The commitment of our political masters in Canberra to the 1700km, Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail project, after only 21 years of thinking about it, could not have been more timely. It’s given me the perfect excuse to delve more deeply, for the amusement and information of my small but perfectly formed audience, into the marvellous little book, Freeling’s Grand Junction Railway Companion, that Victoria Madden discovered on the internet.
In my piece Oh, what a Freeling! a couple of weeks ago I was more interested in the Companion as an ancestor of the Bradshaw’s railway guide books that Michael Portillo has been clutching to his breast these many years on TV. But now, in the context of Inland Rail, I’d like to take you on a journey through Freeling’s Companion and try to discern what bearing its descriptions of a brand new railway, one of the world’s first, might have on a new railway 180 years down the track in vastly different conditions on the other side of the world.
Inland Rail is an exclusively freight line being routed along 1200km of existing rights of way through Victoria and south-west New South Wales and 500km of new alignments through north-west NSW and south-west Queensland, which, amazingly, are yet to be settled although the project has been under study and restudy, debated, accepted and rejected for, as I say, two decades.
The Feds are proclaiming Inland Rail to be the Commonwealth’s biggest rail undertaking since the east-west Trans-Australia railway was completed 100 years ago this October. [It is beyond me why Canberra thinks this is something to be proud of, having left the States and private enterprise to link the country coast to coast, east-west and north-south, only putting in when politically expedient.] This 2017-18 Federal Budget has committed $6.4 billion of taxpayers’ money to be sent after the $900 million already scattered along the Inland Rail route. The first trains are supposed to be rolling along it by 2024-25.
Well, I won’t be camping by the line any time in that year waiting for the first double-stacked container train to come rumbling past, nor will I be expecting any change out of our 6-plus big ones. On the contrary, the record of governments building anything anywhere is one of delays and cost blowouts. If it happens in Switzerland, and it has, you can bet on it happening here.
But I don’t wish to add my voice to the naysayers. The Inland Rail project is clearly A Good Thing and should be pushed along. Indeed, the Federal Government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation has already started on a couple of tricky bits of the line aimed at getting around the southern outskirts of Brisbane. The whole project is laid out in admirably simple detail at https://inlandrail.artc.com.au/.
Meanwhile, the Canberra bureaucrats and politicians might like to get a feel for what it’s like to release the brakes on a new major railway – given that this has been an infrequent event in Australia in their lifetimes – by reading Freeling’s Grand Junction Companion, which can be downloaded from Google Books at that always politically popular amount, “no cost”. It is less than two centuries old and therefore relevant to a Government that thinks 100 years between projects is all right.
Page 16 provides the mind concentrator. Here is set out a “Statement of Receipts and Expenditure to June 30th, 1837”, which details the capital structure and expenditure for building the 82½ miles of line between Birmingham and the junction with the Manchester-Liverpool railway, via Warrington [hello, Victoria]. A consortium of local businessmen, including George Stephenson, raised £1,512,150/0/4 and spent £1,472,811/4/5, if my additions and subtractions are correct. (I grew up with £sd but haven’t dealt with them since 1966, so I might be the odd penny or two out.). That is a cost per mile of £17,850, leaving the pence to take care of themselves.
By one method of calculation, based on per capita GDP, those costs today represent an expenditure of £1.64 billion, or £20 million per mile. Translated to today’s Australian dollars, that’s about $3 billion and $35 million per mile, or $22 million per kilometre. Compare that with Inland Rail’s $7.3 billion for the 1700km, or $4.3 million per kilometre. It’s a snip really – and unrealistic.
In Victoria last year, the Regional Rail Link between Melbourne and Geelong opened for business. This 47.5 km of double line track took seven years to build and cost, according to the State Government, $3.65 billion, or $77 million per kilometre. That’s right, nearly four times the cost per kilometre of the Grand Junction and nearly 20 times the committed expenditure on the Inland Rail line. I can hardly believe it myself.
One other comparison might be interesting. According to the authority I consulted, the £1.64 billion spend on the Grand Junction would have been worth about £5.6 billion (or nearly $10 billion) in today’s money to the British economy – i.e. about 3.4:1. The Victorian Government reckoned in 2010 the Regional Rail Link investment (then costed at $4.3 billion) would be worth $6.2 billion to the economy – or 1.44:1. Inland Rail is expected to boost the Australian economy by $16 billion over the next 50 years (yep, 50) – a ratio of 2.2:1.
These numbers are offered only as indicators. They are derived from British-based modelling for the Grand Junction, other unspecified models for the Australian projects and my always dodgy economic and arithmetic expertise; and of course, none of these projects is comparable one with the other, for a whole host of obvious reasons. But as my then 4-year-old grand-daughter told me: “Watch and learn.”
