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Western Australia has managed to develop one of the best road networks in Australia - having driven in most other states myself, I can attest to the awful roads that exist in some of the others and one in particular that I will refrain from naming here.

It was to be the introduction of motorised vehicles that was to make a lasting impact on the roads of Western Australia. By the end of World War One there were 2538 vehicles in W.A. but less than ten years later there were over 25,000. By 1936 this number had doubled again.

In 1923 the Commonwealth's Main Roads Development Act offered federal funding as long as the states matched the amount dollar for dollar.

Early road development was the responsibility of local Road Boards. In areas away from major towns there were few people to pay for roads and so very little work could be done on making roads better and in many places they were little more than horse and cart tracks until the latter part of the 20th century. Road Boards produced roads just for local needs but as motor transport increased, the local Road Boards could not cope with the demand for more and improved roads. This eventually led to the responsibility for road construction being centralised under the Main Roads Board in 1926.

The first major change to the road system was the introduction of gravel roads to replace what were basically no more than cleared tracks. Gravel roads were relatively cheap to make and they were stable enough to allow for greater volumes of motorised traffic. Gravel roads turned out to be so effective that they are still in wide use all over the state today. Many people may think that a gravel road is nothing more than a track bulldozed and flattened out but gravel is in fact a conglomerate of stone, sand, silt and clay. Gravel roads require frequent maintenance so a tar and bitumen or asphalt seal began to be used on major roads as traffic speeds increased and greater stability of the road surface was required. (Macadamised roads were used in some difficult sections but they were generally too expensive to produce in most places.)

We tend to take sealed roads for granted these days and there is an un-broken ribbon of bitumen that runs round Australia called Highway One, but not so long ago, if you wanted to travel away from major centres in the south of W.A., you had to contend with dirt roads and river crossings.

In 1950 the bitumen only extended as far north along the coast as Geraldton. The Great Eastern Highway to Kalgoorlie was only sealed part of the way. The inland highway north was sealed as far as Wubin and much of the sealed road that we now take for granted in the south west was not yet constructed.

By 1960 the bitumen had reached Northampton and Kalgoorlie but the inland highway was still mostly unsealed. The road had also been sealed from Kalgoorlie to Esperance.

A decade later the coastal road had gone as far north as the Exmouth turn off, the inland road was past Meekatharra and a sealed highway now ran from Norseman to the state border. Apart from a stretch of sealed road from Broome to the east of Derby the north was still mostly unsealed.

By 1980 the sealed road had reached Exmouth and Port Hedland. There were also stretches from Kununurra to Halls Creek, Fitzroy Crossing to west of Broome and the inland highway had reached Newman. The bitumen had also reached Laverton.

On the 7th of September 1986 the last unsealed section of Highway One between Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing was sealed.

In 1990 most of the roads we know today were in place but sections between Newman and Port Hedland were unsealed and the road through to Paraburdoo was still waiting to be bitumised. In the goldfields a sealed road now went as far north as Leinster.

Apart from the odd cyclone that holds up traffic in the north west, we have little conception of what driving 'up north' was like for anyone venturing there in the early days. Bad roads and lack of bridges meant vehicles could be stranded for weeks at a time but today if you are VERY unlucky your journey in these once remote areas may only rarely be held up for a few days at most if a river floods during the wet season.

A note on road workers and safety.

Roads are a vital link in a country as huge as Australia and the men (and now women also) who work on our road development and maintenance are frequently a great risk because road users do not abide by the speed limits in road construction areas. A number of road workers have been killed or injured because drivers have ignored speed limits in areas where roads are being worked on.

Road works can occur anywhere in the state at any time and although they can cause a bit of frustration for drivers at times, it is essential that all road users pay attention as they pass through road construction sites and obey the speed limits imposed. A few minutes added to a car trip is nothing compared to the loss of a family's father, brother, sister or mother.


Completion dates of major sealed roads in Western Australia


The history of Main Roads Western Australia has been compiled in the book 'The Vital Link' by Leigh Edmonds. It contains all sorts of useful and interesting facts about the development of roads in W.A. and has a number of funny anecdotes and stories from the men who did the work.




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