Monday, June 30, 2008

The Territory

The new Narrabri North layout is based on the New South Wales Railway "North-West Line," constructed from a junction with the Main North at Werris Creek northwest towards Moree and beyond to the Queensland border into cotton, grain, and livestock country in the late 1800's. The land is largely flat as a table-top, with scattered small mountain ranges in the distance. The area is often dought-stricken, but when the rains do come, the nearby Namoi River often floods, given the flatness of the surounding land.

Located around 300 miles northwest of Sydney, Narrabri, a town of around 6000, is the operating center of my layout, the junction of the mainline to Moree and the branches to the west. The railway facilities are actually located west of Narrabri proper on the branchline--this location is Narrabri West, and featured a small yard and a locomotive depot. With privitization of freight operations in the late 1980s, most of the yard was converted to containerized freight facilities and the engine facilities removed. Today, grain is hauled under contract to Pacific National, while the cotton and other containerized goods move in trains operated by Independent Railway of Australia, Patrick Portlink, El Zorro, and occasionally other contractors.

The whole story of railway development in colonial Australia is a fascinating one, the population centers of each state originally concentrated along the coasts and essentially isolated from one another. The railways were constructed not to foster national unity, but to aid in developing the states. Thus, there was no national goal to link one rail line to another, so standardization on rail gauge was of little importance. Queensland, for example, built their railways to 3' 6" gauge; New South Wales to the British 4' 8 1/2", and Victoria to a broad 5'3" gauge. This severely limited the usefulness of railways in transporting goods beyond state borders, and it wasn't until relatively modern times that interstate rail travel without a break-of-gauge was possible: a standard-gauge line was completed between Sydney and Melbourne in 1962, and it wasn't until 1969 that rail traffic could travel from Sydney to the west coast at Perth without changing gauges.
Such provincialism still exists, but since the 1980s, privitization of freight operations has been implemented, the states largely still owning the tracks themselves (most leased to the Australian Rail Track Corporation, a federal government agency responsible to mangment and maintenance of the rail lines themselves) and access to the network alloted to qualified operating companies--"open access" as we'd call it in the states.

The area served by the North-West Line is largely rural. The railroad was extended northwest from a junction with the Main North line at Werris Creek, reaching Narrabri in 1884 and extended north to Moree in 1897. A branch west from Narrabri was constructed in 1903 towards Walgett and eventually Merrywinebone. Traffic has always been based on agriculture; the region is a top wheat producing area, and since the 1970s cotton has become a major crop as well. Until the privitization of freight operations, trains carrying cattle and sheep to slaughterhouses near the coast were common as well. Into the late 1980s, the line was served by a daily mail train as well as an express passenger train from Sydney. Today, all that's left is the cotton and grain traffic, and a daily CountryLink passenger train serves the line as far north as Moree.

The North-West Mail trundles along north of Narrabi in the early 1980s behind a single 48 Class branchliner, an train of express and mail traffic (photo by the late Ron Preston, I believe). . .

During the era I'm modeling, the late 1970s-early 1980s, operations through Narrabri had continued much as they had during the era of steam operations (which had only ended in 1974 in New South Wales). Two passenger trains a day served the line. Freight traffic--that's "goods trains," in Australian--was relatively frequent, given the small size of the average train. True to its colonial roots, railways were still dispatched under rigid timetabling of trains; running times were to be adhered to, and train sizes were established by the tonnage specifically assigned classes of locomotives could be expected to handle over the line. In the late 1970s, as today, the backbone of freight operations was handled by the 48 Class Goodwin-Alco road switcher. Its light footprint was perfect for the thin rails in the area, and along with similarly-configured 47 and 49 class diesels, the 48's symbolized branchline operations on the New South Wales railway. Equipment was smaller in this era, as well--a modern aluminum grain hopper only carried 60 or so tons of commodity, and the two-axle S-truck open wagons (capacity 15 tons) and RU wheat wagons (capacity 24 tons) were still in service. Most trains were still under 1000' long. Perfect for modeling!

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