Newell Highway : History and Development


The Newell Highway is State Highway No. 17 and New South Wales ’ longest highway, stretching over 1,060km from the Victorian border at Tocumwal to the Queensland border at Goondiwindi. Traversing the state from end to end, the Newell Highway passes through almost every type of terrain imaginable, from an arm of the Warrumbungle Ranges to the flat and featureless plains near Narrandera. The Newell Highway carries the National Highway 39 shield for its entire length, forming the NSW portion of the now defunct Melbourne-Brisbane link of the National Highway .

State Highway No. 17 was proclaimed by Government Gazette in March 1938, from Tocumwal, via Finley and Jerilderie to the Sturt Hwy at Gillenbah, thence via Narrandera and Ardlethan to the Mid Western Hwy at West Wyalong, thence from the Mid Western Hwy at Marsden, via Forbes, Parkes, Peak Hill to the Mitchell Hwy at Dubbo, thence via Darling St, Erskine St, Bourke St and Eumungerie to the Oxley Highway at Gilgandra, thence from the Oxley Hwy 5km north of Coonabarabran via Narrabri and Moree to Boggabilla. The Bruxner Highway (State Highway No. 16) covered the road from Boggabilla into Goondiwindi until 5 December 1975 when the routes of both highways were altered so that the Newell would extend into Goondiwindi and the Bruxner terminate in Boggabilla. Upon proclamation, the Newell Highway followed existing roads as far as possible, the exceptions being between Narrandera and West Wyalong and from Coonabarabran to Narrabri. “Over the greater part of these two lengths a road had to be built and progressively improved to carry the highway traffic.”1 Prior to proclamation, the constructed lengths of road included sections of Main Road No. 229 (Tocumwal-Narrandera), Main Road No. 235 (Marsden-Forbes), Trunk Route No. 56 (Forbes-Gilgandra) and Main Road No. 126 (Narrabri-Goondiwindi).

In July 1941, following the death of Hugh Hamilton Newell, the first member appointed to the Main Roads Board and the first Commissioner for Main Roads, State Highway No. 17 was named Newell Highway . It is hardly a coincidence that one of the backbones of the New South Wales road network was named after a man who was, in a very real sense, basic to the foundation of the Department of Main Roads. Newell died, while in service as Commissioner for Main Roads, from heart failure on 15 March, 1941 , at the age of 63. The story of the man behind the name can be found HERE.

Construction of a road between Narrandera and West Wyalong , which would constitute the Newell Highway , was undertaken during 1941-42 as a wartime defence project. Construction made use of existing roads as far as possible, between Narrandera and Grong Grong, Ardlethan and Moonta, and for a few kilometres south of West Wyalong . Only a gravel surface was provided at this stage, although a bitumen surface had been provided for 4.5 miles through Narrandera prior to the war.

Aerial photographs for the unconstructed section of the Highway between the Oxley Highway , 5km north of Coonabarabran and West Narrabri , were obtained in conjunction with the Forestry Commission, which had already arranged for aerial photographs of the State Forests in the Pilliga Scrub area. The photography was completed in May 1939 and possible alternatives routes were established. These were then investigated on the ground, a line selected and then a reconnaissance survey of the selected line was made. The final survey was commenced in 1940 but, owing to wartime delays, it wasn’t until August 1946 that it was completed.

The route adopted for the new road between Coonabarabran and Narrabri leaves the Oxley Highway about 5km east of Coonabarabran, proceeds generally north to north-easterly, crossing the extremity of the Warrumbungle Range between 4 miles and 12 miles from Coonabarabran and thence passing through Pilliga State Forest . At 13 miles south of Narrabri it crosses a dog-proof fence on the northern boundary of the Pilliga East State Forest . The route then passes through the settlement of Bohena and, at 6 miles from West Narrabri , joins an existing road formation constructed by Namoi Shire Council. A hard clay or rock subsoil is frequently found at about 2 feet depth, making the country difficult for construction purposes in wet weather, as water collects in pockets on the impervious subsoil. In the flat areas towards Narrabri, catchment areas could not be readily identified, and it was decided to place pipe culverts where it seemed necessary during construction. Where channels were found to be well defined, culverts have since been built, but in a number of cases installation has been delayed until there is experience of the effects of heavy rain.2

