University of York

Potential railway world heritage sites
in Asia and the Pacific

Robert Lee
University of Western Sydney, Macarthur

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During the second half of the nineteenth century, the horizons of railway engineers widened dramatically. From being conquerors of the relatively tame environment of northern England - the Pennines hardly qualify as a great range by world standards - they went to bring safe, economical and fast travel, and with it European notions of civilisation, to some of the remotest parts of the globe. They also enabled Western capital and technology to exploit the resources and peoples of those same previously impossibly remote regions. Naturally enough, the process of extending railway technology around the world began in Europe and the United Sates of America. It was in Europe that railways first began to penetrate really mountainous country. The pioneer mountain railway was, in many respects, the Austrian line over the Semmering Pass built between 1848 and 1854 It also reasonably can be described as the first 'imperial' railway, linking as it did the capital of Vienna with Austria's Italian possessions to the south. Admittedly, though, its function was not to extend the economic and political reach of new and dynamic empires, as the colonial railways built later in the century were, but to prop up a moribund and decaying one.

By the 1850s, the focus had shifted beyond Europe and the United States. Railway construction began in colonies and the South American republics, whose economic if not their political status was similar to many colonies.(1) Thus the first railways were opened in Brazil and Chile in 1852 and in Argentina in 1857. In Asia, the first railways were opened in India in 1853 and Java in 1864, while Australia's first two railways opened in 1854 and 1855. In many respects, though, the most impressive colonial railway of the 1850s was the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway, on which construction began in 1852. This was the longest railway in the world at the time, planned to link the Atlantic coast with the Great Lakes. Its aims, like those of many later colonial railways, mixed politics and economics, as the railway was designed to bind British North America into a tighter economic unit and to diminish US political and economic influence.

Global railway construction was part of a large and complex phenomenon, the age of the new imperialism of the late nineteenth century. The results of this phenomenon are easy to describe: virtually all humanity was brought under the control of a handful of Western empires, of which the British was easily the largest. Even those countries which escaped direct European rule - the Latin American republics, the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan and Siam (modern Thailand) - came under less formal but every bit as rigorous Western economic and political domination. The process meant that, very quickly over about half a century, nearly all humanity was exposed to the Western ideas, economic systems and technology. In this process the railway, obviously, was crucial.

While describing the new imperialism may be relatively easy, explaining it is far more complex. This issue remains one of the great historical questions. I do not propose to attempt to answer it here. Suffice it to make a few bald generalisations by way of explanation. Economic pressures, arising from the very success of industrialisation, helped push Western powers into imperialist policies. Ideas current at the time, notably the creed of free trade and a belief in social Darwinism, or the right of the strong to dominate the weak, gave imperialism an intellectual respectability and moral justification. The spread of democracy in Western countries encouraged politicians to play the imperialist card as a means of winning electoral favour. The industrial revolution, together with the political and military changes which accompanied it, gave Western states a genuine technical and organisational superiority over non-Western countries which previously they had not possessed. (This last factor was especially important in Asia.) Finally, the technological changes of the mid-nineteenth century gave the West the means to develop large territorial empires in previously unhospitable lands. Railways were foremost among these innovations, but not alone. Beside them were quinine, which conquered malaria; the steamship which, like the railway, had first been used in the early nineteenth century but only emerged as a practical tool for long distance traffic after the 1860s; and the electric telegraph, which in the 1870s was extended across the world.(2)

The fact that the railway age and the era of the new imperialism coincided was not accidental, because the railway and imperialism were interdependent. Imperial penetration always began from ports: indeed it had been in Asian and African ports that Europeans had settled to trade and make money ever since their great breakthrough in blue-water navigation in the fifteenth century. And, until the eighteenth century, on the whole it was in ports that they stayed, content with the profitable business of buying commodities cheap and selling them dear. Moreover, the pre-railway territorial empires created in the century or so after 1757 were on the whole either for European settlers (notably British North America and Australia) or acquired to protect the older trading ports (as in the expansion of British India and the Netherlands Indies). It was only in the railway age that modern economic patterns and Western political control came to most of the globe. So striking is the relationship between imperialism and railway building that we can genuinely discuss a phenomenon called 'railway imperialism'. It was in fact the direct descendent of that better known nineteenth-century phenomenon, 'gunboat diplomacy'.(3)

All over the world this railway imperialism was based on the theory of a hinterland. Empire-builders used railways to extend and exploit the resources of the hinterlands of ports they controlled. In other words they used railways to create regions with a coherently developed economy centred around a port. The railway would ensure the economic domination of this hinterland, and often its political control as well. The obstacles they had to overcome were varied: some were natural, like escarpments, jungles, deserts and rivers; others were political, like the resistance of traditional elites, or, if these were defeated or bought off, popular resistance which could become guerrilla war against a railway. A further political obstacle could be the rivalry of another Western power. Whatever the obstacles, and whether the railway was ever completed or not, the aim remained the same: the creation of a hinterland. From Manchuria to the Argentine pampas; from the Great Lakes to the African high veldt; from Yunnan to the Australian bush, the motives and methods remained the same.

Thus, colonial railways were part of this process of the spread of empire, its economic patterns, its ideas and its institutions. The process was essentially the same throughout the world: production of new commodities to feed the burgeoning industries of the West; new populations to produce them; new patterns of land ownership, often involving the dispossession of previous inhabitants; new legal codes to make the conquered lands safe for investment and exploitation. Such was the story everywhere empires expanded.

The spread of railways around the world in the late nineteenth century was a technological triumph. It was also, of course, the creation of the means for the exploitation of natural resources and human beings in ways that they had never been exploited before. This negative side of the spread of railways is not one on which contemporaries were inclined to dwell. Naturally enough, they looked to exciting and impressive achievements - the bridges over tropical ravines, the alignments cut along ledges in cliffs or through jungles, the savagery of the native populations or fauna (those famous engineer-eating lions on the Uganda Railway are the most notable example of this!) - and ignored the mounting piles of coolies' bodies which often attended the construction of such spectacular lines.(4)

The triumphant approach to accounting for the spread of railways around the world is found in the work of Anglo-Canadian engineer-publicist, Frederick A. Talbot. In 1911 he published his Railway Conquest of the World. The title reveals much about Talbot's attitudes, in which he was far from alone. He described the railway surveyors and engineers of the late nineteenth century:

In any of the four continents beyond Europe he fulfils an important mission. He is the advance-guard of civilisation. He spies out the country for the greatest settling force that has yet been devised, and, although the work more often than not is extremely perilous, he revels in the dangers. One must be prepared to face any emergency. Be ready to fulfil any duty. One may be buried for months amidst the strongholds of ice-canopied mountains, isolated upon the sweltering desolate expanses of broiling deserts, imprisoned in the hearts of a yawning ravines, or immersed amid reeking dismal swamps, cut off by hundreds of miles from the nearest town or settlement. The Nature is the surveyor's sole companion, and in her silent company herculean and heroic tasks often have to be fulfilled, of which the world at large never gleans an inkling...
Though the task of deciding the path for the railway teems with excitement, adventure and privation, the battle with nature begins in grim earnest when the constructional engineer arrives on the scene.... No matter how formidable any barrier may appear, it is the work of the builder to beat it down; to overcome by some means or another with the minimum of expense. He must be baulked by nothing. Such a task demands a man of illimitable resource and infinite ingenuity, conversant with every phase of civil engineering. At the same time he must possess the happy faculty of being able to organise great armies of men of all nationalities, and in such a manner that he can get the utmost out of them.(5)

Such unreflective triumphalism is all too typical of the worst aspects of Western attitudes during the age of imperialism. Certainly triumphs there were aplenty, and some of them will be discussed in this paper. However, a celebratory attitude needs to be qualified by an appreciation both of the sufferings that often attended the construction of colonial railways, and of the economic and political motives of their promoters.

