– What can history teach us about rail?

What happens when you have real data on transport

Back on April 5th I noted that the suburban rail network we have in Melbourne today was substantially in place by the end of the nineteenth century.

I asked why, with the threat of climate change and peak oil hanging over us, we can’t replicate the achievements of the nineteenth century and massively expand Melbourne’s rail network. If our forebears of four or five generations ago could do it, why can’t we, with our superior technology, do even better?

I pointed out – quite accurately as it turned out – that I couldn’t bring an historian’s eye to the subject. I proposed six hypotheses to explain why it would be much harder to build the suburban network today. One of my reasons was that back then the railways covered their operating costs. A reader, Russ, pointed out that the experience in Victoria was quite different:

After the 1880s the government stepped in, and via the combination of rampant corruption and misplaced optimism in the largest real estate bubble in Australian history built 90% of the existing network – most of it completely wasted expenditure.

On his recommendation, I’ve been flipping through The Land Boomers by Michael Cannon. According to Cannon, transport was so vital to Melbourne’s growth that the story of Victorian politics in the 1880s was largely the story of the building of railways:

Hundreds of miles of track, some of it quite useless, pushed out from the egocentric city to the rampant suburbs and the far countryside. Hardly a member of Parliament whose vote could be bought went without his bribe in the form of a new railway, a spur line, or advance information on governmental plans to enable him to buy choice land in advance – the value of which was enormously enhanced when the line went through. It was a dispiriting chapter in Victorian political morality. Read the rest of this entry »