Actual road construction was commenced in July 1946, beginning at the Oxley Highway junction and working northwards. At Bohena Creek, a major watercourse which drains an area of approximately 750 square miles, it was decided to construct a causeway rather than a bridge, which would be between 400 and 500 feet in length, and not warranted at this stage of construction. It was also decided that the fine sandy loam would be used as a wearing course, due to scarcity of gravels in the region, which would be suitable for the light traffic that was predicted to use the road. Work was completed in September 1949.

Also during the post-war period, extensive surveys of the highway route was undertaken in order to locate a permanent alignment that would stand the test of time. On 26 September 1945 the Newell Highway was re-routed to the eastern side of the highway between Gillenbah and Morundah, as this route traversed higher ground and thus improved flood immunity. On 18 January 1952, a permanent route was finally gazetted for the Newell Highway between Narrandera and Wyalong, the selected line using parts of existing roads between Narrandera and Grong Grong, Ardlethan and near Ariah Park and just south of West Wyalong.

During the 1950s the Department of Main Roads instigated a massive reconstruction programme for the Newell Highway . Prior to 1956, a bitumen surface extended north from Tocumwal to Finley, between Forbes and Parkes, and through most other townships along the highway. The DMR commenced work at the Victorian end of the Highway and worked its way north, with work underway in 1956 including: “a length of 2.5 miles near Jerilderie, which comprises a deviation to eliminate two level crossings,”3 and construction between Jerilderie and Narrandera which required deviations of the highway at 24 miles and 30 miles north of Jerilderie in order to avoid low-lying flood-prone areas. “The first of the deviations extends for approximately 4 miles in the vicinity of the Bundure railway siding and has been completed. The second deviation commences near the township of Coonong and extends for about 3.75 miles towards Narrandera.”4

During 1958-59 the Highway was reconstructed and sealed to a width of 18 feet. However, in 1961 the decision was made to increase the pavement width from 18 feet to 22 feet to provide for the needs of increasing traffic, and provide shoulders six feet wide (i.e. a formation width of 34 feet). Thus, the old bitumen length between Tocumwal and Finley was widened and strengthened during 1966.

Reconstruction north of Jerilderie was undertaken during 1960-62. A pavement width of 20 feet was provided as far as 24.6 miles north of Jerilderie, followed by a 22 feet wide pavement thereafter. From 43.8 miles to 48.8 miles north of Jerilderie a 5 mile deviation, known as the Morundah Deviation, was constructed, providing a much improved alignment as well as eliminating a rail level crossing. The remainder of the work through to Narrandera was fairly straight forward, except where the highway crosses the flood plains of Poisoned Waterholes Creek and Gillenbah Creek. Concrete causeways form the creek crossings at these locations.

Between Narrandera and Grong Grong the Highway was sealed to a width of 18 feet during 1956-58. Reconstruction north of Grong Grong to Ardlethan, where a bitumen surface existed north to West Wyalong , was commenced in 1963 and was completed by late 1966, except for a 5.6 mile deviation in Ardlethan which was completed by 1970.

Construction of the Brocklehurst Deviation north of Dubbo, where an alignment including a new steel truss bridge over the Talbragar River eliminated two rail level crossings and a flood-prone section of highway, completed the sealing of the highway between Dubbo and Gilgandra in March 1966. Between Gilgandra and Coonabarabran a bitumen surface had existed for a number of years.

