South Australian Railways
IndustryRailway operator
Defunct28 February 1978
FateSold to the federal government
SuccessorAustralian National
Area served
South Australia
ParentGovernment of South Australia

South Australian Railways (SAR) was the statutory corporation through which the Government of South Australia built and operated railways in South Australia from 1854 until March 1978, when its non-urban railways were incorporated into Australian National, and its Adelaide urban lines were transferred to the State Transport Authority.

The SAR had three major rail gauges: 1600 mm (5 ft 3 in); 1435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in); and 1067 mm (3 ft 6 in).


Y71 steam locomotive on display at the Western Australian Rail Transport Museum
The horsedrawn Goolwa to Port Elliot railway, in 1860

Colonial period

The first railway in South Australia was laid in 1854 between Goolwa and Port Elliot to allow for goods to be transferred between paddle steamers on the Murray River and seagoing vessels. The next railway was laid from the harbour at Port Adelaide, to the capital, Adelaide, and was laid with Irish gauge 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) track. This line was opened in 1856. Later on, branch lines in the state's north in the mining towns of Kapunda and Burra were linked through to the Adelaide metropolitan system. From here, a south main line extended to meet the horse tramway from Victor Harbor to Strathalbyn, and towards the South Australia/Victoria Border.

With the metropolitan systems being broad gauge, the mid north and south east of the state were originally laid with 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge track. These systems were closely based on British practice, as was the broad gauge system prior to 1926. Locomotives and rolling stock were bought from the United Kingdom and United States, from builders such as Beyer, Peacock & Company, Dübs and Company, North British Locomotive Company, and Baldwin Locomotive Works. Nine broad gauge tank locomotives plus the frame of a tenth were bought second-hand from the Canterbury Provincial Railways in New Zealand when it converted to narrow gauge.


William Webb, who transformed South Australian Railways in the 1920s

In 1922, after the SAR's worst financial deficit, the government appointed American railroad manager William Webb, from the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad as Chief Commissioner. When Webb arrived in Adelaide with his young family, he found a railway system unchanged since the late 19th century. The locomotives and rolling stock were small, wagons and carriages were of wooden construction, the track and bridges were unsuitable for heavy loads, the workshops had antiquated machinery and the signalling system was inflexible. These attributes drove up the ratio of operating costs to revenue.

Webb introduced a rehabilitation plan based on American railroad principles of large, standardised locomotives and steel bodied freight wagons, with automatic couplers to enable a significant increase in productivity. Lightly patronised passenger trains would be replaced by self-propelled rail cars, enabling faster, more frequent and more efficient services. He recruited Fred Shea as his Chief Mechanical Engineer and had him prepare specifications for this new equipment. This resulted in orders being placed for 1,200 wagons of four types from American Car and Foundry, 12 petrol mechanical railmotor cars from the Service Motors Corporation, Wabash, Indiana, and 30 locomotives based on American Locomotive Company plans but built by Armstrong Whitworth & Co in the United Kingdom. These were of the Mountain, Pacific and Mikado wheel arrangements, 10 of each type, which became the 500, 600, and 700 class locomotives.[1][2]

To carry the heavier trains, the rehabilitation plan included the strengthening of track and bridges, and the conversion of the mid north 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge system (the Western division) to 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge. The antiquated Islington Railway Workshops were demolished and replaced with a thoroughly modern railway maintenance and manufacturing works, a large new round house was built at Mile End, near Adelaide, and several 85 foot turntables were installed throughout the state to enable the much larger locomotives to be turned. Efficient train operations were facilitated by the adoption of American train order working on country lines, and Adelaide railway station was replaced with an imposing new building, opened in 1927.[1] This grand building has been partially taken over by the Adelaide Casino.

A 500 class locomotive introduced by Webb to haul heavy trains over the Adelaide Hills

When the two shiploads of new locomotives arrived in 1926 they caused a sensation with the public and throughout the railway industry in Australia. The 500 class "Mountain" was over twice the size of the biggest pre-Webb engine, and was the most powerful locomotive in Australia. Henceforth double heading 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge trains became a rarity in South Australia. The massive locomotives were unloaded at Port Adelaide and taken off the pier by horses (the locomotives weight alone exceeding the dock's maximum loading capacity). Apart from some initial teething problems (mainly to do with overheating bearings and rough riding due to excessive play allowed on driving axles) the new locomotives settled in nicely to their assigned positions. After the success of the original locomotives, ten more 700 class locomotives, with larger tenders, were locally built using the facilities of the new Islington Workshops. These were the 710 class.[1]

