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Western Australia's Heritage Rail Transport

Links to the Australian Curriculum


The Australian Colonies
The nature of convict or colonial presence, including the factors that influenced patterns of development, aspects of the daily life of the inhabitants and how the environment changed. Map local, regional, state rural and urban settlement patterns in the 1880s, and note factors such as geographical features, climate, water resources, the discovery of gold, transport and access to port facilities that shaped these patterns. Recognise the impact of a significant development or event on a colony; for example, internal exploration, the advent of rail, the expansion of farming. The role that a significant individual or group played in shaping a colony; for example, explorers, entrepreneurs, political leaders. Investigate the contribution or significance of that individual or group to the shaping of the colony. Explore the motivations and actions of the individual or group that shaped the colony.


Recognise that places are locations for economic activity, centres of decision making and administration, centres for transmission and exchange of knowledge and ideas, meeting places for social interaction.
Explore a range of services that communities provide for people, such as leisure facilities, education and environmental services.
Investigate some of the reasons why services and facilities are located in particular places.
Investigating where places developed in Australia and how and why some have grown and others have declined.
Examine the reasons for the spatial distribution of economic activities at the local or regional scale.

Business and Economics

Resource allocation and making choices
Identify resources and the way those resources are/were used to make goods and services to meet people's needs.
Work and business environments
Explore the nature of work, paid and unpaid work, the contribution of work to society and working collaboratively with others to achieve a common goal

Civics and Citizenship

Citizenship in a democracy
Recognise that citizens can individually and collectively influence decision making Identify ways that people can work together in communities and explore how shared values can help Recognise that participation in civic or environmental action can effect positive change


Chemical Sciences
Recognising the observable properties of solids, liquids and gases.
Nature and Development of science
Identifying the contributions to the advancement of science; scientific understandings, discoveries and inventions


Units of measurement
Recognising length, area, mass, volume, capacity and time, for example, gauge, tonne, kilometre, horse-power, 12 and 24 hour time systems.

Learning Pathways Utilising the Bassendean Railway Museum Topics

Inventors and Inventions that have changed our lives: James Watt and the steam engine; George Stephenson and his "Rocket".
Leaders in Western Australia's colonial development: The Forrest brothers - exploration; Sir John Forrest - Premier; CY O'Connor - Fremantle Port development, Midland rail development and the expansion of the railways, Goldfields Water Supply Scheme.
Mining and Resources and the expansion of rail transport: Gold; Iron Ore, Nickel.
Working to Conserve the Past: heritage groups, museums - paid and unpaid work

Focus Questions

How have changes in technologies aided in the exploration and expansion of rail systems around the world?
Which people and inventions have contributed to the changes that have taken place in rail transport over time?
How did railways help Western Australians to develop this state?
Who were the significant individuals/groups responsible for establishing rail transport systems in WA?
In what ways did the introduction of the railways influence rural and urban settlement in WA?
Why was rail transport seen to be the best solution to the expansion of settlement in WA during the 1880s?
How did the railway affect the daily lives of early inhabitants of this state?
How does it affect people today?
How do railways impact on you and your family?
Why are groups such as the Rail Heritage Society important?
In what ways could you assist groups such as the Rail Heritage Society to continue to conserve Western Australia's heritage?

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Rail Transport background: Teacher Notes

The Invention of Steam Power

Thomas Savery patented the first crude steam engine in 1698. It was based on Denis Papin's Digester, or pressure cooker of 1679. Thomas Newcomen improved Savery's design then, in the second half of the 18th century, Scotsman, James Watt, improved on the steam engine so that it became a truly viable piece of machinery that helped start the Industrial Revolution. Watt's 1769 patent was for a separate condenser connected to a cylinder by a valve. Unlike Newcomen's engine, Watt's design had a condenser that could be cool while the cylinder was hot.

Historical Significance of the Steam Engine

The steam engine was central to the industrial revolution. Only through providing a convenient source of energy could major forms of transportation and manufacturing grow and prosper. Steamships and steam locomotives enabled quicker transportation of raw materials that could be used to produce finished goods.

The First Locomotive

In 1813, George Stephenson became aware that William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth were designing a locomotive for the Wylam coal mine. Aged twenty, George Stephenson began the construction of his first locomotive. At this time in history, every part of the engine had to be made by hand and was hammered into shape just like a horseshoe. John Thorswall, a coal mine blacksmith, was George Stephenson's main assistant.

