Adelaide to Darwin railway

Year:2004

Duration:126 years

Cost:Unknown

Country: Adelaide & Darwin, Australia

What did this project achieve?

Build a transcontinental railway that links the south and north coasts of Australia

The Adelaide to Darwin railway is a 2,979km south-north transcontinental railway in Australia that runs between the cities of Adelaide and Darwin.

Construction of the link started in 1878 and continued in stages into the 20th century. The railway was finally completed in 2004 with the opening of the 1,420km section from Alice Springs to Darwin.

The scheme was dogged by a series of financial and political difficulties over its 126 year history.

The idea for a transcontinental link first came from Melbourne businessman J Robertson in 1858. It was 20 years before Sir William Jervois, governor of south Australia, used a ceremonial shovel to turn the first sod of what was intended to be a new ‘transcontinental line’ to the north.

The line reached the small town of Oodnadatta in southern Australia by 1911. The railhead stayed there until 1929 when it was extended to Alice Springs.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that political momentum built to finish the railway – and another 20 years before work started on the final part of the line, from Alice Springs to Darwin.

The first train ran on the new section in January 2004. It now takes 54 hours for the Ghan – the line’s passenger service – to travel the full length of the 2,979 km rail link, including a 4 hour stopover in Alice Springs.

The railway is now regarded as a milestone in the economic and social history of Australia.

Difference the railway has made

The railway opened the centre of Australia to passenger and freight traffic, generating income and boosting local economies along the length of the line.

The link has also provided an export route to Asia for the mineral wealth of Australia via the port of Darwin.

The Ghan service has encouraged tourism across Australia, bringing revenue to areas that were previously off the tourist map.

How the work was done

Building the earlier sections of the Adelaide to Darwin railway presented considerable challenges for engineers.

Not only was the Australian interior inhospitable but before the line was built supplies had to be carried across the centre of the country by camel train and horses.

Many of the early sections were built by Chinese and Indian immigrants working in often high temperatures. Later sections saw pioneering use of tractors and earth-moving equipment.

Engineers working on the railway used pressed steel sleepers for the track – the first of their type in Australia.

The final Alice Springs to Darwin stretch of the railway saw engineers build the new Elizabeth river bridge south of Darwin.

Other challenges included laying stretches of track designed to withstand melting desert heat.

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Who could tell the full benefits which would accrue from connecting all these colonies with the iron band of a railway.

Sir William Jervois

Governor of South Australia, speaking at a ceremony to start construction of the line in 1878

Fascinating facts

There are 2 passenger services a week on the railway. More than 500,000 people have travelled on the line since the final section was finished.

Six general freight trains run every week between Adelaide and Darwin – with a further 24 trains a week from mining sidings to ports in the 2 cities.

More than 10m tonnes of minerals and other freight have been carried on the railway since the final section opened in 2004.

People who made it happen

  • Original idea: Melbourne businessman J Roberts
  • Client for Alice Springs to Darwin line: AustralAsia Railway Corporation
  • Alice Springs to Darwin line built by the Asia Pacific Transport Corporation

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