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engineering heritage at Launceston Railway Workshops

Young, L. in Locality, Newsletter of the Centre for Community History, University of New South Wales, Vol. 10 No. 1, 1999 (Industrial Heritage edition)

excerpt one

Here is the complex of workshops that manufactured and maintained Tasmania's rolling stock between 1868 and 1993. The Inveresk Workshops constituted the hearth of big engineering in Tasmania, servicing private industry as well as the public enterprise. The site is now of heritage significance for its ability to demonstrate the development of colonial and state railway policy, engineering and operations for 125 years. A change from many railway museums, the Workshops show the 'back-room' element of keeping the system going by both human and mechanical means.

Specially evocative evidence of the work environment survives in the orientation and chronological development of the complex around a north-south traverser engine alley. Important buildings on the alley include the 1911 Blacksmith Shop, furnished with smithing equipment in pure 19th century tradition; and the Carpenter Shop, where specialist woodworkers made passenger carriages and goods wagons in a series of buildings added to each other from 1871-1885-1890-1907. A number of significant pieces of machinery also survive, including a 1938 weigh-bridge, a 1924 electrical and compressed air power substation, and huge gantry cranes and steam hammers from the 1880s.

The older workshops are wooden frame structures clad with corrugated iron, presenting today as a medley of gabled sheds with rusty patinas. In the 1920s a major group of modern workshops was constructed of reinforced concrete. All the shops were built at right angles along the central alley that gradually extended north. They have been occupied since 1885 by a traverser: a rail (now electrically-powered chain drive) trolley that moved locomotives, carriages, wagons and bogies between workshops. The workshops themselves were threaded with rail lines running longitudinally through each building, but when an item had to be taken from say, the Bogie Shop to the Carpenter Shop, it would be rolled onto the Traverser and trundled up or down the alley to roll off at the next stage of work.

The industrial landscape formed by this complex of functional buildings, fittings and equipment provides eloquent evidence of the experience of work and the processes of several technologies – all now redundant. In fact, the only railways in Tasmania today service a few heavy industries such as mining and cement manufacture. Passengers and light freight are carried by the more mobile technology of petrol-powered cars and trucks – a challenge that threatened the railway since the 1910s. As in so many other cases, local nationalism and political convenience supported railways far beyond rational reason.

excerpt two

The railways introduced industry and from industry followed employment, development, profits and progress - or so it was always hoped. In reality, few of the leading British and American industrial enterprises of the 19th century enjoyed continuous success. Nonetheless, the organisations and environments in which iron manufacture and steam technology thrived contained the promise of big profits, as well as representing the technology of the future to both private and public investors. Flush with the profits of the gold rushes, the Australian colonies itched to participate in the advances of industry, and British agents were keen to find further markets for their materials and machines. Optimistic railway companies were floated in all the colonies, and every one collapsed within a few years. The costs were huge, the distances great, the markets not very large. But because railways constituted genuine infrastructure to open up the inland, colonial governments picked up the tab in every case.

Precisely this scenario transpired in Tasmania, where it was given local edge by the infamous rivalry between north and south. Launceston saw itself as the commercial, agricultural and industrial centre of the colony, whose products required rail transport to its port on the Tamar River, but whose development was blocked by the jealous Hobartians. The first line - Launceston to Deloraine - finally opened in 1871, fifteen years after it had been surveyed. Based on the Victorian wide gauge, rail and rolling stock were ordered from Britain, for despite enthusiastic dreams of local engineering, imported locomotives and carriages were half the cost of on-the-spot production. At the same time, the first workshops were built on the Inveresk site, a swamp in the bend of the North Esk, but the only level land with room for expansion close to the centre of town.

The Launceston and Western Railway closed a little more than a year later in 1872, when the line was washed away by floods and the company went insolvent. Within four months the colonial government assumed control of its assets and debts. Besotted by the prospects of progress and pork-barrelling, the government proceeded to defray the costs of another British-funded private company, the Tasmanian Main Line Railway, to build a narrow gauge line between Hobart and Launceston. The new line opened in 1876, its Launceston end requiring a separate station, workshops and administration offices.

The Colonial Government sponsored further narrow gauge line construction in the north and west, and in 1890 purchased the Main Line Railway for over a million pounds - ten times the colony's annual budget. This and the original Launceston and Western Railway debts persisted on the books until the Commonwealth bought out the state railway system in 1978.

Railway development in Tasmania occurred in fits and starts throughout the 20th century, but improvements usually happened in Hobart before money could be found to accommodate growth based in Launceston. The Tasmanian Government Railways remained tied to consolidated revenue for many years after its 1910 Act, thus perpetuating political interference in technical and operational management, eventually leading to a Royal Commission in 1923. New mining and manufacturing industries were encouraged to use the railway from the 1920s, and World War II turned the engineering capacity of the system to munitions production. In 1948 the state commenced conversion of its rail system to diesel, demanding new skills and techniques in the workshops. The last flowering came in 1953 with the introduction of the Tasman Limited, a modern passenger service between Hobart and Launceston, equipped with locally-manufactured sheet metal carriages offering the latest comforts. Nonetheless, the journey took as long as it had in the 1870s, for old track constrained speeds; road transport was faster, more convenient and more available than ever.

Despite innovations with refrigerated containers for produce, railways were on the way out. Passenger services closed in 1978, the year the Commonwealth established Australian National/Tasrail, which has since concentrated on bulk handling.

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Linda Young.

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