The story behind the success of Australia's wartime railways during World War 2

The Story Behind the Wartime Railways of Northern and Central Australia

This is the story of two railways which, from humble beginnings, achieved greatness through adversity and became known as Australia's Wartime Railways.

Spurred on by19th Century inter-Colonial rivalry to expand their boundaries into the unexplored lands of Central and Northern Australia, the South Australian Government began to build two railways, one in the north and the other in the south, to link Darwin with Adelaide.  Construction of the ‘Great Northern Railway’, the southern link in the plan, began in 1878 and stretched as far north as Oodnadatta by 1889.  Work on the Palmerston to Pine Creek Railway, the northern link, began in 1886 and a little over two years later reached its southernmost point, the township of Burrundie, 124 miles (200km) south of Darwin.
The Great Northern Railway flourished through its live cattle trade, with beasts being sent from Marree and similar towns south for slaughter.  Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Palmerston to Pine Creek Railway, which languished from lack of custom and thus lack of funds.

With Federation of the Australian colonies in 1901 the former Colonialists gradually began to develop a sense of identity as a nation.  So much so that in 1907, the then Prime Minister, Deakin, successfully negotiated with Western Australia and South Australia to allow the Commonwealth to cross State land and build two trans-Australia railways – one linking Perth with the East and the other connecting Darwin with the South.  As part of that agreement, what was then known as South Australia’s Northern Territory was transferred from that State to the Commonwealth, as were the two South Australian north-south railways, the Great Northern and the Palmerston to Pine Creek.  In 1911 the Federal Government formed the Commonwealth Railways Department (CR) and the previously South Australian railways were renamed - Great Northern Railway became the Central Australia Railway (CAR) and the Palmerston to Pine Creek Railway was changed to the Northern Territory Railway (NTR).  The NTR remained under South Australian Railways administration until 1926, when the CR formally took complete control of the NTR and renamed it the Northern Australia Railway (NAR).

Under CR stewardship both lines were extended - the CAR north to Alice Springs and the NAR south to Birdum - with both railways reaching their furthest point in 1929.  By that time the CAR was linked to the South Australia, Victoria, and Western Australia railways and flourished again, this time as a result of a new industry – tourism.  Meanwhile, all alone in the North, the NAR was generally ignored and any ‘new’ locomotives or rollingstock sent its way were the cast-offs of its bigger and more affluent cousins.

However, like the ‘Ugly Duckling’, the NAR was about to change – while it would never turn into a swan it was destined to become the most important war time railway in Australia’s history.  Beginning in 1941, when Australia began to gear up for war following Japan’s alignment with Germany, both the CAR and the NAR became the centres of attention – after all, they were the only railways in a position to link the rest of the continent with the North, and thus the only railways able to support the defence of Australia’s exposed northern administrative and military centre – Darwin. Manned by volunteers from around the country and generally provided with cast-off locomotives and rollingstock, they suffered bombings, severe storms, bridge and track washouts, and incredible demands from the military for rail support. And, against the odds, they delivered.

This book is about the operations and the men of the CAR and the NAR (Australia's war time railways) during the period of 1941-45 -  the time when they truly were Australia's war trains.

Author's Comments

War Trains is dedicated to my father, Thomas Allan Debnam, a New South Wales Railways volunteer who served on both the North Australia and Central Australia Railways between 24 February 1942 and 6 November 1944, and all the other volunteers and railwaymen who selflessly toiled under arduous and often life-threatening conditions in support of Australia's war effort during the Second World War.

Their endeavours, in the main, have gone unrecognised but without them our fighting forces could not have defended our nation as they did.

My interest in these railways was sparked by my father's employment on both the North and Central Australia railways during this time. However, my research soon identified that there was very little comprehensive information on either of these railways. While there are a couple of excellent books about the North Australia Railway, I found a huge paucity of wartime information on these railways in general, and that included the web pages of the National War Museum, the National Library of Australia, the South Australian Railways, and the Commonwealth Railways. Having said that, there are some excellent websites covering the locomotives and rolling stock of the South Australian, North Australian and Commonwealth Railways - but what of the men?

All the men who were employed by or volunteered for service on either the North or Central Australian Railway during the war had to undergo some basic military training as well as Commonwealth Railways training to ensure they were capable of being successfully integrated into the Commonwealth Railways and homeland defence systems. But again there is very little information available about these men, their training, their daily routine, or what they did as most of their personnel records were destroyed after the war.

Although they didn't go overseas, or engage the enemy in direct combat, these courageous railwaymen continued to perform their essential duties despite being under repeated attack from the enemy. And yet there is virtually no acknowledgement of their contribution to Australia's World War II war effort.

Apart from attempting to provide a concise history of these important wartime railways, the intention of this book is to put on record the exploits of their personnel and acknowledge the vital role they played in the successful defence of Australia.
Ray Debnam