Rail in the Gulf of Carpentaria

Normanton - Croydon Railway

The heritage-listed Normanton to Croydon railway line in the Gulf Savannah region of northern Queensland, was built between 1888 and 1891. The railway line utilises an innovative system of submersible track with patented steel sleepers. Nowadays the line retains buildings of considerable architectural and technical interest at its terminus in Normanton. 

Grand Plans

In the 1870s and 1880s, private groups and individuals were promoting the concept of a transcontinental railway across western Queensland to the Gulf of Carpentaria. One of these concepts was for a private railway from Roma to Point Parker. This received the backing of the government of Sir Thomas McIlwraith, the then Premier of Queensland. Subsequently the land grant and privately built railway collapsed with the fall of his Government which would have served Cloncurry and the mineral fields of the district en route.

In 1885 a survey was undertaken for a railway between Cloncurry and Normanton, after a Glasgow based Cloncurry Copper Mining and Smelting Company decided to develop the Cloncurry mining field. The government decided to proceed with a railway from the port of Normanton, to Cloncurry and an order was placed for 160 kilometers of rail.

The first section towards Cloncurry was approved on 16th November 1886. Yet whilst these grand plans were being enacted by Parliament in Brisbane, other events were already overtaking the future direction of the railway. The discovery of gold at Croydon in November 1885 saw a hurried change in direction of the railway with Normanton quickly becoming the port for the new bonanza. The gold field was rich and travel difficult in the hot dry conditions. The population by 1887 reached 6000.

Parliament agreed to amend the already approved plans so that the first few miles would be common whether the railway went to Cloncurry or Croydon. A budget was approved in October 1887 for construction of the first sixty-eight kilometers of railway to Croydon. Although the government still maintained that a railway would be built to Cloncurry. The first twenty one kilometers of the Normanton-Cloncurry railway was deviated for the new destination of Croydon. The rest of the railway to the goldfields was approved by parliament on 28th May 1889.


Steel Sleepers and Steel Rails

The first rail on the Normanton-Croydon railway was laid in 1888. To lower construction costs and to defeat the termites of the Gulf, specially patented steel sleepers were used, designed by QR Inspecting Surveyor George Phillips (1843-1921).

Phillips was a civil engineer, authorized surveyor, and explorer, who had also surveyed the towns of Normanton and Burketown. In 1878, Phillips joined the Railways Department as an Inspecting Surveyor. In 1886, Phillips retired from the Public Service, establishing himself as consulting Surveyor and Civil Engineer.

From 1888 to 1891 Phillips supervised the construction of the Normanton-Croydon Railway. Mrs Archibald Smith Frew laid the first sleeper of the main line to Croydon on 2nd July 1888. The chief assistant engineer was Archibald Smith Frew who later went on to construct the Almaden-Forsayth line. Less than four of the 151 kilometers were protected by side drains and only small amounts of ballast were used, despite the railway carrying normal rolling stock over some of the "most flooded and rotten country in Australia".
The sleepers were packed with earth when they were laid, giving extra weight and stability, and the rails were bolted to the sleepers which meant they could not move nor work loose in the same way as dog-spikes used in timber sleepers. In flood time water simply passed over the top. Except for the cost of the steel sleepers (more expensive than timber) it was an exceedingly cheap method of construction suitable for light traffic frontier lines. The railway opened in three stages with the first to Haydon being completed on May 7, 1889, then Blackbull on December 15, 1890 and finally to Croydon on July 20, 1891. Golden Gate, near Croydon, was one of the richest production centres on the Croydon gold field.


A Unique Service

The initial train service was worked by steam train four days a week, being reduced after 1894 to three. Every three weeks the timetable was varied to coincide with the arrival of the mail steamer to the Port of Normanton. In the early twentieth century, Special trains were run for picnic events, race meetings and even a suburban service from Croydon to Golden Gate. The last steam train ran in 1929. Since 1930, the service has been exclusively run using railmotors.

The expense and difficulties of maintaining a steam service, combined with the closure of the Croydon goldfields, saw the Queensland Railways investigate cost saving measures. In 1922, the first internal Combustion engine railmotor (RM14) arrived in Normanton. This was a converted Panhard Levassor road wagon, with a 20-24 horsepower motor.

The weekly Gulflander service is the sole remaining service to use the line these days, which is the last Queensland Rail line left to remain isolated from the rest of the rail network.