Re­liv­ing rail’s link with war

Townsville Bulletin - - LIFESTYLE - with Ross East­gate

Ross East­gate is a mil­i­tary his­to­rian, writer and jour­nal­ist spe­cial­is­ing in de­fence. A grad­u­ate of Dun­troon and the Army Com­mand and Staff Col­lege, he has served in the

Mid­dle East, PNG and East Ti­mor.

LONG af­ter di­nosaurs ceased roam­ing the earth but while there were still Boer War vet­er­ans afoot, the de­fence forces tended to travel Aus­tralia by rail.

Dur­ing World War II, mil­lions of troops made the long jour­neys north and south along the eastern Queens­land seaboard to and from train­ing ar­eas in the north.

Aus­tralian and US forces alike en­dured vintage car­riages hauled by steam en­gines, marked by the oc­ca­sional un­pleas­ant­ness as Amer­i­cans trav­el­ling south taunted Aussies trav­el­ling north about what they would do with their women when they ar­rived in Bris­bane.

So bit­ter did it oc­ca­sion­ally be­come that Aus­tralians had their bay­o­nets con­fis­cated and train cross­ings were care­fully co- or­di­nated so no north­bound Aussie troop train ever found it­self sta­tion­ary be­side a south­bound Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent.

In Queens­land, steam train jour­neys were slow and la­bo­ri­ous, with fre­quent stops as pant­ing en­gines re­quired reg­u­lar wa­ter­ing and coal re­plen­ish­ment to keep their boil­ers op­er­at­ing.

These re­fu­elling points were usu­ally lo­cated far from any rea­son­able recre­ational fa­cil­i­ties for bored and frac­tious young men.

Airconditioning was sim­ple; all win­dows open so the un­mis­tak­able mix of coal smoke, steam and oil odours mixed with cin­ders could cir­cu­late through al­ready tepid in­te­ri­ors.

Rather than to­day’s ef­fi­cient con­crete and con­tin­u­ous steel tracks, then there were er­ratic rails laid by hung- over navvies on hard­wood sleep­ers and un­sta­ble ag­gre­gate beds which were home to vo­ra­cious ter­mites.

Trains tended to rat­tle and sway as they nav­i­gated such un­re­li­able and un­pleas­ant cour­ses, since in those less en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious times train toi­lets vented di­rectly onto the tracks.

Bridges were made of wood rather than re­in­forced con­crete and there were sec­tions of track so un­pre­dictable trains were re­quired to travel at min­i­mal, an­noy­ing speed.

Bris­bane to Townsville took sev­eral bor­ing days in­ter­spersed by long, sleep­less nights, in­ter­rupted only by oc­ca­sional com­fort stops so troops could en­joy meals served by en­thu­si­as­tic CWA and Red Cross vol­un­teers.

Break­fasts of pow­dered eggs, con­gealed ba­con, cold toast, and stewed tea, lunches of trays of dried, curled sand­wiches and stewed tea and din­ners of meat and veg­etable stews with a cou­ple of slices of bread and stewed tea.

In those en­light­ened times, when all sta­tions boasted a rail­way cafe and bar, they were al­ways closed lest the troops be tempted to … well, just be tempted, even though there was of­ten a Rail­way Ho­tel just a few paces away.

The de­spised provosts ac­com­pa­ny­ing the trains en­sured such ex­ter­nal de­lights re­mained well away from temp­ta­tion.

For any­one who has trav­elled by Queens­land Rail troop train it re­mains an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence, but they were es­sen­tial strate­gic as­sets dur­ing World War II and af­ter to move troops and equip­ment to Queens­land- based ex­er­cises.

In 2015, QR is cel­e­brat­ing its sesqui­cen­te­nary, co­in­cid­ing with the Cen­te­nary of An­zac.

Re- en­act­ment trains em­ploy­ing vintage en­gines and rolling stock have recre­ated the sense of a dif­fer­ent age when rail was cru­cial to Aus­tralia’s de­fence.

It’s a role of­ten over­looked when Aus­tralians at war are com­mem­o­rated.

Only dis­tant mem­o­ries of those ex­pe­ri­ences re­main, just like the dusty rem­nants of Townsville’s his­toric rail­way precinct.

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