Prior to 1962, the section of Newell Highway between Coonabarabran and Narrabri, which had been constructed in the late 1940s by the DMR to an unsealed state, was maintained by Coonabarabran and Namoi Shire Councils. The sandy loam pavement was prone to produce dusty and corrugated pavement conditions during dry periods, and was no longer suitable for traffic volumes that had risen from 20 vehicles per day in 1949 to over 500 vehicles per day in 1972.5 Survey and design work for the reconstruction of this section was commenced in 1962 and actual construction commenced in 1963. High standards for alignment and grading were set over fairly easy terrain, with a 6.7m (22ft) pavement on a 10.4 (34ft) formation. By January 1972 the bitumen sealing, which had commenced at 4.5km south of Narrabri, had been completed to the primed stage. The final seal, laid in December 1972, completed the sealing of the highway across much of the state – only a 28.5 mile section south of Boggabilla remained. The work also included bridging the last unbridged streams, including Bohena Creek, and the strengthening of timber bridges at Station and Tunmallallie Creeks.

Prior to 1959 the Newell Highway north of Narrabri was carried out by Namoi and Boolooroo Shire Councils. At this time the surface consisted largely of black soil strengthened with river gravel to provide a running course. A short section of bitumen through Edgeroi had been constructed by Namoi Shire Council a few years earlier.

Early in 1959 the DMR considered that an expedited reconstruction and improvement programme for the Newell Highway was desirable and survey and design work was commenced immediately. Construction work was commenced in September 1959, being progressively completed northwards from Narrabri in five basic sections. Problems included coping with floodwaters in creeks fed from the Nandewar Ranges , east of the Highway. The Department of Railways provided a new railway overpass about 1km north of Bellata on a 2 mile deviation. Boolooroo Shire Council had provided a bitumen surface on the highway for 5 miles south of Moree – this was widened to 22 feet as part of the reconstruction. The formation was constructed of black soil, 6 inches above the highest known flood level – except for a lengthy floodway on the northern end of Courallie Creek. A dustless surface had been provided between Narrabri and Moree by the end of 1964.

North of Moree, unfavourable conditions for road construction were encountered across the black soil plains. Cement stabilised and lime stabilised base sections were trialed, but due to a scarcity of good roadmaking materials gravel needed to be brought in from up to 45km away. Sealing of this section marked the completion of the reconstruction and sealing of the Newell Highway and the culmination of a fourteen year, multi-million dollar improvement programme. The highway was officially ‘opened’ on 3 September 1973 .

Bridge construction was also a major part of the improvement programme and the most notable was a 470ft long prestressed concrete structure over Lake Forbes . The new bridge has a clearance of four feet above the highest known flood level and involved realignment of the highway from Lachlan St, Forrester St, Show St and Marsden Rd to Court St, Sherriff St and an a new link between Junction St and Marsden Rd. The bridge replaced a narrow timber structure only 18 feet wide at the southern end of Lachlan St , built in 1918, and was opened to traffic on 20 April 1970 . Another notable structure was built across Narrabri Creek, an anabranch carrying the flood overflow of the Namoi River at Narrabri, opening to traffic on 16 September 1977 . Previously, Narrabri Creek and Narrabri Rivulet were bridged by separate structures, the first a timber truss bridge built in 1911 and the latter by a reinforced concrete arch bridge built in 1937. After almost 65 years of withstanding severe flood conditions and ever increasing highway traffic it was evident that the very old timber structure was reaching the end of its useful life. The decision was made to replace the timber structure and, to allow for this operation, highway traffic was diverted via a new low-level bridge constructed on Violet Street . Being a low-level bridge, it was susceptible to flooding and was inundated five times during the two-year construction period.6 During these times, the only access between the three sections of Narrabri township was via a small, infrequently running passenger train which crossed Narrabri Creek at the southeast edge of town.7 The old bridges over Narrabri Creek and Rivulet were separated by an earth embankment, and Namoi Shire Council requested that it be removed, reducing the water height in time of flood. Thus, after investigations into the results of recent floods, it was decided to extend the new bridge across the embankment, by way of a common concrete abutment, meaning effectively there is one long, flood-free bridge spanning the creek and rivulet. The existing arch bridge was widened to match the 8.6m width of the new bridge and the highway was widened at its junction with Tibbareena Street to provide safer conditions for traffic entering and exiting the town centre.

