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The Riesling Trail Story

  Chapter 4. Clare Railway declines
Sir Richard Butler
Barwell Bull - Pichi Richi Railway Railc

J I Jennings wrote (in 1973):

"The intention of Sir Richard Butler to build the line from Riverton to Spalding had such patent shortcomings that a Member from a related district was moved to attack it."

William Miller, representing Burra Burra electorate (1902 -  1918), had already seen the folly of the Government policy of constructing roads alongside railways.

"The line from Riverton to Clare and Spalding ought never to have been suggested. The country from Riverton to Clare had splendid roads and had been under cultivation for a number of years.

On either side were (railway) lines ... only seventeen miles apart.

The suggested line would be a ridiculous waste of money ... there were splendid metal roads for the carriage of produce."

R. I. Jennings, "W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner, 1922-1930 "(Adel, 1973), page 39.

Sir Richard wasn't going to have a bit of it.

"Clare was  ... a district which, when the railway was built, would be one of the most popular and attractive for tourists in the State."

Clare lay between two ranges of hills, and on the either side of both there were railway lines, but horses got tired carrying the goods up the hills to get to those lines:

it could be said that that the Riverton-Clare-Spalding line was built to avoid tiring the horses.

So Miller drew attention to

— the way in which the Government was sowing the seeds of future economic competitive trouble

— with foolish road building schemes,

providing every facility for the development of ruthless competition with railways, which were already losing propositions.

Politician William Miller
Politician William Miller

William Miller, Farmer and Legislator. (1850 – 20 June 1922) was an Australian politician who represented the South Australian House of Assembly multi-member seat of Burra Burra from 1902 to 1918.

He represented the


Miller was born at Stronsay in the Orkney Islands, and with his parents Peter (died 1906) and Janet Miller (died 1908) arrived in South Australia on the ship Amazon in February 1852.[2]

He was raised at Mount Crawford until 1857, at the Hundred of South Rhine until 1860, and thereafter near Springton, following his father's work as a farm overseer and manager and later farmer in his own right. - Wikipedia


Mr. Miller was a thoroughly practical farmer. He knew the capacities of not only the north but of other areas from end to end, and his knowledge meant money to himself and to others.

Among his other public duties he was a member of the council of the Adelaide School of Mines, and was Chairman of directors of the South Australia Farmers' Co-operative Union.

He was an interesting and instructive speaker on co-operative work. His visit to New Zealand added to his scope of information, and the great interest he has displayed in bulk handling of wheat from the farmers' point of view, had made him in great demand all over the State to address meetings on these subjects.

- The Journal (Adelaide, SA) Tue 20 Jun 1922 Page 1 - DEATH OF MR. WILLIAM MILLER.

Clare: A Losing Line


John Wilson, author of the book "The Riesling Railway" notes that the SA Railways annual report of 1919 mentions the combined passenger and goods business on the Clare line was £1,982 prior to 21 November 1918, and £2,882 for the remainder of the financial year, totaling £4,864 in the first year of operation.

Figures for 1923 show

  • earnings of £17,334,

  • operating expenses of £16,348, and

  • interest on the £540,847 capital cost of £25,611.

i.e. an operating surplus of £986,

but altogether a deficit of £24,625.

Clare: A Losing Line
Reisling Railway book cover.jpg
Maladministration of the SA Railways

In 1914 a Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald accompanied the Standing Committee on (SA) Railways as they investigated development of the Murraylands railways.

From these investigations and contact with railway operations in the eastern states, the Committee realised that

  • SA Railways' engines and rolling stock had marked deficiencies,

  • the tractive power of the NSW and Vic. locomotives was greater than any old steam locomotive in SA.

Below: 2 under-powered Rx class locomotives alongside a Pacific class locomotive built in UK

An Expert Report
2 Rx class locomotives with a Pacific class locomotive
Call in an Expert

In 1917 an independent expert was appointed, Mr Philip Arnold Anthony, CMG, General Manager of the Federated Malay Railways, Kuala Lumpur.

