War Time History of the Commonwealth Railways Comrails Logo

North Australia Railway

The North Australia Railway consists of 316 miles 40 chains of single line, 3'6" gauge track, running southward from Darwin to Birdum.

At the outbreak of the war, the administration of this railway was located in Darwin, and the main workshops were situated at Para parap, 2½ miles out of Darwin. In addition to running the railway, the wharf and sorting shed at Darwin were controlled by the Commonwealth Railways.

Two ships each month brought to Darwin the requirements of the Northern Territory population, the preponderance of which was concentrated in or about Darwin. One vessel was from the Eastern States, the other from Western Australia. On the railway one train each week met transport demands.

But it was over this small part of the Commonwealth Railways system that the tide of war conditions was to follow with greatest force.

During the year 1939 began the establishment by the Defence Services of new garrisons at Darwin, and the strengthening of existing organisations. These activities considerably increased the work in the port of Darwin, but they had little influence on rail transport until the latter part of 1940 when the Overland Road was constructed between Alice Springs and Birdum, and defence materials began to be conveyed by this route.

Shipping continued to increase until it reached its peak in January 1942, when the port was working 24 hours daily, often with two ships at the wharf simultaneously for long periods.

Towards the end of 1941 it was known that Darwin, and surrounding areas, were within range of enemy aircraft, and defence activities were rapidly rising in tempo. The Civil Administration arranged for the evacuation from the Darwin area, of women and children and those people not employed in essential services.

Plans for the transfer of the Railway Administration to Katherine, 200 miles southward, were made in anticipation of an enemy attack upon Darwin. Instructions were issued to key staff regarding action to be taken to avoid disruption of the service should this transfer prove necessary.

On the morning of 19th February 1942, a strong force of Japanese bombers raided Darwin and wrought great destruction on ships in the harbor and on the R.A.A.F. aerodrome at 4 miles from Darwin. Direct hits on the wharf and the sinking of one of the ships, the "Neptuna", at the wharf, rendered it temporarily useless.

One locomotive, standing on the wharf, was lost in the harbor, and eighteen trucks were destroyed. The only damage done to the railway in this first raid was at 4&quarter. miles, adjacent to the aerodrome, where the main lines was broken. But it was apparent from the accuracy of the bombing of selected objectives, that the same force of aircraft could return and completely destroy the railway installations in one raid. Immediate action was taken, therefore, to put into effect the pre-arranged plans for the movement of administration, workshops, rollingstock and equipment out of the confined danger zone. All civilian establishments in Darwin were at once closed and some other Government Departments also moved their staffs inland. The Department of the Army assumed control of the Northern Territory, and the section southward to the 20th parallel of latitude (which passes through Katherine) was declared an Operational Area.

Due to the serious disruption of communications following the first air raids, it was necessary to divide the railway administration into two sections; one to remain in Darwin and the other to transfer to Katherine. For a considerable period the only means of communication was by the Army Signal Service which, of course, was seriously overloaded. The difficulties attaching to the safe working of trains and locomotives out of Darwin without telephone communication can well be imagined.

After the first raid, all locomotives in the Darwin area were put under steam, and running crews were instructed to stand by for duty as required. A programmer for the movement of civilians, and rollingstock and equipment not immediately required was brought into urgent operation, and functioned extremely well.

Under the terrible menace of a return air raid, it was remarkable with what calm the public, including many women, attended for conveyance inland by rail, most of them in open trucks. Typical of the spirit of the people was one old man who was weeping inconsolably, not because of fear but because the train could not be held whilst he went back to his house for a large box of linen treasured by his wife.

The train used to transport women, children and aged men from Darwin, was provisioned from the Railway Department's store.

On the day following the raid, work began on dismantling the machinery and equipment at the workshops, for loading and transport to Katherine. In the first week of March, makeshift workshops were operating on a site previously known as the Construction Dump at Katherine.

The Administrative staff were accommodated at Katherine in existing buildings and, of course, suffered cramped conditions for the period needed to erect new quarters and office buildings. The Stationmaster's house was taken over for the main office and mess, and for a long period was used also as quarters. This house was of a type common in the tropics, in that it was erected on concrete pillars which raised the building about seven feet from the ground. The section beneath the floor was used for the main office. With these primitive facilities the service was carried on, and the lag caused by the period of transfer was quickly overtaken.

It is proposed that the war history of this railway should be related under the following headings:-

  1. Air Raids
  2. The Wharf and Sorting Shed
  3. Traffic Operations
  4. Rollingstock
  5. Track and Station Yard Facilities
  6. Water Supplies
  7. Workshops Facilities
  8. Staff - Accommodation, Messing etc.
  9. Coal and Other Running Supplies.

Air Raids

Events proved that the first air attack on 19th February 1942, was the most severe of all the raids made on the Darwin area. Of the frequent subsequent occasions on which the bombers came over, the only one that caused severe damage to railway installations occurred on 15th March 1943, when the Sorting Shed suffered damage; the goods shed, carriage sheds, one residence and the weighbridges were destroyed, and the tracks in the yard were broken in eight places. The track was broken by bombs on five other occasions, but no serious delays to traffic resulted.

For a considerable period after the first bombing, blackout restrictions were severe, and trains ran at night for the 76 miles between Darwin and Adelaide River without headlights. The reader will appreciate that this duty made no small demands upon the courage of the train crews, particularly the enginemen.