In 1837, the Grand Junction Railway traversed ancient populated territory with all the attendant vested interests that implies, encountering engineering problems railway builders were still learning about – the whole industry was only a decade old – and in 21st century Australia, Inland Rail is also crossing populated country – maybe only lightly for long distances but owned by someone nevertheless – and encountering logistical challenges, rather than engineering surprises.
Mr Freeling notes in his Companion that the 31 miles of the original Liverpool-Manchester railway – the first such main line in the world, it needs to be restated – in 1830 cost more than two-thirds of the expenditure on the nearly three times longer Grand Junction. He adds with evident feeling: “. . . an expenditure, be it recollected, not recklessly or carelessly incurred, but one which was necessary to obtain the experience and information which will now enable others to execute similar works at so great a reduction of cost. Every railroad company which may in future exist is infinitely indebted to the Liverpool and Manchester Company; and if the feelings and principles which regulate the actions of individuals towards each other, when their own affairs alone are concerned, could be brought to bear upon their operations when incorporated in public bodies, committees, boards, &c. &c, the proprietors of every railroad would contribute handsomely to a compensation fund, to repay some of the enormous expense incurred, in their experimental outlay, by the shareholders of the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad.” Now there’s an idea!
Inland Rail has taken 21 years of lobbying; the men behind the Grand Junction campaigned for 10 and built for four. According to Freeling’s account, the idea was first proposed in 1823 as the Liverpool-Manchester project got going. That bid failed. Other backers tried again in 1826. That failed, too. More hopefuls revived the effort in 1830 as the Liverpool-Manchester line opened, took the project to Parliament finally in 1832 and on 6 May 1833 the legislation received Royal Assent, astounding Mr Freeling with the fact that this last push had cost nothing in lawyers’ fees. The line carried its first paying passengers on 4 July 1837.
This is a tremendous feat. In only four years the Grand Junction company built 82½ miles of railway, using principles and techniques pioneered over little more than the past decade and developing some of their own as they went. It can’t be emphasised enough – this was all new to the world.
Freeling’s Companion provides “a few facts”: “The reader who has accompanied us in our journey will, perhaps, scarcely be aware that he has passed one hundred excavations and embankments – yet such is the fact. In the formation of these, five millions five hundred thousand cubic yards of earth and stone have been cut and removed, three millions of which have been employed in the embankments; the remainder has, for the most part, been laid out for spoil, as described at page 26. In the Line there are about one hundred and nine thousand distinct rails, which rest on four hundred and thirty-six thousand chairs, which are supported by four hundred and thirty-six thousand blocks of stone. The Railway passes under one hundred bridges, two aqueducts, and through two tunnels; it passes over fifty bridges and five viaducts, the latter are stupendous erections. In the formation of the line upwards of forty-one million four hundred and forty thousand pounds of iron have been used for rails and chairs, and upwards of six hundred and fifty-six thousand nine hundred and forty cubic yards of stone for blocks to support them.”
As an example of the engineering difficulties, consider the case of the embankment in a bog 28½ miles from Birmingham: “Vast quantities of material disappeared at this spot, the men being employed six weeks in throwing in ballast. As it disappeared in the bog, the ground in the neighbouring field was observed to rise until, after a time, it exhibited the appearance of a huge fungus, of perhaps 200 yards circumference at the base. Perseverance did, however, overcome this difficulty, and I believe the bed of the Railroad is here as firm as any portion of the line, although the work men almost despaired of it; frequently, in the progress of the work, having finished an apparently firm and straight embankment at night, which in the morning had either totally disappeared or materially sunk.”
Every page of Freeling’s Companion carries a good story. The Grand Junction railway crossed lands occupied from prehistoric times, scenes of battles from the Britons to the Wars of the Roses and the Civil War, established estates of the nobility and the humbler properties and activities of the hoi polloi. Vested interests were strewn densely across the path, and Freeling is consumed with the value of property all along the line.
Everald Compton, who first proposed the inland freight line, might recognise Freeling’s account of the lobbying for the Grand Junction project. It exhibits, he says, “the difficulties which invariably attend the promotion of a public good, when opposed to private interest. It is too often to be regretted, that the chief opposition to the efforts of those public-spirited individuals who originate such works, arises from persons whose real interests are not affected, but whose temper or caprice raise up a host of evils which exist only in their perverted imaginations.”
