William Alfred Webb
Starting as a messenger-boy in 1890, William Alfred Webb worked in increasingly senior roles in the US railroad industry until 1922, when he went to South Australia. For the next seven years he led a bold transformation of the state's railway system. In 1930 he returned to the US, and from 1933 until his death he established and oversaw the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936.
|Died||9 August 1936 (aged 58)|
|Known for||Railroad administration; in particular, revolutionising the South Australian Railways in the 1920s|
William Alfred Webb (1878-1936) was an American railroad executive who gained wide experience within US railroads and served in the management of nationwide railroad operations during World War 1 before being appointed Commissioner of the South Australian Railways from 1922 to 1930. In this role he undertook a significant rehabilitation program, lifting the state railways from an inefficient and technologically backward system to a pre-eminent position in Australia. On returning to the US he achieved elected office in Dallas before leading the preparations for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. He died in office two months after the exposition opened.
At the age of 12, Webb began as a messenger boy on the Colorado Midland Railway. He rose from traffic clerk to telegraphist, studied shorthand at night school and became stenographer to the general manager. Appointed secretary to the president of the Colorado and Southern Railway in 1900, Webb was assistant to its vice-president by 1911. He became general manager of the Texas Central Railroad and in 1914 general manager, operations, of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. When the United States entered the World War he was called by the United States Railroad Administration to Washington. His wide experience in the private enterprise American railroads had given him a practical grounding in every aspect of rail management. Webb resigned from the United States Railroad Administration in 1920 to become Vice President and General Manager of the St Louis Southwest system until May 1921. This was then followed by a brief period in 1922 as the elected President of the Cambria and Indiana Railroad, which he left due to tensions with the new owner of the railroad.
Webb was one of dozens of candidates who responded to an international call by the South Australian government for a Commissioner to manage its South Australian Railways in 1922. By this time the railways had decayed to the point of imminent total collapse. In 1922, when he started his controversial appointment in Adelaide, Webb considered that by applying business operating principles he would be able to get the South Australian Railways on a footing where they would give a minimum return of 6 per cent on the investment. He did not, however, reckon on the impacts of the Great Depression and the growth of ownership of motor cars; nor was he at the time fully aware of what a millstone were the hundreds of miles of developmental lines with their unpredictable seasonal agricultural traffic. 
Webb concentrated on reducing gross ton miles and augmented net ton miles by increasing full carload lots. He introduced large freight cars and locomotives, heavy track, stronger bridges and efficient practices. His most important changes to working methods occurred in 1924-26: the train control organization was introduced in 1924, high-capacity bogie freight cars in 1925, and large-power locomotives in 1926. Webb's dramatic railway rehabilitation left few aspects untouched by forced technological change and innovation. He rehabilitated the South Australian Railways so well that for twenty-five years they were a paragon among Australian railways.
Webb was noted for his abilities to enthuse his staff, particularly his senior officers, so that the whole system was imbued with the spirit to serve, to persevere and to deliver the goods. People responded to him and he put his absolute trust in them, and were rarely let down. His attitudes were underpinned by respect for people's dignity, as he revealed in a bulletin about service to the public soon after he took up his post. He was also noted for his extraordinary work ethic. Webb's expertise was recognised elsewhere in Australia. In 1924, for example, he spent two weeks in Tasmania advising the Tasmanian Government on its railway problems.
After Webb's departure in May 1930, his administrative reforms were dismantled and the old hierarchy was reinstated, although the South Australian Railways were in a better position than most to meet the huge logistical demands of World War 2. But despite notable post-war innovations in freight and passenger rolling stock, locomotive and railcar engineering, the South Australian Railways otherwise underwent a slow run-down because the state government (not alone in this respect) was unwilling to evolve a rational transportation policy and implement it within reasonable boundaries of the state's fiscal capacity. In 1973, the South Australian Government took up an offer by the newly elected Australian federal government to hand over its railway system, and implemented the transfer two years later.[note 1]
On returning to Dallas, Webb, now very well off financially, served as a member of the city council and did a lot of work for charities. In 1935 he became purchasing agent, then general manager leading preparations for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. He worked up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week in the job, and his health deteriorated badly.
He died of an intracranial haemorrhage on 9 August 1936, two months after the exposition opened. He had been approached to become manager of the projected 1939 World's Fair, New York. His death was widely mourned in Dallas and he received a state funeral.