Great credit is due, also, to the staff who were called upon to remain at Darwin for the preparation of locomotives and for the dispatch of trains from the Darwin yard. These men had seen that the enemy had within range a heavy force of aircraft which was capable of obliterating the railway installations. For their first experience under enemy fire, they had felt the terror of a raid that has since been described as comparable, for intensity over a given area, with any endured in Britain during the war. They remained in the danger zone, then, with a clear knowledge of the risk involved, and enabled a most essential service to function without interruption.

The precautions taken by the railway organisation against air raids were simple. Instructions were issued to the staff regarding observance of the customary siren warnings, blackouts, the building of "V" slit trenches, bomb disposal, and security of essential documents. In the Darwin area, the construction of deep shelters was difficult because of the rock formations below the surface of the earth; and the humid climate made unattractive the idea of being below ground level for long periods.

Blackout conditions were rigidly enforced by the Army authorities for a period, until it became obvious that enemy aircraft had the area identified and could bomb their objectives by moonlight. From then on the area was "blacked out" only when the air raid warning were sounded.

The Wharf and Sorting Shed

The wharf at Darwin was "L" shaped, and the movement of rail trucks along it was effected by a steam-driven turntable at the angle. Cargoes were unloaded by casual labor employed by the Commonwealth Railways, into rail trucks and were shunted to the Sorting Shed in the Darwin yard for delivery to consignees.

The rapid increase in the volume of shipping cargo handled from the time of the outbreak of war until the wharf was put out of action by bombs on 19th February 1942, is illustrated by the following figures:-
1938/39 (tons)1939/40 (tons)1940/41 (tons)1.7.1941 to 19.2.1942 only (tons)
Regular vessels31,02154,52883,65974,200
Inflammable Products (packed) Special Shipments 1,9372,0536,9163,108
Petrol, bulk1,0153902,1821,500
Crude oil, bulk1,20325,4049,46624,518
Vessels trading in Northern Territory4657470120
It will be seen that for the 7½ months from the first of July 1941, to 19th February 1942, almost the same tonnage was handled over the wharf as for the whole of the preceding year, for which the figure was more than treble that for the previous year 1938/39.

In December 1941 and January 1942, labor was brought into Darwin to cope with the increased volume of shipping; but the port facilities were heavily overloaded. The stacking space in the Sorting Shed of the railway yard proved unequal to the burden, and some cargo had to be shunted to the Vestey's sidings (2½ miles away), then serving a large Military establishment.

Working under these conditions, there was a considerable lag between the discharge of cargo from the ship and its offloading from trucks, and subsequent delivery. Consequently, when there was no break in the continuity of discharge of cargo from the ships, there was no opportunity to balance the discharge with the unloading of rail trucks and the delivery from the Sorting Shed and stacking sites. Under these circumstances delays in the discharge of cargoes from ships became unavoidable.

The experience gained in working the Darwin wharf in wartime, showed that facilities at so strategically important a port should be so constructed as to enable ordinary merchandise to be taken direct from ship's slings into sorting sheds for delivery; and only cargo of a heavy nature should require to be transported to a stacking site away from the wharf.

After the air raid on 19th February 1942, the control of the wharf was taken over by the Department of the Army for the remainder of the war period.

When the railway wharf was damaged, then only port facility remaining for sea cargoes was the jetty attached to the submarine boom depot, which was able to receive only ships with a maximum draft of sixteen feet. Shipping traffic to Darwin was consequently curtained drastically, and the whole of the requirements of the area had to be conveyed overland. The action taken to handle the resulting flood of material for rail transport will be described briefly in the pages which follow.

Traffic Operations

Much ill-informed criticism was levelled at the North Australia Railway by many who visited the Territory for the first time during the war. The fact remains, however, that the services provided and the task accomplished, despite the isolation of the railway, its limited initial resources associated with its necessarily light construction and the small pre-war traffic needs of the Territory, the difficulty of obtaining staff and material under war conditions, and the fact that for a long time the railway was part of the front line, subject to numerous enemy raids, played an extremely important part in Australia's war effort. The manner in which that part was played, and the effectiveness of the railway service and its contribution to victory, was the subject on more from Australian Service Departments, but also from our American and Dutch Allies.

The following comparison of the pre-war traffic and the traffic handled in 1943/44 shows clearly the extent of the transport demands which a country at war made on this hitherto small and practically unknown railway:-
Item1938/39 (Year preceding declaration of war) 1943/44Increase per cent.
Train mileage32,364741,527 2,191
Goods Ton mileage599,12938,617,7086,346
Gross Ton mileage4,137,720134,683,8833,155

The passenger traffic after February 1942 was almost wholly Service personnel. The peak year for passenger traffic was 1943, when 91,488 passengers were carried.

The goods and material traffic reached its peal in the twelve months ended 30.9.44.

It will be seen that to service this operational area, the demands on the railway were enormous. From the peacetime running of one train weekly it was necessary to supply up to 147 trains per week to meet requirements for the conveyance of Service personnel, materials and supplies.

The rapidity and volume of the increase in traffic on this line are more fully illustrated in the comparative figures supplied below: the year ended 40th June 1939 has been taken to supply a basis of the traffic conveyed during a peacetime year:-
Year Ended 30th JuneNo. of PassengersTonnage of Goods HauledLocomotive MileageVehicle MileageGross Ton Mileage

Following the first air raid, shipping to the port was greatly curtailed, with the result that Service personnel, materials and supplies from the south had to be conveyed overland to Larrimah - the military siding at the southern end of the North Australia Railway - and at that point loaded on railway vehicles for onward transportation to Adelaide River and Darwin.

The possibility of enemy action forcing a closure of the port of Darwin had been anticipated by suitable arrangements to increase the capacity of the railway. Particulars of action taken in this direction follow under relevant headings.

