Trains and timber: what we can learn from Victoria, 1880–1930

Public record office

This image depicts timber waiting to be transported at Beech Forest in 1910, the terminus of the narrow-gauge railway from Colac between 1902 and its extension to Crowes in 1911.

Dr André Brett is a current Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wollongong, and his research exists in the spaces between economic, political, and environmental history. This week on the blog, Dr Brett discusses his recent article in the Australian Economic History Review on the relationship between railways and timber.

Railways use timber. Lots and lots of timber. They carry even more of it. Surprisingly, then, forests have not figured prominently in histories of railways in Australasia, and the same is true of railways in histories of forests. Readers can find many accounts of bush tramways in Australasia, which were rudimentary light lines that carried logs to sawmills and sawn timber to the nearest railway station, but there is little written about how the big state-owned railway networks used or carried forest products. My article in the latest edition of the Australian Economic History Review seeks to redress this. It examines the consumption and conveyance of timber on one large railway network, that of the government of Victoria, from the early 1880s to 1930. I chose these cut-offs because official data prior to the 1880s is scanty, and from the late 1920s road transport and the Great Depression altered railway development and traffic patterns profoundly. What I show is that railways contributed significantly to Victoria’s timber industry and to deforestation.

The need for sleepers created one of the largest and most sustained demands for timber. These rectangular supports lie perpendicular to the rails for load distribution and to maintain the correct width between the rails. Sleepers today are often made of concrete, and in tropical areas steel has been used because of white ants, but in Victoria from 1880 to 1930, all sleepers were timber. Most were cut locally, with redgum, ironbark, and box preferred for durability. My article attempts to quantify the volume of timber cut. This cannot be done with precision: Victoria’s annual railway reports only state the quantity used in maintenance, not new construction, there are no annual or decadal statistics for the decline of forest coverage, and many of the statistics that do exist are for different reporting periods or compiled on divergent assumptions. It is possible, however, to make some estimates, and these show that official statistics underestimate both the size of the timber industry and its importance during economic downturns.

Railways throughout Australasia used much sawn timber, but Victoria stipulated that sleepers had to be hewn: that is, cut by hand in the forest. Sleeper-hewing is hard labour, and it operated as a parallel industry to sawmilling. Victoria’s railway commissioners viewed hewn sleepers as more durable to sawn ones, as hewers work with the grain of the tree while sawmills sometimes cut against it. Hewn timber is entirely absent from official statistics of annual timber production, as these describe only the timber sawn at mills. The annual demand for railway maintenance alone required hewn sleepers equivalent to at least 10% of the annual output of forest sawmills, and in years of peak demand over 25%. By the mid-1890s, the demand for sleepers for maintenance had run ahead of the demand for construction as the network matured, and created a significant and stable demand for hewn timber.

Geoffrey Blainey and Lionel Frost have previously attributed the railway with enabling mining and farming communities to endure crises and prosper in booms. The railway demand for timber likewise sustained many forest communities, especially through the depressed 1890s. Construction of new lines can be delayed or cancelled; maintenance, however, can only be deferred so much and worn-out old sleepers must be replaced to ensure safe operations. The average life of wooden sleepers was 20–30 years, so hewers could count on demand even in straitened economic times. Hewers tended to work individually, and they were not employed by the Railways; instead, individuals or collectives would tender for small contracts. Timber was usually cut close to a railway if it was available, and that cut on public land was usually cheaper than that cut on private. One section of my article shows how this created conflict with Victoria’s conservator of forests—a saga I have examined in more detail elsewhere, if it piques your interest.

Railways were not just users of timber: they were carriers. The timber industry in Victoria came to rely heavily on the railway for transport from remote forested regions to large metropolitan markets. The Otways affords an instructive example. Four railways entered this thickly-wooded region southwest of Geelong. In 1898, the Victorian government approved a narrow-gauge line from Colac to Crowes. Just one sawmill operated in this line’s catchment when construction began, and it struggled to sell timber profitably even in Colac. After the railway opened in 1902, sawmills proliferated and timber traffic exceeded forecasts. Up to seven trains operated daily to carry the timber on offer.

More broadly, statistics of timber and firewood carried on rail annually show that forest products were relatively dependable sources of freight revenue in Victoria. Other major freight categories fluctuated heavily, especially agricultural and pastoral commodities subject to seasonal variations. Forest product tonnages represented one of the largest freight categories every year, only occasionally exceeded by livestock during droughts or wheat in years when output boomed. Coal was also a relatively stable commodity—so long as strikes did not disrupt output—but it was a low-value commodity and the revenue accrued could not match that of forest products. An important finding from my data is that firewood comprised the largest annual tonnage of any forest product. This commodity is more central to the history of forest exploitation in Australia than has been acknowledged previously.

There are barriers to fine-grained analysis. The annual railway reports list tonnages by station but without a breakdown by freight type, which prohibits regional or line-by-line comparisons. Attempting to estimate with any precision the deforestation attributable to railways—both in consumption and in enabling areas to be felled—would likely be a Sisyphean task. What I conclude, however, is that the railway contribution was clearly enormous. The histories of Victoria’s forests and railways are not just connected but mutually dependent. Without timber, railways could not operate; without railways, many hewers, millers, splitters, and other forest workers would have had more limited access to markets for their products.

As a postscript, railways did not just consume forest products—they also engaged in some planting, especially to beautify station precincts. One paragraph of my article presents preliminary research on this, and I intend to examine the topic further. Alison Clarke in New Zealand is also looking at the history of that country’s railway station garden competitions. A recent visit to Spring Bluff railway station near Toowoomba, Queensland, has deepened my conviction that this avenue of enquiry can blend economic, environmental, social, and transport histories profitably.

Dr André Brett
University of Wollongong


2 thoughts on “Trains and timber: what we can learn from Victoria, 1880–1930

  1. Greetings Andre, I am beginning an article “TIMBER -Timber from Bealiba” – how the timber injustry justified the small Bealiba township and saved the Bealiba Railway Station, on the main Mildura to Melbourne line, from demolition. My information source is a 90 year old former pole/sleeper cutter. This gives a very narrow window on a very wide industry.
    Could you suggest some other sources for me?
    My husband and myself have lived in the Historic Bealiba Railway Station for over 20 years. We have totally restored the building to its former glory, including a splendid garden and have a small museum display. We have had more than 500 visitors signed up in our visitors’ book.
    Regards, Heather Cooper

  2. Thank you for sharing – that interplay between economic, political, and environmental history certainly has echos into our contemporary world in a plethora of directions – and relevance

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