Building the railways in NSW

During the gold rush, new road networks connected gold mining towns. But the arrival of the railway had the most significant impact.

Building new roads

In the early years of the colony, simple roads and tracks were built to connect people to new towns. Sometimes these were built over existing Aboriginal walking tracks.1

During the 1800s the road network grew and inns opened along the way to provide places for travellers to rest.

But travelling by foot, horse, or horse and carriage was exhausting and slow; and it could also be dangerous.

For example, trying to cross a river that did not have a bridge could easily become fatal.

Bad weather also created problems, for example:

  • heavy rain destroyed dirt roads, and could also delay repairs;2
  • flooded rivers could wash away bridges, stranding people on either side.

Gold rush!

The discovery of gold in 1851 initially made the roads worse.

Thousands of people rushed to the goldfields, using roads and tracks that usually saw little traffic, and causing significant wear and tear.

This put more pressure on them when people needed them the most.

As more and more people headed to the goldfields, the government invested money and labour to improve the roads.

By 1860 the length of 'good quality' roads in NSW had tripled to a total of 1450 kilometres.3

Sturdy bridges had also been built across most rivers and creeks along these roads.

The colony's roads remained an important means of transport throughout the gold rush - especially with the introduction of the Cobb & Co coach service in 1863.

Travel by road was now faster than before, but dangers - such as bushrangers - still existed.

What came next, however, would have a significant impact.

The advent of rail

Between 1850 and 1880, millions of pounds were spent and thousands of workers were employed building three main rail lines: Great Northern; Great Western; and Great Southern.

It was a slow process, and took years of preparation.4

  • land often had to be purchased from private citizens - although, the traditional Aboriginal owners, whose lands were being crossed, were not compensated;
  • the proposed route had to be surveyed (mapped) and marked out with wooden stakes;
  • the government then had to allocate money to the project;
  • finally, a company had to be contracted to build it.

Construction took years and could be held up for numerous reasons.

Once built, however, the railways dramatically shortened travel times. A journey that took 24 hours by horse and cart, might take six to nine hours by train.

This helped to boost the colony's economy, as goods and materials (farm animals, wool, or crops and machinery) could be transported over long distances, very quickly.

Impact of expansion

For Aboriginal communities, who had already been affected by decades of pastoral expansion, the railways brought a new wave of dispossession.5

Towns and settlements quickly sprang up along the routes, spreading the colony's population further Sydney.

Combined with increased migration, this meant that more and more Aboriginal land was turned into farmland and towns.

How did railways affect bushrangers?

Once the Blue Mountains were crossed (1867-69), the railway quickly expanded into areas that had been threatened by bushrangers.

People could now use the train to transport gold, mail and valuables. Instead of coaches, which were easy for bushrangers to 'bail up'.

Also, if police needed to send reinforcements from Sydney to regional areas, to pursue bushrangers, they could do so more quickly than before.

Activities for students

Stage 3 | The Australian Colonies

English | Mathematics | History

These simple tasks, which complement the web resource, have been designed to fit easily into your busy classroom schedule.

English: comprehension

Here; Hidden; Head: comprehension activity. [PDF]

Mathematics: Data and Graphs

Development of railways: use the data to track the increase [PDF]

History: Impact on Aboriginal peoples and Country

Expansion, but at what cost?

Activity: source analysis

Will they make it? Crossing flooded rivers was dangerous, even in a coach.

Look carefully at this artwork:

  • What is happening?
  • What do you think the title of the artwork means? It's called,'We chance the river' .

Source: 'We chance the river', G Lacy, c1850. National Library of Australia

Activity: Mathematics

Q. Create a graph that shows the increase in kilometres in NSW's railway lines between 1855 and 1885.

For comparison, in 1886 the United Kingdom had 27,000 kilometres of railway lines!

*Extension activity:

Q. How many kilometres of railway lines do you think there were in 1895?

Have a guess. But the answer is hidden in this equation (5953-1880=?).


  2. Hunter River District News’ The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 9 July 1951, p2.
  3. Internal Communication of New South Wales, 4th report, 1860, NSW State Records.
  4. Internal Communication of New South Wales, 4th report, 1860, NSW State Records.
  5. Convict Sydney Part 3 ‘Back to Business’
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