8 October 2021

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

| James Coleman
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'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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Gerald Lynch6:53 pm 06 Oct 21

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

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.

Peter Graves9:56 pm 02 Oct 21

“Canberra as a planned city had, from the outset, embraced the idea of an integrated system of rail and trams for communication to and from and within the city. The accepted design of Walter Burley Griffin provided a rail route on the eastern side of the city that connected Canberra with Yass and Goulburn. The railway, although planned for with easements set aside for its future construction until 1950, was never built. In 1921 a temporary construction railway was extended from the existing line at what is now Kingston, crossing the Molonglo River with a temporary bridge and
then into the city approximately along this route. The bridge was washed away in the 1922 flood and never reinstated so the line became redundant. The history of the proposed railway is intimately linked with Walter Burley Griffin and evidence of his design for the city can still be seen at select points along what would have been its route. “

With thanks to the ACT Heritage Council for its 13 pages on this topic in 2017

With a photo of the original bridge after it was smashed in the 1922 flood (and never re-built).

How’s that for you, Garry ?

The rail line not going into the city centre. Big missed opportunity.
Then again Australia is backward where rail travel and freight is concerned.

ChrisinTurner6:46 pm 02 Oct 21

There is still a railway easement behind CIT in Reid.

old canberran5:02 pm 02 Oct 21

I remember when I was a kid I used to find metal spikes used to anchor the rails to the sleepers in the paddock behind our house in Braddon. That paddock is now Lonsdale street. There was also an earth mound railway platform on the East side of Civic near what is now Bunda Street. There was also a railway Bridge across the Molonglo River which was washed away with a flood. The construction of the railway to Yass was underway and what stopped it was WW2. When things settled down it was probably clear that Canberra was always going to be the end of the line as there was a line from Goulburn to Yass.

consumeradvocatecanberra1:23 pm 02 Oct 21

We have developer planning-to make them heaps of money but not traveller planning, if you can call it that. Divert 2A to the airport. Heavy rail-no connectivity with existing services at all, no secure car storage for travel involving an overnight trip. We need some sort of transport hub that is easy to get to and close to other transport services. Interstate coaches go north, trains go east. Bit of a conundrum. Elevated rail could work as in Europe, Melbourne and other jurisdictions.

Gerald Lynch1:01 pm 02 Oct 21

I thought that the Beyer-Garret 6029 had been donated to the National Museum by the then NSWGR. As a donated and presumably accessioned item in the Museum collection, does anyone know how it came into private ownership?

National museum gave it to AHRS Canberra Museum and was sold when the museum went belly up.

The National museum acquired the loco in 1975, and allowed the Canberra Railway Historical Society to run and maintain it during the late 70s and early 80s.
It was retired when it need a new boiler, and sat in the museum for decades. The project got under way to restore it in the 2000s, and once it was going again, the National Museum gifted 6029 to the society.
Then it all turned to muck, and the railway museum and society went belly up, and as one of their assets, it was sold, bought by a private buyer.
It currently resides at Thirlmere. Its no longer named, “City of Canberra”.
Would love to see her back in the ACT …

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