What happened to Walter Burley Griffin’s grand railway plans? Meet the man who’s finding out

James Coleman 8 October 2021 42
'City of Canberra' train

The ‘City of Canberra’ locomotive pulling into Canberra Railway Station. Photo: Dave Coleman.

There wasn’t much to do in Harden when Garry Reynolds went there for family holidays as a kid. After all, there was no pool to swim in or television to watch.

“We did a lot of reading,” he says. “But nearly every evening, dad would take us down to the railway yard to see a train come in. That was entertainment for my brother and I.”

Trains and railways have played a major role in Garry’s life. Since retiring in 2014, he has taken on the job of telling the story of how the railway formed the economic backbone of Australia.

He volunteered as a concierge on train rides for the Canberra Railway Museum until it closed. Despite lobbying the ACT Government for heritage funding, the original contents couldn’t be retained. Even the 6029 Beyer-Garratt, the largest locomotive in the Southern Hemisphere, named ‘City of Canberra’ only a few months prior, is now in private hands.

Garry realised the general public simply didn’t know what they were losing.

“I wanted to flag to people the importance of conserving rail heritage as crucial to retaining examples of the underlying story of the development of Canberra,” says Garry.

Canberra Railway Museum

When the ACT isn’t in lockdown, the Canberra Railway Museum is open every Sunday from 10 am t0 3 pm. Photo: Canberra Railway Museum.

He has written six books on various aspects of Australian history although his work has been on hiatus during the past year because he suffered several strokes which put him in hospital in Canberra for four months and rendered him unable to write.

But as part of the physical and mental rehabilitation process, his therapists encouraged Garry to get back into it as soon as he could.

That’s exactly what he has been doing, albeit from the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland, where he is living with his daughter.

In Garry’s latest research, his findings on Walter Burley Griffin’s original plans for Canberra gave him “the shock of [his] life”.

“The story of Walter and Marion Griffin is remarkably different from what you hear at all the tourist places,” says Garry. “They were mad railway fans, and had planned a massive light and heavy rail system for Canberra.”

The Griffins won the competition to design Australia’s new capital city in 1911, and came over from the US city of Chicago to help put it in place.

'City of Canberra' steam train

The ‘City of Canberra’ is the largest locomotive in the Southern Hemisphere. Photo: John Coleman.

“Chicago was the biggest railway centre in America with 32 lines coming in,” says Garry. “They were so used to these rail networks that it was the natural thing to do. If you were building a new city, why wouldn’t you build it around a rail system?”

Canberra’s initial train station was located at Kingston as a temporary and cheap way of bringing in construction materials and coal for the nearby power station, now the Glassworks.

“Walter objected to both pieces of infrastructure as they didn’t fit in with his vision for a grand rail entrance,” says Garry. “Canberra was to be a totally different layout.”

He explains that Griffith, Kingston and Fyshwick were far from industrial estates, but were instead to form a “posh suburb” called Lakeside. The lake in question would be Eastlake, now the Jerrabomberra Wetlands Nature Reserve.

Entry into Canberra would be via a two-track, elevated railway across Eastlake before ending at a four-track underground station in Campbell.

The main station was also going to accommodate a big freight station near where the Australian-American Memorial eagle statue now sits in Russell. This would have serviced produce and materials coming in from Sydney and the regions.

Canberra Miniature Railway

Ironically, the largest rail network in the ACT is the Canberra Miniature Railway. Photo: Canberra Miniature Railway.

Light rail was to run the length of Northbourne Avenue. Only recently that is the only part to have ever seen the light of day.

So what happened to the rest of the grand plan?

Garry says the prevailing story at this point is that the Griffins didn’t get on too well with the bureaucrats overseeing the project. Many thought his plan was overly ambitious for a competition that called for a city with a projected population of 25,000.

Griffin’s plan easily catered for triple that number of people.

But Garry’s investigative mind isn’t completely convinced by this, and is looking into the private lives of the Griffins to provide a definitive and holistic answer as to why Canberra never received its own railway system.

Watch this space.


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42 Responses to What happened to Walter Burley Griffin’s grand railway plans? Meet the man who’s finding out
Gerald Lynch Gerald Lynch 6:53 pm 06 Oct 21

And how did 6029 which was donated to the Australian National Museum end up in private ownership?

Denis Starrs Denis Starrs 10:03 pm 04 Oct 21

Two inventions that he did not anticipate; motor cars and aeroplanes.

switch switch 8:05 pm 04 Oct 21

Richard Allen: Loco 1210 is in the Canberra Railway Museum, Kingston. The train trip to Sydney is too long, a few simple realignments between here and Goulburn would speed it up quite a bit, but it is a nice trip if you have the time.

Gary Parko Parkinson Gary Parko Parkinson 7:09 pm 04 Oct 21

NCDC. Bureaucracy

Robert Reddy Robert Reddy 6:44 am 04 Oct 21

The automobile started taking off and the massive flood that took out the railway bridge that's why the railway station stops at kingston

Tom T Tom T 2:13 am 04 Oct 21

bureaucrats. and more bureaucrats. See 'Canberra' a history of the city by journalist Paul Daley on Burley-Griffin's tousles with the bureaucrats and what they did to his early vision.