Critical to the spread of railways around the world were some changes in railway technology around the middle of the nineteenth century. These changes meant that it became economic to built railways in far more remote areas than was the case up to the middle of the century. These innovations concerned gauge and metallurgy.

The 1850s were the great decade of broad gauge railways. Nearly all the colonial railways began in that decade were built to a broad gauge, most commonly 5' 6", occasionally 5' 3". These gauges were conceived as a compromise between the two gauges then used in England, Stephenson's 'narrow gauge' (today's standard gauge) and Brunel's seven-foot broad gauge. They had their origins in an 1844 British Privy Council Committee for Trade investigation into the best gauge for Irish railways, which concluded in favour of the 5' 3" gauge. The broad gauge fad was short-lived. It was succeeded by a similar enthusiasm for narrow gauge (by then meaning less than standard gauge) railways.

This fad began with two successful railways built at opposite ends of the globe in the mid-1860s: in Norway and Queensland. The latter will be discussed in more detail later in this article.The conversion of the two-foot gauge horse-worked Festiniog Railway in Wales to steam operation in 1867 further stimulated interest in narrower gauges.From about 1870 most new colonial railways, and many secondary railways elsewhere as well, were built to a narrow gauge, most commonly 3' 6" where British influence was strong, including Japan and the Netherlands Indies; three feet where US influence was strong; and one metre elsewhere (strangely enough including India, whose government was then flirting with the metric system). Unlike the broad gauges of the 1850s, which had no real advantages over the standard gauge, narrow gauge railways did offer genuine economies in construction and operation, provided traffic levels were modest. These economies were often exaggerated by the proponents of narrow-gauge railways, but they were real and made possible relatively cheap railway construction over inhospitable terrain. The triumph of the narrow gauge was long-lived: between the 1870s and the 1940s broad and standard-gauge lines, even whole systems, were converted to narrow gauge in New Zealand, Tasmania, South Africa, Siam and Java. In a parallel development, the Canadian Grand Trunk, as well as a host of US lines, were converted from broad to standard gauge.

The metallurgical innovation was the adoption of steel instead of iron for the manufacture of rails and other pieces of railway equipment. This followed the development of the Bessemer converter by Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) in the 1850s. By about 1870, steel rails had replaced iron and steel was also being used increasingly in bridge construction. The new material was lighter, stronger and more durable. Steel bridges, in particular, were far easier and cheaper to construct than the iron or stone bridges favoured by British engineers, and far stronger and easier to maintain than timber bridges. A striking example was Robert Stephenson's imposing 25-span wrought iron tubular bridge on the Canadian Grand Trunk at Montreal. It was obsolete just a decade after it was completed - in the 1880s its iron tubes were demolished and replace by an open steel trusses. Similarly, steel rails could give exceptionally long service if not used too intensively. In New South Wales, for instance, many branch lines opened in the 1880s were closed a century later without ever needing to have their steel rails replaced. By contrast, iron rails had been notoriously fragile and needed constant replacement, even when carrying only the modest weight of trains of the 1850s and 1860s.

The construction of the railways discussed here spans the period from the 1860s to the 1900s. The first were built when Stephensonian ideas were still dominant, with iron rails and stone viaducts; the later lines to narrow gauges using prefabricated steel structures.All were conceived as imperial railways, intended to impose control on new and sometimes hostile lands. Some have succeeded in this role; in other cases the railway, by unleashing unexpected social forces, has ultimately worked against the Western conquerors. All these railways have transformed both the landscapes through which they pass and the economies of the regions they served. For these reasons, these railways have a significance which extends beyond their technical and aesthetic qualities.


The Great Zig Zag brought the main western line of the New South Wales Railways into the Lithgow Valley, some 150 kilometres west of Sydney. It was the means chosen by the railway's engineer, John Whitton (1819-1898) to overcome the greatest natural obstacle on this, the first railway to penetrate into the interior of the Australia. Whitton would have preferred to use a long tunnel, but,as his immediate superior, John Rae, the Under-Secretary for Public Works, reported, 'the low state of the country's finances compelled him to adopt zig-zags, instead of tunnels, or abandon the works entirely.(6)

Whitton is the only nineteenth-century Australian engineer whose work Talbot discussed in his account of the 'railway conquest of the world'.(7) Moreover, Whitton's greatest work was completed earlier most that he describes. When Whitton 'conquered', to use Talbot's terminology, the Great Dividing Range and thereby opened up the interior of the Australian continent for intensive exploitation, the technology which allowed the railway to spread across the world did not yet exist. Whitton's transmontane lines were built in the 1860s, by hand, from iron rails, and with bridges of stone or wrought iron. Dynamite and steel were not as yet being used in railway applications. Whitton had to use the expensive and relatively cumbersome technology of the pioneer English railway-builders, but in a colony which was remote and impecunious and across terrain far more inhospitable than anything in England, if not quite as forbidding as that confronting later railway builders in Africa and Asia. At the time, only in India and Canada were railway builders attempting anything quite as ambitious, and in those places greater population and imperial political imperatives meant that resources were available on a far more lavish scale than Whitton could ever command.

Whitton's English training meant that he felt obliged to build his railways solidly: every one of his three cast iron plate bridges and his numerous sandstone arched viaducts of the 1860s still stands, some still carrying heavy rail traffic. Whitton's two great compromises were to use grades far steeper than were the norm on English main lines of the 1860s, 1 in 30 in the down direction, 1 in 42 on the up, which carried the bulk of the heavy export traffic; and to resort to zig-zags where the topography was particularly poor. There were two on the western line, one of which (at Lithgow) is particularly spectacular and survives intact.

The Great Zig Zag involved the construction of three elegant sandstone viaducts, one of five and two of nine arches; cuttings up to 24 metres deep; and two tunnels, one of which was opened out into a cutting before completion. The work was difficult and expensive. The fifteen-mile (24 km) contract which included the Great Zig Zag cost £328,284 or £21,886 per mile, very expensive indeed for a single track railway whose land costs were zero. The precipitous nature of the slope down which the zig-zag was built combined with the unpredictable, often savagely cold and windy climate of the valley, made the task a hazardous one. The line descended from its summit of 3,658 feet (1,114 m.) at the portal of the Clarence tunnel into the valley. Rae described the achievement:

From the Clarence tunnel to the bottom of the valley there is a descent of 470 feet [143.2 m.], through a deep and rugged ravine, where formerly there was scarcely footing for the mountain goat, and where the surveyor's assistants had to be suspended by ropes in the performance of their perilous duties. But human skill and enterprise have opened up a pathway through the these broken mountain ranges for the railway train, that how traverses the sides of the mountains on a grade on 1 in 42.(8)

Building the zig-zag was a spectator sport on occasion. Twice, electrically ignited blasts involving three tons of powder each were used to move about 45,000 tons of rock. On each occasion, a group of notables gathered to watch the show. The second blast, on 16 September 1868 was detonated by none other than the Governor's wife, the Countess of Belmore. Railway operations began over the Great Zig Zag on 18 October 1868, effectively opening the interior of New South Wales to intensified European settlement, transforming it from a gigantic sheep walk into a rich agricultural country.

