A Trip Through Time on the Old Semaphore Line

A railway departures board

I arrived in Adelaide in 1987. That’s probably why I don’t remember seeing a railway line down Semaphore Road. It’s only been closed since 1978 but today you’d never know Semaphore had a busy railway line running down the main street with three stations. One station is still there today.


Opened in 1878, Semaphore was the terminus until the line was extended to Outer Harbor in 1908. It had already been extended to Largs Bay in 1883 but this closed with the opening of the Outer Harbor Line.

The line ran down the centre of Vincent Street until it was diverted over the Commercial Road viaduct in 1916.

Trams also ran alongside the track down the middle of Semaphore Road from 1917 to 1935.

The Semaphore Line from Glanville was closed in 1978 and Port Dock Station closed not long after in 1981.

The tracks through Port Adelaide station were dual gauge from 1982, allowing freight traffic from Dry Creek via the Rosewater loop to access industrial facilities on the Lefevre Peninsula and the container terminal at Pelican Point.

The freight loop from Glanville to Osborne remained until freight traffic was diverted in 2008 to the Mary MacKillop Bridge. The Glanville to Birkenhead section of the old line has mostly been converted to a walking path.

Glanville is a through station on the Outer Harbor line but occasionally sees terminating services on the central road in times of peak demand.

The history of the line is intertwined with the Birkenhead Loop, and the Outer Harbor line… which we’ll have a look at as well. 

It’s time to explore the history of the Semaphore line by digging a little deeper and flying a little higher. Let’s get into the story.


Semaphore was first surveyed in 1849, at which time it was isolated by swamps to the south and the Port River to the east. A local pub owner and entrepreneur built a two-storey timber hotel in 1851 on the The Esplanade and used a flagpole to signal to his “White Horse Cellars” hotel at Port Adelaide of the approach of ships, earning the area the name Semaphore – or “The Semaphore”. It was an important signaling station…

The Semaphore Jetty was completed in 1860. At the time, it was an important point of entry to the growing city of Adelaide.

The original line continued from the Port Dock station at Port Adelaide heading west along St Vincent Street, over the new Jervois bridge, and north then west along Semaphore Road.

For over half a century the Jervois Bridge was the only way pedestrians and wheeled vehicles could cross the river between the Port and Lefevre Peninsula. Constructed in the late 1870s on the footprint of an earlier wooden footbridge, it was an interesting ‘swing bridge’ which allowed ships to pass through it. After the Birkenhead Bridge opened in the 40s, it fell into disrepair. It was replaced by a modern fixed span in the 1960s.

The midpoint of the line was Exeter station, which was on the east side of where Swan Terrace and Woolnough Road intersect. The line terminated at Semaphore station and what is unique here is that the station platform was level with the northern part of the road. It soon became a branch from Glanville station and the route was altered in 1916 to avoid St Vincent Street.

The line would have carried traffic to and from Largs Bay and Outer Harbor too.

Just to the north, Largs Bay jetty opened in 1882. Deep sea ships would anchor in the bay with launches bringing passengers, freight, and mail to the jetty with a railway line connected all the way to the end. It was 2100 feet long and carried the mail train from Largs Bay jetty to the Adelaide General Post Office. Today the jetty is around a third of the original length.

(Glanville) Opened as a single platform station with the Semaphore line – This place grew to become a busy junction with a fully-fledged goods yard sending and receiving hundreds of thousands of tons of goods a year. In the later years of railcars, shuttle trains bound for Semaphore left from the centre road.

I don’t think  you had to change at Glanville for the Semaphore line until the sixties. I remember going right through to Semaphore, you had to change at Glanville for the Outer Harbor line. The Semaphore trains were either hauled by P,s or F,s.

Steam trains until some time in the 50s. 55 class railcars were the regular roster on the Semaphore ‘yo-yo’ (so called because it only shuttled from Glanville to Semaphore and back) and were used for many years until their retirement in 1968 after which they were replaced by a single 400 class redhen until the closure of the line in 1978. Railcar 8 also in that photo is also preserved at the NRM in Port Adelaide.


Now let’s look at the important changes the Birkenhead loop brought to the area.

Congestion at Port Dock railway station and the delays involved in operating trains along busy streets in the centre of the Port resulted in construction of a viaduct and a new bridge across the Port River in 1916. This diverted through trains to Semaphore and Outer Harbor via a new station named Commercial Road – the current station. Port Adelaide Commercial Road was substantial, with long platforms, an overall roof, and a signal cabin and quickly took over from Port Dock as the town’s principal railway station. With the closure of Port Dock station in 1981, Commercial Road station was renamed Port Adelaide station.

I remember what the old Glanville section of the Birkenhead Loop looked like. The line along Semaphore Road had a maximum speed limit of 20km/h because of the extremely tight clearances, sharp curves and in some places (especially around the Birkenhead hotel), dodgy track. It was odd to see big engines like the NR class on such a small easement.

The Semaphore Road line closed in 1978 – partly because traders on the north side of Semaphore road claimed they were losing business. Everything was removed from Semaphore Road in 1981. Only the large median strip along Semaphore Road remains as evidence of a railway. But one little train still does still run to Semaphore today! The foreshore park is currently the terminus of the Semaphore to Fort Glanville Steam Railway.

As for the Birkenhead Loop… I remember what the old Glanville section of the Birkenhead Loop looked like. The line along Semaphore Road had a maximum speed limit of 20km/h because of the extremely tight clearances, sharp curves and in some places (especially around the Birkenhead hotel), dodgy track. It was odd to see big trains on such a small easement.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through time, you can see the video on YouTube below. Thanks for joining me!

3 thoughts on “A Trip Through Time on the Old Semaphore Line

  1. christian Reply

    If you look carefully on military road just north and south of where it crosses semaphore road, you can make out the original “R” and “X” markings. I wrote about this in the attached blog, and included some interesting photos.
    by the way – love your work – keep it up!

  2. Paul Reply

    Thank you Mike for this very informative video, very entertaining.

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