13 June, 2013

Backing the Black Line

...and so...back to trains...
After the successful construction of both the Melbourne-Geelong and Geelong-Ballarat railway lines, the push was on for a line which would service the south west of the state and it was with this in mind that the line from Geelong to Winchelsea opened in 1876. In following years the line was extended as far as Port Fairy, although the section beyond Dennington is now closed and forms the newly-opened (May, 2012) Port Fairy-Warnambool Rail Trail.
First however, like the Ballarat line, a route had to be chosen. One rejected suggestion was to extend the line via an existing branch to the waterfront on to Limeburners Point, from there heading inland to cross the Barwon River at Breakwater. History shows that this option was not taken up, but in the 1850s, this was by no means certain. Letters to the local media pointed out the benefits of a rail link to Point Henry, enabling the unloading of cargo from vessels unable to cross the sandbar and enter Geelong's inner harbour, prior to the dredging of the Hopetoun Channel which was not completed until 1893.
Corio Bay from Western Beach, 1880 showing the Railway Pier (Cunningham
This was considered a matter of some importance as both Geelong and Melbourne competed for incoming trade. Routing the line to the south west via Limeburners Point - with a train or tram connection to Point Henry - made economic sense. An extension to Queenscliff where cargo for Geelong could be unloaded directly rather than via Melbourne was also discussed. In 1867 a select committee recommended that a rail line to Colac follow "Corio Terrace" (presumably branching off the existing line to the Railway Pier) as far as "Sydney Place", turn to cross the Barwon at Breakwater and continue on to Germantown (Grovedale), passing 5 miles south of Winchelsea and through Birregurra before terminating on the southern shore of Lake Colac.
By 1873, engineers' reports were being tabled in the Victorian parliament, considering three different options: known as the black line, the red line or the green line. The green line which it seems was favoured by the Commissioner of Railways did not include Geelong at all, but saw a line branch off the existing Geelong-Ballarat line at Leigh Road (now Bannockburn). Requiring only 40 miles of track to be laid but resulting in a total route which was 5 miles longer than the black, it was considered cheaper to construct.
Bannockburn (Leigh Road) Station
From the reports of the day, it seems there was fierce lobbying from all quarters, with allegations of lies, distorted estimates and vested interests claimed all round, however the proponents of the black line won out in the end. This more direct route it was argued, would bring more benefit to more people, opening up vast new landholdings in the process - exactly the claim made by advocates of the green line. The third or red line, deviated somewhat to the north of the black line but does not seem to have been seriously considered by any party.
Having chosen the black line, the major stumbling block was how the new track should leave Geelong. The idea of a rail link to Point Henry seems to have disappeared from the agenda by this stage but a report in The Argus of 9th April, 1873 spells out the various options considered:
With regard to the question of the tunnel for getting out of Geelong the first estimate of its cost was £95,000, but recent surveys showed that a line could be adopted by Fenwick-street, whereby the cost of the tunnel might be reduced to £59,000. Two other lines had also been surveyed - one by the Botanical gardens, in which the tunnel would only cost £64,000, and another by Sydney-place, crossing near the hospital, in which a tunnel would cost £74,000.
Rail tunnel from Geelong Station to McKillop Street
Another point in favour of the black line was that a branch to Queenscliff would be a simple matter if the route through Geelong was chosen. Despite debate over the need for such a line at the time, the coming of the military to Queenscliff, saw the line built only a few years later, opening in 1879
 (see previous post). In addition, a short branch line to the old Geelong racecourse from Marshall opened in 1878 (see this previous post). This would not have been possible had the green line been chosen.
History of course shows which tunnel was eventually built. Then as now, the politicians making the decision were subject to the influence of lobbyists and money but had these forces been otherwise, the landscape of the Barwon  may be very different today.
The decisions made then determined the two points at which rail bridges still cross the Barwon today: Breakwater and Winchelsea, not, as the proponent of the "single great trunk line of railway for Victoria" would have had it (see this post)  at Melville's Quarry near what is today the west end of Noble Street, or at Buckley Falls.
One detail however is not so dissimilar to that suggested in his letter of 1857 where he indicated that the line should run "50 chains" (a little over a kilometre) due south from Geelong Station. The decision to choose the Fenwick Street option saw the line travel due south for exactly that distance, however rather than a sweeping curve to the west "between Newtown Hill and the Barwon" (presumably in the vicinity of West Fyans Street) as proposed, the line as we know headed south east before making a sweeping curve to cross the Barwon at Breakwater.