Freeling also makes an acute observation about the changes railways were making in human perceptions and, allied with that, he foresees today’s major concerns: “At the 63rd mile post, when the river Sow is again seen approaching the railroad, and, by its quiet, silvery, slow meandering, contrasted with the rapidity of the carriages, forcibly reminds us of the singular change which a few years have made in our powers of migration.
“In the landscape, however, a railroad is not so pleasing an object as the stream; and there are some who believe that for the conveyance of heavy merchandize, the question is still to be answered – will it ever be so economical a means of transport as a canal?”
About 11 miles out of Birmingham, “a fire has been burning in the earth for upwards of fifty years; it arises from a stratum of coal, 30 feet deep, and 4 thick, and it arose from the main strata having been cut from under it, which admits the air, and thus feeds the fire, which has defied every attempt which has been made to extinguish it”.
A little town in Staffordshire called Stone, Freeling says, has a curious origin: “Wolferus, king of Mercia, embraced Christianity after the death of his father, but relapsed to paganism; in which religion he educated his two sons, who, however, were converted, and became disciples of St. Chad, a zealous Christian ecclesiastic, Bishop of Lichfield, (afterwards canonized), which so incensed the king that he put them to death. The Saxons, as usual, formed a caern, by heaping stones over the bodies of the two princes, in commemoration of the dreadful act. Wolferus, after some time, was reconverted to Christianity, when he founded a monastery to expiate his crime; and his queen, Ermilda, the mother of the murdered princes, erected a nunnery over their tomb; a town gradually arose in the neighbourhood, which, in commemoration of the event, was called Stone.”
Then there’s a sad and salutary tale of Crewe Hall, about 53 miles from Birmingham. The Hall is “a fine specimen of the singular style which prevailed at the commencement of the 18th century” and is “well worthy of a visit from the tourist”. However, the lord of the manor is not often in residence and the estate’s extensive grounds and woodlands [designed by Capability Brown] are overgrown and unkempt, for a reason “whereof popular tradition has not failed to ally with the marvellous”.
“Thus sayeth the peasantry, the truth whereof this deponent voucheth not,” Freeling writes. “The late Lord Crewe, it would appear, was addicted to the noble vice of betting, and laid so enormous a sum on a race between two grubs, that on losing it, this estate was obliged to be mortgaged for the payment; on his death, the present noble occupant did, with filial chivalry, allow the remaining portion of the debt to be paid out of the estate, which has hitherto caused him to live in comparative seclusion, without such an establishment as this pre-eminently English mansion would appear to demand.”
Will Inland Rail, as it proceeds along its leisurely Outback way, pass by similar tragic stories of certainties beaten, of flies crawling up a wall, of pennies flashing in the firelight? Maybe, but chances are there won’t be an Arthur Freeling sitting in a loco cab counting every kilometre post, noting every point of interest and telling the stories of the plains and hills, the towns and farms being crossed by Inland Rail’s massive trains of double-stacked containers carrying the goods of a world Freeling could not have imagined.
Perhaps there should be, so that when a latter-day Freeling encounters a significant place like Handsworth, 2½ miles from Birmingham, home to the Boulton & Watt steam engine plant, he could write in similar valedictory tones: “In the Church are two elegant monuments . . . to the memory of Mr. Boulton and Mr. Watt . . . whose fame rests . . . in the usefulness of their lives, and in the benefits their intellectual ardour has conferred upon mankind. As long as science is dear, as long as the steam-engine exhibits its gigantic powers to an admiring world, so long will their names be in the mouths and minds of mankind.”
- Crewe Hall still exists today, as a hotel. Its history can be found here. Crewe became one of the great railway junctions of Britain, and of course it should be recognised that much of what Freeling describes is now underneath or incorporated in the great conurbation of Birmingham. Wolverhampton, Walsall and Stoke are football clubs. Warrington (pace Victoria) belongs to the now combined cities of Liverpool-Manchester.
- English manufacturer Matthew Boulton and the Scottish engineer James Watt formed a partnership in 1775 to exploit Watt’s patented steam engine. This featured a separate condenser, which made much more efficient use of its fuel than the older Newcomen engine. The firm grew to be a major producer of steam engines in the 19th century and had a major role in the Industrial Revolution.
- There’s even a little something in Freeling’s Companion for the Wodehouseans among us. Fourteen miles west of Wolverhampton station, it notes, are the towns of Shifnall and Bridgenorth, in the county of Shropshire. Much later, followers of the Blamdings saga will have read that it was in the Bridgnorth, Shifnal and Albrighton Argus, with which is incorporated The Wheat Growers’ Intelligencer and Stock Breeders’ Gazeteer that the third successive victory of the Empress of Blandings at the Shropshire Agricultural Show was recorded, in verse no less.