At the beginning of the war, the North Australia Railway traffic was operated under the Train Staff and Ticket regulations. The "attended" stations on the line were: Darwin, Pine Creek (145 miles), and Katherine (200 miles). As the volume of traffic increased, it was necessary to open more "attended" stations, and in May 1942, Southport, Howley, Burrundie, Horseshoe, Maranboy, Mataranka and Larrimah were staffed.

The density of traffic also necessitated the crossing of trains at points which were not Train Staff Ticket stations. This entailed the modification of the standard Train Staff and Ticket Regulations.

On 24th June 1943, construction of a new railway metallic telephone circuit from Darwin to Birdum had been completed, and traffic from that date was conducted under Train Orders under Train Control System. This provided a more flexible means of controlling the traffic, gave greater supervision over train movements and enabled the station staff to be withdrawn from Southport, Howley, Burrundie and Horseshoe.

The Army 5th Australian Movement Control Group was established in Darwin to co-ordinate the transport requirements of all sections of the Armed Forces. At Katherine an officer bearing the title of Deputy Assistant Director or Transportation, was stationed to receive from Movement Control Headquarters, bulk orders for rail transport, which he would personally deliver to the railway Traffic Office. The officer occupying this post was a trained railwayman and was, therefore, able to understand and assist in rail transport problems as they arose. Relations between the Traffic Officers of this Department and the Army representative were at all times cordial and of great mutual advantage. This organisation was most effective and ensured that loading was so arranged that the maximum use was made of locomotive power and rollingstock available.


The locomotives and other rollingstock on hand at September 1939, were sufficient only for the normal service of one train weekly. Because of the light nature of the railway, they were limited in respect of axle load. Listed hereunder are particulars of the whole stock on hand at that time:-

Sentinel Steam Motor0-4-01
Coaching Stock and Brakevans
Sitting-up cars, 2nd-class1
Sitting-up cars, composite3
Steam coach1
Other Vehicles2
Freight Vehicles
Open goods wagons, 4-wheel137
Louvre vans, 4-wheel2
Refrigerator vans, 4-wheel21
Flat wagons, bogie19
Flat wagons, 4-wheel17
Brakevan (goods) bogie1
Cattle wagons, bogie28
Bolster wagons, bogie2
Bolster wagons, 4-wheel5
Powder van, 4-wheel1
Service and Miscellaneous Stock
Water tank wagons, 4-wheel5
Ballast wagons, 4-wheel37
Ballast plough2
Workmen's van, 4-wheel1
Hospital van, 4-wheel1

The numerical inadequacy of this stock was accentuated by the condition of the vehicles, which was referred to by the Commonwealth Railways Commissioner, in his Annual Report of 1939, in the following terms:-

In previous reports attention has been invited to the age of the locomotives and rollingstock, some of which has been in use since the line from Darwin to Pine Creek was opened for traffic in 1889. The renewal of this equipment has been contemplated for a number of years, but has been deferred on account of consideration of costs, etc..

All the locomotives are very old and were in use prior to being sent to Darwin. Several of them have been places out of commission permanently, whilst others are reaching the stage when they have outlived their usefulness.

With the exception of one passenger carriage, and a brakevan added within recent years, the carriages are now so old and costly to maintain that consideration will require to be given to their replacement.

Similar remarks to the above can also be applied to a considerable portion of the wagon stock. Most of the wagons are of timber construction and, owing to climatic conditions, frequent repairs are necessary. When replacements are effected, consideration will be given to the provision of wagons of steel construction.

The above brief resume of the rollingstock available, when considered in the light of the traffic what was to come to the railway in the immediately following years, will clearly show the magnitude and the urgency of the task that suddenly confronted the Department.

By October 1943, bases for a vast offensive force of arms had been formed by the Services along the route served by the North Australia Railway. Large airfields had been constructed, and were served at Firdan, Adelaide River, Brocks Creek and Katherine. An Army Meat Works and a farm unit were established at Katherine. At Snake Creek, on the northern side of the Adelaide River, the Navy had erected a large ammunition depot. Gorrie was the site of a R.A.A.F. workshops and supply depot; and a substantial Ordnance Depot functioned at Mataranka.

A summary of the locomotives and other rollingstock obtained to meet these demands is given in the following:-
Number ObtainedTotal
Western Australian Government Railways "G" class26
South Australian Government "Yx" class1844
Brakevans - Bogie
Western Australian Government Railways "Z" type15
New "NHA" class621
Covered Vans - Bogie
Western Australian Government Railways "U" type2
New "NVb" class1012
Louvred Vans - Bogie
New "NLA" class3030
Open Goods Wagons - Bogie
Western Australian Government Railways "R" type46
Queensland Railways "H" class40
New "NGC" class40126
Open Goods Wagons - 4-wheel
Western Australian Government Railways "GC" type112
Western Australian Government Railways "G" type30142
Flat Top Wagons - Bogie
Western Australian Government Railways "U" type2
New "NRF" class2426
Refrigerator Vans - Bogie
New underframes and bodies "NF" class6
New bodies mounted on Western Australian Government Railways "R" wagon underframes at Katherine, "NFA" class814
Refrigerator Vans - 4-wheel
New bodies mounted on Commonwealth Railways "NIS" underframes, "NFS" class44
Bulk Oil Tank Wagons - Bogie
Western Australian Government Railways "U" type 112
New "TS" class 16
New "NTO" class2047
Total Number of Vehicles422

The additional stock of 422 vehicles represented an increase of 144% on pre-war stock, whereas the vehicle mileage run during the peak year 1943/44 discloses an increase of 247% on the mileage run during the peace year 1938/39.

