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Rosstown Railway

Rosstown railway line, Melbourne
Rosstown line map
Line details
Commenced 1875
Closed 1916
Fate Dismantled. Now parkland or under private ownership
Tracks Single track, intended to be double
Connections Sandringham, Frankston, and Pakenham lines
Railways in Melbourne

The Rosstown Railway was a private railway in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, running between the current stations of Elsternwick on the Sandringham line, and Oakleigh on the Pakenham line. The line was built in the late 19th century by William Murray Ross with the intention of transporting processed sugar from his sugar beet mill to the Melbourne ports. When the mill failed to begin production, the line fell into disrepair without being used and was eventually disassembled and the land sold to developers.


  • History 1
    • Beginnings 1.1
    • Approval for the line 1.2
    • Construction 1.3
    • Reconstruction 1.4
    • Rolling stock 1.5
    • Decline 1.6
    • End of the line 1.7
  • Today 2
  • Diagram 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Artist's impression of the Rosstown sugar beet mill and railway, in 1876 and before construction had begun


William Murray Ross was a local entrepreneur and land owner who was active on the Caulfield Council during the 1860s. He is most often remembered as the man who conceived of the ambitious, and ultimately unsuccessful, Rosstown Project. This consisted of a large scale sugar beet processing mill, a railway line to serve it, and a residential estate, named after Ross. In 1875 Ross began circulating a broadsheet proposal which detailed the project, and began building the mill that same year.

Approval for the line

Also in 1875, Ross began to seek government approval for a line running from Elsternwick railway station, then belonging to the Melbourne and Hobson's Bay United Railway Company (M&HBUR), to the site of his sugar mill. This proposal was rejected. A new proposal was submitted by Ross in 1876, this time having the line extend past the mill to join at Oakleigh. At the time, a railway to Gippsland was being negotiated and with many interested and influential parties involved, it was a political nightmare. The new Gippsland line was originally going to run from Elsternwick to Gippsland and utilise the existing M&HBUR line from Elsternwick to Melbourne. M&HBUR were going to charge an exorbitant fee, and so eventually it was decided that the Gippsland Railway would depart from a station to be built in Oakleigh which at that time had no rail connection to Melbourne. While the joining of the Elsternwick and new Gippsland lines by a third line would have been beneficial, the dealings with M&HBUR had left a bitter taste in the government's mouth and they were hesitant to allow another private railway. Hence official government approval was not forthcoming to Ross. When Graham Berry was elected Premier of Victoria in 1877, amongst his incoming ministers was John Woods, one of Ross' parliamentary supporters, who was made Minister of Railways. In July of the same year, a group of Members of the Legislative Assembly visited the sugar works and were impressed with the progress of construction. As a result, a Select committee was set up to properly investigate the Rosstown Railway proposal, which produced a very favourable report for Parliament on 8 August 1877. Due to a long Parliamentary dispute over the purchase of the M&HBUR Company by the State of Victoria, many more members of government had become wary of privately owned railways. This included Woods. The result was over twelve months of waiting. However, on 16 October 1878, the Bill allowing construction of the Rosstown Railway was passed by the Legislative Assembly. It was the Bill's third reading. On 14 November it passed all stages in the Legislative Council and received Royal Assent. One of the stipulations of the Bill was that the line was to be completed in five years. On 2 April 1879, the Oakleigh to Gippsland railway was opened.


By the time the Bill was passed, Ross was already in debt and was struggling to raise the capital required to begin construction of the railway. He raised six thousand pounds through the Bank of New Zealand and work finally began in 1883, with the first rails being laid in November. Ross used iron rails from Victorian Railways which, although were lighter than steel rails, were cheaper. Victorian Railways co-operated further and built the Elsternwick and Oakleigh junctions for the new line, however Ross did clash with them over the Frankston (or Mordialloc line as it was known then) line crossing. A simple level crossing was envisaged by Ross however Victorian Railways flatly refused. Ross had originally owned the land where the crossing was to be, but had previously sold it to Victorian Railways, most likely in an attempt to garner their favour. In the possible haste of the sale, Ross had reserved no rights for his own railway. With the five-year deadline of the Bill only a matter of weeks away, Ross had no time to lobby his point. Construction became frantic and many corners were cut to save time. Sleepers were laid on raw earth, and were set twelve feet apart instead of the two or three foot standard used at the time. In some places the sleepers had settled into the earth so far as to not even be touching the rails, and when the supply of the sleepers ran out, posts from nearby fences were used. The last bit of track was laid after sunset on the last day of the five-year period in 1883. Ross had received permission to exclude the contentious Mordialloc line crossing which was still missing, and so construction was technically completed within time. The Mordialloc line had opened two years prior with a temporary crossing over the Rosstown railway.

