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Mr Webb's Steel Carriages

Most people have heard of South Australian Railways Commissioner Webb who during the 1920's built the new Adelaide Railway Station (now the Casino), introduced the large 500 class mountain and 600 class pacific engines and almost sent the State of South Australian broke before his contract was not renewed. Webb also introduced new larger freight stock, heavier bridges, Brill railcars, gauge widening and signalling that took South Australia to the forefront of rail technology. One of his other well remembered introductions was the purchase of three luxury Pullman passenger cars, consisting of one dining and two sleepers, for use on the Adelaide to Melbourne Express. What most people do not realise was that Webb only got approval to purchase these cars after extensive efforts to locate a builder for a similar type of passenger car in Australia had failed. It should be clearly understood by the reader that South Australian politicians of this period were very narrow in outlook and any attempts to purchase imported items tended to meet with very stiff public opposition. Only after many heated debates were the 500 and 600 class locos approved and then only if they were built in England. The Commissioner, being an American tended towards North American ideas, something very foreign to the politicians and Royalist Australian electorate, who seemed at times to put as many obstacles in his path as possible.

As part of a plan to replace all passenger rollingstock with superior carriages of steel construction, the railways issued a tender on 25th of September 1923 for the construction of fifty (50) Main Line Steel Passenger Cars. Tenders quite clearly stated that the above-mentioned fifty cars were to have been constructed in Australia. It appears overseas tenders were to have been accepted, but at the last minute this decision was amended causing all issued copies of the tender to have all reference to overseas construction and assembly crossed out and appropriate alterations made to the wording by hand. At this time Australian Railway coach builders were still working with wood and some system even still built passenger cars with wooden underframes rather than the more common steel.

The fifty cars were to have consisted of thirty-nine (39) passenger sitting up cars, eight (8) baggage cars, two (2) cafe cars and one (1) dining car all 5ft. 3in. gauge. Sadly Australian industry was not up to the task with only one reply to the tender being received, that of "Morts Dock and Engineering Company Ltd" of Balmain in Sydney.

Some of the other rail systems had expressed an interest in the outcome of this tender and with its failure, the introduction of steel rollingstock on most Australian rail system was delayed several years. At this time the Commonwealth Railways had been trying to get all steel rollingstock for the Trans-Australian line since 1917 but meet with little success due to political reluctance to purchase overseas and local producers inability to manufacture anything at an acceptable price.

The Railway Commissioner decided not to accept the only tender and subsequently looked elsewhere to supply his need, eventually resulting in the Pullman cars being imported as prototypes with the intention being to build in Australia, at a later date, further rollingstock to this design. The original justification for the Pullman cars stated that Webb believed all SAR wooden rollingstock would be replaced within 10 years by solid, safe steel base carriages as part of a general upgrade of rollingstock.

Whilst the original cars were never built it is interesting to consider aspects of the original tender in light of latter developments should all these Pullman style heavy weights have been built. The cars targeted to be replaced oddly enough managed to survive as "Safe" vehicles for passenger purposes until the last was withdrawn in the 1970's. The heavy weight steel passenger cars proposed reached their peak on American rail systems during the late 1920's and it appears that excessive weight problems may have influenced Australian decisions not to proceed any further with this style of vehicle.

The schedule of tenders submitted by Morts had requested a total payment of £423,150 for the cars, made up as follows:

13 first class at £9250 each£120,250
26 second class at £8900 each£231,400
8 baggage at £5750 each£46,000
1 dining at £8500 each£8,500
2 cafe at £8500 each£17,000
This price was expensive. As a base for comparison the Commonwealth Railways built a wooden first lounge car the same year for a total cost of £5056. This included cathedral glass windows, press metal ceilings, mirrors and ornate wooden panelling designed to match the Special Services car (known commonly as "The Prince of Wales car") built in 1920. The difference in price was over £3,500 for producing similar purpose vehicles.

The tender allowed the manufacturer to deliver the cars complete in every respect and ready for traffic, free on rails at the Railway Locomotive Works Islington or alternatively they could be completed in sections ready for re-erection at Islington by the Railways. All cars were to be constructed for use on 5ft. 3in. gauge track but were to be readily converted to 4ft. 8½in. gauge with a minimum number of changes. This conversion feature was to be a common requirement of future tenders. Each car was 71ft. long and 10ft. wide being 13ft. 2in. in height. The length and height compared favourably with the "E" type cars then in use on the Melbourne-Adelaide Express, and a width of 10ft. was the standard for SAR rollingstock of the period, but may have provided problems in Victoria, as the loading gauge allowed only for 9ft. 6in. wide cars. By American standards these were not large cars and lacked the enormous bulk evident in their design prototypes but would have been suitable use on the tight curves and tunnels of the Adelaide Hills lines.

The body sides, superstructure and outer window frames were to be all of steel with a semi-elliptic roof made of steel plate lap jointed. By contrast the interior of the passenger cars were to be constructed of finely polished timbers. First class cars up to and including cornice moulding were to have been finished in polished mahogany suitably panelled with inlaid quartered panelling and metalic fittings of bronze polished and lacquered. Ceilings were white with cross partitions immediately above the seat backs being fitted with a bevelled edge mirrors, and the side openings fitted with mounts and clear glass for the purpose of receiving photographic views.

