From the Ghan to the Trans-Siberian, the world's greatest rail routes were huge undertakings, writes Michael Kerr
We all love a good train journey, especially when it involves passing through dramatic scenery affording striking views of mountains, lakes, shimmering oceans, or deserts. Here are the stories behind some of the world's greatest railroads. May they enhance the journeys ahead.
THE GHAN, AUSTRALIA
Australia's famed south-to-north line starts in from Adelaide, goes through the deserts of the Red Centre and the tropics of the Top End, to Darwin. The first Ghan train ran on Sunday, August 4, 1929 - but it went only as far as Stuart (Alice Springs). Work on the northern stretch didn't begin until 2000, and Darwin, with all the hi-tech tools of the 21st century, was finally reached in 2003.
The Ghan (shortened from The Afghan Express) gets its name and its symbol from the Asian cameleers who opened up trade and transport routes in Central and Northern Australia from the mid-1860s. Camels carried fencing wire, roofing iron and food to the cattle and sheep stations; drew water from wells and pulled shovels to scoop out dams and railway cuttings. The navvies, working in the heat and dust with hand tools, would offload rails from the backs of camels and lay them, by hand, banging them on to fishplates and sleepers with sledgehammers.
Till then, there had been no such thing as tourism in Central Australia. And even then, most arrivals by train came second-class, prompting one publican to grumble: "Tourists come here with 10 pounds in their pockets and one shirt on their backs and change neither."
"Of all men engaged in monumental undertakings, few ever stood in greater need of supernatural aid than the builders of the Trans-Siberian Railway," wrote the American Harmon Tupper in To the Great Ocean , his 1960s account of the biggest railway project ever undertaken.
Tsar Alexander III, mindful of what had been achieved by rail in the United States and fearful of the intentions of China, had ordered "a continuous line ... to unite the rich Siberian provinces with the railway system of the Interior". He had his son, the Grand Duke Nicholas, lay the first stone in Vladivostok in 1891. Then he told his underlings to get on with the rest it, as cheaply as possible. That entailed negotiating major rivers, steep mountains, dense forests and the world's deepest lake (Baikal), and building by hand 9656km of tracks, tunnels and bridges - all in some of the most inhospitable country on earth.
At the height of the project, more than 89,000 men were at work, among them prisoners, political exiles and battalions of soldiers. About two in every hundred of them are said to have lost their lives.
In central Siberia the land was frozen until mid-July, and when it melted workers were knee-deep in water. In Transbaikalia, where the permafrost had to be broken with dynamite, floods were frequent, and a 321km stretch of railway, with 125 bridges, was swept away.
The line was finished in 13 years - though not as robustly as it is today. In the words of railway commentator Christian Wolmar, it had "been built to a deficient standard in virtually every way". That was made plain when the locomotive hauling the inaugural train between Mariinsk and Achinsk fell into a river below the tracks.
THE CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY
Canada wouldn't be Canada had it not been for the Canadian Pacific Railway. A transcontinental link was the dream of John A. Macdonald, who would become the country's first prime minister, but what made it reality was an ultimatum from the people of British Columbia: start work within 10 years, or we'll join the United States rather than you.
British Columbia entered the confederation in 1871 and the line was built between 1881 and 1885. Stretching 4345km from Ontario to the Pacific Coast at Vancouver, its route crossed land controlled by the Blackfoot, whose chief, Crowfoot, persuaded that the railway was inevitable, was granted a lifetime pass to ride its trains.
The winner of the contract to build it was a wily wheeler-dealing Scot, George Stephen; his construction manager was William Cornelius Van Horne. They had a workforce of 15,000, many of whom were Chinese. Though initial westward sections were quite flat, they then had to blast through the granite of the Canadian Shield and, after the prairies, cross the Rockies and the Selkirk Mountains. Thirty-eight surveyors died seeking a route through a high pass. In all, around 800 men were killed.
THE GUAYAQUIL & QUITO RAILWAY, ECUADOR
As the condor flies, Guayaquil and Quito are 270km apart. But Guayaquil is at sea level and Quito, the second-highest capital in the world, is at 9350ft. In between are raging rivers, deep ravines, dense cloud forests and Andean peaks. When the American Archer Harman first travelled to Ecuador in 1897, it cost more to send a ton of wheat from Quito to the coast than from Australia to Europe. Harman, recruited by the president, Eloy Alfaro, was planning a railway.
He wasn't the first. A coastal stretch was laid in 1873 and then abandoned. A decade later, British engineer Mark J. Kelly, incorporating bridges designed by Gustave Eiffel and stations containing the country's first telephones, had reached into the Andes. Harman and his brother, John, who oversaw the project, thought Kelly's route unstable, and chose a longer, steeper option.
Most challenging was El Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose), where curving switchbacks had to be carved into the face of a mountain. These allow a train to ascend or descend for more than 2600ft by shunting backwards and forwards.
Work on the line started in 1897. Few locals took jobs, so 4000 Jamaicans were brought in. About 500 of them would die of smallpox and other diseases. In 1907, John Harman also died. The line finally reached Quito on June 17, 1908, reducing the journey time from five days to two.
Virtually destroyed by floods and landslides, the line reopened after reconstruction in 2013.
JUNGFRAU RAILWAY, SWITZERLAND
Climbers aren't alone in seeing Alpine peaks as a challenge; railway builders have also been keen to scale them. Switzerland's "mountain-railway fever" of the 19th century culminated in the building of the Jungfrau Railway, which since 1912 has been taking passengers to Jungfraujoch station, the highest in Europe at 11,332ft above sea level.
In August 1893, Adolf Guyer-Zeller, textile magnate, financier and Zurich politician, was hiking above Murren with his daughter, looking over Lauterbrunnental to the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, when he saw a train travelling on the new Wengernalp Railway towards Kleine Scheidegg. At that moment, he decided to build a railway to the Jungfrau - from Kleine Scheidegg station, 6762ft above sea level.
His electric cog railway (a cogwheel slotting into a ladder or toothed rail in the middle of the track allowing the locomotive to climb steeply) would run in the open to the Eiger glacier, then through a tunnel, stopping at three stations. The line would open in stages, so that while a section in front was being built, tourists could enjoy spectacular views from the one behind. Two new generating stations would provide power.
Work began on July 27 1896, the navvies, mostly from Italy, initially using nothing but shovels and picks. Guyer-Zeller's death in 1899 led to financial difficulties that slowed progress, but the station at Eigerwand, offering views across a chasm from the North Wall of the Eiger, opened in 1903 and the Eismeer station, at 10,428ft, in 1905.
Then the serious problems began. Management changed eight times, the workers went on strike six times (peace offerings included a bottle of red wine per man per day), and 30 workers died in accidents.
Jungfraujoch was finally reached on February 21 1912. Five months later, the first train, packed with tourists, pulled in.