Produced by Coora Films for the Australian Railway Historical Society, this documentary tells the story of the workers who built and operated the Australian railway network. The film combines extensive archive with contemporary footage of train and railway operations, along with in situ interviews with railway worker veterans remembering the bygone era and pondering the challenges of the future.
The film opens with the old days of hard manual labour in which track gangs cut and laid the railway tracks across the nation. There is extensive archive footage of railway works in remote locations, followed by 1937 archive in which the modern locomotive engine the Edward Henty is commissioned – attended by Robert Menzies.
The film focuses heavily on Victorian Railway Commissioner Harold Clapp, outlining his ethos, achievements and preference for promoting through the ranks, necessitating educational opportunities for workers through the Working Men’s College and the Victorian Railways Institute. This is told against a backdrop of extensive archive footage of the Newport Railway Workshops, where training took place under the master/apprentice relationship. Extensive footage of locomotives being manufactured.
Further archive highlights the use of horse driven transportation and the arrival of immigrants to work on the railways, which is also accompanied by Irish folk singing.
The film explores the role of the engine driver or steam men, the father-son tradition and the importance of the railways as an avenue to acquire skills and employment, which is told through veteran interviews. The influence of railway families moving around remote and regional Australia is explored, as well as the importance of the station master as a key figure in the community. The Railways also gave women the opportunity to work and we see women working in historical and contemporary footage, which includes an interview with Diana Brown, the only female engine driver in Victoria. We also learn that it was every boy’s dream to become a steam engine driver.
An extensive array of archive covers the building of the locomotive the Spirit of Progress at the Newport Railway Workshops, followed by its launch. The film then charts the decline of the railways in the face of the automobile and the contemporary impact on workers.
Towards the end of the film, Clapp’s belief in the importance of the workers is highlighted, since he argued that a satisfied worker was an essential ingredient for a successful business, for they are all potential salesman for the railways. This is followed by a discussion on the impact of diesel on the railways and its workers, along with footage of the demolition of the North Melbourne locomotive depot in 1965, which was to be the final blow to steam. The film concludes with a veteran railway worker and later Railway Commissioner, who tells us the importance of talking to the men on the job to find out what is really going on.
Author: J Bird, 2023