Four major bridge structures were also constructed during the 1980s, two of them eliminating rail level crossings. In February 1982 a major high-level bridge over the Murrumbidgee River at Narrandera was opened to traffic, replacing a timber bridge constructed in 1920. Built in conjunction with this main bridge, three other high-level structures improved the alignment and flood immunity across the Murrumbidgee and its flood plain.

At Narrabri the Mulgate Deviation eliminated a rail level crossing and realigned the Newell Highway through the centre of town in May 1984. Another notorious level crossing near Narrandera Railway Station was eliminated in July 1988 with the opening of a new road-over-rail bridge. Meanwhile, a new high-level bridge over the

In December 1987 the Department of Main Roads completed a new road crossing of the Murray River at Tocumwal. The old timber bridge, which had been in service for 102 years, was located adjacent to the wooden railway bridge and the Highway took a circuitous route through town via Bridge, Finley and Murray Streets. The new bridge is located about 100m upstream from the old bridge, allowing the Newell Highway to bypass the town centre via an upgraded Dean St .

At the other end of the state, a wooden truss bridge carried heavy interstate traffic over the MacIntyre River between New South Wales and Queensland . The bridge had been in service since 1914 and was on a poorly aligned, flood-prone alignment. In conjunction with Queensland Main Roads Department (QMR), the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) commenced in 1990 construction of a 2km deviation including two new bridges over the MacIntyre River and flood plain. On the Queensland side of the river, QMR improved an existing local road skirting the northern edge of the Goondiwindi urban area and constructed a new road along the eastern edge of town to link the new river crossing with the Cunningham and Leichhardt Highways. The Goondiwindi Bypass and bridge over the MacIntyre River was completed in October 1992.

Meanwhile, construction was also in progress further south. Between 2 and 13km south of Coonabarabran the highway was completely reconstructed, including the provision of two climbing lanes on the ascent of a spur of the Warrumbungle Range – completed in October 1991. At West Narrabri a short deviation involved the elimination of two railway crossings on the Newell Highway , and one on the Kamilaroi Highway , through the provision of a new railway crossing on an improved alignment. This work was completed in December 1992 and was the last major work completed on the Newell Highway with state funds.

In November 1992 the Newell Highway was declared part of the new Brisbane-Melbourne link of the National Highway , under the Australian Land Transport Development Act 1988 . This meant that all future works on the Newell Highway , including maintenance, would be funded 100% by the Federal Government. Following on from this recognition as a through route, the Newell Highway was redeclared to be continuous from Tocumwal to Goondiwindi. Previously, State Highway No. 17 was discontinuous, breaking where it shared pavement with the Sturt, Mid Western, Mitchell, Oxley and Gwydir Highways. For funding and administrative purposes it was logical that it be redeclared to form one continuous highway and this change was published in the Government Gazette of 15 January 1993 .

The redeclaration also coincided with the opening of the Dubbo relief route, a new four-lane route bypassing the Dubbo City centre via a new railway underpass and bridge over the Macquarie River . Connecting Erskine St and Whylandra St, this new route removed Newell Highway traffic from Darling Street and eased the burden on the city’s only river crossing – a two-lane bridge across the Macquarie River on the Mitchell Highway. Complimenting the redeclaration, the junction with the Mid Western Highway at Marsden was reconstructed to favour north-south traffic – this was completed in February 1995.