To meet special traffic demands it was necessary to convert some rollingstock, and briefly the conversions made were as follows:-
Number ObtainedTotal
Vans for Conveyance of Service Personnel
"NC" Bogie Cattle vans roofed, walls closed up and shutters fitted5
Queensland Bogie Open Goods Wagons converted to covered vans and fitted with shutters1722
Ambulance Cars
"NC" Bogie Cattle Vans; bodies reconstructed, fitted with berths, lavatories, water service and electrically lighted6
"NC" Bogie Cattle Van; converted into Ambulance Kitchen car, body reconstructed, water service, oil burning stoves, sinks and cupboards fitted (These cars were worked as a Unit on the Hospital Train)17
Flat Top Wagons
"S" Bogie Sheep Van underframes supplied from the Central Australia Railway, and converted into flat top wagons5
"NC" Cattle Vans; bodies removed, underframes decked and used as flat wagons611
Covered Vans - 4-wheel
"NIS" Insulated Vans. Bodies removed and replaced by ordinary covered van bodies88
Tank Wagons
4-wheel Ballast Hopper Bodies removed and small tanks, obtained from the bowzers in Darwin, mounted on the underframes for the conveyance of bulk flux77
Refrigerator Vans - Bogie
Western Australian Government Railways "R" Open Goods Wagon Bodies removed and replaced by new "NFA" Refrigerator Bodies88
Refrigerator Vans - 4-wheel
"NIS" Insulated Van Bodies removed and replaced by new "NFS" Refrigerator Van Bodies44
Total Number of Vehicles Converted67

Action to procure the additional rollingstock was, of course, taken promptly upon receipt of advice of expected demands to be made by the Defence Services, but the rapidity of the progress of the Allied offensive strategy, coupled with the difficulties encountered in obtaining the rollingstock and of transporting it to the North Australia Railway, resulted in delays which greatly added to the heavy burden carried by the organisation.

The light nature of the track construction placed a limitation of 8-tons axle load on the rollingstock required. The transfer of twenty six "G" class locomotives by the Western Australian Government Railways was, of course, a serious drain upon their own resources, and involved negotiations on a high Government level and restrictions upon transport offered by that system. It was a matter of determining that the urgency of the need for locomotives in the Northern operational area warranted their supply at the expense of another system's traffic.

Locomotives from Western Australian Government Railways

The first two "G" class locomotives were shipped from Fremantle on 14.9.40 and were in service in Darwin on 7th October 1940.

The next two engines were delayed by the breaking of the jib of the lifting gear on the M.V. "Koolama" whilst loading the frame of the first engine. The frame dropped fifteen feet into the hold, fortunately without damage to the frame or the ship, but the jib could not be repaired immediately, and the ship sailed without the heavy lifting gear. On the return of the vessel from Darwin the lifting gear was fitted, and the balance of the first locomotive, and also the second, were loaded. The ship sailed on 9th December 1940. Both locomotives were in service on 8th January 1941.

In March 1942, as the Japanese menace came nearer our shores, the Right Honourable the Prime Minister wrote the Premier of Western Australia in the following terms:-

It is of the utmost importance and a matter of extreme urgency that the lines of communication with the 7th Military District should be improved immediately to meet defence transportation needs. Undoubtedly some dislocation of the railway operation in Western Australia is bound to result with the withdrawal of locomotives and rollingstock, but this dislocation could be met to a degree by rationing tonnages and cutting out the rail transportation on non-essential commodities.

Following this correspondence, the Western Australian Government Railways agreed in April 1942, to transfer from their system a further 22 locomotives and other rollingstock requested for the North Australia Railway. The movement of this rollingstock, however, proved such a task that nineteen months were to elapse before the last vehicles were landed in Darwin.

It was first arranged with the Movement Section of the Department of the Army that the entire consignment, comprising 22 locomotives and 120 other vehicles (more particulars of which will be given later), could be lifted at once from Fremantle to Sydney by an overseas vessel, and that onward shipment to Darwin could be arranged at the rate of five locomotives per month.

In view of the uncertainty of movement from Sydney, the possibility of unloading the overseas vessel at Port Augusta and of forwarding the rollingstock from there to Darwin overland, was considered and rejected because the draft of the vessel was too great for Port Augusta.

Shipment by S.S. "Clan Macpherson" from Fremantle was arranged, but it was found after the ship sailed on 14th May 1942, that only 13 locomotives and 74 other vehicles had been loaded, leaving 9 locomotives and the other vehicles at Fremantle. The loading left behind was eventually lifted by ships as under:-
Date of SailingShipLocomotivesOther Vehicles
10.7.1942"Clan Mcauley"928

It was expected that vessels which were to carry the rollingstock onward from Sydney would have lifting gear with a maximum capacity not exceeding twelve tons. The New South Wales Railway Department agreed to break down the vehicles into sections that would conform to this limitation, and to arrange protection, branding for re-erection, crating, storage and onloading as space was made available on ships for Darwin. Because of the limited shipping space available, it proved necessary on four occasions to tranship at Cairns the vehicles loaded at Sydney.

The delay to the movement of this rollingstock from Sydney is detailed in the following:-
Date of Shipment from SydneyRouteQuantities shipped
LocomotivesOther Vehicles
In the course of transhipment of these locomotives at Sydney, three were dropped into the harbour, but were recovered without sustaining any considerable damage.

Damage to six of the locomotives was discovered when these engines were offloaded from S.S. "James Cook" on 21.12.1942, and was attributed to rough handling during loading operations at Sydney. Delay was occasioned in the placing of these engines in traffic, as replacement parts had to be obtained from the Western Australian Government Railways for the extensive repairs that were found necessary.