The subsequent history of the Great Zig Zag is as interesting as its construction. In short, it rapidly became a casualty of its own success. New industries were spawned by the railway, notably the cultivation of wheat and coal mining. These were far heavier commodities than the wool and gold which had dominated the economy of the interior of Australia before the coming of the railway. Traffic soon grew to the extent that the zig-zag was a bottleneck. Its bottom road was duplicated in 1880 and a series of crossing loops installed. The Great Zig Zag also did much to stimulate tourist traffic to the region, an early and unusual instance of a railway creating its own traffic. As John Rae succinctly observed, 'zig-zags, though not so convenient for traffic as tunnels, are more picturesque in appearance.'(9) A tourist platform was built at Bottom Points and as early as 1881 a public reserve of 550 acres (223 hectares) was proclaimed around the Great Zig Zag, ensuring the preservation of the wild grandeur of the site. Accidents were not frequent, but nor were they unknown: the most spectacular was on 4 April 1901, when a Beyer Peacock 2-6-0 ran away on a down goods on the top road, crashing through the buffers and eventually stopping with its bogie and leading driving wheels suspended over the hundred-metre precipice beyond. The scars its wheels left in the sandstone are still clearly visible.

In 1893 the decision was taken to eliminate the zig-zag, but work did not begin until 1908. Construction of the zig-zag deviation took a little over two years and involved the boring of ten tunnels with a total length of nearly three kilometres. The deviation, opened on 16 October 1910, continued to use the zig-zag's bottom road, with its 1 in 42 grade and eight-chain (160 metre) radius curve, the sharpest on any main line in New South Wales. Electrified in 1957, the bottom road continues to carry a huge traffic, including coal trains loaded up to 4,100 tonnes and frequent passenger trains. Until 1975 the viaducts and tunnel of the middle and upper road were cared for by the Zig Zag Trust, but in that year a 3' 6" gauge line, on which former Queensland and South Australian Railways equipment operates, was laid on the middle road. In 1988 the line was relaid on the top road and through the Clarence tunnel, and passenger services on the revived railway began operating on 364 days per year, even if on a different gauge from the original line.

Thus the Great Zig Zag has remained partially in use (along its bottom road) and fully intact throughout its history. The revived operations on the middle and top roads are not authentic, inasmuch as they are on a different gauge and use rolling stock built after 1910 (passenger cars from the 1920s, steam locomotives from the 1950s and diesel railcars from the 1960s). Nonetheless, the operators have taken great care to build authentic lineside structures, including a magnificent timber signal box at Bottom Points, and this important site is not just very well maintained, but extensively visited and enjoyed by about 250,000 persons each year. Most are ignorant of just how significant in world terms the site is, given the early date of its construction and its unique combination of solid British civil engineering, typical of the world's earliest railways, with a structure as unconventional and more usually associated with much lighter railways as a zig-zag. Apart from the reversing station on the Bhore Ghat section of the Bombay-Poona line of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, the two zig-zags on this line were the first such structures in the world. It is undoubtedly the outstanding railway site in Australia and one of the finest in the world.


In 1859 the British Empire acquired a new colony, Queensland, established by the simple expedient of excising the northern part of New South Wales. Queensland was established at the request of its white inhabitants, dominated by rich graziers known in Australia as squatters. These men were alarmed at the democratic and progressive tendencies then emerging in Sydney politics. Having secured their own colony, they were anxious to intensify its economic exploitation and increase its white population. Railway building seemed to meet both desiderata, and so was a top priority. The government appointed a Chief Engineer, Abram Fitzgibbon, who was given the task of building a railway from Ipswich, the head of navigation on the Brisbane River, to Toowoomba, the largest town in the rich pastoral district of the Darling Downs, located at an elevation of 600 metres some 150 kilometres to the west of Brisbane. There was no gentle climb to the Darling Downs: the railway would involve a steep ascent of the eastern escarpment of the Great Dividing Range. Fitzgibbon reported in 1863 that the project was feasible, and recommended the use of sharp curves and a narrow gauge of 3' 6" to reduce costs. Only in Norway was such a gauge being used. At that time the only narrow gauge locomotives outside Norway were a pair which supplemented the bullocks working on the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda private two-foot gauge tramline in India. They were complete failures.

Fitzgibbon, perhaps fortunately, knew nothing about the failures in Baroda, and persuaded his political masters to embark on the project. The greatest railway contractors in the world at the time, Peto, Brassey and Betts, were engaged to build the line, fresh from their triumphs in completing the broad-gauge Canadian Grand Trunk. The first section of the line, on easy terrain in the valley of the Brisbane River from Ipswich to Bigge's Camp (now Grandchester), opened on 31 July 1865. It is now the world's oldest surviving 'medium gauge' (three-foot, metre or 3' 6") railway. Parliament had already approved the 57-mile (92 km) extension to Toowoomba in May 1864, which therefore was already under construction when the first line opened. The range section would climb from an elevation of 468 feet (143 metres) at Helidon (72 miles or 115 km from Brisbane) to 2008 feet (612 metres) at Harlaxton (99 miles or 158 km from Brisbane). Fully two-thirds of those 27 miles would be in cuttings and there were to be 128 embankments, 47 bridges, 9 tunnels and 126 curves, 49 of which would be of just five chains (100 metres) radius. Many of the bridges were composite structures with iron girders resting on timber piers. The ruling gradient was the only relatively easy aspect of the line: it was kept to 1 in 50. No railway quite like this had ever been built before. The Toowoomba Range Railway was thus the precedent for many such lightly constructed and sinuous narrow-gauge mountain railways all over the world.(10)

Peto, Brassey and Betts built the railway very quickly, despite their agents' quarrels with Fitzgibbon and a brief period of insolvency for the Queensland Government in 1866. It opened through to Toowoomba (101 miles or 161 km from Brisbane) on 1 May 1867. The speed of its construction is best illustrated by comparison with the railway built a thousand kilometres to the south, inland from Sydney. Its construction began in 1850, and the rails did not reach the Great Zig Zag, approximately the same distance from Sydney as Toowoomba is from Brisbane, until nineteen years later. From approval to opening, the Toowoomba line was completed in just over three years. Moreover, the cost of the range section was only about half that of the slightly shorter length of the NSW line which included the Great Zig Zag. It must be admitted that the terrain in New South Wales was much more arduous and that the railway there was built to far higher standards. Nonetheless, it was a demonstration of the advantages both of the narrow gauge and also, perhaps, of employing experienced large contractors.

