The Trans-Australian Railway, completed in 1917, was a major infrastructure project for the newly formed Australian Commonwealth. It linked the eastern and western states, from Port Augusta, South Australia, to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Joining this vast and isolated 1,693-kilometre stretch required 2.5 million hardwood sleepers and 140,000 tonnes of rail track!

Australia Post is commemorating 100 years since the completion of the Trans-Australian Railway with an issue of two stamps, which was released on 4 July 2017. The stamp designs incorporate vintage travel posters from State Library Victoria, including the “Across Australia” poster by well-known graphic artist James Northfield.

A nation-building project

As well as serving the practical function of enabling travel, the railway also provided a sense of optimism for the future, especially in the wake of the Great War. In fact, when it was opened, the then treasurer Sir John Forrest exclaimed, “Today, East and West are indissolubly joined together by bands of steel, and the result must be increased prosperity and happiness for the Australian people”. This declaration of ‘joining together’ was rather apt, as the promise of the railway was an effective lure to convince a reluctant Western Australia to join the Commonwealth.

In 1907, engineers and surveyors began preliminary work, conceiving the railway’s route across the Nullarbor desert. Construction of the line began in September 1912, under the auspices of the newly established Commonwealth Railways, and the first sod was turned at Port August on 14 September 1912.

Ceremonial shovel used for the turning of the first sod at works on railways commenced at Port Augusta, Oodnadatta, Tarcoola and Alice Springs between 1912 and 2001. Photo Lannon Harley, National Museum of Australia.

For five years, teams worked simultaneously from both ends of the line. While the outbreak of war in 1914 made sourcing labour and materials challenging, by 1916 more than 3,400 workers were employed on the project. The construction teams finally met up four kilometres west of Ooldea on 17 October 1917, to complete the immense and arduous project. Five days later the first passenger train set off from Port Augusta, arriving at Kalgoorlie after 42 hours and 48 minutes.

Much needed travel improvements

The Trans-Australian Railway was one of the first major pieces of work following Federation. It facilitated supply of goods to isolated areas of South Australia and put Western Australia on the map as a tourist destination.

Prior to the railway, travel between Australia’s east and west consisted of a difficult journey by sea. Eastbound travellers who took the new Trans-Australian railway, however, arrived in Melbourne three days earlier than those making the journey by sea. Passengers could also enjoy hot showers on board, dining cars, a lounge and even piano sing-alongs. This made the railway an attractive option for politicians, performers and even members of the royal family. However, ordinary Australians also enjoyed greater opportunities for recreational travel. When the standard-gauge line was extended, in 1969, west from Kalgoorlie to Perth and east from Port Augusta to Sydney, it became possible to travel coast to coast across Australia by train.

A postal connection

There’s an important postal connection to the Trans-Australian Railway, too. The Trans-Australian Railway’s “tea and sugar train” provided stamp sales, money orders and banking facilities for railway employees working along the line. The train’s post office, which operated to 1986, was the middle section of one carriage. It had a small public area and a foothold to reach the counter, when the train stopped between stations. The railway also cut mail delivery times between Adelaide and Perth by two days but it also provided a vital link for overseas mail.

Learn more about the connection between mail and rail

Special products for the Perth Stamp Show

Australia Post will be attending the Perth Stamp and Coin Show between 7 and 9 July 2017, at the South Perth Community Centre. Two special products will be available at the show: A PNC, limited to 300 (100 released each day) that includes a special show postmark; and an imperforate minisheet (mint or cancelled to order), which also includes a show logo.

Selection of products available at the Perth Stamp and Coin Show 2017


The Trans-Australian Railway stamp issue is available from 4 July 2017, online, at participating Post Offices and via mail order on 1800 331 794, while stocks last.

View the gallery of stamps and technical details for this issue

This article was produced at the time of publication and will not be updated.

Philatelic Team