Locomotives from the South Australian Railways

On 8th August, 1941, purchase of four (4) "Yx" class locomotives from the South Australian Railways was arranged, with the option of a further two at a later date. The engines were withdrawn from their Port Lincoln Division, from whence it was decided they should be shipped to Fremantle and from there by the west coast to Darwin.

The first two locomotives (No.s 166 and 116) were shipped from Port Lincoln direct to Fremantle by the S.S. "Allara" on 5.9.1941.

The Adelaide Steamship Company agreed to issue a "through" Bill of Landing, Port Lincoln to Darwin, on the understanding that the Western Australian Government Railways should accept, on behalf of this Department, responsibility for the storage and maintenance of the vehicles whilst awaiting transhipment at Fremantle, and for their on-carriage to Darwin, and also liability for all expenses.

The through Bill of Landing was accordingly issued with the following clause forming part of the conditions:-

"Shippers agree to accept all responsibility for on-carriage fo cargo from Fremantle to Darwin, and to make all necessary arrangements in connection therewith also in connection with storage and/or maintenance whilst awaiting transhipment at Fremantle, and to accept liability for all expenses incurred."
The two locomotives were shipped from Fremantle on 10.1041 by the M.V. "Koolama", arrived at Darwin on 23.1041, and were placed in service during the following month.

The next two "Yx" class locomotives (No.s 156 and 178) were forwarded from Port Lincoln to Adelaide by the M.V. "Moonta" where the were transferred to the S.S. "Eidsvold" for carriage to Fremantle. A through Bill of Landing was again issued as in the case of the "Allara" shipment, but in this case it was arranged that the freight charges Fremantle to Darwin would be paid direct to the State Shipping Service, Fremantle. These locomotives left Port Lincoln on 25.9.1941, but were not shipped from Fremantle until 15.11.1941, and arrived at Darwin thirteen days later. They were both in service by the 14th January 1942.

In January 1942, two more "Yx" class locomotives were purchased for Darwin. These engines, Nos. 126 and 138, were shipped from Port Lincoln by the M.V. "Moonta" on 5th February and transhipped at Adelaide to the "Kaituna" which sailed from Fremantle on 9.2.1942.

Before these locomotive were despatched from Fremantle, the first air raid occurred at Darwin and shipping arrangements were disorganised. At the end of March 1942, the locomotives were still at Fremantle, and it was decided to return them to Port Augusta by rail for their conveyance overland to the North Australia Railway. Instructions to that effect were issued on 30th March in accordance with advice received from the Shipping Control Board that shipping would not be available, but on the following day Bills of Landing were received indicating that the locomotives had already been shipped from Fremantle on 19.3.1942.

While this uncertain state of affairs existed, it had been decided in view of developments, to transfer another two (the seventh and eighth) "Yx" class locomotives to the North Australia Railway, and these (Nos. 132 and 160) were shipped from Port Lincoln to Port Augusta for dispatch overland. They were both in service by 22nd May 1942.

In the meantime, no definite advice was obtained regarding the movements of the ship conveying the fifth and sixth locomotives purchased, until it was learned that it had discharged them at Sydney. Their adventures were described in a letter written on 20th April 1942, by the Movements Control Officer (Shipping), Department of the Army, as follows:-

"At your request these locomotives were booked by sea from Port Lincoln to Fremantle for onward carriage to Darwin, and, at that time, no difficulty was expected in securing on-carriage to Darwin from Fremantle.

On arrival at Fremantle they were booked for on-carriage in the "Centaur" which was to proceed to Darwin, but was subsequently loaded for Wyndham, Broome and Derby only.

The "Gorgon" was then put on for the Darwin voyage and loading commenced accordingly, but, while loading was in progress, the route to Darwin via the West was closed. On completion of loading, therefore, the Navy instructed this vessel to proceed to Sydney presumably with the idea of sending her on to Darwin via the East coast. Later, however, all sailings to Darwin were suspended except for vessels of small size and suitable draught, and, as the "Gorgon" was not suitable in this way, it became necessary for all her cargo to be discharged at Sydney."

An officer of this Department visited Sydney to inspect the locomotives and arranged their dispatch by rail to Port Augusta. Due to the limited capacity of the crane at Broken Hill, and because of the necessity for road cartage between broad and narrow gauge systems, it was necessary further to dismantle the engines. They left Sydney on 29.4.1942 and reached Larrimah on 30.5.1942.

The following table shows the extra distance over which these two locomotives were conveyed:-
Intended method of dispatchActual route dictated by circumstances
Port Lincoln to Adelaide154 Port Lincoln to Adelaide154
Adelaide to Fremantle1,347 Adelaide to Fremantle1,347
Fremantle to Darwin1,840 Fremantle to Sydney2,141
Darwin to Katherine200 Sydney to Alice Springs (via B/Hill and Quorn)1,709
Alice Springs to Larrimah (road)621
Larrimah to Katherine111
Total Miles:3,541Total Miles6,083

In July 1943, further locomotive power was required on the North Australia Railway, and the South Australian Railways Department advised that eleven (11) "Yx" class locomotives could be made available.

The Department of Army advised in October 1943 that there would be an increase of traffic on the North Australia Railway of 66% on the previous year's mileage, which would aggregate on that basis, 1,100,100 miles.