An article in The Argus described the scene in 1884:[1]

The work itself is remarkably incomplete, and displays a charming disregard of the ordinary requirements in railway construction. There is not an inch of ballast from one end to the other, the sleepers are old, and the rails the cast-off stock of the Government lines. For the greater part of the distance the permanent way consists of a slight earth formation laid on the natural surface of the ground, and in many places the top is so narrow that the sleepers project over the sides. There is one good-sized cutting at the back of the Caulfield racecourse, from which about 10,000 square yards of material have been removed, and about a mile and a half from Elsternwick is the only "bank" worth speaking of. For the whole length there are two wooden culverts and one drain, but no ditches or gutters to preserve the earthwork from the destruction now progressing through the accumulation of large quantities of water. The sleepers, bad as they are, have been sparingly used. On regulation, well-ballasted lines, the maximum interval between the timbers is about 3ft, if not less. On the Rosstown line there is a space of 12ft between them, and the rails are only spiked to them alternately. The fish-plates which hold the rails together have four bolt-holes each, but only contain two bolts, and the spikes are only driven half home. If the line were to be made use of, everything but the earth and the gates would have to be removed, and then a very large expenditure would be necessary to make the work suitable or the reception of new sleepers and rails. Without reckoning the cost of the land, it is estimated that the line cost something under £1,000 per mile.


In early 1884, Ross flirted with the idea of extending his railway from Elsternwick to the shore at Elwood ("Sea Beach") and then north to St Kilda over the Elwood Swamp (Map of Proposed Extension).[2] Though it received support from the Elwood and St Kilda locals, the idea did not get far. Ross then sought another five-year extension to his rights under the Bill that had been passed in 1878. These were granted and given Royal Assent on 12 December 1884. However, with his already substantial debt, Ross offered the railway for sale to Victorian Railways for an unknown sum. When this was rejected, Ross reduced the price two months later to twenty five thousand pounds, and then dropped it a further five thousand pounds a week later. A Purchase Bill was proposed by Parliamentarians and Railways Commissioners who were pushing for the State to own all railways, however this Bill was withdrawn when it was successfully argued that purchasing a railway that was not even operating was too great a risk. By the end of 1885, already two years into his five-year extension, Ross resigned to the fact that he was going to have to properly reconstruct the line.

With credit running out, Ross carried out the reconstruction when he could, but it was soon obvious that he was not going to meet the new deadline. More bad news arrived in 1886 when it was agreed that Victorian Railways would raise the Mordialloc line on an embankment over the Rosstown line where they crossed. Ross was to arrange and pay for the works with Victorian Railways reimbursing him two thirds of the cost upon completion. Initially Ross had planned a simple wooden bridge to keep expenditure down but this was unacceptable and an engineering firm was brought in via tender to design and construct an iron bridge. The total project cost came to five thousand, eight hundred and fifty six pounds. The single track bridge was opened on 17 June 1887 and widened to double track in 1888. On 17 November 1888, the last day of the five-year extension, the Rosstown Railway line reconstruction was still not finished and Ross wrote to the Victorian Railways telling them that the line would be finished in approximately three months, after which he would settle the many and various outstanding debts he had with them.

Rolling stock

Although the Rosstown Railway has become infamous as a failure, this does not mean the tracks were never used. Construction and ballast trains were often on the line in the late 1880s and early 1890s, hauled by Victorian Railways locomotives that had been hired by Ross. The largest of these was the "Y" class locomotive that was used on ballasting runs. Tenders had been let for the construction of rolling stock to be used by Ross, but nothing ever came of these. As for passenger trains, authors of the Rosstown Historical Research Group's Return to Rosstown, describe it this way;