Among many suggestions he made was

  • the connection from Adelaide to Port Pirie using a standard gauge line (4'8½"), and

  • the need for a new Adelaide Railway Station.

His major criticisms included:

  • the need to improve facilities at Mile End and Port Adelaide

  • the hundreds of miles of loss-making country railways

  • the lack of proper connection to interstate lines

  • the need to modernise the railway workshops (still using horse power)

  • 'forcibly blowing fresh air' through the heads of stale department chiefs

  • by sending them overseas, if necessary 'with their eyelids taped apart'.

R. I. Jennings, "W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner, 1922-1930 "(Adel, 1973), page 76.

Read more: The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA) Wed 8 Jan 1919 Page 9


The Standing Committee over the years 1916-1920 voiced concern that

  • fundamental errors allowed the construction of cheap railways

  • with unstable track and unsuitable contour grades,

  • unsatisfactory government land development policy and

  • the high cost of SA railway line construction.

The end result was huge losses on all new lines, and an increasing overall deficit, when half of all Government revenue came from its railways.

R. I. Jennings, "W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner, 1922-1930 "(Adel, 1973), page 70.

Author R I Jennings wrote of Sir Richard Butler: "Butler (had) a habit of building railways where he wanted them to gain votes." (p.68)

Sir Richard Butler, in 1920 "still had the effrontery to say that:

"the (country) railways were not losing £165,000 per annum, but paying wonderfully; it still depended on how you kept your books and if they were running at a loss, then obviously you weren't keeping (your accounts) books properly"

R. I. Jennings, "W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner, 1922-1930 "(Adel, 1973), page 81.

The Railways loss in 1920-21 had been an all-time record of £561,303, reported the North Terrace Reserve Commission, which would have occurred no matter what Government or Railways Commissioner was in charge.

John Wilson wrote in the 'Riesling Railway', that:

"By 1920 SA boasted a railway system that

  • connected most places ... (but)

  • many of these lines were low-cost lines,

  • with the additional demon of break-of-gauge, and

  • SA Railway administration (was) riddled with incompetence,

  • the result -- a very inefficient system." (p.22)


Sir Richard Butler had pressed on with the Clare-Spalding line, which they had to build because Sir Richard had cunningly stacked wheat along the route of the line, as a political gimmick.

R. I. Jennings, "W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner, 1922-1930 "(Adel, 1973), page 13.


Railway historian, the late Ron Stewien, wrote in 2011 that

"The Railways, having a monopoly, were able to blunder along with their crude methods, until even a tolerant population cried out for a radical change.

By 1921, as a result of the government's parsimony, the railways were deplorably behind the times.

The milch cow had not only dried up, but was becoming hungrier every year."

Ron Stewian, "A History of the South Australian Railways, Vol. 5", p.18

Barwell gets his chance

When Henry Newman Barwell (pictured left) became Premier of a Liberal Government in 1920, he

  • sidelined Sir Richard Butler by making him House Speaker, so effectively silencing him

  • ousted Mr Herbert Angas Parsons, a bright lawyer and frequent critic, who was metamorphosed into a Supreme Court judge.

  • sent Edward Varden, who occasionally voted with the Opposition,  to Canberra as a Senator.

Barwell was an outstanding debater, with a withering tongue, had acquired his knighthood early, and was a far-sighted and able man.

Sir Henry Barwell takes charge
Anthony Report 1.jpg
Anthony Report 2A.jpg
Fundamental Errors
Barwell Appoints R A Webb

In 1921 Premier Henry Barwell recognised the need to modernise the system and in 1922 appointed William Alfred Webb to the position of Chief Commissioner of SA Railways.

There is no doubt that Barwell picked the right man for the job.

As far as was practical, Webb did solve the problem.


Below: Mr. J. McGuire, South Australian Commissioner of Railways standing left with the new Chief Commissioner of Railways, Mr. W.A. Webb, possibly during the welcome for him upon his arrival from the United States to take up the appointment.

