A repository of ideas

William Alfred Webb, railroad giant
William Alfred Webb_w

William Alfred Webb was famous in Australia as the American who revolutionised the South Australian Railways in the 1920s. His innovations also influenced railway development in other Australian states.

He was a far-sighted, remarkable man of great ability, who led a colossal program to rehabilitate the moribund state railway system, which was so bad it threatened to bankrupt the state treasury.

He believed in hard work and had no time for unions. He never tried to reconcile his views with other people; he was completely indifferent to those who held another view. Nevertheless, with few exceptions he enthused the railway staff, particularly his senior officers, so that the whole system was imbued with the spirit to serve, to persevere and to deliver the goods.

Webb left behind almost no personal correspondence. However, an insight into his attitude to people (or at least those who did not let him down) and the “spirit to serve” is evident in a personal message he wrote in the South Australian Railways Weekly Notice No. 6/23 of 6 February 1923, not long after he took up his post.

[In his message Webb refers to A man’s a man for a’ that. This is the recurring theme in a profound Robert Burns poem of 1795, Is There for Honest Poverty. The phrase asserts that wealth, or lack of it, and social class should not be the measure of a man's true worth. In its wider sense the poem expresses egalitarian ideas of society that were radical at the time. Though probably less well known today than in 1923, its message is timeless.]

More information on Webb is in a Wikipedia article and an Australian Dictionary of Biography entry.

A description of Webb’s locomotives is on another page.