Celebrating John Whitton, Father of NSW Railways

As we celebrate 150 years of railway history in the Blue Mountains in July 2017, the man we should most remember for this magnificent feat is John Whitton.  Without him there would be no Blue Mountains as we know it.

Whitton was born near Wakefield, Yorkshire, England in 1820.

He was apprenticed to John Billington of Wakefield for seven years, gaining both engineering and architectural experience on waterways and railways.

In the 1840s and 1850s he worked on the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln Railways and the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton line.

Whitton enters our history on March 27, 1856 when he was appointed engineer-in-chief at a salary of £1500 to lay out and superintend the construction of railways in New South Wales.

When he arrived, he found that New South Wales had 23 miles (37 km) of 4 feet 8½ inches (144 cm) gauge railway, four locomotives, 12 passenger carriages and 40 trucks. When he retired on May 31 1890 with a pension of £675, he had supervised the laying of 2171 miles (3494 km) of track on which no accident had occurred attributable to defective design or construction. 

This tremendous achievement was not without incident or opposition. Governor Denison, for example, suggested that the railways should construct 4000 miles (6437 km) of light, narrow-gauge tramways to be worked by horses. Whitton realised the foolishness of such a situation for NSW and vehemently opposed it.

Whitton had preferred the 5 feet 3 inches (160 cm) gauge adopted in Victoria and South Australia but, fortunately, that was one of the few battles he lost with the government.

Whitton also envisaged the extension of the railway from Redfern to Hyde Park in the city but that did not happen in his day.

It was in the creation of the Western Line that Whitton’s genius unfolded.

The Blue Mountains were a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the building of a railway.

Could a line be successfully built to Emu Plains, ascend the eastern escarpment, find a way across the difficult mountain ridge and descend the western escarpment?

Alternatives such as a line up the Grose Valley were briefly considered and quickly rejected.

Our Blue Mountains railway line as it is today, with very minor modifications, is what Whitton both envisaged and overcame enormous obstacles to construct. It was the only possible way.

Robyne Ridge is the publicity officer for Blue Mountains Historical Society.