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The Indian turns 50

Monday, 24th February, 2020

School students can be seen in the crowd as the train departs. PICTURE: Frank Johnson School students can be seen in the crowd as the train departs. PICTURE: Frank Johnson

Fifty years ago today people all over Broken Hill were excitedly preparing for a momentous occasion.

On the afternoon of February 24, 1970, the Indian Pacific was coming to town on its inaugural journey across the continent.

Anticipating a crowd of about 300, City Council closed two blocks in front of Crystal Street station between Oxide and Sulphide streets but more than 400 people turned up.

Among them were schoolchildren whose teachers had informed them of the great importance of the new standard gauge line that would at last connect one side of the country to the other, from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean.

Another witness to the event was Frank Johnson, a young civil engineer who had been appointed to take over the management of the gauge standardisation works in Broken Hill. 

As the crowd built outside the station, many others stood along the track to welcome the train dubbed “the world’s newest transcontinental streamliner” as it drew in, sounding its horn.

When it departed 37 minutes later it passed another stream of well-wishers; about 200 cars had parked along the line near Kanandah road.

The Indian Pacific began its 4,352-kilometre crossing to Perth the night before in Sydney. 

At Central Station, the Governor General, Sir Paul Hasluck, officially opened the new standard gauge line and hundreds of people were on the platform to see the train off. 

Sir Paul and Lady Hasluck were among the VIPs aboard for the historic ride. A separate train left 10 minutes later carrying reporters and photographers from all the major media companies in Australia and America, Japan and New Zealand. 

The Barrier Daily Truth reported that many of the photographers booked taxis from Broken Hill to pick them up in Menindee so that they could beat the Indian Pacific into the city and take pictures of it arriving.

It drew in at 3.22pm to the sight of Australian flags being “flown throughout the city... and  “hundreds” of people “gathered at vantage points to watch the train as it passed,” the BDT said.

The city’s mayor, George Dial, welcomed the Governor-General on the steps of the station while below a civic delegation and a “crowd estimated at more than 400” filled the street.

In his speech the mayor said he trusted that “railway would become the mainstay of growth in Australia” and “it was for this reason we are proud this train will pass though this city.”

In reply, Sir Paul said “I hope the standard gauge line will bring more tourists who will come to know better the diversities of Australian life here.

“So much of the heart of Australia beats in the inland parts of our continent.”

The civil engineer, Frank Johnson, said last week that the arrival of the Indian Pacific in Broken Hill was the highlight of his career.

Mr Johnson contacted the BDT for material from its archives for an article he was writing for Australian Railway History magazine.

He explains in the article how important the new line was to Broken Hill and how the works piqued the interest of the locals. 

“The change from being at the end of a rather extended branch line to a key point in the Sydney to Perth Standard Gauge link resulted in substantial changes for railway facilities in Broken Hill,” he wrote. 

“The main lines and yard were completely rebuilt, with higher standard track. In addition, new buildings were provided, including a goods shed, locomotive servicing facility, train crew barracks and a new office building.

“The major works in Broken Hill Yard would have been quite visible to the local population and attracted a good deal of attention. 

“Thus, it is not surprising that the arrival of the Indian Pacific created a good deal of interest in Broken Hill.”

On the Saturday before the first Indian Pacific arrived, the BDT published details of what it termed ‘Australia’s latest and most lavish train’.

“Readers were advised of its timetables, stopping and pick-up stations, and fares. As a comparison, the single fare for First Class from Sydney to Perth was $87.65 in 1970, compared to $2999 for Gold Class in 2020.”

“Back to 1970 - the excitement and sense of anticipation was evidently building up, with many people eagerly awaiting Tuesday, 24 February.

“My office was in the old station building, so I was able to see the magnificent Indian Pacific rolling into Broken Hill. 

“With my timekeeper, I immediately walked across the tracks to the station and no doubt our entire workforce also stopped work for the day to witness this great event. 

“In true Broken Hill fashion, after having ceased work for the day, the workers would have then adjourned to their pub or club of choice, and had a beer or two or... to celebrate.”

However, the railway workers’ celebrations “would have paled into insignificance compared to the excitement of townspeople of Broken Hill,” said Mr Johnson. 

He also praised the BDT for giving prominence to the true architects of the whole project in a story titled “The silent unfeted few”.

“It noted that as well as the ‘small invasion’ of VIPs and pressmen, was a group of four who had been on the Wentworth Committee, which successfully pushed for the gauge standardisation project and its route through Broken Hill. 

“This committee comprised Mr W C Wentworth, Federal Minister for Social Services and Aboriginal Welfare, Mr D Fairbairn, Mr M Fox and a former senator, Mr F Maher.

“No doubt many in the official party accepted the adulation and took credit for something they had little or nothing to do with, but the ‘unfeted four’ were the real heroes.” 

Mr Johnson said he had fond memories of working in Broken Hill and felt fortunate to have been here on that historic day.

“My time at Broken Hill provided many interesting and informative experiences for a young civil engineer, but the first Indian Pacific would have to be the highlight - and almost everything after that was an anticlimax. 

“So, here on 24, February 1970 was the very visible fruition of all that effort (and expenditure) and what better place to experience it and be part of it than Broken Hill!”

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