Frank Shanahan Frank Shanahan 10:06 pm 03 Oct 21

Anton Pavic what happened???

Peter Hatfield Peter Hatfield 9:16 pm 03 Oct 21

... bit someone forgot to tell the Greens.

Peter Hatfield Peter Hatfield 9:15 pm 03 Oct 21

We worked out that rail was a huge additional cost to the road system, making it an inheritantly inequitable transport option

Carl Flanagan Carl Flanagan 8:39 pm 03 Oct 21

NCA “preserving the original vision of WBG” happened

Simon Wheaton Simon Wheaton 5:34 pm 03 Oct 21

Cars are what happened.

    Gregory Evans Gregory Evans 6:13 pm 03 Oct 21

    Simon Wheaton. The 20th century progressed through to the 21st century and now we have a local government that's still got it's head stuck in technology of the 19th century instead of thinking ahead and using the latest technology with trackless transport (electric buses)

    Simon Wheaton Simon Wheaton 6:14 pm 03 Oct 21

    Gregory Evans you do realise that buses are 19th century technology, right? 😂🤦🤣

    Gregory Evans Gregory Evans 6:29 pm 03 Oct 21

    Simon Wheaton. Not ELECTRIC ones

    Simon Wheaton Simon Wheaton 6:33 pm 03 Oct 21

    Gregory Evans the transport of the future, buses! 😂🤦🤣

    Gregory Evans Gregory Evans 7:19 pm 03 Oct 21

    At least buses are NOT limited to where they can go, by where the tracks are .

    Josh Balding Josh Balding 7:21 pm 03 Oct 21

    LOL have you not seen the diagram of 12 lanes of traffic vs one rail line

Sandra Edlington Sandra Edlington 5:24 pm 03 Oct 21

Such a shame that Canberra doesn’t have a central railway station like just about every capital city in the world. 😂

Wade Bermingham Wade Bermingham 4:08 pm 03 Oct 21

the government never thought canberra was going to grow big enough to need a rail system and they seemed to fight any attempts to make it bigger over the years

Jonno Bazza Jonno Bazza 4:02 pm 03 Oct 21

We were also promised a VFT or Mag-Lev train for the Canberra-Sydney run but that like this, never will happen.

Richard Allen Richard Allen 11:42 am 03 Oct 21

what happen to the 1210 train that was out the front of the railway on wentworth ave and also still 4 hour and bit to sydney far to long why would you bother

Tramcar Trev Tramcar Trev 10:52 am 03 Oct 21

The railway did originally run into what is now Civic and until Kingston Power house closed there was a line there to get the coal in. the track remained until the late 70's.

    Doug Alex Doug Alex 1:16 pm 17 Oct 21

    Tramcar Trev Before they redeveloped Glebe Park, used to remnants of the train line.

    Back in the '80s when I did some work for Australian Survey office and one of the jobs we had was at Glebe Park and the surveyor pointed it out.

David Lindesay David Lindesay 10:27 am 03 Oct 21

Luke how cool! What could have been…

Jak Kanard Jak Kanard 9:12 am 03 Oct 21

...and, that the city was only supposed to have a maximum population of 400,000 !

Pat Gagel Pat Gagel 8:07 am 03 Oct 21

There was lots of frustration with elements the authorities took exception too: Reid as five storey apartments with shops on the bottom like Paris/Chicago that probably meant an original design for 2 million; the 35’ decent to the Russell(Central) station platform (Public Works Report); the perceived visual blight of the 10m high Causeway to form a water settling basin (Eastlake) which was to be 6m higher than the rest of Lake Burley Griffin (Public Works Report)…. Just to name a few.

The Bureaucrats were of the firm view that Canberra would never go north of the river/lake. What confidence? Their view of Civic was in the lee of Mt Kurrajong, resulting in the Initial City being established at Manuka (still not shown as Manuka on maps).

Life in Australia as a visionary sucks.

Even the Lakes there was 50 years of capitulation for it to be finally built at the RL Griffin originally proposed. Unfortunately the funds were no longer available for his strong geometric edges.

Dory Johns Dory Johns 11:57 pm 02 Oct 21

Used to play on remnants of railway track near where ASIO building now stands in Campbell

    Pete Macca Pete Macca 11:32 am 03 Oct 21

    Dory Johns The Chinese built a 1 mile section of above the ground track boxed in with a tram in it, below AISO back in the 1980's, they were to build over 500 miles of track all above the roads for $800 Million, but the Government said that was too much, now we have 12 kilometres of on ground track for over $1 Billion, the Chinese were to continue the tracks from Canberra to the Bay, Cooma and Yass from that $800 Million. To do this now would cost us over $500 Billion plus. This is our corrupt government at work spending our money, but never getting anything done on time.

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