'Lives on the Line' is a commemorative artwork that acknowledges the contributions and sacrifices of the 8,447 NSW railwaymen who enlisted during World War 1.
Each railwayman is individually represented in the artwork by a handmade stoneware object, created by members of the public at workshops run at various locations around NSW, including local schools.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the NSW Railways and Tramways Department was the largest enterprise in the state, with 45,000 employees. Over the course of the war, 8,447 men from the department enlisted and 1,210 of these men died as a result of their service.

Some NSW railwaymen were recruited specifically to assist with operating railway lines for the Allied war effort in Europe but most served amongst other soldiers fighting on the frontline. In an era when road transportation and aviation were still in their infancy, the nature and scale of World War I suited the use of railways like no war before or since. Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army during the war declared: ‘This is a railway war… if we win this war it will be largely due to the railways.’

In 2015, Transport Heritage NSW and Sydney Trains embarked on a joint Anzac Centenary program called ‘NSW Railways Remember’ to acknowledge the contribution of the NSW Railways to war efforts both at home and overseas. This program included an online exhibition and a commemorative artwork project, ‘Lives on the Line’.

The aims of the project were: to honour, in a poignant and respectful way, the 8,447 NSW railwaymen who enlisted; to create an evolving and participatory artwork/installation which, at the conclusion of the project, would serve as an enduring memorial to be on permanent display at Trainworks rail museum; to enable the public to contribute to or participate in the creation of the artwork; to run workshops at various locations around the state to enable people from regional areas to contribute; and to tell the important story of the contribution of employees of the NSW railways to World War 1.

‘Lives on the Line’ was conceived and designed by artists Celeste Coucke and Stephen Fearnley. Their design was chosen from three submissions received in a competitive selection process.

The artists’ design for the artwork had 3 visual segments, each interpreting a different story about the railways and the war. The first section refers to the extraordinary story of the 6th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company (6th ABGROC) which was formed from the NSW Railways and helped keep the main railway servicing Ypres and the western front open. 303 purple and red tiles reference the wool felt shoulder patches worn on the uniforms of members of railway operating companies. Onto these tiles, the signatures of 269 men from the 6th ABGROC were incised, reproduced from the handmade Christmas card they sent from the western front to the Commissioner of the Railways, James Fraser, in 1917.

The second section of the artwork represents the 8,447 NSW Railwaymen who enlisted. Each individual is represented by a small, stoneware piece and, en masse, this mosaic visually represents the massive contribution made by the railways as an organisation. The stoneware pieces were created by members of the public using press moulds and clay. The moulds were used to create facsimiles of small, personal objects selected from the collections of Transport Heritage NSW and the Australian War Memorial. These small, everyday objects – buckles, buttons, badges, keys, whistles – are the type of personal items that were trapped in the mud of the battlefields and are to this day still being found.

The third section of the memorial is made of a lightbox covered with sheet steel that has been punctured with 1,210 holes to represent each of the NSW railwaymen who died as a result of their service.

An important consideration when choosing a permanent site for the artwork was how the artwork would integrate with the existing museum building. The artists proposed to use existing data cable channels in the floor of the museum. By using these channels, themselves reminiscent of railway tracks, the artwork could be designed to sit flush to the floor. This neat solution meant the artwork would not occupy any additional space within the museum and still allowed the power and data cables to run beneath it.

Community engagement
The intention was to involve as many people as possible in the creation of the artwork through public workshops and a schools outreach program. Through this community engagement program, thousands of people learnt about the contribution of the NSW Railways to World War 1 and were given a special opportunity to help create a public artwork.

Pieces of the artwork were made at community workshops held at various regional and Sydney locations over an 8 month period. Approximately 4,500 people took part in these workshops, including 2,000 students from 9 schools local to the museum. The workshops took place during Transport Heritage NSW events at Dubbo Railway Station, Bathurst Railway Station, Central Railway Station, Trainworks Museum, Valley Heights Rail Heritage Museum, and Australian Technology Park at the former Eveleigh railway workshops. The schools outreach program was delivered at Thirlmere Public School, Bargo Public School, Mittagong Public School, Moss Vale Public School, Robertson Public School, Windelema Public School, North Goulburn Public School, Wollondilly Anglican College and Chevalier College.

The community engagement program enabled us to tell the story of the railways and World War 1 through one-on-one conversations with people as they made their clay pieces. In making a piece of the artwork with their own hands, participants gained a sense of ownership over both the artwork and the story. The workshops were a two-way exchange of information with many participants sharing their own stories about family members who worked for the railways or went to the war. Participants were directed to the ‘NSW Railways Remember’ website to learn more and analysis showed peaks of website traffic on, and immediately after, workshop days.

Schools outreach program
The schools outreach program engaged with almost twice as many students as annually visit Trainworks on excursions. The project was taken up so enthusiastically by schools because it was both relevant to the curriculum and gave students a rare opportunity to work with an artist and learn about arts process. Many of the students we worked with had never visited a museum before and this project broadened their view of what a museum is and does.

During the school workshops, students were given a social history context to the project: we spoke about why the railways were so important to people’s lives at the time of World War 1 and why such a large number of enlistees were from the NSW railways. Students also learned about the significance of each of the small museum objects used for the press moulds which provided an opportunity to talk about museums and why we have collections.

Schools were very receptive to the opportunity for their students to be involved and we received positive feedback following the workshops:
“I’ve seen first-hand the powerful results that bringing students together through community arts projects can have. Our students showed a keen interest in the stories of objects and enjoyed working with the tactile medium of clay and plaster. The ‘Lives on the Line’ art project is intrinsically valuable because it tells powerful personal stories of the ANZACs and helps the students to understand other people’s experiences, developing our sense of compassion and humanity.” Belinda Taylor, Secondary Visual Arts teacher, Wollondilly Anglican College

“Thank you for including our school in the Commemorative Art Project with Trainworks. It gave students a wonderful opportunity to be involved in history making for themselves. They really enjoyed making the clay representations. It made them feel like they had a connection with the WW1 soldiers. It made them feel proud that their artwork was now a part of living history. So thank you very much. We all enjoyed and learnt a lot from the experience.” Julia Esposito, Leader of Learning – History, Chevalier College

The launch
The completed artwork was launched on Anzac Sunday 2016 at an event attended by project participants, representatives from the schools involved, members of the local RSL and other community groups, and interested members of the public.

“The installation…was fantastic in every way – thoughtful, respectful and unique. I must say it brought an upwelling of emotion in me – not of sadness, but of pride and love for my Dad and my relations who have both served their country and worked on the NSW Government Railways”. Launch attendee

‘Lives on the Line’ was ambitious in its aim to have 8,447 stoneware pieces made by members of the public but this high level of community engagement and participation is what makes the project so poignant and meaningful. At its conclusion, the 46 metre-long artwork is a striking memorial created by the people of NSW to acknowledge and remember the contributions of individual railwaymen and of the NSW Railways as an organisation.

This is the first time a major transport museum in NSW has used art as a means of interpretation and audience engagement, introducing and demonstrating to our own sector different ways in which audiences can learn, understand and engage.

‘Lives on the Line’ was a creative and original way to communicate a multi-layered story both to participants during the community engagement program and now to museum visitors who can see the artwork, and its interpretation, as part of the permanent display at Trainworks.

Worked on the project:
Transport Heritage NSW, in conjunction with Sydney Trains.

What the Judges said:

“Appropriate during this centenary of WWI this artwork acknowledges the contributions and sacrifices of 8,447 railway employees during that war. Community engagement, schools outreach – beautiful and accessible.”