It took 120 years to deliver and for decades it was the subject of ridicule, broken promises and dashed dreams. For true believers, however, the idea of a transcontinental railway linking the north and south of Australia was always a nation-building project that would open up isolated areas for development, take freight across the remotest part of Australia to link seaboard capitals with Asian ports and bring avid train travellers to wonder at the spectacle of Outback Australia passing by their windows.
The South Australian and Northern Territory Governments, in particular, never wavered in their belief in the logic of a railway that could act as Australia’s Asian Gateway to the billions of consumers in nearby Asian cities.
The grand transcontinental railway started in Port Augusta in 1878 and reached Alice Springs in 1929. A northern line that crept south from the Port of Darwin was abandoned in 1976. It wasn’t until 2001 that the final 1420 kilometres of standard gauge line between Alice Springs and Darwin was begun.
So when the first freight train crossed the continent from south to north and slid across the causeway into Darwin’s new East Arm Port on January 2004, five months ahead of a gruelling construction schedule, it was both a vindication and celebration of the fulfilment of a long-held dream.
A month later, a kilometre long Ghan passenger service snaked its way along the same track, across the new Elizabeth River Bridge, to a rapturous welcome by Territorians.
In its first year of operation the line carried 600,000 tonnes of domestic freight and 20,000 tonnes of international cargo.
The Australian Defence Force was quick to take advantage of the railway’s potential to move heavy equipment such as tanks between southern and northern Australia.
The freight task grew quickly as new mines opened along the rail corridor, with bulk minerals increasing from 45,000 tonnes in 2006 to 3.3 million tonnes a year in 2011.
Substantial increases in freight to South Australian and Northern Territory ports are predicted as the transport infrastructure makes new mines economic, including the Olympic Dam expansion in South Australia.
Other infrastructure followed, such as a common user terminal and business park near Darwin’s East Arm Port and a rapid expansion of logistics businesses on the back of the railway.
Initially operated by FreightLink and the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium, the AustralAsia Railway is run by leading rail operator Genesee and Wyoming under a concession deed with the AustralAsia Railway Corporation.