Australian Railways

This could have been any one of hundreds of places, fifty to a hundred years ago.
Picture, now, a station at a substantial regional centre. Take Mount Gambier in South Australia as a typical example. This station had become a very busy one when it was connected both to Wolseley to the north (on the South Australia system) and eastwards across the border to link up at Heywood with the Victorian Railways' Portland line. There were two yards at Mount Gambier, known respectively as the 'old' and the 'new'. The rails linking these two yards crossed two streets and the frequent disruption to traffic was a sore point with the locals; the engine crews knew to expect verbal complaints every time they shunted between the yards. Goods trains were assembled each day to run to Mile End yards in Adelaide and to the wharves at Portland across the border. Other traffic originating at Mount Gambier each day were the freight trains to Heywood and the overnight Blue Lake, the passenger service to Adelaide.
Mount Gambier had plenty of railway 'furniture': turntables, semaphore signals, water vats, coal stages and a locomotive depot where steam engines stood hissing in the sun between jobs. There were men toiling in the rail yard, passengers waiting to depart or friends and relatives standing on the platform awaiting to meet someone of an arriving train. These scenes have largely faded, and disappeared. As have many others.
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Trains once carried just about everything. If you lived in the country before reliable road transport and you wanted a piano, the only way to have it sent was by train to your nearest station. Trains also once carried live rabbits, rabbit meat, tallow and fat, along with all the main food staples in the form of grains, fruit and vegetables. Queensland's railways saw seasonal work from the pineapple crop, the Dorrigo branch in northern New South Wales hauled away the district's annual potato harvest; in the southern part of that state, the Crookwell branch carried the output of a small iron ore mine.
Circuses were once big customers for the railways. In 1963, the Wirth's Circus Train travelling to Mildura, Victoria, was made up of forty-eight vehicles, including seven carriages for the staff and performers and nine wagons with especially raised roofs to contain the larger animals.
And then there was the mail. The first Travelling Post Office was introduced in 1887, on the Queensland network, and by 1911 these vehicles were attached to many long-distance trains. At the small rail siding of Lurnea, a local landowner would use a red flag to signal for the mail train to stop so that he could post letters and parcels with the TPO van.
If you lived at Harden, on the Main South line in New South Wales, and belonged to a wine society that delivered by the case (even as late as 1960), that wine came by rail and you went down to the station to collect it.
In 1867, Queensland's rail system issued parcel stamps, the same size as the postal variety and also bearing Queen Victoria's head. Later, the parcel stamps became much larger in size and bore the name of the station from which the parcel was consigned. Eventually, Queensland Government Railways offered delivery to your door service in Brisbane, Toowoomba, Bundaberg, Mount Morgan, Townsville and Mackay. In 1958, for example, QGR had thirteen lorries in Brisbane just delivering parcels to businesses and homes.
Of great benefit to people in country Queensland was the system of cash-on-delivery which operated from 1905 until 1980, the payment covering both the purchase from the store and delivery.

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We do not know her first name, but Mrs Ruttley was just one of many to find that things were tough if you were working in the railways, especially in the New South Wales Government Railways. Her plight came to the attention of the Australian Railway Union in 1935. Mrs Ruttley was working as a gatekeeper at Woy Woy, just north of Sydney, a task that involved closing gates at level crossings to stop road traffic as trains approached. She was not a member of the union, but we can probably presume her late husband had been. Most women gatekeepers were either the widows of railwaymen who had died while still in service, or who had been killed in a work accident, or were the wives of surviving workers who had been maimed at work. These women worked very long hours for appalling pay. The union newspaper, Railroad, reported that some did second jobs, like taking in washing, to make ends meet. Mrs Ruttley was the sole support for three children.
The union newspaper reported that Mrs Ruttley had been to the doctor who found her to be on verge of a nervous breakdown due to the excessive hours she was required to be on duty. The union discovered that Mrs Ruttley was working 117 hours and fourteen minutes a week, including an unbroken thirty-six hours from 6.00 am on Sunday until 6.00 pm on Monday. She was paid ten shillings and ten pence a week, plus eight shillings and one penny in lieu of quarters being provided. Tax took one shilling and eleven pence. Even by 1935 standards, this was clearly inadequate when rent, food and clothing for herself and three children had to be found. The union's efforts resulted in Mrs Ruttley's hours being reduced to eighty-eight a week, with a relief gatekeeper provided on Sundays and Mondays. Yet, even in the 1940s, there was a Mrs Gleason who was gatekeeper at the Darling Street crossing at Dubbo: on some days, she was required to be available to work the gates for up to twenty-two hours a day.

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