Since its opening, this pioneering railway has been altered. The 40lb per yard (20kg per metre) iron rails were first to go, replaced by steel in 1870 after just three years of use. There have been many minor deviations built to ease curves, and many of the bridges have been replaced by embankments or rebuilt. Two of the rebuilt bridges on the lower range are notable in their own right as Australia's first reinforced concrete railway bridges, completed in 1910-11. Despite these changes, the railway remains essentially intact and very much in use. Freight traffic on the line is heavy, although passenger services limited to two a week in each direction, since the road route is very much shorter and faster. Most passengers who see the range line today do so on the frequent steam-hauled excursion trains operated in autumn and spring. Although not used on these services, a 2-4-0 locomotive and two cars from the original order supplied in 1865 are still operational.

The significance of this line as a pioneer of the narrow, or 'medium', gauge is little appreciated. The spectacular scenery and engineering challenges of the range section are more widely recognised. Its current status is threatened,as there is a proposal to build a new line altogether up the range. If this plan eventuates, which it will if exploitation of the coal deposits of the region begins in earnest, there can be little doubt that there would be an active movement to conserve the present line, and world recognition of its significance would greatly encourage these endeavours. While the entire line from Ipswich to Toowoomba is the pioneering railway of this gauge, the 46-kilometre range section from Helidon to Toowoomba, including Toowoomba's excellently conserved 1867 polychrome brick two-storey station, has the clearest claims for heritage recognition, in view of its aesthetic and engineering features.


Darjeeling, sited at an elevation of over 2000 metres in the eastern Himalayas, was the first hill station of British India and also the first to be served by rail. The origins of Darjeeling and its railway are part of the expansion of British India during the last decades of East India Company rule. By the early nineteenth century the EIC was the dominant power in northern India and frequently intervened in disputes between Indian princes. Such intervention on behalf of the Raja of Sikkim in 1829 resulted in EIC officers exploring the then almost uninhabited Darjeeling area. They were impressed, both with its military significance, commanding a pass into Nepal; and with its potential as a cool-climate sanatorium which was not too far from Calcutta, then capital of both the Bengal Presidency and British India as a whole. The Governor-General, Lord William Bentinck, was an enthusiastic westerniser, so ordered negotiations with the Raja of Sikkim with a view to its acquisition. The Raja ceded the district to the Company in 1833, and in return was granted an annual allowance. Subsequent annexations in the early 1850s made Darjeeling, previously an EIC enclave in Sikkim, contiguous with the Company's Bengal Presidency.

Darjeeling grew rapidly under British rule.The population was only about 100 in 1839 but reached 10,000 a decade later. The Hill Cart Road, so named because it was graded so that a bullock cart could climb it, was built from Siliguri on the plains. Sanatoriums and schools were established, and settlers came to the district from the plains of the Bengal Presidency and Nepal. The cultivation of tea, for which Darjeeling has become famous, began in the early 1840s. At that time, China had close to a monopoly on Europe's tea supplies, so seeds were brought to Darjeeling to begin the industry. British planters were leased land by the EIC on very favourable terms and labourers, used to working at high altitudes, recruited from Nepal. Despite the Hill Cart Road, transport remained the district's great problem. Railway construction on the plains between 1858 and 1878, partly by the broad-gauge Eastern Bengal Railway (EBR) and partly by the metre-gauge state-owned Northern Bengal Railway (NBR), connected Calcutta with Siliguri, at the foot of the Himalayas. This made travel easier for Europeans, who could afford the fares, but did little to encourage further growth in Darjeeling. In the late 1870s, rice, the population's staple, was sold in Siliguri for 98 rupees per ton, but for 240 rupees in Darjeeling.

Neither the EBR nor the NBR could see how they could extend their lines to Darjeeling, although it was the putative destination of both. Franklin Prestage, the local agent of the EBR, worked out the scheme for the building a narrow-gauge (two-foot or 600mm) light railway to Darjeeling. In 1878, the year of the opening of the NBR line to Siliguri, he wrote a persuasive proposal to build the line. There would be a Bengal Government guarantee, which would ensure security for investors, but in return the railway company would be obliged to pay the Government for maintenance of the Hill Cart Road out of its profits. The contract was signed on 8 April 1879 and less than a year later the first train ran from Siliguri to Tindharia. Lord Lytton, the Viceroy and an investor in the Darjeeling Steam Tramway Company (its name was changed to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in September 1881) travelled on the first train. The line was opened in stages, reaching the summit at Ghoom (7,402 feet or 2,256 metres) on 4 April 1881 and the terminus exactly three months later.

The technological inspiration for the line was not any Indian precedent - the two-foot gauge Baroda Railways were worked by bullocks and laid across flat terrain - but the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales. It had been converted successfully from horse to steam operation in 1868. The big difference was that the Ffestiniog's freight traffic was nearly all downhill. The commodity - slate - was also very heavy in relation to its volume, so considerable tonnages could be conveyed in small wagons. The DHR would be carting rice and other supplies up the hill and teas down it. Moreover, there would be a sizeable passenger and mail traffic. The railway did have one big advantage over the Ffestiniog. This was a far more generous loading gauge, permitting larger locomotives and other rolling stock, but it also had much steeper grades - up to 1 in 20 compared with the Ffestiniog's 1 in 50. The average grade over the 64 kilometres between Sukna, where the DHR leaves the plains, and the summit at Ghoom is 1 in 30.5.

The DHR does not feature any grand structures. In fact, the whole point of the line's engineering was precisely to avoid the expense of such features. This is in contrast with two of the later Indian hill railways. The metre-gauge Nilgiri Railway, completed in 1908, features sixteen tunnels, 27 steel and stone bridges and heavy earthworks, including a half tunnel where the line is cut into a cliff. The 2' 6" gauge Kalka-Simla line has no less than 103 tunnels, and numerous large stone viaducts. The remarkable features of the DHR are its steep grades and cheap but effective expedients its engineers adopted to enable it to climb so much in so short a distance. These included, at the time of its opening, four loops, where the line climbed in a circle above itself, and four zig-zags. A new loop, the famous Batasia double loop, was built in 1919 to eliminate the 1 in 20 section between Ghoom and Darjeeling, and in 1943 one of the lower loops was replaced by a zig-zag, of which there are now five. Curvature is very severe, with the sharpest having a radius of just 59 feet (18 metres). Some of the more alarmingly located sites have been graced with names like Agony Point and Sensation Corner, although the smallest of the Indian hill railways, the Matheran line near Bombay, probably has the most entertainingly named engineering feature - One Kiss Tunnel. For most of its route the DHR follows the Hill Cart Road, which it crosses 132 times.

