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Railway Giants: "Railways Are 95% People and 5% Iron," Claimed the Icon of Australian Railways

Railway Giants: &quote;Railways Are 95% People and 5% Iron,&quote; Claimed the Icon of Australian Railways
photo: Wikimedia commons / Public Records Office Victoria / CC0 1.0 UNIVERSAL /Harold Winthrop Clapp
26 / 06 / 2024

Harold Clapp, a boy from Melbourne, became an icon of Australian railways. His journey from a modest youth to revolutionary changes in the Victorian Railways demonstrates how one person can transform an entire industry.

Modest Youth

It's May 1875, and we are in St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Here, a boy named Harold is born to Francis Clapp, a prominent bus operator, and his wife Isabelle Pinnock. At this time, Australia is still part of the slowly disintegrating British Empire, which brings both advantages and disadvantages. Among other things, the steam engine and the resulting transformation from an agrarian to an industrial economy reach Australia relatively quickly. Australia separates from the United Kingdom soon after, in 1901.

Let's return to Harold, who successfully graduated from Brighton Grammar School and is now apprenticing at Austral Otis Engineering Co., where he will later work. A change occurs in 1900 when 25-year-old Harold goes abroad to gain experience, specifically to the USA. In the United States, he works for many employers and gains countless experiences. In 1906, he marries Gertrude Vivien, and in 1908, they move to Columbus, Ohio. Here, he works for the Southern Pacific Railroad, where he excels and rises to the position of vice president.

A Turning Point in Life

The turning point comes in 1920 when Harold is 45 years old. Australian Prime Minister Harry Lawson appoints Harold as the chairman of the commissioners of the state-owned Victorian Railways, which operates most of the rail connections in the state of Victoria. Lawson appoints him on the recommendation of former chairman Sir Thomas James Tait, who met Harold before his departure to the United States. Harold knows that such an offer cannot be refused, so he agrees, returns to his native Australia, and with an annual salary of 5,000 pounds, becomes the highest-paid public servant in Australia at the time.

Once Harold takes over, he announces extensive reforms. Larger and more powerful locomotives will be built, schedules will be improved and made more efficient, and travel times will be reduced, leading to better services offered by Victorian Railways. Harold will have a very close relationship with his subordinates, for whom he will strive to ensure the best possible working conditions. He will know thousands of railway employees by name. On the other hand, he will have high demands on his subordinates. He will also be fortunate with his superiors. Harold's era in the Victorian Railways will be symbolized by his own words: "Railways are 95% people and 5% iron."

In 1934, Harold embarks on an inspection tour of Europe and North America. The goal is clear: to discover and understand the trends that railways will follow in the future. This journey confirms Harold's new planned project, the modernization of the Sydney Limited line into the fully steel, air-conditioned high-speed express train Spirit of Progress.

Harold will not hesitate to invest significant financial resources into his pinnacle project, driven by purely pragmatic reasons. At this time, air travel is still in its infancy, and the train is the only viable connection between Sydney, Melbourne, and Albury. He expects not only financial profit from the fast connection but also an increase in the reputation of Victorian Railways across the state.

Wikimedia commons/Public Domain

War Calls

In 1939, Harold's successful era at the head of Victorian Railways will come to an end. Due to the impending world war, Harold is transferred to the position of Director-General of the Department of Aircraft Production in the Ministry of Supply and Development of the Commonwealth, where he oversees the construction of Bristol Beaufort bombers in Australia. In March of the following year, he becomes chairman of the new Aircraft Production Commission. He remains in the aviation industry until 1942, earning a knighthood for his lifelong work.

In 1942, he is appointed Director-General of Land Transport to coordinate road and rail transport for the Commonwealth and the states. In 1944, he is asked to draft a report on the standardization of railway gauges in Australia. This request is prompted by the country's recent wartime experience. World War II, which significantly increased rail transport due to the movement of people, munitions, and supplies across the country, revealed the inefficiency of the national railway system built on several different gauges. Multiple gauge breaks across the country between the narrow gauge of 1,067 mm, standard gauge of 1,435 mm, and broad gauge of 1,600 mm endangered the railways' ability to support the war effort and required up to 1,600 men at various gauge breaks to transship cargo from one train to another.

Wkimiedia commons/SCHolar44/CC0 1.0 UNIVERSAL

In September 1951, Harold decides to resign from all his positions for health reasons but continues to serve as an advisor to the Ministry of Shipping and Transport. However, he doesn't have much time left. Harold dies on October 21, 1952, in a hospital, leaving behind a wife, two sons, and a daughter. Many people pay tribute to him after his death, including Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Journalist C. R. Bradish describes him as "a remarkable man who had enough strength and imagination to ensure the Victorian Railways a reputation they had never known before."

Wikimedia commons/Public Domain

Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography, RAILTARGET