After ten months of labour, George Stephenson's locomotive "Blucher" was completed and tested on the Cillingwood Railway on July 25, 1814. The track was an uphill trek of four hundred and fifty feet. Stephenson's engine hauled eight loaded coal wagons weighing thirty tons, at about four miles an hour. This was the first steam-engine powered locomotive to run on a railway and it was the most successful working steam engine that had ever been constructed up to this period. Encouraged by his success Stephenson conducted further experiments and built sixteen different engines in total.

First Public Railways

George Stephenson built the world's first public railways: the Stockton and Darlington railway in 1825 and the Liverpool-Manchester railway in 1830. Stephenson was the chief engineer for several of the early railways in England.

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Western Australian context:

Railways in Western Australia

Click here for a PDF map of the extent of railways in WA in 1938.

WA's first railway was built by The Western Australian Timber Company, a privately owned company who built the line from its timber mill at Yokonup, inland from Geographe Bay, to its jetty at Lockeville, near Busselton. The Lokeville-Yokonup line was 12 miles (19.3km) of narrow-gauge, 3 foot 6 inches (107cm) track and was opened in June 1871. For the first three months the rail line was worked by horses until the first steam locomotive arrived. It travelled at 25km/hour on iron rails.

Another line was built around the same time from Jarrahdale to Rockingham but this line had wooden rails and a locomotive that averaged 20km/hour.

In 1877 the first government agency with a responsibility for railways was established. It was known as the Department of Works and Railways. The first government owned railway line carried lead-copper from Northampton to Geraldton, a distance of 34 miles (55km). It opened in July 1879.

The "mixed" day to day operation of this railway included a locomotive hauling several goods wagons with passenger carriages and a brake-van at the end. It transported lead and copper ore, bales of wool, sandalwood, general goods and first and second class passengers. A one-way trip took about three hours.

The carriages or "cars" were built by the Metropolitan Railway Carriage and Wagon Company of Birmingham, England. They each had one first class and two second class compartments, seating 22 passengers (six in first class and sixteen in second class). First class had comfortable padded seats. Second class had wooden benches. Lighting was by oil lamps. The coachwork and frame was made of teak and the interior and roof was made of pine. Each coach was 4.9 metres long, 2.3 metres wide, 3.2 metres high and weighed 4.25 tonnes.

258 Interior

Inside the first carriage in 1879 - the padded seat in the centre compartment was for passengers paying first class tickets, the second class passengers were not so fortunate.

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With the rapid increase in WA's population during the 1890s and the growth and diversity of industry, the need for fast and efficient transport was necessary. Railway construction that had begun in the 1870s, now dramatically increased. In June 1879 work started on a line joining Fremantle to Perth and Guildford and on the 1st March 1881, the first metropolitan line was opened. By 1885 the track had been further extended to York.

In 1894 the privately owned Midland Railway Company built its own line from Midland Junction through the wheat-lands to Walkaway near Geraldton. This company had been largely underwritten by The National Bank, but with bad debts mounting and severe losses to investors such as Alexander Forrest occurring, the venture soon soured.

The Government railway workshops were based at Fremantle but with increased investment and a commitment to building more railways, the Acting General Manager of Railways, C.Y. O'Connor, suggested several new sites for them in 1891. In 1892, 260 acres of land fronting the Helena River was bought at Midland Junction. Many business men and politicians opposed this move, but in 1897 a running shed which had a turntable for locomotives, water tanks, pits and cleaning facilities was built there. In 1900, workshops commenced at the Midland site. By 1904 machinery and staff were moved there too. Workers who still lived in Fremantle travelled to and from work on a special train known as the rattler.

Workshops ^Back to Top

Between 1886 and the1890s the assortment of railways including the Great Southern Railway, the Eastern Railway, the Northern Railway and the Midland Railway had been constructed, managed and operated independently of each other. These railways were then merged into one large system known as the "Western Australian Government Railways" as part of the first Premier of Western Australia, John Forrest's plan to develop the colony.

Alongside the train system, electric trams were introduced to Perth in 1899 and by 1914 the Government had bought the tram companies out. Electric trams also began running between Kalgoorlie and Boulder in 1902. They continued to run until 1952.