In estimating the locomotive power required to handle this increased traffic, the Manager, North Australia Railway, reported on 21st October 1943, as follows:-

"The average engine miles per four-weekly period during year ended 1943 was 49,556 miles, and adding the suggested increase, the total for a period would be 82,593 miles. If 26 engines were engaged in running this mileage, this would average 3,176 miles each engine for the period of four weeks. The best individual mileage being obtained from any engine is 3,3,84 miles, but the mileage run by individual locomotives rarely exceeds 2,500 miles. In estimating the requirements of 26 engines, an improvement in locomotive power is visualised.

In service at present there are 24 locomotives, but the majority of these engines are due for overhaul. At present there are 3 engines being overhauled, and 7 out of traffic awaiting overhaul.

With the addition of 11 "Yx" locomotives from South Australian Railways, it would permit the replacement of some of the engines in traffic for overhaul and also maintain satisfactorily the increased service demanded."

The eleven locomotives offered by the South Australian Railways were accordingly purchased.

A suggestion was made that the engines be steamed to Alice Springs for dismantling at that town and loading on road vehicles for overland transport to Larrimah, and the Chief Mechanical Engineer was requested to report on the relative merits of this method, as an alternative to freighting by rail on the Central Australia Railway. An extract from the Chief Mechanical Engineer's report, dated 1st November 1943, is as follows:-

"In regard to the suggestion that the engines might be steamed to Alice Springs, the relative freight charges have been obtained from the Chief Traffic Manager, and on examination it is considered the most advantageous method is for dismantling at Islington and freighting to Alice Springs, having regard to the fact that it would be necessary to send staff to Alice Springs to dismantle, pack etc. the engines for dispatch to Larrimah.

The estimated cost per engine dismantled at Islington freighted to Alice Springs and including transfer costs at the latter place is £.300, as against steaming the engines, which is estimated to cost in the vicinity of £.370, including dismantling etc. at Alice Springs.

The question of haulage of the locomotives dead to Alice Springs has also been examined, but this is not considered desirable as it would be necessary to send staff to Alice Springs for dismantling etc.. As the engines will go forward separately, a lot of idle time would be involved if mechanical staff were sent to Alice Springs waiting the arrival etc. of the engines."

It was decided that the engines should be dismantled at the South Australian Railways Workshops at Islington, and freighted to Alice Springs for transfer to road vehicles for overland transport to Larrimah.

In October 1944, following advice from the Department of the Army that traffic on the North Australia Railway would decrease, the South Australian Railways were advised that the eleventh locomotive, then being reconditioned at their Islington Workshops, would not be required.

Details of the dates of dispatch from Alice Springs, and of entry into traffic of the ten locomotives, are given in the following:-
Engine No.Left Alice SpringsDate entered traffic at Katherine

Overland Transport of Locomotives and Other Rollingstock

For the transport overland of the locomotives and railway wagons (details of which will be given later) from Alice Springs to Larrimah, specially designed road trailers were built. It was necessary to "break down" the locomotives to particular units to enable them to be carried in the trailers, but the wagons were loaded by the simple expedient of removing the bogies.

The trailers were hauled by prime movers supplied from the Army Transport Pool.

The loading and unloading of the trailers was done by gantries specially erected for the purpose at Alice Springs and Larrimah.

Freight Vehicles and Brakevans

The first purchase of freight vehicles was made from the Western Australian Government Railways in 1940, when 44 goods wagons and 5 brakevans were ordered for delivery with the first two locomotives obtained from that system. these vehicles were shipped from Fremantle.

The goods wagons comprised:-
16open goods wagons, bogie
24open goods wagons, 4-wheel
2covered goods wagons, bogie
2flat top wagons, bogie
5brakevans, bogie

The transfer of forty (40) bogie open goods wagons from the Queensland Railways was arranged in August 1941. The wagons were shipped from Townsville for Darwin on 12th October of that year. The terms of transfer, decided later, were the payment of a hire charge, such payments to be considered if later it became possible for any or all of the wagons to be sold to the Commonwealth Railways. These vehicles proved of assistance in the emergency for which they were hired, and in August 1944 they were purchased outright.

Early in 1942, after the bombing of Darwin, further purchases of freight rollingstock were made from the Western Australian Government Railways, as follows:-
10brakevans, bogie
30open goods wagons, bogie
118open goods wagons, bogie

Delivery of much of this rollingstock, shipped with the 22 locomotives referred to earlier in this history, was considerably delayed by the disruption of shipping services.

Following the Army's warning in October 1943, of a 66% increase in traffic, the Directorate of Locomotive and Railway Construction (Department of Land Transport), supplied to the Commonwealth Railways 373 narrow gauge 40-ft. bogie underframes of a total of 1,000 constructed. Of these, 110 were used for the North Australia Railway, fitted as follows:-
10covered goods vans
30louvred vans
40open goods wagons
24flat wagons

Bodies for the brakevans, covered goods vans and louvred vans, were constructed and fitted by the South Australian Railways. The open goods wagon bodies, and the floors for the 24 flat wagons, were constructed and fitted by the Commonwealth Railways at their Port Augusta Workshops.

For the conveyance of fresh meat from Katherine Meat Works and from ships at Darwin, six (6) bogie refrigerator vans complete, and eight (8) bogie and four (4) four-wheeled refrigerator van bodies - for mounting on existing underframes - were constructed by the South Australian Railways and transferred to North Australia.

Anticipating heavy traffic in petrol, eleven (11) bogie oil tank wagons were obtained from the Western Australian Government Railways, and sixteen (16) from the South Australian Railways, and a further twenty (20) were specially built by the latter Department for the North Australia Railway.

The whole of the 110 vehicles erected on Land Transport underframes, and the refrigerator wagons and bodies, and the tank wagons, were conveyed to Katherine overland.