Estimated to cost 1,400,000 rupees, Prestage completed the DHR for 1,700,000 rupees which, considering the untried nature of the enterprise, was a good result. It was a profitable line from the start, and until nationalisation in 1948 never needed the to call on the government guarantee. Revenue and traffic both grew rapidly, along with the Darjeeling district's economy as a whole. Darjeeling's cool climate assured a steady stream of mostly European first-class passengers, while the necessity to ship rice into the district and the growth of tea planting meant that there was plenty of freight flowing in both directions. Typical traffic figures during the first two decades of the twentieth century were around 250,000 passengers and 60,000 tons of freight conveyed per annum. Motor traffic began to eat into the passenger traffic during the 1920s. Passenger revenue declined from 475,000 rupees in 1926-7 to 237,000 rupees in 1931-2, but freight traffic and then wartime demands kept the railway's finances buoyant. However, the railway has never really recovered from the effects of Partition in 1947, which led to its railway connections with the rest of India being severed for a period. Even as traffic to Darjeeling revived, most of it began to go by road, as trucks and buses improved. For the DHR, for all its charms, was and remains a slow railway, the fastest train covering its now 88 kilometres (including the eight kilometre extension on the plains from Siliguri to New Jalpaiguri) in eight hours and 25 minutes. Today freight traffic has been lost and passenger figures are down to around 100,00 per annum. Despite this, its current owners, the Northeast Frontier Railway,as well as the Indian Government as a whole, appear to be strongly committed to maintaining operations on the line, both because of its heritage and tourist value, and because of the employment it provides.(11)

Despite its small size, this is a very significant railway in any terms. It has helped make Darjeeling synonymous with quality tea, by breaking the transport bottleneck which inhibited the district's growth in the late nineteenth century. It was the first hill railway of its type, and so was the precedent for the later Nilgiri, Simla and Matheran lines in India, as well as for railways such as the Darlat line in Vietnam and the Maymyo line in Burma. It demonstrated, even more startlingly than the conversion of the Festiniog to steam operation had done, what could be done with a very narrow gauge railway in terms of the traffic that could be conveyed, the economy of construction, and the terrain that could be overcome.

From its inception, the DHR was widely recognised as a remarkable railway. There was even an article on it in the very first issue of The Railway Magazine in 1897. In heritage terms, the railway is well-preserved, and the changes have not damaged its value. The station at Darjeeling is a mid-twentieth century art deco folly, but most of the larger intermediate stations remain much as they were at the line's opening. The locomotives working the line to this day are all to a design thought out by Prestage, based on experimentation with rebuilding the line's first locomotives. Thirty-two of these class B 0-4-0 saddle tank locomotives were delivered between 1887 and 1927, and about twenty are still working on the line. This continuity in motive power adds to the railway's heritage value.

Despite its small scale, the engineering, social, political and economic impact of the DHR are significant enough to justify its place on any list of important railways. However, what really makes the DHR outstanding is its relationship to the landscape through which it passes. The railway begins on the plains of West Bengal and soon begins climbing through a remnant of lowland jungle, including stands of teak. As the railway climbs, so the flora changes, and its upper sections are dominated by enormous Himalayan pines, which in misty weather give a surreal quality to the landscape. As the railway climbs, it frequently hugs the edge of hillsides with drops, often of thousands of feet, to the plains and valleys below. Towering over the entire scene is the perennially snow-covered bulk of Kanchenjunga, at 28,146 feet (8,579 metres) the third highest mountain in the world. From Kurseong (49 kilometres from Siliguri at an elevation of 4,846 feet or 1,524 metres) the railway offers frequent views of this stupendous mountain, which by Ghoom dominates the entire landscape. Thus, from the tiny train, the passenger can look down onto the stifling tropical plains Bengal or up into the eternal snows of the highest peaks of the Himalayas. No railway anywhere else offers such a sight.


Among the most spectacular colonial railways built in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth were those which had wider political aims. Competing French and British metre-gauge railways leading from their respective colonies of Vietnam and Burma into southwestern China are among the most striking examples to be found, rivalled only by the contemporary rival empire-building and state-building railways of southern Africa. These two southeast Asian railways included two of the world's highest bridges. On the French line in China's Yunnan province was the Fausse Namti viaduct, described below, while on the line in Burma the British built the Gotkeik viaduct, no less than 825 feet (250 metres) above the stream below, which itself flowed through a natural tunnel.(12) In terms of height above the stream it crosses, this is easily the highest railway bridge in the world, although its tallest pier is 320 feet (about 100 metres) high, and stands on the natural bridge. This British line between Mandalay and Lashio also includes one of the toughest ascents on any adhesion railway, 12 miles of unbroken 1 in 25

In 1885 Britain conquered Upper Burma and France conquered Tonkin, or northern Vietnam, thus bringing both powers to the frontiers of the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan. There followed a railway race into the province between the British port of Rangoon and the French port of Haiphong. It was a race complicated by the continuing reality of Chinese sovereignty, albeit attenuated, over Yunnan, and the extreme difficulties of topography and climate. It was a race in which the British made the most energetic start but which the French ultimately won when, 25 years later in 1910, the first train reached the Yunnan capital of Kunming from Haiphong.

Anglo-French rivalry in the contest was real, but never too intense, firstly because, despite some early optimism, Yunnan was certainly not as wealthy as its more enthusiastic putative exploiters hoped it would be, and secondly because there were serious second thoughts on both sides as to how effectively a railway could extend their hinterlands. The task would always be easier for the French, since their railway would run parallel to the rivers draining the Yunnan plateau, notably the Red River. The British route from Burma would have to cross many of the valleys of the great rivers flowing through mainland southeast Asia. The Burmese section of the line, from Mandalay to Kunlong Ferry on the Salween River, was authorised in 1895 and opened in 1900. Following considerable pressure from British Indian business interests, the British persuaded the Chinese to agree to the railway's extension into China in February 1897, probably the peak year of imperialist rivalry in the nineteenth century. In 1898 British Indian Army officers surveyed the route. Their report condemned the proposal as impractical, given the minimal traffic the railway would reasonably carry. The average elevation of the ranges it would have to cross was 7,000 to 8,000 feet, while the elevations of the beds of rivers such as the Salween and Mekong was 2,500 to 3,000 feet. In short, the railway would comprise, as a French newspaper complacently reported, 'a succession of tunnels like the Gothard and bridges like the Menai Strait'.(13) That was the end of the proposal. Prime Minister Salisbury had described it as 'a great benefit to the world' in 1896, but in May 1898 told a deputation that its construction would be enormously difficult because all the valleys ran at right angles to it. Finally, in 1901 Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, ridiculed the notion that a very expensive and mountainous railway could bring the trade of western China through Yunnan and Burma to Rangoon, asserting in his usual forthright style that 'were a bonfire made tomorrow of the prolific literature to which it [the Burma-China railway] had given birth, I do not think anyone in the world would be the loser.' Curzon's speech effectively marked the British withdrawal from the race to Yunnan, defeated more by topography than by the French.

Thus, British rails never reached Yunnan, nor even the Salween. Construction of the railway was terminated at Lashio, high on the plateau. The gradient between Mandalay and Maymyo and the Gotkeik viaduct became expensive monuments on a railway going nowhere. Even the profits of building the 33-span Gotkeik viaduct did not go to Britain.. This prefabricated 2,260-foot (689-metre) long steel structure was built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, its girders being transported to the docks in New York on 200 special trains, for erection in this extremely remote location. Only briefly did the railway become commercially and strategically important, and that in circumstances which its builders could never have conceived. Following the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, the Chinese government abandoned the coastal regions and moved its capital from Nanjing (Nanking) to Chongqing (Chungking). After the fall of France in 1940, the Haiphong-Kunming Railway was closed to traffic to China, so Allied supplies for 'Free China' went through Rangoon and Lashio until Burma, too, was occupied by the Japanese in March 1942. The Gotkeik viaduct was extensively damaged during the war, but was rebuilt immediately after the British returned in 1945. It remains in regular use.

