Wednesday 30 June 2021

Scars in the Country with Andre Brett

A few weeks ago I attended a talk called Scars in the country by Dr Andre Brett at the National Library of Australia. The talk was about the historical development of railways in Australia and New Zealand. Besides being an energetic speaker, Dr Brett was full of fascinating insights into the early decades of the Australasian railways.  


The talk was recorded and a transcript is provided, alas, without the maps and photographs (many sourced from the National Library, like the one above). Nevertheless, I think this talk is well worth a listen (or reading if you prefer, but you'll be missing out on Dr Brett's enthusiastic narration).

The talk had the following project scope: the role of railways and colonisation and economic growth, the demand railways generate for resources, the interaction of railways with water and dry environments, the challenge of mountains and finally reflections on the environments railways themselves created for passengers and workers.

The talk is full of interesting facts and stories. For example, Dr Brett spends some time talking about railway sleepers and the relationship between between railways and forests. In particular, the decision-making over the types of wood and locational factors for success or otherwise, was fascinating. And the story about the "stolen cow" near Christchurch's Addington rail workshops was a cracker!

For railway modellers, the talk is just another important reminder about the significant physical relationship between railway development and the landscape. The railways naturally had to face the environmental conditions of the time but they also changed the physical relationship in which they were constructed and maintained. This relationship was contextualised by economics, politics, and engineering. As Dr Brett says, "the land and climate forced railways to adapt, experiment and innovate".

I thoroughly recommend this talk and thank the National Library of Australia for making the talk more widely available via audio and text.