Gateway to the Southern Downs
During the decades preceding and following the turn of the twentieth century rail was seen as a cost effective means of opening up the country, permitting local produce and consumer goods to be reliably and quickly transported between localities and markets. Importantly, having a serving railway line was seen as a status symbol – a sign that a region was technologically advanced and a contributing part of a modern economy that would eventually become Australia.
The idea of a railway connecting Ipswich and Warwick was first proposed during the early 1880’s with a trail survey being undertaken in 1883 by George Philips, Inspecting Surveyor. The proposed line was called the ‘Via Recta’, a reference to the line being a more direct route between the two centres than the then existing rail route which went via Toowoomba.
Although alternative options were proposed, supporters of the Via Recta considered this route to be a viable option for connecting the two states of Queensland and New South Wales and the commercial and government centres of Brisbane and Sydney.
Due to issues associated with cost, existing rail technology, lack of political appetite and economic recession some of the branch lines which would make up the Via Recta were constructed in stages over a number of decades.
The northernmost section of the Via Recta was to utilise one of two lines; one option following the then main road from Ipswich to Warwick via Harrisville, Munbilla and Mount Edwards (‘Fassifern Valley option’) while the second option the general course of the Bremer River via Rosewood and Rosevale (‘Bremer River Valley option’). Each northern approach provided its own construction issues in terms of climbing the Main Range.
The southernmost section of the Via Recta presented less issues in terms of the proposed route and would utilise what became the Warwick to Maryvale railway line.
The middle section presented the greatest construction issues for the Via Recta. No matter which northern approach route was chosen this middle section would require a step climb on the northern side of the Main Range before going down to Maryvale.
The 1883 trail survey recommended following the ‘Fassifern Valley option’ although did not dismiss consideration of the ‘Bremer Valley River option’. Both the Fassifern Valley and Bremer River Valley options would cross the Main Range either at Spicer’s Gap summit – the then line of the Ipswich to Warwick Road - or utilise a proposed tunnel located between Spicer’s Gap and Cunningham’s Gap before then following Millar’s Vale Creek down to Maryvale.
For many years Queensland Railways preference for the northern approach line swayed from one route option to the other in the face of emerging and better rail and construction technologies, engineering solutions, new surveys based on those technologies and construction techniques, and the associated costs – both construction and running – of each option. For example, at the time of the turn of the twentieth century serious consideration was made for incorporation of a 5 mile ‘rack’ or ‘cog’ railway within the Fassifern Valley approach thus enabling an unsuitable grade to be used and, thereby, significantly reducing construction and running costs and track length.
An alternative proposal suggested at the time of the 1883 trail survey went via Dugandan (near Boonah) and Wilson’s Peak before following down to connect to the existing Warwick - Killarney branch line. This alternative to the Via Recta was never perused with any vigour due to that route’s addition length over the Via Recta.
The route of the Via Recta was re-surveyed during 1899 with only minor changes in the two proposed northern approaches and route over the Main Range. These changes reflected the development of better rail technology and construction techniques during the years following the 1883 trail survey.
The completion of the Warwick – Maryvale branch line in 1911 saw increased calls for a political decision to proceed with the Via Recta. During 1913 the Queensland Parliament approved the construction of the Fassifern Valley option utilising the then existing road summit at Spicer’s Gap. The entirely length of the proposed line would be a traditional ‘adhesion’ line.
However this was not to be the final decision on the matter. Further survey work in the area and ongoing technological improvements meant that by the following year the Chief Engineer’s Office, Queensland Railways, felt obliged to presented to the Queensland Parliament for consideration four alternative routes across the Main Range.
All four options were largely based on the approach options presented as a result of the 1883 trail survey. Two of these options would follow the Bremer River Valley approach while the other two options would follow the Fassifern Valley approach, before each option crossed the Range at various points including via a long tunnel, Cunningham’s Gap or the vicinity of the then existing road summit at Spicer’s Gap before following down to Maryvale. One of these latter options presented for consideration was the route approved by Parliament the previous year and all incorporated existing lines along parts of their length.
In discussion of these four options, the Chief Engineer Office identifies that the two most preferable options were (i) the crossing the Main Range via the Bremer Valley approach utilising a long tunnel to the north-east of Cunningham’s Gap or (ii) the previously approved crossing of the Main Range via Mount Edwards and Spicer’s Gap summit. Parliament reaffirmed its’ 1913 ‘Fassifern Valley option’ decision. The construction of a branch line between Munbilla and Mount Edwards, which was opened in 1922 and considered to be part of the Via Recta, is evidence of both Parliament’s and Queensland Railways’ intent.
A branch line between Rosewood and Rosevale was approved by Parliament in 1925 although was never constructed. The purpose of this line was to serve the transportation needs of the Bremer River Valley residents and not as part of any proposed Via Recta.
While the Queensland Parliament and Queensland Railways proposed a number of options for a border crossing on the Sydney – Brisbane rail corridor, including the Via Recta, the New South Wales Railways had never varied from its intentions to drive the main line directly north from Kyogle. This was the shortest suitable route between the two state capitals and, in 1930, the North Coast Line via Kyogle and Beaudesert was completed. Political and Queensland Railways support for the Via Recta faded and the Via Recta became the railway that never was.
Article by Jonathon Welch, Sherwood Qld.