Second class were too have been of similar finished, but fumed polished oak and metalic fittings of hard brass or gunmetal polished, copper-oxidised and lacquered were substitued. Flat wire luggage racks and portable tables were required in all compartments. All side windows, except lavatory, were of a uniform height and interchangeable, being arranged in two parts, both to raise and fitted with spring roller blinds made of green horse hair in first class, and cloth in second. Upholstery was green buffalo hide for first class and maroon for second class, all seats being buttonless. Compartment doors were to slide and swing doors were to be placed in the corridor dividing smoking and non-smoking.

The most obvious thing that comes to mind when one reads the full tender requirements is that the cars were actually expected to be steel car bodies with the interiors being based on the wooden "E" cars used on the Adelaide to Melbourne Express ("The Overland"). Inlaid quartered wooden panelling, bevelled mirrors and swing doors in the corridors had all been standard since 1907. This is not surprising as steel cars were popular in America and considered very safe, yet compartment style interiors during this period were relatively rare, so the South Australian Railways decided to stay with a passenger popular interior styling rather than substitute an American style open plan interior. A similar decision was made in 1907 when the first of the new "E" type sleeping cars had entered service. The exteriors were based on North American designs, but the interiors owed their styling to contemporary European styling.

The design was very advanced for its era as at this time Elliptical (Turtle back) roofs were only just starting to find favour on American rail systems. The Commonwealth Railways had pioneered this style in South Australia in 1920 when several new sleeping cars built at their Port Augusta Workshops entered service. Initial trials of these cars showed elliptical roofs to be far stronger and required less maintenance than their clerestory counterparts.

One novel feature of the cars was the requirement to fit water tanks into the roof of the car rather than use the newer underfloor brake pressure raised water system. This is unusual in so radical an exterior design change as the Commonwealth Railways had received Australian wide praised 6 years before when they fitted it to the Trans-Australian rollingstock. Possibly an example of how set in their ways the old school in the South Australian Railways were. I can imagine arguments about brakes failing due to the lost air pressure and all sorts of dire things that might happen should the new system be used. In contrast to the water system, all cars excepting the baggage were to be fitted with Stones system of electric heating. A special dynamo, without batteries, is fitted under the car running off the axle producing power for electric radiators. Insulation against sound and heat was also placed in the walls to help assist the heating. A cantilever underframe with Willison type automatic couplers and Westinghouse automatic air brake finished the technical specifications.

The exterior paint scheme would have been something to see, it is described in the tender as follows:

"Two coats of a suitable ground colour for cedar graining, mixed in equal parts of raw linseed oil and turpentine, are now applied, and when the second coat is sufficiently hard, the panels shall be grained imitation cedar to specimen supplied. The mouldings shall receive three (3) coats of standard brown paint, the final coat being a varnish colour. When dry the whole to receive two (2) coats of best flatting varnish, each coat being flattened, followed with one coat of best hard drying carriage varnish."
It is strange that the railways wanted steel carriages to look like wood. Possibly this was so the cars matched existing rollingstock or alternatively management may have been afraid of additional adverse public opinion as at the time the press was full of arguments both for an against other radical changes introduced by Commissioner Webb.

The dining car was to have been similar in design and construction to the 1st and 2nd class cars with the saloon and corridor interior finish, carpet and equipment being of a matching style. The saloon provided accommodation for 48 passengers seated at 12 tables arranged in the standard symmetrical layout with two electric bell pushes, one on each side of the window. The pantry was situated between the kitchen and the saloon compartment with the floor being laid with "Induraleum" fireproof material. A modern gas powered stove was included in the specifications with the layout of the kitchen being left to the contractor. This style of layout was to be eventually introduced to the SAR when the dining car "Adelaide" arrived several years later except the modern gas stove had regressed becoming a wooden stove.

The cafe cars, a new innovation not previous trailed by the SAR, were to have matched the other cars except for the interior layout which had a central combined kitchen and pantry dividing off the cafe saloon at either end. A counter extended each side of the kitchen being covered with cork lino and protected on the edges by a rolled brass section. Upholstered swivel stools were arranged at suitable intervals for the use of passengers partaking of a light meal. Each cafe car was to have been fitted with a complete soda fountain, cooler, ice cream containers, gas stove, hot closets, water boilers, cup, saucer, plate and glass racks. As in the dining car polished wooden panelling and overhead water tanks featured in the design.

None of the cars unfortunately were ever built and you can only be left wondering what effect these carriages would have had on other railway systems. Imagine a massive 500 class steam loco hauling a string of these cars to Bordertown or Terowie, what a lasting impression it would have made on the locals as well as any interstate or overseas visitors. Some modifications to the original design, suitably upgraded, were incorporated into the 500 and 600 class steel cars built by the SAR at its Islington Works in 1936-37. The South Australian Railways had to wait until after the three Pullman cars were imported, before building their first all steel carriage which became Bulk Mail Van "1D" built in 1932 at the Islington Workshops. Possibly the slowest of all Australian rail systems to introduce steel cars was the Commonwealth Railways who had very advanced ideas, but lacked the funding. They had tried since 1916 to get all steel passenger carriages, yet eventually got their first ones in 1950 when they purchased "Hopkins" built in 1927 and one of Mr Webb's Pullman cars, "Macedon" from the Victorian Railways who had now found them to be surplus to requirements. A fitting irony that these two cars which each had started a rail systems entry into the all steel era should jointly start yet another railway systems entry as two years later the Commonwealth Railways purchased the Corten Steel German built Wegmann cars.