The enviro-economic history of railways in Australasia

André Brett

From colonial times, Australians and New Zealanders have used railway construction to alter not only their economies and polities but also their environments. Although the consequences of large infrastructure projects are vast, they are often understood poorly.

This research formed the main component of Dr Brett’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wollongong, 2017–20. One component became a separate project unto itself: New Zealand’s shrinking passenger rail network, 1920–2020. This enviro-railways project, however, studies the period prior to WWI, when railways grew to obtain dominance of land transport throughout much of Australasia. It has three main research themes:

  1. Railways as a carrier: the role of rail in deepening regional settlement and providing cost-effective transport of agricultural, pastoral, forest, and mineral products.
  2. Railways as a consumer: each colony’s network became a major industry unto itself with a vast demand for natural resources, especially coal and timber.
  3. Railways as an environment: the effects of weather, waterbodies, and geology on railway infrastructure, and the effects of railways on their surrounding environments, including ocean reclamation, fires, and modification of floodplains.

More details are available here.

Dr Brett has published multiple articles from this research, received the Australian Historical Association’s Allan Martin Award in 2019 to visit archives in Western Australia, and won the 2020 Wollongong Local History Prize for an essay on railways and the environment in the Illawarra. He is the recipient of a 2021 National Library of Australia fellowship to further the completion of a book manuscript, Scars in the Country: Railways in Australian and New Zealand Environments, 1850s–1915.