The dreams of 100 years were fulfilled for Territorians and South Australians on 17 January 2004 when the first freight train arrived at Darwin’s East Arm Port from Adelaide.
Community celebrations were held at Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine before thousands gathered at the port for official proceedings led by Prime Minister John Howard.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin said the railway has the potential to transform the Northern Territory economically and socially by linking it to Southern Australia and, through the Port of Darwin, with Asia.
“Today’s arrival in Darwin marks the end of the first leg of this historic journey and the beginning of a new transport chain for freight and passengers,” the Chief Minister said.
The first Ghan passenger train left Adelaide on Sunday 1 February 2004, and arrived in Darwin on 3 February 2004.
The inaugural journey of a freight train on the new AustralAsia Railway marked the debut of the country’s newest freight rail operator, FreightLink. The freight train was the first of an initial five services a week.
FreightLink’s Chief Executive Officer Bruce McGowan predicted that FreightLink services would be the catalyst for flourishing regional industry development, including new agriculture, mining, aquaculture and tourism ventures as well as new export markets to Australia’s north. The goal was for the railway to carry 80 per cent of existing freight between Adelaide and Darwin.
Although the railway realised the ambitions of the South Australian and Northern Territory Governments and led to a boom in bulk mineral transport, FreightLink struggled to repay its debt and in December 2010 was purchased by Genesee and Wyoming Australia, the South-Australian based rail operator that had run the railway’s rolling stock since 2004.
The purchase marked a new era for the railway’s fortunes, with GWA investing in seven new high-powered locomotives in order to improve the reliability and efficiency of the AustralAsia Railway.