An old railway bridge

Seeing South Australian Railway History by Drone

The best thing about exploring South Australian railway history by drone is that there’s no timetables to follow. The old lines lie waiting to be discovered by a new audience.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved riding trains and watching trains go by. Back then, railways and trains were these big and impressive things that seemed like they would always be there. I grew up on the East coast and now live in Adelaide. I watched railways grow busier all around the country in the late 20th century as South Australia’s railway lines steadily declined. There’s lots to unpack around what abandoned railways mean and projects like this are a place to explore and practice the art of storytelling around an enduring part of my experience.

This project presents the old and abandoned railway lines around SA. It’s a grassroots contribution to preserving and sharing the history of railway lines in South Australia from a unique perspective. The videos are music based and captured with a camera drone.

In this article, I’ll give some more context to the project and present a rough guide to my process of piecing it all together into videos or articles that fit into the big picture.

Railways are part of the story of Australia.

Railways appeared in Australia in the mid-1850s, opening up the country by linking mining and agriculture (and their communities) with seaports. They linked the growing towns to the cities and made it possible to travel long distances comfortably. Cars were yet to come – railways were a critical link for any region, city, or town, for a long time.

There are ‘railway towns’ all over Australia – like Peterborough in South Australia. These towns were almost entirely based on railway workers and there were plenty of them until the railways began their long, slow decline.

Railways made important cultural contributions. South Australian politics was often pre-occupied with building railways – travelling circuses once relied on trains too. Baby Health Trains took clinics staffed with nurses to small and isolated communities.

Railways played a key role in establishing and connecting communities. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of federation, a Jubilee train toured South Australia to promote the role of the 16 South Australian and 6 Commonwealth Government agencies participating in the travelling expo. 

Railways were nation building. Rail projects were (and continue to be) large scale projects that shape the way freight and people move around. The story of BHP is one of those projects. The South Australian Railways and the Silverton Tramway Company connected the Broken Hill mines with the ocean at Port Pirie at a time when NSW declined to do so. South Australia built railways to encourage people to settle in the regions and to develop agriculture and industry. The Mallee lines from Karoonda are an example of where rail opened vast areas to agriculture.

Every broad and narrow gauge line in South Australia is closed now. Only the standard gauge interstate lines remain in use. The golden era of rail is long gone with Pichi Richi Railway and SteamRanger being notable exceptions.

What else do I see?

I see elements and principles of visual design in railways. Seeing, understanding, and using these elements makes it possible to communicate about railways in a way that people connect with and enjoy.

It’s interesting to track the styles of architecture across the different rail lines. If you watch the videos you’ll notice that there’s definitely a couple of styles of classic architecture replicated all over the state. I like to compare these sometimes ornate buildings and bridges to our modern stations and bridges. Many of South Australia’s railway bridges, viaducts, embankments, and cuttings are impressive structures that stand today as proof of the thoroughness and solid build quality of early designers, engineers, and builders.

I use the elements and principles of visual design in my work. Some of these are:

  • Lines
  • Paths
  • Shapes
  • Colour
  • Symmetry
  • Volume
  • Space
  • Depth of field

Who and what.

I’m Michael Genrich. I worked hard to earn my Bachelor of Media in Visual Design and I’m compelled to apply it to something I’m passionate about. I want to share what I see in ways that haven’t been explored. The mission is to present our old railways to new audiences, as well as old audiences who are exploring history in new digital ways.

It’s aimed at entertaining and informing audiences by mixing music, visuals, and narrative. It’s not trying to be an in-depth documentary but content that has a narrative flow.

Where, when, and why.

The project began with the website at www.outdoorstype.com.au where railway content is fast becoming the biggest category. I do my best to share extra information and photos on the site that I didn’t feature on YouTube or social media. A website is the best place for wordy and detailed information.

The Outdoorstype profiles on Instagram and Facebook can be sporadic. I tend to lean towards the visual nature of Instagram and share images that represent the content I’m working on.

YouTube is the focus of my efforts right now. It’s there that I can preserve history in new ways.

The YouTube channel is reaching new and bigger audiences. It’s truly creating a niche. As far as my research tells me, there are no other YouTube channels doing what Outdoorstype does. It’s a unique opportunity to build a collection of videos to look back on in decades to come.

How.

If you don’t use it, you lose it. Maintaining and building my skills is a key motivation to create content for Outdoorstype. To keep my skills fresh, I use a straightforward process for most of the videos and articles.

Planning

I browse around and think for a while before I decide on a story to tell. I have a long list of potential subjects! Which story am I most motivated to explore? Where can I fit it in to my schedule? What do I have and what do I need?

Research

I start with Google searches and try to drill into relevant wikis and forums if I can find them. I do text and image searches – image searches often uncover different results. I’ll also do the same searches on social media to see if there’s anything already being discussed about the subject there. Then there’s the institutions like libraries and museums. I always search the state library image collections to find copyright free historic images, the image descriptions often have even more detailed information about the scene. Flickr is a photo sharing site that has also proven to be a rich resource on a few projects.

I only have two railway books – but they are the books that started this whole journey. I need more books.

Some projects just need good old legwork so I’ll hit the road to have a look around.

Somewhere in all this shemozzle phase I begin to formulate stories, not even a story but a narrative that has order and continuity.

Pre-production

Next is the pre-production work. Which platform is going to be the basis? If it’s going to be distributed across platforms, I ask myself how that’s going to work? Answering these questions helps me start drafting an article or a script and rough shot list for a video. I call it a rough shot list because things always change once I’m on location.

Production

Drafting the article and getting the images together for it, and shooting video on location, is where the real work happens. I’m always hopeful that the pre-production and planning steers me in the right direction. There’s enough time spent and challenges faced in just getting to locations, being on location, and capturing good images with my ever changing toolkit.

Post-production

I do my post-production editing with the Adobe suite, mainly Premiere Pro, and slotting everything together is a workflow in itself. It begins with collecting and filing all the images, footage, sounds, graphics, and music. What comes next is a rough cut of the best bits and here is where things start to become clearer until all the editing, tweaks, and timing are done. Any part of this process, particularly where I use graphics from other programs, can be quite time consuming.

Publishing

Finally, it’s time to publish and distribute the content. I make the videos for YouTube so I’ll publish there with a good description and a link to the supporting article on the site.

I’ve found a few Facebook groups to share the videos to and sharing my videos on them gets great responses. I’ll usually add a simple picture from the project to Instagram with a blurb about the latest content.

What gadgets do I use?

I’ve always loved cool toys ever since dinky remote control robots came out in the 80s. So it’s natural then that I still love gadgets and the Mavic Mini (camera drone) would have to be one of the coolest gadgets ever. I use a Pocket 2 Creator Combo gimbal camera that stands in nicely (on a tripod) as my ground camera crew when I’m out exploring and presenting solo and I sometimes use my Nikon DSLR for better still images.

Conclusion.

My articles and videos evoke all kinds of responses. As I read the comments and measure the engagement I learn more about what trains and railways mean to people. For me, these interactions add social elements to my tapestry that sometimes appear instantly while others emerge only after time and consideration.

It’s not just about pumping out content either. I get far more engagement around Outdoorstype by engaging with other channels, sites, and social media accounts. Again, it’s the interactions that count.

The project continues and it will always go on. I have other storytelling formats are in the works and I hope you stick around to watch Outdoorstype grow. Let’s keep exploring South Australian railway history by drone.

Man on camera

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