The AustralAsia Railway was a nation-building project designed to provide critical transport infrastructure that was the last piece in a national rail network.
Envisaged when South Australians first settled the tropical north, promised when the Australian Government took control of the Northern Territory and South Australia in 2011, missed during World War Two when soldiers had to travel between Alice Springs and the Larrimah railhead by bumpy dirt road, pursued as an “Act of Faith” by Chief Minister Paul Everingham after the Territory achieved Self-Government in 1978 and, finally, delivered in 2004, the north-south railway was an enduring dream for decades.
Railways opened up the Australian continent, linking coastal cities and their hinterlands, bringing wheat and wool to port and helping settlers move inland during the glory days of Australia’s pioneer settlers.
After the first sod was turned in Port August in 1878, the transcontinental link crept slowly north to Oodnadatta in 1891 and Alice Springs by 1929. In 1980, a new standard gauge line opened between Tarcoola and Alice Springs.
The line moved south from Darwin at an equally glacial pace, its commercial survival not sustained by the small tropical outpost on the Arafura Sea. Started in 1888, the Northern line got as far as Pine Creek in in 1929, relied on a great engineering feat to cross the Katherine River in 1926 and finally paused at Birdum in 1929 – where there was nothing to see but the end of the line.
In 1976, declining trade, punishment meted out to the line’s infrastructure by Cyclone Tracy and damage from a runaway ore train saw the Northern Line closed completely. It was 28 years before Darwin residents saw another train.