In addition to the vehicles described in the foregoing, a total of sixteen (16) flat wagons (five from the Central Australia Railway and eleven built in Western Australia) were transferred to the North Australia Railway before the port of Darwin was closed to shipping.

Standardisation of Braking Power on Rollingstock

Originally the locomotives and other rollingstock on the North Australia Railway ere equipped with Westinghouse brakes, or with handbrakes only. Those obtained during the war period from South Australian, Queensland and the Central Australia Railways, were similarly fitted. But the locomotives and other vehicles purchased from the Western Australian Government Railways were equipped with Vacuum Brakes, and, as these were in the majority, it was decided to standardise the braking power on this type. The conversions necessary totalled 91 vehicles fitted with vacuum brake complete, and 58 fitted with train pipe only.

Track and Station Yard Facilities

Additional crossing loops were built at the following points:-

The loops at Cullen, Collings, Elsey and Hobler each had standing room of 900-feet, and at Mataranka 1,000-feet. All others were built with 800-feet in the clear.

Additional yard facilities were installed as under:-


Concurrently with the construction of the "all weather" road between Alice Springs and Birdum in 1940, an Army depot for the handling of defence supplies, etc., was established on the railway at a point 311 miles south of Darwin - 5 miles north of Birdum. This location was subsequently names "Larrimah". There were previously no railway facilities at Larrimah, but on the opening of the road, the following were provided:-

With the subsequent heavy increase in traffic from the south it became necessary to extend the facilities at Larrimah, and the following were added:-


Winnellie (7 miles)

Firdan (27 miles)

Noonamah (29 miles)

Batchelor (60 miles)

Adelaide River (76 miles)

Pine Creek (146 miles)

Katherine (200 miles)


Gorrie (303 miles)

At the depots for defence traffic constructed at Snake Creek, Adelaide River North, Brocks Creek (petrol dump), and Field Supply Depot, Katherine, the track laying was carried out by Service Units or Allied Works Council, under the supervision of Railway staff in some cases, but all leads to the main line were laid Railway staff.

Service personnel or Allied Works Council employees also laid the track for a number of the crossing loops and other works, but the whole of the permanent way material, including points and crossings, was supplied by the Railway Department.


To fit the track for the heavy traffic being carried and the still further increased traffic which was anticipated, re-ballasting was commenced in 1941/42 and continued up to December 1945, Due to shortage of labor, progress was slow until men from the Civil Aliens Corps were made available. The track was lifted and ballasted "on a face" from Adelaide River to Pine Creek, and as necessary on other sections of the Railway.

Water Supplies

The North Australia Railway operates in an area where there is an assured tropical rainfall during the summer months. The average annual rainfall exceeds 40 inches, which provides a permanent supply of water from the Darwin, Adelaide, Fergusson, Katherine and Roper Rivers.

In pre-war years sufficient water for the needs of the railway was obtained by pumping from Darwin, Fergusson, Katherine and Roper Rovers; and also from reservoirs located at Adelaide River, Burrundie, Pine Creek and Birdum.

The source of supply and storage capacity at various locations on the railway at the commencement of the war were as follows:-
Location on LineSource of SupplyOverhead Storage Capacity (gals.)Remarks
DarwinManton River and 1-Mile Reservoir 25,000Unlimited supply
1-Mile from DarwinReservoir (5,000,000 gals.)
Paraparap (2½ miles from Darwin) Manton River and Reservoir (2,300,000 gals.) 25,000Unlimited supply
Darwin RiverDarwin River 25,000Unlimited supply
Adelaide RiverReservoir (3,800,000 gals.) 25,000
HowleyReservoir (3,500,000 gals.) 25,000
BurrundieReservoir (3,800,000 gals.) 25,000
Pine CreekReservoir (2,800,000 gals.) 25,000
Fergusson RiverFergusson River 26,000Unlimited supply
KatherineKatherine River 26,000Unlimited supply
MatarankaRoper River 26,000Unlimited supply
BirdumReservoir on Birdum Creek 26,000Small supply which invariably fails during "dry" season.
The water was of good quality for locomotives at all locations excepting Mataranka, where the quality was only fair. The capacity of the reservoirs proved inadequate for the requirements of the heavy war traffic, and it became necessary to augment supplies by sinking bores at the undermentioned locations:-

. The bores at the four places first mentioned were sunk by the Department of the Army for this Department, and produced first-class locomotive water. The bore at Birdum was sunk by the United States Army and was later taken over by the Railway. The water in this bore was of only fair quality.

All of the bores were equipped with necessary overhead tanks, pumps and engines by Commonwealth Railways. In addition, a pumping plant was installed on the Adelaide River, and the Manton Gap - Darwin Water Scheme pipeline was tapped at Noonamah (29 miles) for locomotive purposes. Water for the Darwin depot was drawn from the Manton Gap - darwin water supply from the time that scheme came into operation.

The Department of the Army also sank two bores close to the railway at Larrimah (311 miles), and the Railway Department erected and made available to the Army a 25,000-gallon overhead tank, to which the two bores were connected. The water from these bores was unsuitable for use in locomotives, but was reticulated throughout the Army staging and other camps at Larrimah.

Workshops Facilities

The construction of a permanent running shed and workshops at Katherine to replace the temporary facilities installed at the old Construction Dump, was a major undertaking. To obtain the necessary material from other State would have presented problems associated with the great distance from the source of supply, and the transport overland of heavy steel sections. To overcome this, use was made of steel telegraph poles and Army huts which were available in the Northern Territory. The actual construction of the sheds, workshops, engine pits, tacks, etc. was undertaken by the Allied Works Council, and the machinery was installed by the Railways Department. Despite the difficulty obtaining men and material, the new running shed was in use in February 1943, and the workshops were available for use in May of that year. The length of the railway tracks in the new workshops, and workshops yard, totalled 3¼ miles.

