Canberra’s railway history is so interwoven with the political, cultural and social life of our young city that it is invariably taken for granted, ignored or at best, simply treated in the usual technical manner. But in those early days of Canberra’s planning phase, Walter Burley Griffin’s railway plans for the Capital provoked incredible debate and review.
Even in this age of the motor car, railways in Canberra remain a politically-sensitive area.
As recently as 1992, a major innovative Canberra light rail proposal with a routing from Civic Centre to Gungahlin not unlike that proposed by Griffin provoked considerable political discussion before receiving the thumbs down from the Territory Government.
This article does not attempt to provide a comprehensive hsitory of railways in and around the National Capital. Instead, it provides simply a thumbnail sketch of some of the major developments in our city’s railway history.
It draws heavily on significant works published by senior members of the Australian Railway Historical Society and the Canberra Division of the Institution of Engineers over a number of decades, but any errors should not be attributed to the Society.
Some minor railways such as the Mount Ainslie quarry lines and the Cotter railway system are not expressly referred to, nor does it aim to provide a history of the Australian Railway Historical Society in Canberra – in itself, a major area of railway activity!
Outsiders and newcomers to the National Capital find it hard to associate a modern, car-oriented city such as Canberra with railways. Many long time residents are also surprised to learn that the city is serviced by rail at all.
The out-of-the-way location of the railway station on the fringes of suburbia at Kingston and the long-standing “orphan” character of the ACT railway – being located hundreds of kilometres from the traditional operational quarters of Commonwealth Railways at Port Augusta in South Australia – has no doubt contributed to this state of affairs over many years.
As the following paragraphs illustrate, the past 80 years have truly been a cavalcade of change for the railways of the Capital, invariably reflecting broader social and economic tides sweeping the nation and the globe.
1993 is no exception. With the coming of the new Xplorer rail cars onto Canberra rail services later this year, our city has the opportunity once again to savor the travel delights offered by modern rail technology after being without the popular Canberra XPT for a number of years.
And the Canberra railway heritage scene and its tourism industry will receive a much-needed boost with the launching of the Australian Railway Historical Society’s Michelago Tourist Railway – a mammoth voluntary undertaking which will restore rail passenger service to one of the most beautiful classic bush railways of south-eastern Australia.
Railways in the ACT 1913 – 1993
1908 – Federal Government decides on Yass-Canberra district as site to establish the National Seat of Government and the Federal Capital Territory.
1911 – Federal Capital Territory (FCT) established.
1912 – Capital city design competition – US architect Walter Burley-Griffin wins with a plan incorporating a major north-south city railway from Eastlake (now Kingston) to outer North Canberra.
1913 – The new city is founded and named “Canberra”. Work begins immediately on a new rail link to the capital from Queanbeyan NSW (on the Goulburn-Bombala branch line) to near Griffin’s Eastlake station site (now Kingston). The line was constructed by the NSW Public Works Department on behalf of the Commonwealth.
1914 – First revenue-earning train hauled by NSWGR locomotive 1210 arrives in Canberra on 25 May; only goods trains operated from the outset.
1914 – Survey completed of Canberra – Jervis Bay railway from Civic Centre via Bungendore (Jervis Bay forming part of the FCT and providing the Port of Canberra).
1915 – 1916 – Government departments raise objections to Griffin’s city railway route. Commonwealth Railways recommend improvements, proposing 5 alternative routes.
1916 – Federal and NSW surveys of proposed Canberra/Yass railway line undertaken.
1918 – Commonwealth Public Works Department prepares plans for yet another railway in the Territory – from [8 kilometres (5 miles)] south of Queanbeyan to the new Commonwealth arsenal site at Tuggeranong in the ACT (the arsenal and railway were never built).
1921 – Temporary standard gauge construction line opened from Kingston to Civic, crossing the River Molonglo near Russell, running through Reid, Glebe Park and terminating in present day Garema Place.
1923 – Alternative permanent city railway route considered by Federal Parliament – running from Jerrabomberra through Eastlake, then on to Civic and terminating west of Hall Village new the NSW border. NSW Government rejects a proposal that it extend this proposed line to Yass on the main Melbourne-Sydney railway.
1923 – Molonglo rail bridge swept away in flood – standard gauge line from Kingston to Civic closed but left in situ.
1923 – New narrow gauge (3′ 6″) goods line constructed from Commonwealth Brickworks at Yarralumla to the site of the new Provisional Parliament House with an extension to the Kingston Power House.
1923 – The first passenger service introduced on 15 October – a twice daily (exc Sunday) mixed train running from Queanbeyan to Kingston Power House, stopping en route for workers at Molonglo Internment Camp.
1924-1925 – A further narrow gauge goods line built from Parliament House to Civic via Scott’s Crossing and Constitution Ave, with a spur line to the Hotel Canberra – again a construction line mainly for transporting building bricks.
1924 – Canberra’s first public station opened 21 April, adjacent to Uriara Rd (now Wentworth Ave).
1927 – Rail passenger service upgraded with introduction of a Canberra portion of the Cooma-Sydney overnight Mail connecting with Melbourne night trains at Goulburn Junction; Federal Parliament is moved from Melbourne to its new home in Canberra.
1928 – Operational control of the Seat of Government Railway transferred from NSW Railways to Commonwealth Railways from 1 July.
1936 – Fast daylight service to Sydney introduced to complement night Mail train; titled Federal City Express.
