From the mid 1850s, rail tracks began to cross Victoria. Gripped by the desire for speedy and efficient transportation, the government, together with private companies, laid tracks within Melbourne, and out to regional centres. Symbolising progress and modernity, rail heralded a new era that not only opened up the colony, but also was also often perceived as heralding more prosperous times – with people and greater commerce following in its wake. Between 1854 and 1864, the government spent ₤9 million, and private investors ₤1.8 million, in establishing a rail network in the colony. Four hundred and nine kilometres of track were laid during this period and, by 1891, the figure was 4670 kilometres.
In 1855, the Victorian Government criticised the lack of progress in establishing railway lines to the colony’s goldfield towns. The cost of laying the tracks, together with the lack of companies available to construct it, ‘rendered the railway companies of this colony hitherto all but a failure.’ The government believed that ‘the effect of a railway in ameliorating the condition of the Gold Fields would be incredible’ as the miners’ ‘commerce and social comfort would be improved by the introduction of many articles now denied to these remote and isolated districts, and a healthier tone established by a better fusion of the colonial population from cheap, frequent and expeditious intercourse.’ With a trip from Melbourne to Ballarat taking only a few hours, rail would not only result in more comfortable and quicker passenger travel, but also in a greater diversity of commerce as goods would no longer have to travel on bullock wagons over poor roads.
In 1862, rail reached Ballarat. Replicating the city’s importance in Victoria’s economy, the station was a grand affair, with the arch of the bluestone engine shed expanding over the two platforms. The station, and its associated buildings, was a lavish and grand complex comprising of bluestone engine and goods sheds, an imposing train hall, a waiting room, and a splendid clock tower. It was one of only a handful of stations within the colonies to include a clock tower, which again spoke of the town’s importance, and its place within Victoria. Located in Lydiard Street, Ballarat’s rail station encouraged the redevelopment of Lydiard Street North in the first decades of its usage; people were quick to capitalise on the vehicular and people traffic the station generated, especially as it was, at one time, country Victoria’s busiest station.
In 1862, tracks were laid from Melbourne to Castlemaine, on the route to Bendigo. In September of that year, the Cornish was the first train to leave Castlemaine Station when it made a test run to Porcupine, a distance of nearly five miles. Nearly a month later, the inaugural run from Melbourne to Castlemaine took place, and was completed in just less than four hours. Unlike Ballarat, Castlemaine’s station was a plain building, with few decorative or extravagant features.