Ross was well aware of these "problems" associated with his "Statutory Date". In autobiographical notes penned some years later, he claimed that on 14 November 1888 he hired two carriages from the Victorian Railways, and using one of the company locomotives ran what is known as the best-known feature of the Rosstown railway stories—the "only" train—that is, of course, besides the numerous other trains for construction purposes between September 1888 and March 1891.
According to Ross, passengers on his train included Thomas Bent, and the well-known legal men, Malleson and Riggall. He said that the train ran from the platform at Elsternwick and ". . . ran to Oakleigh platform, stayed a while for refreshments, and went back to Grange Road where the company got out and adjourned to Mr. Ross's house, where they dined. This is mentioned as proof that the line was constructed and in such a substantial manner as to permit of a heavy engine drawing two loaded carriages to pass over it . . ."
It is rather odd that not one of the Melbourne daily papers, nor any of the local weekly papers, mentions this run. The Brighton Southern Cross, at least, always reported Rosstown Railway work quite fully. One reason for the lack of publicity might well have been Ross's wish to avoid the attention of the Board of Land and Works to what was probably an illegal train running. In any case, there had been much movement of men and materials on the line since September, so the significance of the run may have been overlooked by the Board.
Ross's own account of the "first train"—that is, for the carriage of passengers—stands up to careful checking much better than all the other versions, printed and otherwise. One of the more detailed of these is Isaac Selby's potted history of Ross and Rosstown. It forms one small part of his 1924 work, "The Old Pioneers' Memorial History of Melbourne". Selby postulated a link between the occasion of Ross's second wedding and the running of the first "train"; however, he notes that the idea was handed down. In fact, this is substance of almost every account passed down by word of mouth to certain of the older residents of Caulfield and Carnegie. The tradition is in error. That wedding was in February 1889. In any case, the newspapers in reporting the movements of the wedding party from Holy Trinity Church, East Melbourne, to "The Grange", Rosstown, made no mention of the required two stages of rail travel.[3]

As far as is known, the last locomotive hauled train was a ballast train run on 21 March 1891.


Although there were severe financial penalties for missing the deadline, these were never enforced, even with Ross' history of financial troubles with the Victorian Railways. Some historians say that this was because the 1880s was a land boom in Melbourne and surrounding suburbs and the added value to land serviced by rail was eagerly anticipated. Ross still hoped to complete the Rosstown Project, even though the mill had been sitting dormant for many years, full of equipment that had never been used—minus a few losses to burglary in 1889.[4] During the 1890s, Ross continued to try and recover financially by setting up companies from which to hide debt and obtain more credit, none of which were successful. He tried several times to sell the Rosstown railway to Victorian Railways but with the depression that followed the land boom of the previous decade, they saw no future for a line that crossed empty paddocks and would see no real traffic. Ross held onto the line until his death in 1904. His failed sugar beet mill, which had been known for many years as "Ross' Folly", was demolished in 1908.

End of the line

Centenary of construction commemorative plaque also showing the Marara Road reserve where the line once ran

The National Bank of Australasia offered the line at auction in 1906, but there were no takers with a reserve set at twenty three thousand pounds. Thomas Bent made an offer of seventeen thousand pounds, which the Bank considered, and was ready to agree to when Bent withdrew. In 1911 the Gardenvale and East Elsternwick Progress Association approached the Bank and negotiated a price in hopes of re-opening the line, with the support of the Caulfield Council. After a survey of the line it was estimated that the cost of repairing and reopening it would cost more than sixty thousand pounds. With no hope of raising this much capital, the idea was abandoned.

Five years later the Caulfield Council asked the government to repeal the Rosstown Junction Railway Acts and on 28 December 1916, the government officially repealed them. Legally, the Rosstown Railway no longer existed. The rails were pulled up and sold to the Emu Bay Railway Company in Tasmania. The National Bank began to dispose of and subdivide the land in 1910, taking until 1946 for the last portion to be sold. The Caulfield Council was among the purchasers, turning some of the line into roads, a rubbish incinerator and tip, and what is now Ormond Park.


Much of the former railway line can be traced through roads that were built where the track once ran, and reserves where the Council bought land. The centenary of the start of construction of the line was celebrated in 1983 with the unveiling of a plaque in the Marara Road reserve, one of the clearer indications of where the line once ran. The Glen Eira Council now manages and promotes the Rosstown Railway Heritage Trail as a bicycle route and historical walk.


Diagram of the Rosstown Railway and stations as eventually constructed. Land owned by William Ross shaded gray.[5]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Proposed Rosstown and Sea-Beach Railway", The Argus 19 July 1884.
  3. ^ Return To Rosstown (1978) page 80-82
  4. ^ "Robberies from the Rosstown Sugar Works", The Argus, 20 August 1889
  5. ^ Return To Rosstown (1978) page 96/97


  • D.F. Jowett & I.G. Weickhardt (1978). Return To Rosstown – Railways, Land Sales and Sugar Beet Ventures in Caulfield. Rosstown Historical Research Group.
  • Murray, Peter R. & Wells, John C. (1980) Sand, Swamp and Heath – A History Of Caulfield. City of Caulfield. ISBN 0-9598392-6-7

External links

  • Rosstown Railway Heritage Trail
  • City of Glen Eira pamphlet
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