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The Outer Circle documentary - review

The recently released pozible campaign-funded documentary - The Outer Circle: Melbourne's forgotten railway - tells the story of a late 19th century rail line that was built at a time when railway mania was rife across the colony of Victoria.

The Outer Circle was initially proposed as a way of connecting the Gippsland rail line, which terminated at present-day Oakleigh in 1872, to Melbourne. In 1878 the Victorian colonial government bought the private railway operator Melbourne & Hobsons Bay United Railway company and decided build the line from Oakleigh to South Yarra as we currently know it.

Despite the new link created between Oakleigh and South Yarra, after a change of government in 1883 construction began on the Outer Cicle line in 1888. The first section and first services began operating between Oakleigh and Camberwell in 1890 with the completion of the line to Fairfield finalised in 1891.

After the economic depression of the early 1890's, the fall from grace for the Outer Circle line began with the first section to close - Riversdale to Fairfield - seeing its last service run just two years after they began.

Melbourne's Forgotten Railway - The Outer Circle - Trailer from Outer Circle on Vimeo.

Gunzels will love the documentary for the enormous amount of time and detail put into profiling each type of train which used the various sections of the line during its on and off again see-saw of openings and closures; and the film is an important historical record in the way it documents how Eastern Melbourne developed, which is sure to pique the planning community's interest.

For anyone who has looked at a Melway map of inner Eastern Melbourne, it's quite easy to trace the route of the former Outer Circle line sections and the film makes use of a fantastic array of many historical images and modern-day aerial imagery to give a sense of how the line once operated.

Outer Circle line diagram from Wikipedia

One of the strongest themes across the one hour documentary is an intriguing tale of pre-federation colonial cronyism. In an interesting sign of the times the film documents how colonial government largesse - thanks to the buoyant land boom thinking of the time - saw the Outer Circle Line built to a very high standard with little economic rationale other than serving the pecuniary interests of some politicians who bought up land in 'villages' such as Camberwell then sold the land for an inflated price after the line was opened.

The different sections of the Outer Circle line had better success with the movement of goods throughout the region; wood to Brunswick and later coal to Fairfield were just some of the materials regularly transported to provide energy to homes and industries near the line in the early days. The "Build it and they will come" attitude which often gets talked about in modern times was clearly rife in the late 1800's.

Amongst the many things the viewer will learn, present day Willison station was originally built to serve the needs of golfers and it was assumed in the northern section between Riversdale and Fairfield, that the railway would light a fire cracker under residential sub-division and development through present day Kew. Ultimately economic depression and a rapidly expanding tram network - which was able to provide far more frequent and direct services to the city - put the nail in the coffin for passenger services.

Having dodged the East-West link bullet as shown by the dubious business case documents released this week, one can't help question that had the East-West Link been built and a similar documentary like the Outer Circle been produced a century after the opening of the freeway: would the same themes be present? I'd argue yes.

Melbourne and in particular Eastern Melbourne is a very different place to the orchards, paddocks and villages that characterised the region when the Outer Circle line was built. And given the decades of auto-centric development that has occurred and the need to pare back the monstrous share of trips that cars make it Melbourne, is it worth while studying the impacts of auto-centricity in the east by rebuilding the southern section of the Outer Circle line?

Camberwell is no longer a village, but a retail and employment centre in its own right. The Alamein line merely acts as a shuttle to connect residents in sleepy Ashburton with the centre of the city. The largest shopping centre in Australia has no rail access and new education and research hubs have been built in Holmesglen, Glenferrie and Clayton since the Outer Circle was first proposed.

The Baillieu Government's Rowville Rail line study made reference to public comments about a new Rowville line connecting up with the Alamein line but explicitly stated that this option was excluded from the study's scope. Perhaps a new study looking at the Alamein line and linking the new employment, education and research centres south of the Alamein line's terminus might once and for all provide a decent business case for the Outer Circle line.

You can buy a DVD and Blu-Ray set from The Outer Circle's website and you can also watch the documentary by renting it for 24 hours on Vimeo.

Lead image credit: Evolving Communications.

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5 comments

Paul Anderson's picture

I can't see why they don't rebuild parts of the Outer (as well as Inner) Circle lines .. surely a cut and cover job could easily be done to better interconnect the rail lines.

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Llib's picture

The problem is that it needs to go through Chadstone shopping centre and even though the old railway came very close it is still at least 500 metres to the west which is just outside walking distance. It could still be done and it would be a useful connection between the 3 railway lines, unfortunately it would also miss a major activity centre that could generate a large amount of patronage.

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Riccardo's picture

You wrote: "One of the strongest themes across the one hour documentary is an intriguing tale of pre-federation colonial cronyism. In an interesting sign of the times the film documents how colonial government largesse - thanks to the buoyant land boom thinking of the time - saw the Outer Circle Line built to a very high standard with little economic rationale other than serving the pecuniary interests of some politicians who bought up land in 'villages' such as Camberwell then sold the land for an inflated price after the line was opened."

So I don't know why you venerate this past so much. It was a cruel, evil time. Sure, some architectural gems were left but most of what we see and know about the period is best forgotten.

And how insensitive people, including people on this site, are to the cronyism and failed politics of our current times - and why you would not use the lessons of the past to stop it happening in our time.

There are people on this site who would waste public billions on railways that aren't needed; build other public works because they are pretty, prevent the realisation of land value by private owners for their own architectural or town planning fetishes.

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Riccardo's picture

Do you realise what the late C19th is?

a) a time of dispossession. What freedom, identity and connection to land our first peoples had was continuing to be stripped away, in many cases by people claiming to have their best interests at heart. Be very, very careful when someone claims this about you

b) a time of racist isolationism. So-called 'Leftist' movements were trying to exclude non-white people from the benefits of living in this continent, and succeeded when federation was achieved. Rightists were wanting to establish slavery on plantations in the north.

c) a time of wanton and unnecessary warfare. Look all over town at the statues of men who pushed warfare in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and caught the colonials up in the fervour. Who benefited from this warfare - it wasn't us, nor was it the people of Africa, Middle East or Asia.

d) a time of government prolific waste. As described above

e) a time of great poverty. Read Higgins description of buying your meat and flour in 1906 in Harvester Judgement. Or read Power Without Glory - always a good read.

f) a time of great social discord. We cannot imagine in our time what events like the shearers' strikes had on the people of the day

So I'm glad we kept a few old buildings from the period but we should not get too carried away by this. We have so much more potential to be better people than they were and leave something future generations can genuinely be proud of, rather than ashamed.

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Alastair Taylor's picture

So I don't know why you venerate this past so much. It was a cruel, evil time. Sure, some architectural gems were left but most of what we see and know about the period is best forgotten.

And how insensitive people, including people on this site, are to the cronyism and failed politics of our current times - and why you would not use the lessons of the past to stop it happening in our time.

There are people on this site who would waste public billions on railways that aren't needed; build other public works because they are pretty, prevent the realisation of land value by private owners for their own architectural or town planning fetishes

Who are the people who are apparently unaware of the cronyism and failed politics of current times might I ask?

Also genuinely puzzled by how you connected "old buildings" with a documentary on an old train line as well. What's your motivation with that?

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