Barwell Appoints R A Webb
Sir Henry Barwell B-71544-11.jpeg
National Railway Museum map SA Railways.
Mr. J. McGuire and Mr. W.A. Webb PRG-280
Webb Takes Charge

Webb faced a significant challenge:

  • Inheriting an outdated and uneconomic system,

  • characterized by fragmented authority,

  • ponderous decision-making and

  • a complex, pyramidal administrative structure,


Webb revolutionized railway management by rationalizing the basis of operations.

  • Webb wasted no time in inspecting the system which took him about three months and he returned with a reasonably favourable opinion, especially of the permanent way which he thought was generally in good condition.

  • The locomotives and rolling stock were another question altogether: he said they were 30 to 40 years out of date.

  • He also noted that heavier rails had been laid over bridges unable to carry the loads the rails were capable of.

  • Webb wanted larger locomotives – make that “huge” locomotives – capable of pulling larger loads over a system relaid with heavier rails, 

  • and supported by new bridges.

Add in

  • an overhaul of the Islington workshops,

  • better facilities for employees, and

  • new communication and signalling system

and the bill came to about £4 500 000.

Railway historian Ron Stewein noted that South Australia “was frankly amazed, but prepared to believe Mr Webb knew his job and awaited results”.

Ron Stewian, "A History of the South Australian Railways, Vol. 5", p. 22a

Read more: Engineering Heritage SA August 2017


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


To carry the heavier trains, the rehabilitation plan included

Efficient train operations were facilitated by the adoption of American train order working on country lines, and

Webb attracted more than his fair share of critics and opponents in the Parliament, the unions, and the press.

In October 1929, he put his name to a publication called Railway Facts which attempted to set the record straight but it failed to achieve its purpose.

His contract expired in November 1929 and he had no wish to stay; however, he accepted an extension of six months and left South Australia (by train) on 14 May 1930.

His opponents wasted no time in trying to undo all that he had achieved.

As Reece Jennings put it:

"Following his departure the re-elected Hill government sought to tackle the financial problems of the Depression.

Webb’s administrative reforms were dismantled and the old hierarchy was reinstated to preside over forty years of technological stagnation and traditionalism."

For all that, his rehabilitation of the S.A.R. did enable it to undertake an enormous transport task in World War II and laid the footing for the reforms of Australian National Railways when it later took over the country lines of the S.A.R.

Below: Australian Steam Trains - Rx 207 & 621

Webb Takes Charge

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

The name "Mountains" stuck with the above locomotives. Their maximum load to Mount Lofty was increased to 600 tons, 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, (pictured below).[3]

Rx Class double engine with passengers.p
The Clare Rail Service

John Wilson writes that

"the first passenger train services were provided by mixed trains (goods train and a carriage) that connected with the broad-gauge Terowie passenger trains at Riverton."

"It was a slow trip, delayed while goods vehicles were shunted on to the goods siding, and the engine recoupling before moving onto the next station."

"Those wishing a day-trip to Adelaide had to still make their own way to the Terowie station in the early morning to meet the broad-gauge passenger service that had them arrive in Adelaide in mid-morning."

It got worse for Clare people due to the shortage of coal in 1919, which reduced the Clare mixed train services to three trains a week.

"During 1923-1924 there was no shortage of complaints in both press and Parliament... and in 1924 Clare got a better railway service using the new Brill rail-cars (pictured left)." Webb imported the petrol driven Brill railcars, with Clare becoming the first destination to be served.

Little surprise that passenger numbers in three months increased from 4717 passengers to 8665.

The rail-cars connected to Riverton from which passengers had an express run to North Adelaide (on the broad-gauge line).


The Clare rail-car service competed with the broad-gauge high-speed passenger service on the Terowie line. It provided two up and two down comfortable broad-gauge services to Adelaide every day.

If one travelled from Clare the 9 miles to Blyth, after the Western line was converted to broad-gauge in 1927, the line arrangement at Balaklava meant the engine had to turn around using the turntable, to recouple and then take the passengers to Adelaide, a slower service.

