The declining years of the Clare Railway

The last Annual Report of the South Australian Railways was in 1975, and its traditional meticulous reporting of business at each station gives us a final glimpse of the business on the line for the year to 30th June 1975. Thereafter the South Australian Railways became the Rail Division of the State Transport Authority and underwent a division between metropolitan and country operations, in preparation of the latter becoming part of Australian National Railways.

Livestock traffic was relatively minor, with Auburn generating the most outward bound business with 1,250 sheep. Inwards livestock over the whole line amounted to ten head of cattle and one sheep railed to Clare. Most inwards freight was to Clare, which received 6229 tonnes, over half of which was oil and motor spirit for the bulk fuel depot adjacent to the Clare station. Auburn received 777 tonnes. The major source of outward loading was the silo at Andrews sending 1986 tonnes of grain. Clare sent out 667 tonnes, of which more than half was wool. Total freight (in and out) at Spalding was 218 tonnes.

With three trains per week, that tonnage equated to an average load of about 50 inward tonnes a week, and about 20 outward tonnes per train. (The load for a single 830 class diesel was 600 tonnes ).

The goods timetable of 1976 still had three services per week, making the journey north on Monday, Wednesdays, and Friday, and the return movement the following morning. Only the Monday train worked to Spalding, and the other two terminated at Clare.

On 1st March, 1978, Australian National Railways took over the operation of all South Australian country rail services. The rail system that ANR acquired was riddled with antiquities that were overdue for retirement, but the new order had a different way of dealing with these situations. Whereas the old State system would announce its intentions well in advance, and ride out the inevitable ire of those affected, ANR made cuts by stealth, and reduced the system through a process of steady decay in consequence of planned neglect.

About July 1978, a new goods timetable had the three trains on the line terminating at Clare, with the provision to operate to Andrews ‘as necessary’. The practical effect of this was that the northern-most section of the line between Andrews and Spalding had been effectively, if not officially, closed.

The other relevant closure of 1978 was the Refreshment service at Riverton. At that stage the Jamestown road-bus, that had provided the passenger service since 1954, was still connecting at Riverton with the main-line passenger services.

On 9th March 1979, those three trains per week to Clare were cut to only two, by deleting the Friday train.

In November of that year Clare was hit by a major storm, the effect on railway operations being to bring down the railway telephone lines north of Clare. Australian National Railways did not repair the lines. Thereafter trains working to Andrews left Clare with a train order that authorised both the down and up movement.

1980 was a year of mixed messages for the line. There was a concentrated effort to upgrade the track between Riverton and Clare, and the newly-closed sidings at Watervale and Sevenhill found a new purpose as storage locations for track equipment and supplies. On 6th August, 1980, the Australian National Railways Commission visited Clare, stayed overnight, and did it in style. It was a part of their inspection tour of South Australia’s northern grain lines, and their train included three ‘Overland’ sleeping cars, a Club car, Dining Car, and the Commission’s Special Service Car. Commission Chairman, Keith Smith, was questioned on the then rumour that the Clare line was to be closed. He replied that it would be maintained, however drew attention to the geographical anomaly of the grain facility at Andrews requiring a longer rail-haul, compared to the road-haul to Port Pirie or Wallaroo. He advised that the Commission would not be averse to grain from Andrews being carted by road. In 1981, the South Australian Co-operative Bulk Handling called tenders for road transport of grain from Andrews and Quorn for the following three years. This was the first time that grain silos, located on railway routes, were serviced by road. Quorn, like Andrews, was a location where the rail haul was far longer than the road distance to the port.

In the early 80s Clare acquired another purpose, as Australian National Railways sought siding space for an increasing inventory of surplus goods rolling stock. One advantage of Clare at this time was that despite the paucity of goods traffic, the station still had a Station Master.

There’s nothing like a train wreck to add some spice to a treatise on railway history, but hitherto the avoidance of such topic is entirely a consequence of Spalding line trains sticking tightly to the tracks where they were supposed to be. We have been similarly unable to identify any level-crossing incidents of consequence. Speed, or more correctly a lack of it, is probably of some bearing here. A derailment near Rhynie on 21st January, 1982 produced a spectacular wreck, but fortunately one spared of serious injury. This derailment occurred during a heat wave, and heat-buckling of the track is the popular culprit. It was not the first heat-wave to hit the Clare Valley, and the deeper question is whether that buckling was more a consequence of Australian National’s lower standard of track maintenance.

The result had the locomotive ( 842) down one side of the embankment, and the fuel tanker on its side on the other side of the embankment.

There were two other significant events of 1982. No longer were rates for grain haulage based on the long tradition of rail distance carried, but a new system of rates was based on the direct distance to the nearest port. If there had been any remaining chance of rail regaining the contract for the Andrews grain haul, this new rating policy was destined to squash it. The same policy saw the demise of rail’s business at Gulnare, Hallett, and Burra.

On 8th December 1982, the new standard-gauge main-line between Adelaide and Crystal Brook was opened. This one main-line became the conduit for northern traffic, whereas formerly there were three major routes north from Adelaide, namely to Port Pirie, Gladstone, and Peterborough. After the opening of the Crystal Brook standard-gauge line the remaining northern broad-gauge system was allowed to slip into rapid decline.

In May 1982, the Mile End Railway Museum operated a special Bluebird railcar to Clare, a movement that was to be the last passenger train to operate on the line.

The Ash Wednesday bushfire of 1983 (16th February) started south of Clare on a day of extreme heat and strong north wind. A wind shift later in the day turned the fire to the east. The damage to the railway line was between the Clare Showgrounds and Penwortham, and involved about 2,000 sleepers. There was a rake of surplus rolling stock stored in the Clare yard. One tank car was taken out by road in July, and the other vehicles were carefully shifted over the damaged track by an AN truck placer to be lined up on the straight between Penwortham and Watervale. The last train to operate over the line was on 1st August, when engine 842 ran to the 133.5k mark to collect the rake of wagons.

To their credit, the three local councils then responsible for Riverton, Auburn, and Clare, undertook to explore the feasibility of establishing a tourist railway operation. Meetings were called, but the apathy of the local populace was the reason that nothing further happened.

The demolition process did not involve any train movements over the closed railway. The contractor used a hydraulic jig that wrenched the rail up from the sleepers, and then a front-end loader recovered and stacked sleepers and rail. The rail was sold to sugar railways in Queensland. The demolition contract included the removal of all bridge structures. After the demolition contractor had finished there were a few remnants. There were the station buildings at Clare and Auburn. The word was that the former was badly affected by termites, and was demolished. The Auburn station languished for many years but has recently been restored. This operates as the wine-sales and luncheon facility of Mount Horrocks Wines, for which further information is available in our Clare Valley Eating Guide. The old goods-shed and crane at Clare is now used by the recycling facility. The people at Rhynie salvaged the old Train Control telephone box, and station name-board, both of which are now located near the town's hotel.



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