BHP's Port Lincoln Operations

Welcome to my feeble attempt to pay tribute to the BHP Tramway that ran from Proper Bay to Coffin Bay on the lower end of Eyre Peninsula South Australia.

This line was built to haul lime-sand from a mine at Coffin Bay to a Port at Proper Bay, near Port Lincoln. The lime-sand was used as a flux in BHP's blast furnaces.

Following extensive surveying, the Coffins mine was estimated to be 500 million tonnes. At the rate of two trains a day, five days a week, about 632,000 tonnes per annum were expected to be moved.

The entire project cost $7 million and was officially opened to traffic in 1966. Using a figure of $1.6mil per km, the line alone today would cost about $62 million to build.

The line was constructed to heavy haul standards, 107lb rail on (WA Jarrah) timber sleepers, through base plates, welded into 270ft lengths. This was, at the time, one of the few uses in Australia of such heavy rail, outside of the North-West Iron Ore Lines.

Over 100,000 tonnes of ballast was used in the line. A 25 ton axle load applied and the ruling grade against loaded trains was 1:150. This meant substantial earthworks. About 1.5 million cubic yards of earth was moved. Despite the volume of earthworks, several sections of the line were prone to water logging, and one section in a cutting was plagued with slips.

Even during the construction of the line, problems were encountered with slips and settlement. The operations' opening was delayed because extra packing and tamping was required to bring the line up to standard. The final quality in this work remained evident through to the end of the line.

Wagons held 76 tons of sand for a total mass of 100 tonnes, and in the early days two trains a day hauled by one G12 pulling 1600 tonnes provided a daily service. At the time of their construction (by Commonwealth Engineering, Bassendean WA) the loaded mass of wagons were amongst the heaviest in Australia (100t or 25t axle load) and the line was only beaten by the North West lines for its carrying capacity. 31 were built all with rotating couplers.

A wharf was constructed at Proper Bay, and could handle ships of 21,000 tonnes. The site covered 370 acres, with the main sand bin holding 30,000 tonnes of sand. Loading was done at a rate of 2,000t per hour.

A workshop was built at Coffin Bay to service the mines equipment of Scammel trucks and bucket.

Construction was undertaken by Holding Brothers.

Three large silos, each holding 1000t stored and loaded sand. These were still in position when the line was pulled up.

Two locomotives were built specifically for the line, DE08 and DE09 (though DE09 never made it). Both were fitted with Farr Dynavane filtering systems to remove sand from the intake air. These options remained on the locomotives throughout their service on the Whyalla Tramway. These locomotives were "G-12" series units running on BO-BO bogies.

Employment peaked at 14 full timers at the height of the operation.

The operation was cut back in 1975 after BHP backloaded limestone from Japan. There are stories that Coffins sand performed poorly, but a more reliable version suggests that the Japs did a deal. (we buy your ore, you buy our limestone!). Given that the reason BHP built the operation was to get the high grade sand, I would go with the Jap theory. One reference suggests the alternatively sourced limestone was "better value material".

Four employees maintained the operation in the final years. These included Ron Dunn as Operations Manager, Andy Page (Driver), George Wiseman (electrician) and Ray Lockwood (Coffin Bay Shovel Driver/Caretaker).

For a short period in 1985 and 1986, the wharf was contracted to load fertiliser. This contract came to an abrupt end when BHP were advised that they would be taxed as the site was a private wharf, licenced for one commodity only!

In its final years, the tramway ran an "as needed" service to provide one to two ships per annum of sand to BHAS Port Pire. I believe the last trains were run in 1989.

Storms that year badly damaged the out loader at Proper Bay, and Vandalism at Coffins substantially increased the costs necessary to reopen the operation. Coastal shipping sizes had also grown, making it harder to get smaller ships that the wharf could handle.

The locomotive left in 1993, although there was talk an DH would go to Port Lincoln to operate an infrequent service, possibly only to keep bearings and brakes on the rolling stock operational.

The heavy gantry, located over the fan leading into the workshops, was removed in a three month period starting July 25, 2995.