The 500 class was rated to haul 400 tons over the Mount Lofty Ranges immediately east of Adelaide, where a 19-mile (31 km) continuous 1-in-45 (2.2%) gradient faced trains heading for Victoria. Two years after their introduction, the class was modified by the addition of a booster engine which required replacement of the two-wheel trailing truck with a four-wheel truck. This altered the wheel arrangement from 4-8-2 to 4-8-4, but the term "Mountains" stuck with the locomotives. Reclassified 500B class, their maximum load to Mount Lofty was increased to 600 tons[which?], or eleven passenger cars. In the pre-Webb era the Rx class - a 4-6-0 with a Belpaire firebox was rated at 190 tons for this line, with three of them required to lift a heavy Melbourne Express - two at the front and one banking from the rear.[3]

The 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge system was the main focus of Webb rehabilitation scheme. The 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge systems north of Terowie and on the Eyre Peninsula remained untouched, as did the 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge South Eastern division (although it was subsequently converted to 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) broad gauge in the early 1950s).

Webb decided not to extend his contract in 1930 and returned to the US, having revolutionised the SAR.

Post-Depression period

In 1936, the SAR owned 365 locomotives, 51 railcars, 408 passenger carriages, 38 brake vans and 8,219 goods wagons.[4] The following year, ten 620 class 4-6-2 Pacific type locomotives, designed and built at the SAR's Islington Works – were introduced. Their axle load enabled them to traverse the many rural lines laid with 60-pound rail, but they were also usefully deployed on the East-West Express between Adelaide and Port Pirie following the extension of the broad gauge line north from Redhill to Port Pirie in 1937.[2][failed verification]

Other additions to the locomotive fleet after the Depression included the 2-8-4 720 class, a further development of the 700/710 class locomotives, and the 520 class, a 4-8-4 locomotive, externally styled after the Pennsylvania Railroad T1; it had the same light axle load as the 620 class but a 30% higher tractive effort, achieving higher speeds on all mainline passenger services.

In 1949, the diesel era started, tentatively, with two Bo-Bo 350 class shunting locomotives, designed and built by Islington Works and incorporating British components.[5]

The SAR 900 class diesel-electric locomotive, built by the SAR and designed particularly for the demanding Adelaide Hills route, entered service in 1951

Two years later, the SAR's first mainline diesel-electric locomotives entered service: the 900 class, also designed and built by Islington Railway Workshops. Their styling closely followed that of the Alco PA diesels in the United States. Subsequently, and coincidentally, the SAR exclusively purchased American Locomotive Company products made under licence in Sydney by AE Goodwin: the 930, 830, 600 and 700 classes. In the 1950s, railcars were introduced: the 250 and 100 class "Bluebirds" for regional services and the 300 and 400 class "Red Hens" for Adelaide suburban services.

A major change occurred in 1970, when the remaining 400 kilometres (250 miles) length of the Sydney-Perth rail corridor that was not built to 1435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge, the Port Pirie-Broken Hill line, was gauge-converted.

In the 1972 election, the Whitlam Federal Government made a commitment to invite the states to hand over their railway systems to the federal government. The Government of South Australia took up the offer, but elected to retain the Adelaide metropolitan services, which were transferred to the State Transport Authority. Financial responsibility for the remaining services passed to the Federal Government on 1 July 1975, although the SAR continued services until operations were formally transferred on 1 March 1978 to the Australian National Railways Commission.[6]

The penultimate head of the SAR, commissioner Ron Fitch, reflecting on the end of the railway administration, wrote: "The merging of the major part of the SAR into the Australian National Railways Commission, and the remainder into the South Australian State Transport Authority, cannot but tend to consign the former state railway system into eventual oblivion. But posterity should not be allowed to forget its achievements:

