The development of the city of Melbourne and the state of Victoria was a land grab, initiated by a handful of settlers who had arrived in Australia a little too late for the first big land grab– New South Wales.  This was Terra Nullus, after all, the “empty land,” and land was there for the taking.

According to British law, the territory of Australia beyond the borders of NSW belonged to the Crown.  The Crown acknowledged the rights of Aboriginal people to occupy it and discouraged squatters, but these were niceties.  And niceties did not discourage people like John Batman, who let it be known that he wished to establish a new settlement along the banks of the Yarra River and to call it Batmania.  I want you to know, dear reader, that “Batmania” very nearly started here, long before the comic books made their appearance.

What attracted Batman and other members of the Port Phillip Association to the area was the temperate climate, fertile pastures and fresh water.  Realizing that the new squatters could not be stopped, Governor Richard Bourke dispatched a party from Sydney to set up a government, survey the land and lay out a town plan.  Surveyor Robert Hoddle laid out his street grid on the north bank of the Yarra.  Governor Bourke named it after Lord Melbourne and the town was born.

The one drawback to the location of the settlement was that even with a fine port nearby, large ships could not reach the town itself.  Hoddle realized the problem, and his plan for Melbourne included a railway line to the sea.  But Melbourne was built on the backs of sheep, and wool did not require an extensive network of expensive railways.

It would take seventeen years for the rail line to be built.  In 1854,a private enterprise called the Hobson’s Bay Railway ushered in the era of railroads.  Three hundred guests enjoyed a lavish banquet in an engine shed in the village of Sandridge, accompanied by long speeches, bottles of champagne, and beer. It would prove to be the first of many such lavish banquets.

The gold rush drove the development of the iron horse.  Gold mining required many men, supplies, heavy equipment, and it was profitable.  The first railroads were privately funded, but despite the success of some lines, others were expensive failures.  Most of the investors were interested in the land speculation it afforded.  The Essendon railway was one such example.  Built in 1860, the directors were reduced to offering to sell it to the government three years later.

Flush with the tremendous wealth generated in the goldfields, the Victorian government invested 9 million pounds from 1854 to 1864 to build just 409 kms (254 miles) of track.  Over the next sixty years, the lines expanded rapidly, reaching 4,670 kms (2,900 miles) by 1891.  By 1930, every town in Victoria with a population of over 500 had its own railway station.  The grandeur of some stations were astounding for the size of the rural populations.  Mark Twain wrote:

“Why, do you know, in order to curry favour with the voters, the government puts down a road wherever anybody wants it– anybody that owns two sheep and a dog; and by consequence we’ve got, in the colony of Victoria, 800 railway stations, and the business done at eighty of them doesn’t foot up twenty shillings a week….”

There were two problems with such a huge investment:  insufficient traffic and rail gauge incompatibility.  New South Wales and Victoria had different gauges.  Each state’s engineers favoured the gauge with which they were was most familiar.  The English had one gauge, the Irish had another and this was reflected in the colony.  A third gauge was chosen for Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia.  Narrow gauge lines were used for timber cutting and mining.   In 1917, a person wanting to travel across the country east-west had to change trains six times.

The depression of the 1930’s, World War II and increased competition from roads saw a decline in railway investment.  The affordable automobile ushered in an era of personal transport.  People took to cars and goods went on trucks. From the 1940’s to the 1980’s many branch lines were closed.   Contraction of the extensive and expensive Victorian railway system became inevitable.

But the death of the rural branch lines provided a bed that cyclists would adore.  The era of rail-trails was born.