sandridge took about 10 minutes, and trains operated on this line every 30 minutes. This rail line still exists today.

This is a sneak peek! To read about the rest of Australia’s history of railways, check out the Winter 2023 edition of Caravanning Australia.

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