The final BHP employee, Andy Page, also the driver, was retrenched in January 2000. The tramway, and Proper Bay Depot was sold to Dean Lukin.

The last of the tramway was yanked up in May 2001. The rail iron was bought by Genessee and Wyoming Australia and has been installed, on steel sleepers, on the section between Cummins and Port Lincoln. This is expected to improve the operational capacity and viability of the railway for Hematite ore to be carried from Lock. Part of this proposal included rehabilitation of the BHP wharf area (see Eyre Peninsula Tribune). However, this proposal is uncertain, as mining companies are contemplating a new port at Sheep Hill, possibly connected to a standard gauge line on a more direct route (see Sadvertiser).

During the reconstruction of the narrow gauge railway, it was reported that much of the rail from the tramway suffered porosity and quality problems.

On Monday August 13, 2001, the Advertiser carried a tender for the removal of 15000-20000cum of ballast from the corridor.

Late in August 2001, The Advertiser ran a spread discussing what Dean Lukin was proposing for the site. As well as the housing estate, there is talk that the wharf will be re-developed for fishing vessels.

In a 2002 edition of "Track and Signal", the company awarded the contract to remove the tramway had for sale the remaining 27 hoppers and the rotary tipper that was at Proper Bay.When I last spoke with Andy in 2000, he was dubious as to their condition. They sat in the open in a windswept area that carried salt laden air. Without the tipper from Port Lincoln they would be as good as useless, and technology has progressed beyond turning wagons over.

Following the closure of the operaitons, two B-Doubles a day were used to cart sand to Whyalla for a short period. A haul road was constructed bypassing the main road to Coffin Bay. This haulage has now ceased.



Issued new to Whyalla 1956

Transferred onto standard gauge and to Port Lincoln arriving August 1968.

Returned to Whyalla 1975

Rebuilt MK 1994


New to Whyalla 1956

To Port Lincoln 1968 (July)

Returned to Whyalla 1993

Last DE in original condition, and probably the last G-8 in original condition.

The (hulk of the) locomotive was transferred to Adelaide (Islington Workshops) May 2003 when Morrison-Knudsen shut their Whyalla operations.

DE02 was rebuilt at Islington Workshops and renumbered T414. She is owned by Specialised Container Transport and works out of their Parkes (NSW) Depot.

(Notes - DE01 and DE02 were GM G8 Series locomotives (all of the other DE's owned by BHP were G12's) - they were bought for use in the mines, running wagons between benches. The SA Government changed mining laws that limited the bench heights in the mines, making it no longer feasible for the mine railways to continue.

When DE's 01 and 02 were purchased, they lacked Multiple Unit facilities. These were fitted to the locos prior to their transfer to Port Lincoln)


Issued new to Whyalla and after a short run-in sent to Port Lincoln. Built specifically for the tramway at Port Lincoln, with special air filtration systems.

Arrived January 12, 1966 working construction trains.

Returned to Whyalla 8 November 1968

Cannibalized in 1984

Rebuilt by MK 1994 with a GM645 series motor and reissued to Traffic

Written off following collision at the 106km in April 2002


Built for Port Lincoln but never ran there.

Rebuilt by MK 1994 with a GM645 series motor.

Written off following collision at the 106km in April 2002



Line Removal :

On the Line

In 1999, I managed to get permission to run on this railway, with my section car. Heres the links to those videos:


Port Lincoln Times - 29 July 1965

Railway Transportation, August 1965 July 1967

Dave Griffiths Centenary of BHP Tramways (PDSRM 1985)

Authors own recollections, Comments from former BHP employees, Port Lincoln Times (various) Adelaide Advertiser (Various)

Track and Signal Magazine, Various posts Aus.rail, and the Coasties Group.

Comments GWA staff Port Lincoln.

The Advertiser, and EP tribune

Link to "My" Hopper ex BHP

BHP's Nevada Operations



 Updated December 30, 2011

All Photos © Nic Doncaster 2001

Videos © Nic Doncaster 2006