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For 150 years, railways have played an important role in the economic and social history of Tasmania. The story of the Tasmanian Railways is one of great successes, but also of hardships, economic failures, and disasters. It is a colourful and dynamic history.

The first stretch of railway in Tasmania was officially opened on Friday 10 February 1871, to great celebration, but also great relief; it had been a difficult and expensive task many years in the making. The Launceston and Western Railway Company railway ran from Launceston to Deloraine, and was constructed to aid in the timely delivery of produce from the rich agricultural lands of Perth and Longford and surrounds to the ports for export to the mainland.

In the years that followed, trainlines were developed around Tasmania. The Mersey and Deloraine Tramway Company was formed in 1864 to link Deloraine with the North West Coast using a line with a 4’6″ gauge. This company also found itself in financial difficulties and when it opened early in 1872 had only 16 3/4 miles (27.9 km) of track. Traffic response was much poorer than anticipated and after only 4 months of operation the company was forced to retire its only engine. Thereafter the line was worked by horses between Latrobe and Railton for seasonal produce traffic. The Mainline Railway, which run from Hobart to Western Junction where it joined with the Launceston and Western Railway, too was developed. Construction began simultaneously from the northern and southern ends of the Mainline Railway in 1873, and was completed by November 1876.

Each of these three railways were developed independently by private companies, although the Tasmanian State Government was involved to varying degrees in providing financial support. As a result, each of these three railways were constructed with a different gauge. For instance, the Mersey and Deloraine Tramway Company was constructed with a 4’6″ gauge; however, when it was eventually taken over by the Tasmanian State Government in 1885, this was eventually replaced with a 3’6″ gauge.

All three of these companies found themselves in financial difficulty, and were eventually absorbed into the Tasmanian Government Railways. As State Government interest increased over the whole railway network, the Tasmanian Government Railways was established under a General Manager for Railways in 1888. In 1978 responsibility for railways passed to the Commonwealth Government. In 1997 The Australian National Railway Commission sold the assets of AN Tasrail to a private consortium, trading as Tasrail Pty Ltd, which began operations in November 1997. The land over which the track is laid reverted to the State Government of Tasmania.

The only truly successful private company was the Emu Bay Railway. The Van Diemen’s Land Company completed the construction of the Emu Bay to Mt Bischoff railway in 1886. In 1897 it contracted management of the line to a separate company, the Emu Bay and Mt Bischoff Railway Co, registered in London. In 1925 the two railway companies merged to become the Emu Bay Railway Co. In November 1966 the shareholders accepted a take-over offer from EZ Industries Ltd (registered in Melbourne) which itself subsequently underwent a series of changes of ownership and name. The line was sold to Australian Transport Network, later to be known as Pacific National, on 21 May 1998 and thus passed into public ownership for the first time in 2009.

The Tasmanian Archives and the State Library of Tasmania holds many unique and beautiful records that document the history of the Tasmanian Railways. This guide will assist you by:

  • Highlighting the main records available for researching civil (such as tracks, lines and crossings, and buildings such as stations, yards bridges), mechanical (such as drawings of steam engines, diesel engines, carriages, and rolling stock), personnel records, photographs and films held in the Tasmanian Archives and library collection.
  • Providing an overview of the main government and non-government agencies that were responsible for railways in Tasmania;
  • Outline the services we provide to help you find information;
  • Detailing some useful contacts available from other organisations.

For further tips and information on searching our catalogue, please consult our Searching Tasmanian Archives page.

You may also be interested in other Guides to Records, including on Employment, and Maps and Plans.

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