Reliving rail’s link with war
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.