The Federal Government injected funds from November 1992 onwards towards the progressive upgrading of the highway. The Department of Main Roads, in its 1986 publication Roads 2000, recognised that bridge replacement on the Newell Highway was “vitally necessary”. The federal government also acknowledged this claim, injected a large amount of funds towards bridge widening, strengthening and replacement from the mid 1990s. It was the aim of the Federal Government to sufficiently upgrade the Highway to allow higher mass limits, and at the same time improve safety. Notable early works included bridge replacements at Forbes (Fitzgerald’s Bridge over the Lachlan River – opened in March 1995) and at Coonabarabran (Mary Jane Cain Bridge over the Castlereagh River – opened on 22 December 1996).

An audit of the Newell Highway (as part of the overall Brisbane-Melbourne Link) by the National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) in 1994 showed major deficiencies, indicating that the massive amount of work done by the Department of Main Roads between 1956 and 1973 was no longer sufficient for the traffic using the highway. One of the recommendations made by the NRMA was to increase the speed limit of the highway from 100km/h to 110km/h and, in 2002, 70% of the highway is now a 110km/h zone. Other deficiencies identified include a lack of safe overtaking opportunities (as at March 2003 no overtaking lanes exist between Tocumwal and Jerilderie or north of Narrabri). The Gilgandra-Narrabri section was also singled by the NRMA, being the section with the highest crash rate, attributing this to it having “the highest proportion of no overtaking lanes; the highest number and density of signposted curves; the lowest proportion of wide shoulders; the lowest proportion of good pavement and a significant lack of acceptable ‘clear zones’.”8

Seeming to heed the results of the NRMA audit, the federal Department of Transport and Regional Services outlined its objectives for the Newell Highway, including:

  • Widening, strengthening and replacing narrow bridges
  • Increasing the number of safe overtaking opportunities
  • Improving route alignments, where necessary, and increasing flood immunity in southern New South Wales

Between 2000 and 2003 work was concentrated on improving the Highway progressively north from West Wyalong and between Peak Hill and Dubbo, with further work planned for this section. Further north, many bridges were also widened and, in some cases strengthened, between Dubbo and Moree. A $200,000 study of the Lachlan River catchment flooding was also undertaken to identify roadworks required to improve the Highway’s flood immunity in the Forbes area.

Other recently completed projects (2001-2006) are explained below:

  • Finley main street upgrade. $255,000 worth of pavement rehabilitation and strengthening over a length of 470m in Finley
  • An overtaking lane 7km north of Grong Grong
  • A new bridge over Mirrool Creek, 66km north of Narrandera, replacing a narrow structure built in 1933 – completed December 2001
  • Mirrool Creek No. 3 bridge (90km north of Narrandera) was reconstructed and widened to overcome structural deficiencies and a badly cracked deck – completed December 2001
  • Replacement of the Carragetal causeway, 25km south of Forbes – completed 2003
  • Realignment of the Newell Highway at Forbes via an extended Sherriff Street , replacing the old dog-leg alignment via Court and Lachlan Streets. The pavement on the older section of Sherriff Street was also re-laid after it had deteriorated beyond repair. The realignment was effected in 1998 and the pavement works were completed in 2003.
  • Replacement bridge over Billabong Creek, 23km north of Forbes – opened 5 May 1999
  • Realignment of the Newell Highway through Parkes via Bogan and Victoria Streets, replacing the old route of Hartigan Ave, Welcome St and Clarinda St – gazetted August 2001.
  • Improvements to flood immunity at Lampies Causeway near Peak Hill
  • Additional overtaking lanes in the Dubbo region, including two at Yarrabah (10km south of Dubbo) and four between Dubbo and Gilgandra – completed 2004
  • Replacement of the Troy Bridge over the Talbragar River at Brocklehurst. The old steel truss bridge was one of the last of its kind constructed in New South Wales , and was strengthened to take higher mass limits pending construction of a new bridge. A new $7 million bridge was opened to traffic in March 2002.
  • A new bridge over Coolbaggie Creek on a 1.7km deviation, 35km north of Dubbo, replaced a narrow bridge on a poor alignment – completed 2005.
  • Numerous other bridge replacements between Dubbo and Coonabarabran, allowing higher mass limits and removing narrow sections of the highway
  • Three new southbound overtaking lanes over the Warrumbungle Range , between 44km and 78km north of Gilgandra – completed 2005.
  • Bridge replacements at Eathers Creek and Lagoon Creek in Narrabri – expected completion late 2005.
  • Reconstruction and drainage improvements at Tycannah Creek, south of Moree, where water crossing the road regularly disrupts traffic about every six months – completed by late 2004.
  • Ardlethan Bridge . An $11 million bridge replacement at Ardlethan and realignment of the Burley Griffin Way intersection - completed February 2006