1939 – Further upgrading of passenger service with the introduction of the famous air-conditioned, streamlined Silver City Comet trains onto the Federal City Express daylight service from Canberra to Sydney. Reverted to steam trains in the latter years of World War Two.
1954 – Queen Elizabeth II’s first visit to Australia generates a huge volume of rail passenger traffic to and from the National Capital, much of it in diesel-hauled trains.
1955 – New DERM class multiple unit diesel rail cars introduced to newly-named Canberra-Monaro Express, replacing the steam-hauled Federal City Express.
1965 – Commonwealth Railways revives Canberra-Yass Railway proposal and undertakes aerial survey of route; land set aside for a new Canberra station site along Majura Road, Pialligo on the Canberra side of Woolshed Creek.
1966 – Original timber railway station building replaced by larger modern brick station on approximately the same site as part of Commonwealth Railways’ redevelopment of freight and passenger facilities; major new marshalling yard, sidings and staff barracks constructed over a number of years.
1968 – Commonwealth Railways announces in October a rail link to Belconnen as part of its ACT forward planning.
1972 – New South Wales commences deregulation of road freight services with resultant heavy loss of rail traffic.
1972 – Economic assessment report prepared by the Bureau of Transport Economics concluded that a Yass-Canberra rail link would not be viable at that time.
1974 –World-wide “energy crisis” sees many NSW country passenger trains withdrawn “temporarily” but never returned; axed trains include the overnight Canberra Mail to Sydney and the Spirit of Progress connecting service to Melbourne.
1975 – The Australian Government’s ex-NSW Garratt locomotive 6029 arrives in Canberra; entrusted to Australian Railway Historical Society (ACT) for the remainder of its operational life pending its ultimate inclusion in the proposed Museum of Australia.
1976 – Garratt locomotive restored to operating condition by ARHS and commences intensive local and interstate tour operations.
1982 – Bicentenial High Speed Rail Project proposal promotes the concept of a new Canberra-Gunning fast train as part of a general upgrading of Canberra-Sydney rail services to be completed in time for the 1988 Bicentennial.
1982 – ARHS (ACT) secures museum site lease from Australian National (formerly Commonwealth Railways) and commences museum development.
1983 – Canberra gets onto the XPT network on 30 August bringing the National Capital within 4 hours 10 minutes of Sydney; one daily return XPT service plus other conventional rail car (DEB sets) and Cooma Mail now service the Canberra/Queanbeyan district.
1985 – State Rail takes over operating responsibility for ACT Railway from Australian National on 5 May under a 25 year lease on proviso that passenger services retained; new overnight superfreighter service to Canberra introduced and freight rates slashed.
1986 – Cooma to Bombala line closed to all traffic from 26 March 1986 – closure marked with a 3 car ARHS (ACT) ‘Tin Hare’ rail car special from Canberra to Bombala.
1987-1988 – Interstate buses deregulated; Canberra-Sydney buses increase from around 3 return services daily to over 30.
1988 – New Parliament House opens; Canberra to Cooma rail passenger train Canberra-Monaro Express terminated on 26 November; Bicentennial steam train operations featuring the return to service of the ACT Government’s locomotive 1210 restored and operated by ARHS (ACT) at Canberra Railway Museum.
1989 – Bredbo to Cooma line closed to all traffic in its 100th year, on 28 May, in response to low traffic volumes and structural weakness in lengthy timber trestle bridge at Chakola, south of Bredbo; major centenary celebrations at Cooma with double headed ARHS (ACT) steam train.
1990 – Queanbeyan to Bredbo line closed to all traffic on 3 March, marked by ARHS special hauled by 48 class diesel.
1990 – XPT withdrawn from Canberra line after 10 February; DMUs and XPT replaced with 1950s-era Daylight Express trains running to a slower timetable than the former XPT services.
1991 – Proposed Very Fast Train (VFT) project involving a new high speed link between Melbourne and Sydney via Albury and Canberra abandoned following Commonwealth decision not to provide tax treatment sought by VFT Joint Venture; NSW Government announces its interest in Tilt Train technology for Canberra-Sydney route.
1991 – National Rail Corporation formed but Canberra excluded from NRC’s national network.
1992 – NSW Government announces the upgrading of Canberra rail services with the introduction of Xplorer high speed rail car services from latter part of 1993.
1992 – The Canberra Land Company announces its ambitious Gungahlin development plan titled ‘A New Vision’ featuring a light rail link from Civic to Gungahlin via Northbourne Ave mid-nature strip; the Company’s Melbourne articulated LRV display in Civic promotes reported strong public approval for the plan but Territory Government rejects the proposal.
1993 – Queanbeyan closes as an attended station; Xplorers set to commence operations in October but local complaints about draft proposed timetables.
ACT – the Australian Capital Territory, a governmental region of Australia
ANR – Australian National Railways, formed in 1974 by the Commonwealth Government to own and operate the Tasmanian and South Australian State freight railway systems and the interstate passenger services, the Indian Pacific and the Ghan
ARHS – the Australian Railway Historical Society (in general)
ARHS ACT – the ACT Division of the ARHS
DMUs – diesel multiple units
LRV – light rail vehicle
NSW – the Australian State of New South Wales
NSWGR – the NSW Government Railways. This was the name of the public railway system in NSW until 1979
NRC – the National Rail Corporation, formed in April 1993 to take over the freight component of the Commonwealth, and the NSW and Victorian State rail systems
SRA – the State Rail Authority was the name of the public railway system in NSW after NSWGR
VFT – the Very Fast Train project
Author: John Kain. Reproduced with permission
This page was last updated on 20 August 2023