The French Foreign Ministry secured Chinese permission to build a railway from Laocai (Laokay), on the Sino-Vietnamese frontier, to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, in April 1898. Like the British line, this concession was part of the 'scramble for concessions' in China which marked the apogee of Western imperialism in Asia. The Governor-General of Indo-China, Paul Doumer, hoped to use the railway as a means for seizing Yunnan and annexing it to Indo-China, but was prevented from doing so both by cooler heads in Paris and by the extent of Chinese popular opposition revealed during survey work on the line. This was taking place at the time of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in north China. Moreover, many French officials recognised that, even though their route into Yunnan was more favoured by geography than the British, there were limits to the use of the railway to create a hinterland. In particular they recognised that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for their railway to compete with the navigable waters of the Yangtze and thus draw the trade of Sichuan to Haiphong. In other words hinterlands had their natural boundaries, which even the most ambitious railways could only slightly alter. Thus Shanghai, situated at the mouth of one of the world's greatest navigable rivers would always beat Haiphong, terminus of a narrow gauge railway, in a contest for the domination of southwestern interior of China. Thus, the capital to build the railway was only attracted by a French government guarantee on its interest.

The railway was built as an extension of a line from Haiphong to Laocai, through the capital Hanoi and roughly parallel to the Red River, which was opened in sections between 1903 and 1906. The Compagnie de Chemin de fer de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan (CIY) was established to operate both the Vietnamese and Chinese sections of the line. Construction began in 1904 and was extraordinarily difficult. The terrain, especially in the Namti valley near the Vietnamese frontier, was about as unfavourable for railway construction as could be imagined. For not only was the topography extremely rough, but the area was almost uninhabited and very unhealthy. Malaria was endemic. Coolies recruited to build the railway died in enormous numbers, as much a result of the contractors' neglect as the rigours of the conditions. At least 12,000 of the 60,000 coolies who worked on the project died, as well as about eighty of the European subcontractors. The Peking Daily News claimed in 1909 that 40,000 coolies died, although this figure seems exaggerated when it is compared with reports of French consular officials, who were frank and honest in their condemnation of the CIY's dastardly behaviour towards its employees.(14)Murders, thefts and assaults were common, as the CIY acted like a conqueror in a defeated land. The mortality shocked even the far from squeamish editor of that voice of the Western imperialist in China, the Shanghai North China Daily News, who described it as a 'grave scandal'.(15)

The human cost was great and the technological achievement spectacular. The railway climbs on a steady grade of 1 in 40, even though the Namti River it follows at one point drops 600 metres in three kilometres. Curvature is a consistent 100 metres radius. On the 464 kilometre section from Laocai to Kunming, there are 107 important viaducts, most steel, some stone, and 155 tunnels. Between kilometres 104 and 127 the line climbed from 500 to 1,100 metres through 59 tunnels, many joined by viaducts. The steel viaducts were built in France and hauled to the work sites by teams of beasts or men. The two most spectacular bridges are the eight-pier curved bridge at kilometre 83, called 'le pont en dentelles' and the 'pont sur arbalétriers' at kilometre 111, awesomely hanging from sheer cliffs over Fausse Namti between two tunnels about 100 metres above the torrent below. The railway was opened through to Kunming on 31 January 1910.(16)

The railway's violent origins have meant that it has come to be for the Chinese a sinister symbol of foreign domination, and for the French as much a cause for reflection and shame as of pride. In Lucien Bodard's novel, La Duchesse, this 'maudit chemin de fer' and, beside it, 'la forêt anthropophage, qui avale dans sa gloutonnérie ... les cadavres des coolies' become a symbol of evil and terror, the railway's site described simply as an 'abattoir'.(17) Never have I seen a railway used as so powerful a symbol, and this in a novel by a man who is always associated with French imperial ideas in east and southeast Asia. As well as being a bloody enterprise, it was enormously expensive, the 464 kilometres costing 166,755,000 francs.(18) Traffic was very modest until the 1930s, and increased dramatically between 1937 and 1940 when the railway was the Chongqing Government's lifeline. For this reason it was bombed by the Japanese and eventually closed under Japanese pressure. It has never since operated as an international railway, although both the Chinese and Vietnamese sections remain in service. Its political significance during the Sino-Japanese war, the loss of life involved in its construction, and its spectacular engineering achievements, all make this French railway in China a site of world significance. This is especially true of the 150 kilometres of the steep climb in Namti valley section, which is where most of the deaths occurred and where the most spectacular bridges are located. While the Gotkeik's history is not as violent, and its political significance was never quite as great, this mighty bridge is also worthy of such status.


Although an archipelago, Indonesia has an extensive railway system on two of its islands, Java and Sumatra. Until the 1980s there was also a small system on the island of Madura, just off the coast of Java near Surabaya. At their peak, there were 6,458 kilometres of railway in the Netherlands Indies. Both Java and Sumatra have difficult topography mountainous for railway construction. In Java, these mountains are mostly volcanos, the saddles between which have needed to be climbed for railways to connect the flatter and generally more productive parts of the island. Railway services in Java have always been intensive, and remain so, which is scarcely surprising given its current population of more than 130 million. Railways were introduced early into Java, the first line - a 26 kilometre section between Kemijen and Tanggung of what would become the main line from Semarang to Solo and Yogyakarta - being opened on 17 June 1864. This standard-gauge line was built and operated by a private company, the Nederlands Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij or NIS. Ultimately Java's railways were built by a motley collection of twelve private companies and the Government, whose system - the largest - was called the Staats Spoorweg or SS. Although the first NIS line was built to standard gauge, the rest of Java's railways were built to a gauge of 3' 6".

This remained the situation until 1942, when the Japanese occupation authorities unified the railways under a central administration based in Bandung called the Rikuyu Kyoku (Imperial Railways). The Japanese penchant for centralisation extended to gauge: the former NIS line was relaid to 3' 6" gauge and its standard gauge equipment shipped to Manchuria. Except for the period of the Indonesian Revolution between 1945 and 1949, when rival Dutch and Republican railway administrations existed, Java has had a unified railway system, called since 1990 the Perusahaan Umum Kereta Api (Public Railway Company).

Nearly all of Java's railways pass through areas of great scenic beauty, and some cross mountain ravines, often terraces with rice fields, using high steel bridges. The very busy main line between Jakarta and Bandung includes a number of such bridges, all traversed by dozens of passenger trains each day. However, spectacular as this line is, it is difficult to make any claims that it is unique. Such a claim can be made, however, for the nine kilometres of railway between Ambarawa and Bedono, the last surviving fragment of the former SS route between Semarang and Yogyakarta. This too is a transmontane railway. Whereas the NIS standard-gauge line between these two cities took a longer route well to the east to avoid the mass of the two volcanos in the centre of the island, Merapi and Merbabu, the SS line went over the saddle between them and the Dieng Plateau, climbing by rack to an elevation of 711 metres at Bedono.