The Clare Rail Service
Railcar at Clare Station
Arnold Ridley's the Ghost Train.jpg

'The Ghost Train'


WITH as many rattles as the Rail bus on the Riverton Spalding line "The Ghost

Train" rattled through Clare at the Town Hall on two successive nights, Tuesday and Wed., Oct. 8 and 9 1952.

Rails Worn Out

The Brill rail-cars were fast, but notoriously rough-riding on the second-hand railway lines used on the Riverton-Spalding service.

"The rail track laid in 1918 was second-hand 60 lb rail line. When these lines were worn out on one side, they were reversed until worn on both sides. Passengers became physically sick from the rough ride."

"Can the line be relaid before the people of Clare are completely shaken to pieces?" (Parliamentarian Percy Quirke, Labor member for Stanley 1941-1956, quoted in 1950)

Quirke started referring to the Clare service as the Clare Ghost Train, after Arnold Ridley's play performed at Clare Town Hall in October 1952.

"This railroad is practically worn out and is so bad that a passenger needs physical resistance to travel on it.

Reading is impossible, and conversation next to impossible, due to the vibration and rattle of the carriage."

"No-one in his right senses would travel on the railcar between Clare and Riverton, if there was any way begging and borrowing a ride or stowing away on any other form of transport." (Quirke in 1953)

Rails Worn Out
Wheat Train Derails at Clare

Northern Argus (Clare, SA) Wed 14 Apr 1954 Page 1 Train Derailment at Clare


FOR the first time in the history of Clare to Spalding Railway, since its inception in 1917, a matter of 37 years,

  • a major derailment occurred in the cutting on the Town Boundary of East Terrace, several hundred yards North of the Clare Railway Yards at 2 o'clock on Thursday afternoon, April 8.

  • No one was injured.

  • The train involved was a freight service, which included 95 tons of wheat — 60 Tons in an O truck and 35 tons in an M Truck. The engine was of the 720 class.


As the freighter was negotiating a tight curve on its way from Spalding to Clare, on a downhil grade, just North of the Station Sheep Yards, apparently the weight of 95 tons of wheat, staggered at the top, causing a sway.

The old second hand rails were loosened from the sleepers of the permanent way.


Rails on Clare Railway 67 Years Old.

Northern Argus (Clare, SA) Wed 14 Apr 1954 Page 2

An item of interest in view of the freight train derailment at Clare is that the old worn out rails have the date of manufacture stamped on them — 1887.

  • "When a goods train jumped off the track near the Clare station, positive action was taken.

  • The news of the derailment and the announcement of a new rail-and-bus service appeared in the Northern Argus together."

Robert Noye, Clare ~ A District History 1986

Wheat Train Derails at Clare
14 Apr 1954 Train Derailment at
14 Apr 1954 Train Derailment at Clare-2.
Back to Clare 1928
19 Oct 1928 Back to Clare.jpg
Change at Riverton for all Stations on the Clare Line.
Rail-bus replaces trains

On 24 May 1954, the railcar service was replaced by a co-ordinated road-bus service serving Jamestown and the towns along the Spalding railway line, to connect with trains at Riverton.

A new Clare platform was built at Riverton in 1953 for the convenience of the passengers to Clare, now travelling by bus.

This bus service was estimated to cost $8,000 per year. It  commenced at Jamestown, and called at all railway stations to Riverton, also delivering mail bags to the Post Offices on the route.


The first major derailment occured on 8 April 1954, when a goods train derailed in a cutting just a few hundred yards north of Clare.

A derailment near Rhynie on 21st January 1982 produced a spectacular wreck, but fortunately one spared of serious injury. This derailment occurred during a heat wave and heat-buckling of the track. The result had the locomotive (842) down one side of the embankment and the fuel tanker on its side on the other side of the embankment.

John Wilson's book 'The Riesling Railway'  catalogues all incidents on this line, starting in 1924 (pages 105-106).

Rail-bus replaces trains
Run-down and Closure
Run-down and Closure of the Clare line


John Wilson writes that the Spalding Railway was very busy with wheat shipments in the 1930's.