The continued upward trend of traffic in 1943 placed a heavy strain on the workshops facilities particularly as arrears of work had accumulated during the period in which only temporary facilities were available. Following advice from the Department of the Army that a further increase in traffic was anticipated, arrangements were made in October 1943, to increase the workshops substantially in size, provide additional machines, overhead cranes, and generally re-organise. The extension of the workshops and the re-organisation were completed in that year, and enabled arrears of work on locomotives and rollingstock to be overtaken, and, at the same time, facilitated the assembly of locomotives and rollingstock received from other systems, and the conversion of vehicles to vacuum brake working.

Staff, Accommodation, Messing, etc.


At 30th June 1939, three months before the outbreak of war, the staff in the Northern Territory Railway, in all grades (wharf labourers excluded) totalled 116 persons.

The increased traffic on this railway, made necessary a greatly increased staff. Additional men could be obtained only with difficulty, particularly as in many grades, i.e. enginemen, guards, station staff, etc., trained railwaymen were essential; but every man available was engaged, and gradually the staff built up.

With the co-operation of the Commissioners of the State Railways, themselves hard pressed for staff, volunteers to serve on the North Australia Railway were called for from other Railway systems. the response was goods, and as many as 281 volunteers were serving on the railway at 28.10.44.

The Department of the Army loaded, altogether, 168 men from their Army duties (most of them with railway experience) to serve on the railway, and from January 1944, began to discharge men from the Army to take up railway duty. Up till the end of May 1944, 180 service personnel were released in this way.

A large gang from the Civil Aliens Corps was made available for ballasting.

At 28.10.44 the number of employees of all grades engaged on the railway, including 93 aliens and a small gang of aborigines cutting firewood, reached the peak figures of 846, and increase of 629% over the number employed in 1939.

As will be observed from perusal of the organisation charts included in the annexures, a considerable increase in the supervising staff was necessary during this time. The following positions were created during the war period:-

Manpower Regulations

The difficulty of obtaining labor was due very largely to keen competition existing on extensive works being undertaken by contractors for Defence and other Government services, and also to the higher earnings available for casual work on the wharf or in the Sorting Shed where the rates of pay had been fixed at a time when only limited work was available from shipping activities.

After the North Australia Railway had been placed under Army control from 19.2.42, civilians were supplied with Army rations on the same basis as Service personnel. As was to be expected from men living in communal camps, there was considerable discontent, and the wastage of staff was high. This position was alleviated when Railway service was declared a reserved occupation under Manpower Regulations. Had this control not been available, a very serious condition might have arisen. The regulations placed certain restriction on the engagement and dismissal of employees, which presented difficulties in administration and in many cases were detrimental to discipline; but on the whole the regulations were of considerable assistance.

Alien labor

To obtain sufficient labor for ballasting proved a big problem. Men were needed for the additional work of gulletting, spreading ballast and lifting the track, and it became necessary to employ enemy aliens allocated to work for the Allied Works Council. This alien labor proved unsatisfactory and very expensive. The major difficulty was that the railway officers had control of the men only during their working hours on the track; their camps etc. were under the jurisdiction of The Allied Works Council, and were very costly. It was apparent too, that because the work in the ballasting gangs was much heavier when compared with other work available to aliens, there was an inclination on the part of many of the aliens to "go slow" in the hope that they would be returned to that Council. One gang, employed at Adelaide River, proved entirely unsatisfactory, and the whole gang had to be returned.

Each new gang received from the Allied Works Council took some time to settle down to the railway work, but after the uncontrollable element was weeded out, they returned a fair day's work.

Accommodation and Messing Facilities for Employees

When the administration of the Northern Territory was assumed by the Department of the Army in 1942, it became necessary for the Railways Department to set up an organisation on Army lines to obtain rations and supply employees with prepared food.

The re-organisation rendered necessary by the transfer of the workshops and administrative office to Katherine and the substantial increase in staff required to conduct the war traffic, also presented a big problem in the provision of accommodation for the staff.

The problem of feeding the employees was met by the establishment of railway messes at Darwin, 2½-Miles, 22-Miles, 46-Miles, 58-Miles, Adelaide River, Howley, Burrundie, Pine Creek, Fergusson River, Katherine (3 messes), Mataranka, Larrimah and Birdum.

These messes were, in the first place, established in the existing buildings, and equipment required for them was obtained for various sources in the Northern Territory. The erection of suitable buildings for the messes was taken in hand at once and at the close of the war an up-to-date mess, fully equipped, had been in operation for a considerable period at each location.

The Department of the Army continued to be the sole source of supply for rations until the 24th February 1946, when it became practicable to revert to normal conditions in regard to the purchase and supply of provisions, etc..

The provision of quarters for the staff was an undertaking of considerable magnitude. In the early stages of development of the Katherine depot, the Allied Works Council was given the work of building hutments for the Administrative and Workshops staff, but later the building of accommodation necessary for the additional staff employed as the traffic became greater, was carried out by the Commonwealth Railways.

Coal and other Running Supplies

The consumption of coal in locomotives rose from 849 tons during the year ended 30th June 1939, to 21,035 tons in the peak twelve months ended 30th September 1944. This, possibly more than any other single item, throws into relief the tremendous impact of was conditions on this small railway.

Consumption of other supplies of course, increased in proportion. Details of these are given in the appendix.

War Time History of the Commonwealth Railways

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