Locomotive and railcar classes

Broad gauge steam classes
Class Qty Builder Introduced Withdrawn Notes
Locos 1‑3 3 Fairbairn 1856 1871–1874 Locos Adelaide, Victoria and Albert preceded class system;
eventually numbered 1, 2 & 3
A 3 Stephenson 1868, 1873 1893–1924
B 2 Stephenson 1856, 1858 1935, 1938
C 2 Stephenson 1856, 1857 1906, 1926
D 8 Stephenson 1856, 1862–1867 1896, 1904, 1932
E 7 Slaughter, Grüning; Avonside 1862–1882 1886–1929
F (1st) 2 Avonside 1869 1892
F (2nd) 43 SAR; Martin; Perry 1902–1922 1956–1968 [NRM]
G 8 Beyer, Peacock 1869, 1880, 1886 1904–1923
Ga 1 Stephenson 1899 1915[c] Bought second-hand; built 1874
Gb 2 Stephenson 1899 1904, 1916[c] Bought second-hand; built 1874, 1878
Gc 1 Stephenson 1899 1905[c] Bought second-hand; built 1879
Gd 2 Beyer, Peacock 1899 1925[c] Bought second-hand; built 1880
Ge 2 Beyer, Peacock 1899 1929, 1935 [c] Bought second-hand; built 1897
H 9 Stephenson 1870–1877 1888–1930
I (1st) 1 Neilson 1879 1909 Bought second-hand; built 1873
I (2nd) 1 Beyer, Peacock 1910 1929 Bought second-hand; built 1888
J 2 Beyer, Peacock 1875 1932, 1934
K 13 Beyer, Peacock 1879–1884 1936–1956
L 4 Beyer, Peacock 1880 1928, 1931
M (1st) 5 Avonside 1880, 1881 1913–1917 Bought second-hand; built 1868–1874
M (2nd) 20 Phoenix; David Munro & Co. 1920–1922 1925–1935 Bought second-hand; built 1889–1894
N 2 Baldwin 1881 1925, 1927
O (1st) 2 Baldwin 1881 1904
O (2nd) 1 Stephenson 1912 1929 Bought second-hand; built 1868
P 20 Beyer, Peacock; Martin 1884, 1893 1929, 1957 [NRM]
Q 22 Dübs; Martin 1885, 1892 1923, 1956
R & Rx 84 Dübs; Martin; SAR; North BritishWalkers 1886, 1895, 1916 1927–1969 From 1899, all R class (rebuilds and new builds) became Rx class, denoting Belpaire fireboxes [NRM] [SR]
S 18 Martin 1893, 1903–1904 1942–1960
Tx 78 SAR; Martin; Walkers 1903–1917 1957–1961 Five narrow-gauge T class converted from narrow gauge 1929; reverted 1949.
500 10 Armstrong Whitworth 1926 1958–1963 [NRM]
520 12 SAR 1943–1947 1961–1971 [NRM] [SR]
600 10 Armstrong Whitworth 1926 1958–1961
620 10 SAR 1936–1938 1963–1969 [NRM] [SR]
700 10 Armstrong Whitworth 1926 1962–1968 [NRM]
710 10 SAR 1929 1962–1968
720 17 SAR 1930–1943 1958–1960
740 10 Clyde Engineering 1951–1953 1963–1965
750 10 North British 1951 1961-1969 Bought second-hand. [NRM]
Other broad-gauge locomotives purchased by the SAR but not given a classification were as follows:[8]
[c] = date condemned; date withdrawn is unknown.
Codes in the Notes column show the locations of preserved examples of classes (operational or on static display) as of 2021:
Narrow gauge steam classes
Class Qty Builder Introduced Withdrawn Notes
300 6 WAGR, VR 1952 1955–1956 Bought second-hand; built 1943–1945
400 10 Société Franco-Belge 1952–1953 1970 [NRM]
K 1 Dübs 1884 1938
T 78 SAR, Martin, Walkers 1903–1917 ?–1970 [NRM] [PRR]
U 8 Beyer, Peacock 1876 1924–1929
V 8 Beyer, Peacock; Martin 1877, 1893 1930s, 1940s
W & Wx 35 Beyer, Peacock 1877–1882 1929, 1959 From 1903, 18 were rebuilt as Wx class with upgraded boilers.
X 8 Baldwin 1881–1882 ?–1907
Y & Yx 129 Beyer, Peacock; SARMartin 1885–1898 Mainly 1960s Between 1904 and 1924, 48 were rebuilt as Yx class with Belpaire fireboxes [NRM] [PRR]
Z 10 Martin, SAR 1895, 1911 1956
Other narrow-gauge locomotives purchased by the SAR but not given a classification were as follows:[9]
Codes in the Notes column show the locations of preserved examples of classes (operational or on static display) as of 2021:
Diesel (locomotive and railcar) classes
Class Qty Gauge Builder Introduced Withdrawn Notes
350 2 Broad SAR 1949 1979 [MHRM] [SR]
500 34 Broad & standard SAR 1964–1969 Most 1990s [NRM] [SR]
600 7 Standard Goodwin 1965, 1969–1970 Mainly 1990s
700 6 Broad & standard Goodwin 1971–1972 Mainly 2010s
800 10 Broad English Electric (NSW) 1956–1957 Early 1990s [NRM]
830 45 Broad, standard & narrow Goodwin 1959–1969 See note Includes 7 DA conversions
900 10 Broad SAR 1951–1953 1979–1985 [NRM]
930 37 Broad Goodwin 1955–1967 Most 1986–1994 [NRM] [SR]
Brill Model 55 railcars 12 Broad Brill, SAR 1924, 1925 1971? [NRM]
Brill Model 75 railcars 39 Broad & narrow SAR 1927 1971 [NRM] [PRR] [SR]
100, 250 & 280 class Bluebird railcars 21 Broad & standard SAR 1954–1959 1989–1995 See note. [NRM]
300 & 400 class "Red Hen" railcars 111 Broad SAR 1955–1971 1996 [NRM] [SR]
The post-SAR dispositions of diesel locomotives and railcars were very diverse and are not easily summarised. Further details are in the articles.
Codes in the Notes column show the locations of preserved examples of classes (operational or on static display) as of 2021:


