Website Banner. John Monash: Engineering enterprise prior to World War 1.

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Management of construction on the Outer Circle Line
Oakleigh to Alphington 1888-1890

Overview.

As a young engineer, Monash worked for contractors Graham & Wadick for almost three years superintending construction of a portion of the Outer Circle Line for the Victorian Railways. He was 22 when he started, and the entries in his work diary go from 9 April 1888 to 13 December 1890. He was initially hired to do routine professional work such as setting out and measuring with theodolite and level, interpreting drawings, computing quantities of work done (earthworks, brickwork, etc.), giving instructions to gangers and subcontractors, and taking orders from Graham and Wadick. However, he steadily took greater responsibility, at the cost of some clashes with his employers, and adopted an executive role. He has left us a comprehensive account of his experience in an address to the Engineering Students' Society at the University of Melbourne, delivered in August 1890.

Monash (right) with level. National Library of Australia.

The Outer Circle Line (sketch map below) was conceived to divert freight traffic from the Gippsland-Melbourne line at Oakleigh and take it in an arc through Camberwell and Alphington, curving round to approach the City from the north. By the time Monash was involved, the concept had been down-graded to a single-track suburban service. Graham & Wadick's contract was for the portion from Oakleigh to Alphington to join existing lines. Politicians and speculators had seen an opportunity to develop new suburbs to the east of the city, but the economic depression of the 1890s struck shortly after its completion, and the route suffered from physical drawbacks and poor management, fully explained by Beardsell. The facility was not properly exploited and plans to close stations and reduce services on economic grounds appeared as early as 1893. Within decades most of the track had been pulled up. The route now serves as linear parkland, although a short portion is still in use.

Schematic map: route of OCL imposed on the modern road system (based on Google Maps). For a contemporary map see e.g. Illustrated Australian News and Musical Times, 1 June 1889, p.18 Trove.

Supervision of the project was a fair undertaking for a young engineer. The line ran for ten-and-a-half miles (17km). In addition to a major bridge 550 feet long (167m) over the Yarra River, the original contract listed 15 iron-girder and two timber bridges, most of them carrying suburban roads over the railway cutting. There were 640,000 cubic feet (18,000 cu. m.) of earthworks, many culverts and drains, and 15 miles (24km) of associated roadworks.

Part of the 550-foot iron truss bridge over the Yarra River near Fairfield, showing one river pier, and behind it the land pier and abutment. The bridge is now used for road traffic.

The contract was due to be completed in 18 months, but as often happens there was considerable delay. Much of this was due to the Railway Department which was slow to provide plans for the stations, and partway through the contract decided that a portion already completed should be converted to double track. The steel fabricators were extremely slow in supplying and erecting girders for the bridges. This was partly due to a disastrous fire at their premises in February 1889 and disruption of their schedule due to government indecision. Near the end of the contract part of their work was allocated to a rival firm. Late completion of the Yarra bridge had a knock-on effect because Graham & Wadick had opened a quarry to the north of the bridge and stockpiled with the intention of working southward. Another major problem was the slow supply of bricks for the abutments of the smaller bridges, exacerbated by rejection of many bricks due to poor quality, shape, and size. It fell to Monash to write the strongly-worded letters urging suppliers and the Railways Department to improve their performance and laying the groundwork for possible claims and counter-claims.

Typical of the single-span plate-girder bridges is this one at Canterbury Road. The heavy brick abutments are almost entirely obscured by foliage. (The route at this point now serves as a linear park with shared cycle/footpath.)

At the end of the contract, Graham & Wadick failed to negotiate a satisfactory settlement with the Railway Department and their claims went to arbitration in 1892. They employed Monash as their advocate. By this time he was working for the Melbourne Harbor Trust but was able to obtain leave from April to July. The arbitrators awarded the contractors a significant further sum of money, but the Department argued that the award was invalid.

In mid-1893 the former chief commissioner of railways Richard Speight brought a charge of libel against David Syme, the editor of The Age newspaper which had subjected him to constant criticism, particularly in regard to the design and construction of the Outer Circle Line. Monash was called in by the defence to provide evidence that the design of the OCL had indeed been far too grand and costly for its purpose. Serle notes that although Monash was sympathetic to Speight, he enjoyed working with the defence lawyer, Alfred Deakin, a leader of the movement for federation of the Australian colonies, and later second Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia.