There was once a short lived branch line in the Riverland that was completed but never used. The Chowilla (pronounced Chowla) line was built in the 1960s in preparation for the Chowilla Dam project in South Australia. Information is hard to come by so I’ll share what I have found with you here. Scroll to the end of the article for the YouTube video.
Chowilla Dam was to be a massive water storage project on the Murray River near the Victorian border in the 1960s. A dam wall nearly 6 km long was to be built in South Australia, but the water behind it would have stretched upstream into Victoria and New South Wales. One early feature was a branch line from the Barmera railway line to bring rock to the dam wall site – which was dismantled without ever actually being used to haul any rock.
The dam construction was going to need a lot of rock, which would be transported by rail from 240 km away at Kinchina Siding, near Murray Bridge.
The South Australian Railways was engaged to transport the required rock and a 27 km railway line was built, branching from the Barmera line not far east of Paringa.
Sixty FCD-class flatcars were built at the Islington Railway Workshops to carry skips that could be taken off the train by crane to move the rock to where it was required. A few 930 class locomotives were also ordered and may have lead the test trains.
A siding near Kinchina Quarry was built between Murray Bridge and Monarto South, to collect the stone. When the project was cancelled, the branch line had been completed, except for the laying of ballast and the terminal siding.
Meanwhile, the SA Engineering and Water Supply Department – and others – began to raise serious environmental concerns.
The dam would cover over 500 square kilometres in New South Wales, 427 square kilometres in Victoria, and only 117 square kilometres in South Australia and it would be very shallow – with evaporation estimated at 1,000 gigalitres, and rising, a year.
This was bad enough, but the effect on groundwater would intensify salinity issues and could have had devastating effects on nearby South Australian Riverland towns.
The other concern was that the dam would flood wetlands in the areas of what would become Chowilla Game Reserve, Chowilla Regional Reserve and the Murray-Sunset National Park.
By 1969, after a lot of politicking, the River Murray Commission recommended that an alternative dam be built at Dartmouth in Victoria. Legislation ratifying this agreement was passed in the Australian, NSW and Victorian parliaments in 1970 – and in the South Australian parliament in 1971. The Dartmouth dam was built in the mid-70s while the Chowilla project was shelved.
Work to remove the line began in September 1972, and the rails were used to upgrade the Waikerie line and relaid around Karoonda to Copeville area. The flatcars were converted and sold.
Online research led me to forums where a few pondered whether or not the line had ever been operational.
One commenter on Railpage mentioned that at least one train with one, possibly two flatbeds, made the trip out to Chowilla to test the track.
He says his Dad was in charge of construction and they lived at Chowilla in the mid 60’s, as did several other families involved, along with a number of men residing in the camp.
The Chowilla branch line is the most short-lived and elusive line I’ve ever researched. I know I say ‘there’s nothing left’ a lot, but this time there is literally nothing left except for the embankments and cuttings where the line branches from the Barmera line. As far as I know, there’s no public access to the actual location of the end of the line.
Images have also been hard to come by. If you have any memories or images you’d like to share , just drop them in the comments or email me.
South Australian Government supplement to the Riverlander, July 1968. Read more at: http://www.murrayriver.com.au/renmark…
Chowilla Terminus 1972 – Barry Marshall – NRM Collection
Kinchina Siding 1972 – Barry Marshall – NRM Collection
Chowilla tramway skips 1967 – Graeme Dorling Collection
Unit 935 Loco South Australia – John Masson CC-BY-SA-3.0