  • 30,843 tons of wheat were sent out in 1932

  • During the late 1940's there was a marked decline in the tonnages railed on this line

  • In the 1960's there was a marked diversion away from the stations on the Spalding line, corresponding to the shift from bagged wheat to bulk wheat

  • In 1966 only 61 tons was railed from Spalding

  • By 1975, only 1415 tons of wheat was sent from the Andrews station

  • In later years, farmers used larger farm trucks to deliver their grain to silos where the rail haul was shorter (and cheaper).

In 1971 the annual report of the Railways Commissioner drew attention to the declining grain traffic on a number of railways.

  • The report highlighted that the Riverton to Spalding line had been built solely for the movement of grain

  • If further defection of grain shipments to road, the closure of this line would be "beyond doubt". (p.152-153).

The 1973 Lees Report on SA Railways

The Lees report recommended the closure of 733 miles of railway, or 18 rail lines, to be completed in 5 years time, noting the gap between income earned and operating expenses.

  • The report found no long-term plan for the future of SA Railways

  • A sleeper renewal program for 7 miles of the Spalding line was completed in May 1970, for over $35,000,

  • while annual revenue on the Spalding line totalled $2,255.

  • The justification of this expense was hard to see.

Lees Report on SA Railways
The Whitlam Railway Dream

In 1972, the Whitlam Labor Government swept to power, and with it came the Whitlam dream of a national rail operation.

  • The solution to SA's ailing railways (under Premier Dunstan) was now to get rid of it, and Whitlam was eager to take it.

  • SA Railways ceased to exist in 1975, and was dissected into metropolitan and country divisions.

  • SA country rail operations were amalgamated with the former Commonwealth Railways in 1978, and

  • became the Australian National Railways - Central Region.

Whitlam Railway Dream
The Slow Decline
Labor Leader Gough Whitlam and SA Premie
The Slow Decline

The inefficient SA Country Railways were still re-laying the track between Sevenhill and Clare in early 1975.

  • In 1975 most inwards freight on this line was to Clare

  • Of that 6,229 tonnes of freight, over half was oil and motor spirit for the bulk fuel depot by the Clare railway station.

  • An average load to Clare was 50 inward tonnes a week and 20 outward tonnes per train.

  • The ANR cut the freight service to Spalding in 1978, so that section of the line was effectively closed.

  • On March 1979, the rail service to Clare was cut from three times a week to only two per week.

  • In November 1979 a major storm brought down the rail telephone lines north of Clare, which were not repaired.

  • In 1980 the ANR closed the sidings at Watervale and Sevenhill.

  • From 1981, grain from the railway bulk silos at Quorn and Andrews was carted by road, not rail.

In 1982 the new standard-gauge main-line between Adelaide and Crystal Brook was opened.

  • This one line became the conduit for all northern traffic, replacing the old rail routes to Port Pirie, Gladstone, and Peterborough.

Ash Wednesday, 1983
The 1983 Ash Wednesday fires burning dow

On 16 February 1983 more than 180 fires broke out across South Australia and Victoria.

In South Australia the Adelaide Hills were worst affected. There were also fires in the South East, Eyre Peninsula, Mid-north, and McLaren Flat. 

Across the state over 200 000 hectares were burnt, 383 houses were destroyed, and 28 lives were lost.

It was a disaster on such a grand scale that for the first time in South Australia's history the State Government declared a State of Emergency. 

A hot, dry summer

The days before Ash Wednesday were hot and dry. Australia was in the grip of a severe drought.

On the day of the fires strong north-easterly winds and dust added to the discomfort of South Australians even before the fires ignited.

Temperatures reached 43 degrees Celsius: humidity fell to less than 15%. There was a 'Red Alert' warning and total fire ban. 


Fires began sometime around noon and spread rapidly. The speed and size of the fires took many people by surprise.

Numerous accounts from those attempting to protect property describe fire appearing minutes after the first warning had reached them.

Low visibility due to dust and smoke left people feeling isolated and with little idea how far away the fires actually were. 