Tram 124

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After the great construction projects initiated during the gold rush era of the 1890s, Western Australia's population continued to spread into the agricultural regions. From 1906, under Premiers, Moore and Scaddan, land grant schemes established new farmers in the central wheatbelt. These governments promised to build new railways that would allow every farmer to be within 24 km of rail transport.

In 1923, after the end of World War 1, the Premier, James Mitchell, signed an agreement that would enable 75,000 British emigrants to live in Western Australia. Many of these were expected to take up new wheat farms in the eastern wheatbelt and the building of light agricultural railway lines supported them.

Small settlements along the railway usually included a railway siding, an elevated water tower, shunting and stock yards, one main street, an assortment of shops, a post office, a bank, a garage, a small school house and a handful of houses. There might also be a church, a community hall, a hotel and a rest centre organised by the Country Women's Association.

General Store - Salmon Gums
General Store - Salmon Gums
Hotel - Salmon Gums
Hotel - Salmon Gums
CWA Rest Stop - Grass Patch
CWA Rest Stop - Grass Patch
Main Street - Grass Patch
Main Street - Grass Patch
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Steam Trains

How do steam engines work?

On-site Activity:

Children watch a DVD demonstration of how a steam engine works.

(Video "How steam works" is available on our website and can be viewed there beforehand if preferred, however it can be run full screen at museum.)

Diesel and Diesel/Electric Trains

Diesel locomotives began to be used and the small diesel shunting locomotive No. 4 is an example of the first of the locomotives used in Western Australia. It was built by Andrew Barclay and Sons of Scotland in 1927. It was shipped to WA and started service in Esperance in 1928. It was powered by a 4 cylinder Dorman-Long petrol engine of 45 horse-power (hp). In 1961 it was fitted with a 68 hp 4 cylinder Ford diesel engine which enabled it to haul loads of up to 100 tons.

The Y class diesel electric locomotives were the earliest of the Western Australian Government Railway's (WAGR's) diesels. They were first used between 1953 and 1955, mostly for shunting and light train duties.

The X class were the first mainline diesel electric locomotives purchased by the WAGR. They were built through a joint venture company formed by Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company and Beyer, Peacock of England. These locomotives were given the names of Western Australian Aboriginal groups, except for X1001, which was named Yalagonga, after the chief of the Swan River Aboriginal group.

It was during the early years of the X class operations that it was realised that multi-coupling would be beneficial so that a crew in the front locomotive could drive two engines. Sixteen X class locomotives were then fitted with multiple control equipment and were classed as XA. They were mostly used on lines where coal and water were in short supply. Yalagonga was the first diesel locomotive to haul a passenger train to Kalgoorlie in 1954, in company with X1002.

The demand to transport iron ore in the Pilbara region of WA lead to the introduction of the C636 locomotives in 1968. These locomotives were strong and could operate well in harsh conditions of heat and dust. They were powered by a 16 cylinder Alco 251F, 3600 hp diesel engine. Mt Newman Mining operated 54 of these locomotives.

Railway crossing - Esperance Port Railway crossing - Esperance Port

Air release point - diesel goods train - Esperance Port Air release point - diesel goods train - Esperance Port
Air release point - diesel goods train - Esperance Port

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Electric Trains

Electrification of Perth's passenger rail system (1991) and the upgrading of stations, the extension of the Northern Suburbs Railway (1989-92) and the construction of a new 72km railway between Perth and Mandurah (2007) was carried out by the Western Australian Government. More than 180 000 people ride the electric trains each day into and out of Perth.

Currently there are further extensions to the Northern Suburbs Railway being undertaken. Rail lines and a new station are being developed at Butler (2012 -2013). Future extensions are planned for Alkimos and Yanchep.

Quiz Questionnaires

We have questionnaire sheets prepared in conjunction with the National Curriculum materials to maximise benefit from a visit to the Railway Museum.

Upper primary school (years 5/6/7) studies - Quiz One here and Quiz Two here.

ACARA The Australian Curriculum
Carter, Jennie: Bassendean A Social History 1829-1979. Perth Western Australia 1986.
Higham, Geoffrey: Marble Bar to Mandurah- A history of passenger rail services in Western Australia. Rail Heritage WA. 2007.


Christine McMulkin, Geoffrey Higham and Rail Heritage WA archives.

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