John A. Fargher, a mechanical engineer by profession, became the Railways Commissioneer in 1953. He was Assistant to his predecessor in 1949 on an inspection of gypsum loading facilities at Kevin, on the narrow-gauge Port Lincoln Division.[10]


In June 1965, Rail News was launched as a quarterly staff newsletter.[20] It was published monthly from January 1970.[21] The last edition was published in March 1973, with Keeping Track superseding it the next month.[22][23]

See also


  1. ^ a b c R.I.Jennings (1973). "Webb, William Alfred (1878–1936)". W.A.Webb: South Australian Railways Commissioner 1922-30. Adelaide. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. pp. 71, 85, 102–134.
  2. ^ a b Burke, David (1985). Kings of the iron horse. Sydney: Methuen Australia. pp. 118–121. ISBN 0454007612.
  3. ^ Douglas Colquhoun et al. 500: The 4-8-2 and 4-8-4 Locomotives of the South Australian Railways. Australian Railways Historical Society. 1969. pp. 4, 11, 15-16
  4. ^ World Survey of Foreign Railways. Transportation Division, Bureau of foreign and domestic commerce, Washington D.C. 1936. p. 19.
  5. ^ Broad Gauge 350-class diesel locomotives Chris's Commonwealth Railways Pages
  6. ^ Australian National Railways Amendment Act 1978 Government of Australia
  7. ^ Fitch, Ronald J. (1989). Making tracks: 46 years in Australian railways. Kenthurst NSW: Kangaroo Press. p. 135. ISBN 0864172702.
  8. ^ Drymalik, Chris (2021). "Broad gauge steam locomotive information". Chris's Commonwealth railways information (ComRails). Chris Drymalik. Retrieved 16 June 2021.
  9. ^ Drymalik, Chris (2021). "Narrow gauge steam locomotive information". Chris's Commonwealth railways information (ComRails). Chris Drymalik. Retrieved 16 June 2021.
  10. ^ Fitch, Ron (2006). Australian Railwayman: from cadet engineer to railways commissioner. Dural, New South Wales: Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd. p. 232. ISBN 1877058483.
  11. ^ "The New Railway Commissioners". The Adelaide Observer. Vol. XLV, no. 2427. South Australia. 7 April 1888. p. 31. Retrieved 7 December 2020 – via Trove.
  12. ^ "Obituaries". The Observer (Adelaide). Vol. LXXVI, no. 5, 745. South Australia. 1 March 1919. p. 19. Retrieved 7 December 2020 – via National Library of Australia.
  13. ^ a b c d e f "Records of the South Australian railways, 1850- 1998 (Islington Plan Room Collection)" (PDF). Government of South Australia. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  14. ^ "Mr. C. B. Anderson To Be Railways Commissioner On May 16, 1930". The Register News-pictorial. Vol. XCIV, no. 27, 530. South Australia. 8 November 1929. p. 3. Retrieved 12 February 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  15. ^ "New Railway Commissioner Succeeds Mr. Webb". The Register News-pictorial. Vol. XCIV, no. 27, 530. South Australia. 8 November 1929. p. 1. Retrieved 12 February 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  16. ^ "RAILWAYS COMMISSIONER". The Advertiser. South Australia. 8 November 1929. p. 25. Retrieved 12 February 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  17. ^ Jenkin, John. "Research papers on Robert Hall Chapman (1890-1953)". Library Rare Books & Special Collections. University of Adelaide. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  18. ^ "New Railways Commissioner". Chronicle. Vol. 89, no. 5, 066. South Australia. 23 January 1947. p. 34. Retrieved 12 February 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  19. ^ Kemp, Deane; Pickles, John (1996). "Fargher, John Adrian (1901–1977)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  20. ^ Editorial Rail News issue 1 June 1965 page 1
  21. ^ Staff Education and Training Rail News issue 20 January 1970 page 1
  22. ^ Mr Fitch Says Rail News issue 58 March 1973 page 1
  23. ^ Commissioner's Comments Keeping Track issue 1 April 1973 page 1