-- SA History Hub -- Ash Wednesday


Below: John Hope at the site of 'Wolta Wolta'


Click through for a Gallery of images from the Northern Argus 35th Anniversary article.

Ash Wednesday, 1983

The Ash Wednesday bush fire of 16 February 1983 started west of Clare on a day of extreme heat with a strong north wind.

  • A wind shift later on that day (the normal afternoon westerly wind change) blew the fire to the east.

    • In 1983, fires ravaged through a total of 7500 hectares of land in the Clare Valley.

    • The fire caused an estimated $4 million dollars worth of damage, wiping out nearly 100 hectares of crop, destroying nine houses and damaging a further 10.

    • What was expected to be a strong vintage year, an estimated 5000 tonnes, was reduced to 900 tonnes as 31 vineyard owners were affected.

    • Close to 2000 sheep were lost to the fire, with a further 190 cattle killed.

  • The railway line between Clare and Penwortham was badly burned with around 2,000 wooden sleepers destroyed.


Thereafter the surplus railway stock was removed back to Auburn by road and by an ANR 'truck placer'.

  • April 1984 brought the official closure of that railway.

  • The rolling stock still at Auburn was removed on 25 June 1986.

Ash Wednesday bushfire 35th anniversary.

The remaining rail track was torn up, and and a front-end loader stacked up the rail lines and sleepers, which were sold to sugar railways in Qld.

  • The station at Clare was demolished due to extensive termite damage.

  • The rail corridor land reverted to the State of SA, since it was no longer required for railway purposes.

  • If the SA Govt. was to sell that land corridor it was required to be surveyed, a 'very expensive task'.

Clare Railway Centenary
The Clare Railway Centenary, 2018

The Clare Railway Centenary Committee met regularly over the prior two years, in conjunction with members of the Riesling Trail Committee, to assist with organising the Railway Centenary events for the July weekend of 2018.

  • James Duggin was Lead Member of the Clare Railway Centenary Group.


The group described itself as an informal “think-tank” and included representatives of local history organisations, members of railway organisations, and representatives of the Riesling Trail Management Committee.

  • The Centenary work involved a lot of research including personal anecdotes.

  • Dr John Wilson did a meticulous job in capturing the history of the rail line from Riverton to Spalding in his publication "Riesling Railway". for which John Wilson had a book-launch event in Clare on the day of the centenary, 4 July 2018.

Steel Silhouette S-class Steam Loco.

Pictured above:

  • Steve Hadley [Clare Metal Fabrication],

  • Allan Mayfield and Steve's workmen, also

  • Peter Wood taking the photo.

Steel Silhouette S-class Steam Loco.

A major event for Clare, as part of the centenary celebrations was the construction of a three-quarter scale steel cut-out silhouette S class express steam locomotive over the ash-pit at the southern end of the Clare railway precinct.  

The structure includes a plinth behind the cab window, to allow children (of all ages) to be photographed with the illusion of driving the engine.

The centenary group was busy, contacting local schools, to be involved in advanced planning for activities surrounding the centenary.  

Our friends at The Riesling Trail have now installed the silhouette of an S-class locomotive, and they've also been busy locating and uncovering the site of the turntable, which was lost to vegetation and debris.

The Steam Train Silhouette was erected at the site of the old railway turntable.


The Project was officially opened at a Ceremony on 4th July to commemorate 100 years since the railway came to Clare. A great achievement.

This successful event was well supported by the community in recognising the importance the railway had on Clare and district.


A third event was a major promotion at the National Railway Museum on the weekend of 7/8th July 2018, which involved the running of the Museum’s Bluebird with special Clare line tickets.

  • It was hoped to combine that weekend with a theme of the Railway refreshment rooms, and serve coffee and fruit cake as was served in the days of steam.

In this series:

The Story of Clare's Riesling Trail


Chapter 1: Clare gets a Railway

Chapter 2: Clare to Spalding Line

Chapter 3: Clare Railway Station saga

Chapter 4. Clare Railway declines

Chapter 5: Riesling Trail Planning & Building

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