The history of the line and the motives for its construction are unusual. Ambarawa is strategically located, commanding the pass from the north coast to the central plains, where the remnants of the feudal kingdoms of central Java remain. It was at Ambarawa that the Dutch under Governor General Janssens surrendered to the British under Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1811. The place was and remains an important military centre. Thus the first railway was built to Ambarawa for military reasons. The standard-gauge branch from the NIS main line at Kedungjati was opened on 21 May 1873. An enormous station, relative to the size of the town, formed the terminus. This brick, stucco and iron building still stands and still serves as a railway station, although now patronised largely by tourists rather than the troops of a colonial army. The town was then named Willem I in honour of the Dutch king at the time. This was unusual for the Dutch, who usually retained local names (the other main exceptions in Java were Batavia and Buitenzorg), and reflected the importance and Europeanness with which they regarded the place.

Subsequently, in the first few years of the twentieth century, the government built a line over the mountain saddle to Magelang , headquarters of its colonial army, and from there on to Yogyakarta. This was a 3' 6" gauge line, built to light standards, much of it beside the road, and with a ruling grade of 1 in 12. Thus, for some decades Ambarawa was a break-of-gauge station. A series of five 0-4-2rack locomotives was ordered from Émil Kessler of Esslingen in Germany to work the rack section of the line. They have done so ever since. The railway, conceived in military terms, was never particularly commercially significant, and the mountain section from Ambarawa to Magelang was closed in 1976. However, the rack line was retained as far as Bedono, together with two of the locomotives and a small collection of four-wheel timber coaches, all dating from the first decade of the twentieth century. These are now used to operate a tourist service on the line. Thus the extraordinary station at Ambarawa and the rack line have remained in continuous use since their inception. Moreover, the vast grounds of the station have been put to use as a railway museum, where 21 steam locomotives are now displayed.(19)

Because of its military history and associations with colonialism, the railway has an important yet ambivalent place in Indonesian history and in national consciousness. This is expressed poignantly in a recent novel by Y.B. Mangunwijaya, a Western-educated Indonesian novelist who fought on the side of the Republic during the Revolution of 1945-9. The novel is set largely in and around Magelang. There the railway intruded into the old and spiritually charged landscape of central Java.The narrator, a Javanese officer fighting on the side of the Dutch in the colonial army against the new Indonesian Republic, is facing defeat and contemplates his future and the wisdom of his choice. The proximity of the Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the railway - symbols of the Javanese past and the Dutch-dominated present; of spiritual and material values; of the dichotomy which has touched every Asian society and most Asian hearts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - leads the narrator into a reverie:

A few meters away from where I sat the railway track crossed the road and curved gracefully in a wide arc across the embankment which towered above the rice paddies. It looked like a giant python seeking its burrow in the Elo River. As it sliced across the rice fields, heedless of the intricately ordered fields that had been built through generations of patient toil, the steel python became a menacing intruder from the world of rationality, an ominous portent that had come to disturb the natural beauty of the surroundings. Yes, this is a beautiful country, I thought. There was no doubt about that. Yet it's a disturbing place, too, because no one can ever really know the contents of its heart, even through the force of an aggressor. Aggressor? Atop fertile farmland had been built an embankment of so many thousand cubic meters whose sole purpose was to support the gravel, ironwood sleepers, and steel rails that make possible the swift journey of another world and a different attitude toward life. Why, I wondered, had the term aggressor come to mind?(20)

There is a rich irony about the closure of most of this railway in the 1970s. It occurred not because of this railway's aggressively imperial role in a nation's spiritual heartland, but because it did not succeed well enough on its own terms and no longer paid dividends. The fragment that remains is true to Mangunwijaya's description. There are no large bridges, but the sweeping embankments contrast effectively with the tortuous route of the road it parallels. Above all, this is a very intimate railway, slicing through sawah (rice fields) on its lower reaches, brushing past banana and jungle trees as it climbs the volcanos. Its continued operation indicates that it valued, probably more for its aesthetic than historical qualities, by the provincial and railway authorities of Central Java. This it richly deserves.


While this article has been concerned with entire railways or at least sections of them, there are two structures in the Asia-Pacific region which deserve some consideration for identification as significant sites. These are a terminal station and a workshops complex, both dating from the 1880s and both in remarkably good repair.

The station is Victoria Terminal, Bombay. I have been unable to find any thorough description of the station and, in particular, its extraordinarily rich iconography. Few secular structures anywhere, and certainly no other railway station of which I am aware, are so richly and meaningfully decorated. The statue of its eponymous monarch which crowns its dome is, of course, celebrated, constituting a confident imperial statement if ever there was one. However, this is just one of very many reliefs and busts with which the lower parts of the station are adorned. The station's architectural promiscuity, in which Mughal, Saracenic, Gothic and Renaissance styles are riotously blended, similarly makes grand, sweeping statements about how the British Empire in India conceived itself, and the important role of the railway in maintaining that image in the second half of the nineteenth century. The size of the station; its commanding presence even in a city offering as much stimulation for the eye as Bombay; its importance as the terminus of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway; and its continuous and intensive use since its completion in 1887; all these contribute to its significance. Precisely because it is utilitarian as well as symbolic, and stunningly effective in both roles, it has claims to be regarded as the most significant building the British ever erected in India.

The workshops are at Eveleigh in Sydney. By the late 1870s the New South Wales Railways had outgrown their workshops in Sydney yard, so Cabinet agreed to buy a 62 acre (25 hectare) site astride the main line at Eveleigh, about a mile from Sydney. In 1880 Parliament voted £250,000 for construction of the workshops, and the Engineer for Existing Lines, George Cowdery, began planning the complex of offices, workshops, running sheds and other facilities. On the north side of the then four-track main line he placed the Locomotive Engineer's offices and the carriage and wagon repair shops. The south side was devoted to locomotives. Three large blocks would house the workshops where locomotives would be overhauled and repaired. After Federation in 1901, and the consequent abandonment of the colonial policy of free trade, locomotives would be built there as well. Adjacent to the workshops Cowdery planned his magnificent engine running shed where locomotives would be stored and serviced between trips. The 'shed' was a huge yet finely proportioned brick and iron structure with 21 roads covered by three spans of iron arches. Each arch was 101 feet (30.8 metres) wide and 45 feet (13.7 metres) high. It was the first engine shed in the world to have an iron arch roof, and Cowdery claimed to build it for less than comparable American sheds of timber and corrugated iron. The Commissioner for Railway, C. A. Goodchap described it as 'the finest and most complete locomotive depot in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps the whole world.' While the peak years of construction of the complex were 1883-4, it was not completed until 1889.(21)

The complex has survived almost intact. The greatest loss has been the running sheds. One bay was demolished in the mid-1920s to allow amplification of the main line from four to ten tracks, while the remaining two were demolished in the 1960s as steam locomotives were withdrawn. They were replaced by a carriage shed of indescribable banality. Although the workshops are no longer in operation, the buildings are being creatively recycled and, in many respects, the complex is now better maintained and better looking than at any time since it was new. On the south side of the main line, some buildings constitute the Australian Technology Park, while the Large Erecting Shop still houses timber main-line carriages and steam locomotives used for regular excursions. The buildings on the north side - the former carriage works - await recycling. Many hope that they will house the National Railway Museum which Australia needs but does not yet have. As a group, even without the running sheds, they are a remarkable survival.


