History of the Railway

On 17 July 2001 two significant events happened in Central Australia, both of them attracting international media attention. 

In the first, Prime Minister John Howard was joined by South Australian Premier John Olsen, Northern Territory Chief Minister Denis Burke and the CEO of the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium Franco Moretti to turn the first sod of a new railway.

Many of the guests heading to this momentous event failed to arrive on time, due to police closing the Stuart Highway into Alice Springs to search for an armed man believed to have shot dead English tourist Peter Falconio and abducted his girlfriend Joanne Lees.

One event led to a celebrated court case.  The other changed the fortunes of the Territory in a far more positive way.

For more than 100 years, a yawning gap in the nation’s rail infrastructure had impeded progress in the Northern Territory, Chief Minister Burke said.

The strategic importance of closing this transport gap had prompted the Australian Government to kick in $165 million from its Federation Fund, with the Northern Territory contributing $165 million and South Australia $150 million to encourage investors to build the $1.3 billion, 1420 kilometre line between Alice Springs and Darwin.

Central to the colourful front page photographs generated by the 17 July ceremony was a nickel-plated shovel, a shovel that symbolised both the faith of the three governments in the new railway and the time it had taken to materialise.

Borrowed from the Australian Museum, the shovel was first used in 1878 by South Australian Governor Sir William Jervois to turn the first sod of the Port Augusta to Government Gums section of a new ‘transcontinental line’ to the north.  The Governor’s speech envisaged the line going through the desert to Port Darwin and on to link with Java, Siam and China and “who could tell the full benefits which would accrue from connecting all these colonies with the iron band of a railway”.

The little shovel saw service again in 1912 at the start of the transcontinental line to Kalgoorlie then in 1927 when Commissioner of Roads and Railways, Lionel Hill, turned the first sod at Oodnadatta for the last leg of a line that would reach Alice Springs in 1929. 

Observer Horrie Simpson, in her book “Horrie Simpson’s Oodnadatta” says: “All the men who made the speeches spoke of the great advantages the railway would bring to Central Australia, especially the cattle owners and the mail service.”

The nickel-plated shovel’s fourth use came in April 1975 when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam turned the first sod of a new standard gauge line to Alice Springs that by 1980 was to replace the worn-out, flood-prone old standard gauge line through Finke.  A blast of dynamite marked the start of a 830 kilometre line designed to provide a more reliable, all-weather service to Alice Springs.

It was this Tarcoola to Alice Springs stretch of rail that would ultimately link with the new 1420 kilometre Alice Springs to Darwin line to become the AustralAsia Railway.

So, by 2001, Territorians had been waiting a very, very long time – 140 years in fact – for construction to start.

For two centuries, Australia had relied on railways to link coastal cities and their hinterlands and on ships to move freight around the continent’s vast coastline. 

From its early settlement in 1869 the town of Palmerston, later renamed Darwin, was entirely dependent on three-month journeys by ship to bring new settlers and supplies from southern ports, often with great loss of life when ships were lost to storms.

The first suggestion of a transcontinental line between Adelaide and the tropical north came from Melbourne businessman J. Robertson in 1858, four years before land speculators financed John McDouall Stuart’s trip across the continent and 11 years before Palmerston was settled.

In 1876, the South Australian Government, which then administered the Northern Territory, reached deep into its coffers to authorise a railway line from Port Augusta to Government Gums.  This was four years after completion of the Overland Telegraph Line, so the Government was broke.

The Southern Line reached Oodnadatta in 1891 which remained the railhead until the line reached Alice Springs in 1929, opening up Central Australia and replacing camel trains and horses to move both people and freight.

Meanwhile, in 1883 the South Australian Government introduced the Palmerston and Pine Creek Railway Bill to start the Northern Line that it envisaged would soon join up with the line slowly edging up the map from the southern coast.

Thousands of Chinese and Indian workers did most of the back-breaking work for the Northern Line.  Once it reached Pine Creek in 1889, this line opened up the interior and replaced Charles Haimes’ weekly passenger and mail coach from Southport (at the bottom of what is now Middle Arm).

The Northern Line was built primarily to take freight but rarely made a profit.  The Pine Creek gold rush died, cattle were not thriving and the Wet season caused constant derailments as embankments washed away, termites ate the wooden sleepers and the Territory’s population declined.

In 1911, the Commonwealth took over administration of the Northern Territory, promising to complete the railway between Adelaide and Darwin.

Work continued sporadically.  After the First World War, the line was extended to Emungalen, on the banks of the Katherine River, so Vestey’s could get cattle to its Darwin meatworks.

The last sections of this line pioneered the use of tractors and early earth-moving equipment.  The pressed steel sleepers were the first of their type in Australia.

Between 1924 and 1926, a bridge was built over the Katherine River, largely to relieve unemployment.  This 213-metre bridge took a year to build and was used during floods for all Katherine-bound traffic until a new high-level bridge was built in 1976.

The railway bridge saw Emungalen close and the growth of Katherine on the new site across the river.

The line was meant to continue on to Daly Waters but when funds ran out in the Depression, it terminated at Birdum, 509 kilometres from Darwin.  There was nothing at Birdum – except a buffer to indicate the end of the line.

The issue of the unfinished line became topical during World War Two when Darwin was used as a strategic defence post, shipping became dangerous, and the only way to move troops across the continent was a long and uncomfortable trip by land.  However, this led to the sealing of the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Darwin, rather than a new railway.

By 1976, the Northern Line was in poor condition and making little money.  Its death knell was sounded  by damage from Cyclone Tracy in 1974, the crash of a Frances Creek ore train in 1972 and declining ore sales.  National Australian Rail, which had operated the Northern Line, became a freight agency for road trains.  Redundant staff were given priority for other jobs in the public service, including work as prison guards.

In 1978 the Northern Territory achieved Self-Government and the campaign began in earnest to get the Australian Government to honour its 1911 promise to build the line.

Chief Minister Paul Everingham complained bitterly of ‘the missing link’, saying: “We see it as the greatest single need in the evolution of the Northern Territory.  We see it as fundamental to the continued growth and development of the Northern Territory and to a great extent to continued progress of Australia as a whole.”

The Northern Territory Government developed a “National Act of Faith” slogan, gave a 1988 deadline and even held a ‘name the train’ competition.

In 1983, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced that the rail would be built by 1988.  Chief Minister Everingham sent him a crate of champagne, prematurely as it turned out as Fraser lost the 1983 election and the new Hawke Government said the size of the deficit ruled out a railway.

David Hill, then Chief Executive of NSW Rail, conducted a study on the costs and benefits of completing the line by 1992.  He concluded that the investment could not be justified and ‘would constitute a major misallocation of the nation’s resources’.

In 1994 the Wran Committee on Darwin determined that a railway would be viable by the turn of the century.

In 1995 the South Australian and Northern Territory Governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding and in 1997 the two governments established the AustralAsia Railway Corporation to call for tenders to build the new railway.

In 1999, the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium was selected as the preferred bidder to build, own and operate the railway for a 50-year concession period.  After extensive contractual negotiations, a deal was reached between the consortium and the railway corporation.

Finally, on 17 July 2001, 90 years after it was promised by the Commonwealth, construction of the final 1420 kilometres of the transcontinental railway began.