Future Improvements:

The following projects have been proposed/approved for the Newell Highway :

  • Bogan to Coobang reconstruction. $18 million has been allocated under Auslink for the reconstruction of the Newell Highway between 3.6km and 13km north of Parkes, where the existing highway has a poor roughness rating and contains dips and curves that hinder safe overtaking.
  • Trewilga realignment. $1 million has been provided in the next five years to commence this realignment of the highway, 6-9km south of Peak Hill.
  • Coonabarabran Bypass. In 1997 consultation began for the location of a bypass at Coonabarabran, where the highway forms the main street of the town. Four short-listed route options were exhibited in August 1999 and a route selection report has since been released. It is proposed that the 6.3km bypass will leave the existing highway 4km south of Coonabarabran, passing east of the golf course before crossing the Castlereagh River and rejoin the existing Newell Highway 1km west of the Oxley Highway junction. Only $1 million has been allocated to the project under Auslink, indicating construction is still a number of years away.
  • Oxley Hwy junction realignment. The existing junction, 5km northeast of Coonabarabran, does not favour Newell Highway traffic, requiring northbound vehicles to slow and turn left at a 90 degree bend on an incline. Investigations for realigning the intersection are underway but no construction timetable has been set.
  • Moree Town Centre Bypass. Investigations were commenced for a bypass of the town centre of Moree in August 1999 and seven possible alternatives were assessed. The chosen alignment is a 4.4km long deviation which includes a new bridge over the Mehi River . The bypass will utilise an upgraded, ‘Parkway’ style Gosport Street, crossing the Mehi River adjacent to the railway bridge and requires construction of a new road to the east of Moree Racecourse, rejoining the existing highway approximately 1km north of the Carnarvon Highway junction. Following a delay in gaining planning approval, construction is set to commence during 2005 with an expected completion date of late 2006.9

1. Department of Main Roads; ‘The Newell Highway Reconstruction: Tocumwal to Ardlethan and Narrabri to Moree’ in Main Roads Vol. 31 No. 3; March 1966; p.87-93
2. Department of Main Roads; ‘Coonabarabran to Narrabri Direct Road Completed: New section of Newell Highway ’ in Main Roads Vol. 15 No. 1; September 1949; p.16-19
3. Department of Main Roads; ‘Recent Improvements of some Inland State Highways’ in Main Roads Vol. 22 No. 2; December 1956; p.43-44
4. Department of Main Roads; ‘Recent Improvements of some Inland State Highways’ in Main Roads Vol. 22 No. 2; December 1956; p.43-44
5. Department of Main Roads; ‘The Newell Highway: Now a fully sealed route across the State’ in Main Roads Vol. 39 No. 2; December 1973; p.43
6. Department of Main Roads; ‘New Narrabri bridge unites a flood-torn town – The story of the creek that turned into a river’ in Main Roads Vol. 43 No. 2; December 1977; p.36
7. Department of Main Roads; ‘New Narrabri bridge unites a flood-torn town – The story of the creek that turned into a river’ in Main Roads Vol. 43 No. 2; December 1977; p.36
8. National Roads and Motorists’ Association; NRMA audit finds Newell Highway safer, faster [Online] Available from: Accessed: 21 October 2005
9. Roads and Traffic Authority; Project Progress [Online] Available from: Accessed: 21 October 2005

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