In this article I have concentrated on railway routes and have attempted to identify lines or structures which meet all four main criteria for identification as significant sites. That is, first, their technology, or at least its application, is either pioneering or unique; second, the lines have economic significance; third, they are either socially or, more commonly in the case of these imperial railways as I have characterised them, politically important; and, fourth, the railways have aesthetic qualities which tend to enhance the landscape through which they pass.

Like all such lists, it reflects my interests, prejudices and knowledge. There are some lacunae. No broad gauge line is included, although there are certainly candidates, most notably in Sri Lanka (the Kadugannawa incline on the Kandy line) and Pakistan (the Peshawar-Khyber Pass line) rather than in India. The Bhore Ghat section, where the Great Indian Peninsula Railway's Bombay-Poona line climbed onto the Deccan plateau, included a reversing station - half a zig-zag as it were - from its opening in 1865 until 1928. However, the realignment of 1928 has much diluted this railway's heritage value. Unlike the Great Zig Zag in Australia, little of the Bhore Ghat's original alignment survives. There are no railways in either Vietnam or Thailand listed, even though both these countries, especially Thailand, have extensive networks. This is because the lines in neighbouring Burma and Yunnan (which was conceived as part of the network of French Indo-China in any case) meet the criteria more neatly than any in these two countries. I know less about Japan's and Korea's railways than those of any other Asian countries, and so have not discussed any lines from those countries. Certainly Japan's two pioneering railways, from Tokyo to Yokohama and the Kansai Railway, have both been rebuilt beyond recognition. Probably the most important railway in heritage terms in Japan is the 1964 Tokaido Shinkansen, the world's first high-speed railway.

A final notable omission is any of China's vast standard-gauge network. Claims could be made for the Beijing-Kalgan Railway, as it was the first built by Chinese engineers (in 1909) and so has social and political significance as well as aesthetic qualities. Unfortunately for its heritage value, the most demanding parts of the line in operational terms, and hence the most interesting aesthetically and technically, have been rebuilt. Another candidate in China could be the Chongqing-Kunming line which, like the Tokaido Shinkansen, was built in the 1960s. It features impressive engineering through wild and mountainous country, but, perhaps even more significantly, was that it was built through the political mobilisation of its workforce during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.While most of the railways I have discussed here were frankly imperialist in their aims, this is a railway whose aim was to advance the cause of revolution.

The region I have discussed here includes three of the world's four most populous countries (China, India and Indonesia - the other, the United States of America, does not need any advocacy on my part!), each of which has railways worthy of world heritage listing. All these railways were part of a global movement whose results, the integration of all humanity into a common economy and a common culture, are only now, at the end of the twentieth century, becoming apparent. As such, these 'imperial' railways are every bit as significant as those built in industrialised countries, and every bit as deserving of international recognition.

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1. Interestingly, the first colonial railway had been built by the Spanish in Cuba, as early as 1837. It was an unlikely cradle of technological progress.

2. For a discussion of the importance of technology to the spread of empire, see D.R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, New York, Oxford University Press, 1981.

3. For a discussion of this phenomenon, see Clarence B. Davis and Kenneth E. Wilburn, Jr with Ronald Robinson (eds), Railway Imperialism, New York, Greenwood Press, 1991.

4. There is an entertaining and perceptive account of the Uganda Railway's lions in Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Millennium, a history of our last thousand years, London, Black Swan, 1996, pp. 424-6. For an example of the horrifying mortality rates that were common during the construction of tropical railways, see the discussion below on the construction of the Chemin de fer de l'Indo-Chine et du Yunnan .

5. Frederick A. Talbot, The Railway Conquest of the World, London, William Heinemann, 1911, pp. 2, 12.

6. John Rae, Report of the Commissioner of Railways, Sydney, New South Wales Legislative Assembly, 1873, pp.2-3.

7. Talbot, The Railway Conquest of the World, pp. 177-80.

8. Rae, Report of the Commissioner of Railways, 1873, p. 7.

9. John Rae, Thirty-five years on the New South Wales Railways, the work of the late Mr John Whitton, C.E., Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales Railways, Sydney, privately published, 1898, p. 11.

10. There is a fine history of the line: J.W. Knowles, 'The Centenary of the Opening of the Railway to Toowoomba', Bulletin of the Australian Railway Historical Society, 18, 354 (April 1967), 70-94.

11. This description of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is largely drawn from two published sources. They are R.L. Sarkar, Eastern Himalayas, a panoramic overview, Darjeeling, Indian Institute of Hill Economy, 1980, pp. 8-10, 14-7; and R.R. Bandhari, Exotic Indian Hill Railways, New Delhi, Ministry of Railways, 1984, pp.1-36.

12. On the French and British lines into southwestern China, see Robert Lee, France and the Exploitation of China, 1885-1901: a study in economic imperialism, Hong Kong, Oxford University Press, 1989.

13. Le Journal des Débats, 10 May 1899.

14. Peking Daily News, 7 May 1909. The French records are found in the Archives of the French Foreign Ministry, Chine, Nouvelle série, vols.498-502.

15. North China Daily News, 20 June, 28 June 1906.

16. There are fine descriptions of the railway, if rather muted on the subject of the loss of life its construction entailed, in Henri Lartilleux, Géographie universelle des transports, tome 1: Géographie des chemins de fers français, vol. 4: France lointaine, Paris, Chaix, 1950; and in Frédéric Hulot, Les Chemins de fer de la France d'Outre-mer, vol. 1: L'Indo-Chine - le Yunnan, La Régordane, 1993, pp. 29-74.

17. Lucien Bodard, La Duchesse, Paris, Grasset, 1979, p.259.

18. At that time there were 25 francs to the pound giving a sterling cost of £6,670,000, or £14,375 per kilometre. Considering that land was provided gratis by the Chinese provincial government, this was an exorbitant cost.

19. There is no adequate history of the railways of the Netherlands Indies and the Indonesian Republic. I have relied on personal observation and two published sources, both of which are more concerned with locomotives than anything else. They are Perusahaan Umum Kereta Api, Wilayah Usaha Jawa, Data Lokomotip-lokomotip tua Koleksi Museum Kereta Api, Ambarawa - Jawa Tengah Indonesia, Semarang, PERUMKA, 1996, and A.E. Durrant, PJKA Power Parade, London, Continental Railay Circle, 1972. This paucity of sources has meant that I am unable even to give a an accurate date of opening of the Ambarawa-Bedono section. A date around 1902-3 is most probable, but clearly archival research, either in the Netherlands or Indonesia, is essential to document the site adequately.

20. Y.B. Mangunwijaya, The Weaverbirds (translated by Thomas M. Hunter), Jakarta, Lontar, 1991, pp. 151-2.

21. This account of the workshop's construction is from Robert Lee, The Greatest Public Work: the New South Wales Railways, 1848 to 1889, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1988, pp. 92-3.