Vintage Rail steam engine R707 entering the tunnel May, 2013
When all the debate was done and dusted, the first sod on the new Geelong and Colac Railway line was turned by the Mayor of Geelong at a site near Johnstone Park on 24th October, 1874. A holiday was declared, military and civil displays were held for the populace - of whom 5,000-6,000 turned out to witness the event - flags and bunting flew from ships and buildings across town and three cheers were given for the "Black Line".
At a subsequent banquet held for the dignitaries, the expected speeches were made and toasts proposed. It was clearly stated that this was only the beginning and that extension of the line to Queenscliff and Camperdown should be urgently promoted. The mayor it was noted, apologised for the absence of "the members of the ministry and a number of other gentlemen." With the whole event having the distinct air of a victory party for the Black Line, one can't help but wonder whether some of those absent gentlemen were proponents of the green line.
The original timber rail bridge over the Barwon River at Breakwater, 1937,
reproduction rights held by the State Library of Victoria
From this point, building continued apace with the complex and expensive construction of the tunnel and bridge at Breakwater being a priority which took about 12 months to complete, thereby allowing the line itself (thus connected to the existing line) to be used for the transport of materials for further construction.
The original rail bridge over the Barwon at Breakwater was a timber construction some 186m in length and only a short distance further down the line a similar but smaller bridge spanned Waurn Ponds Creek. From this point onwards, the track works were considerably simpler, but no less controversial.
Current Breakwater rail bridge built in the 1960s to replace the original
The second rail bridge across the Barwon was built at Winchelsea, however the original route surveyed for the "Black Line" saw it pass some miles south of Winchelsea, instead favouring selectors on the edge of the Cape Otway forest in the vicinity of Deans Marsh. Once again, the lobbyists were out in force with one scathing critic of the  "Winchelsea Deviation" reported thus in The Argus of 26th January, 1876:
One gentleman wanted to know what Winchelsea had done

"That the claims of the forest should be sacrificed for its aggrandisement. As a township it claimed to be a centre of population, and the father of the shire. He regretted to say it was the centre of a vast area of arid plains, only fit for a few sheep-walks, and scarcely suitable for that; that the few farmers in the neighbourhood had deserted their holdings, and the land for miles around was held in the hands of two or three individuals; and that as a township it had fallen into decay, and only existed in the form of a couple of publichouses(sic), one or two stores, and a few shingle shanties."
In spite of such opinions and perhaps even despite the original route providing a greater boost to the economy, the Winchelsea Deviation was confirmed as the passage of choice. This second section of the track past Freshwater Creek included some 40 bridges and culverts, one being the second crossing of the Barwon at Winchelsea. Like the first at Breakwater, this bridge was a timber construction, but at only 146m in length, shorter than its downstream counterpart.
VLine train from Warnambool crossing the Barwon on the present-day
Winchelsea rail bridge. The first timber bridge was replaced at some point
 by this concrete and steel girder construction
 Finally, after all the debate, significant engineering hurdles and several years of hard work, on 24th November, 1876, the much awaited first stage of the Geelong and Colac Railway was opened to Winchelsea.
A train carrying dignitaries including the Commissioner of Railways who conducted the formalities was dispatched from Melbourne and further notables were collected in Geelong before proceeding to Winchelsea where the residents of the district greeted them with the expected pageantry, speeches and of course, a banquet. The worthies then took a turn around the town before piling back onto the train and heading for home, leaving the good residents of Winchelsea to hold a ball to further mark the occasion.
The following year, the section of track to Colac was completed and - as hoped from its inception - subsequent decades saw the extension of the line to Camperdown (1883), Terang (1887), Warnambool (1890) and Port Fairy (1890). In all, one would have to say, a resounding victory for the supporters of the Black Line.
And now, almost 137 years later as I write this post, I can hear the trains still travelling along the route envisioned by such illustrious names as Levien, Johnstone, Lang, Thomson, Armitage, Sladen, Austin and many more...

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