Ever noticed a “Station Street” or “Railway Parade” in a part of Melbourne that’s nowhere near a train line? Or a strange bendy diversion in an otherwise straight road in the Melbourne grid? Or been stuck in traffic on the Chandler Highway in Kew and cursed the idiots responsible for building such a narrow crossing over the Yarra River at such a critical place?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, then you’ve had a close encounter with the ghost of one of Melbourne’s long-lost railway lines. In the late 19th century, despite having only a fraction of its present population, Melbourne actually had more rail lines than it does today.
OK, so you’re not an anorak-wearing trainspotter who’s excited by this kind of thing. But bear with us, as the bizarre stories of folly and outright greed associated with the construction and the demise of these rail lines say a lot about the kind of place Melbourne was just over a century ago.
The Outer Circle Railway is the most visible and best preserved of these phantoms. You can trace its course as a snaking curve across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, from Fairfield in the north to Oakleigh in the south.
It was first mooted in the 1870s, at a time when Kew, Camberwell, Glen Iris and East Malvern were indeed “outer” – sparsely-settled semi-rural areas – and it wasn’t actually meant to serve the region through which it passed. No, there were far more scheming commercial motivations.
Gippsland was an important source of resources for the growing colony, but a private company – the Melbourne and Hobson’s Bay United Railway company – owned the rail line and Yarra River crossing from Flinders Street to South Yarra, and there was no line between Flinders Street and Spencer Street stations.
Individuals and companies with a variety of commercial and civic interests agitated for years for a new railway line as a way to get around this monopoly, crossing the Yarra at Kew, joining up with the line from Heidelberg, and getting cargo and passengers to Spencer Street and the docks from the north.
However, by the time construction began in 1888, the colonial Government had already bought the M&HBUR (for more than £1 million) and built a railway viaduct between Flinders and Spencer Street stations, so the need for the Outer Circle had essentially disappeared.
Why then was it ever built? Well these were the booming 1880s, the era of “Marvellous Melbourne”, and land speculation was rife. An 1884 Act of Parliament – later known colloquially as the “Octopus Act” – authorized a total of 66 new railway lines across Victoria. Two parliamentarians who had approved construction of the Outer Circle, Messrs Beaver and Munro, were said to have set themselves up to profit handsomely from land sales along the route.
Although the Outer Circle opened in 1890 to great fanfare, empty trains ran through empty paddocks. Then came the stock market crash of 1891 followed by an extended period of economic depression (is this sounding familiar?), putting an end to land speculation.
By 1893, parts of the new line were already being closed and the whole line was shut down by 1897. Sections of track were later re-opened: a steam train known as the”“Deepdene Dasher” ran between Deepdene (Balwyn) and Ashburton between 1900 and 1927. And part of the Outer Circle is still in use as the quaint but much-loved Alamein line that runs from Camberwell to the Gardiner’s Creek valley in Ashburton.
But it’s the ghostly remnants that may be of greatest interest to Ham Historian readers. Embankments and cuttings persist along many parts of the line, although strategic landscaping and planting has often been used to disguise them. But it’s pretty hard to hide a bridge or a tunnel.
The Chandler Highway road bridge is, of course, the original Outer Circle rail bridge resurfaced for cars. At the Harp Junction in Kew East, you can see one side of an old bridge that took High Street – re-aligned for the purpose – across the Outer Circle tracks, right next to Dunning’s timber yard which itself harks back to an old goods yard. There’s even a surviving signal box in the corner of the yard.
And there are deep, steep-sided cuttings in the Deepdene and Canterbury areas and excellent bridges under Mont Albert Road, Canterbury Road and some local streets. Canterbury Road bends to the north just east of Stanhope Grove solely to meet the engineering needs of the bridge-builders.
In other places, you can still make out the locations of level crossings, such as the one at Whitehorse Road where, in August 1923, the last train of the day to Deepdene struck the middle of a tram bound for Mont Albert at 11.30 pm leaving several passengers injured but, thankfully, none dead. It’s astonishing that there weren’t more accidents like this, given that level crossing safety depended on an inherently dodgy system of conductors and drivers stopping and waving red flags and lanterns.
In recent years, local councils have developed excellent walking and bike paths along almost the entire length of the Outer Circle route, with some informative signs highlighting the line’s history. You can get more details here.