Home | History | Moments In Time: Rail Travel | Building The Great Northern Railway

Building The Great Northern Railway

Commenced in 1878 as a single track narrow gauge line, the Great Northern Line as it was officially called in its early days, was always intended to travel from the southern to northern seaboards of the continent, but it was only in 2003 that the dream was realised, and even then, following a different path to the original line and on standard gauge track.

The idea of a railway from Adelaide into the far north was suggested in the 1860s when railway building in Australia was at its peak. Up until that time, Australia's outback telegraph and pastoral stations relied on camel trains to bring their supplies, no matter how isolated or far away they were. These camel trains worked the Queensland road, which later became known as the Birdsville Track, as well as the Oodnadatta and Strzelecki Tracks.

Afghan camel drivers went as far as Wyndham and Newcastle Waters to cart supplies to stations which had no other means of fast and efficient transport. Their camels plodded down the many tracks, bringing supplies on their outward journey and returning with wool or any other product. It was the Afghan cameleers who did so much to open up Central Australia. The camels brought everything -pianos, motors, furniture and supplies. The arrival of these beasts of burden was a time of high excitement. Mail, newspapers and long-awaited clothes and cosmetics orders also came this way.

The Pichi Richi Heritage Railway passes through Pichi Richi Pass

The new railway commenced at Port Augusta by the South Australian Government and headed north-east via the Pichi Richi Pass via Quorn, Hawker and Parachilna. By 1881 it had reached Beltana. Within two years it passed through Copley and reached Farina. As the line to Farina was completed, work was beginning on a southern line from Palmerston (Darwin) that was intended to join up with the southern line when they both reached Alice Springs. By 1888, Pine Creek was reached, but no further work was carried out on the extension of this line until 1926. By 1884 Hergott Springs (Marree) had become the railhead of the southern line. After some years the line was pushed further north past Callanna, Alberrie Creek, Curdimurka, Coward Springs, Strangways Springs, William Creek, Anna Creek, Box Creek, Edwards Creek, Warrina, Algebuckina and Mount Dutton until it finally reached Oodnadatta in 1891. Oodnadatta remained the railhead for the next forty years.

In an effort to advance the line and get construction going once again, in 1895 activists began singing the praises of outback Australia, stating that the interior was not all desert, but had extensive areas of good land fit for cultivation and a variety of tropical products. Despite regular attempts to speed up its progress, the laying of the line through some of Australia's most desolate and flood prone country was painfully slow. The first promise to complete the line came in the Acceptance Act of 1910, though no date given and the promise was not followed through. In 1926, the line was acquired by Commonwealth Railways, which began immediate extension of the line south from Darwin. Katherine was reached in 1926, Birdum was reached in 1929 but the line was never extended beyond a terminus at Larrimah.

Construction finally came to a halt in 1929 when the Commonwealth Government completed the section from Rumbalara to Alice Springs, but the line would never be extended to link up with the northern line. By that time, the camel and its driver had lost it economic value and became a nuisance and a pest. In 1925 the South Australian Government passed the Camel Destruction Act, giving police the right to shoot any camel found trespassing or without a registration disk. On many occasions they were just shot as vermin. In 1935 the Marree police shot 153 camels in one day.

The Oodnadatta night train

The rail service began as a limited mixed train which was given the official title of "The Oodnadatta night train". When the route was extended beyond Oodnadatta, it became known as the "limited mixed" once more. The legendary train we now know as The Ghan actually came into existence on 4th August 1929 when the first passengers arrived at Stuart (yet to be named Alice Springs). It was two and a half hours late. According to legend, The Ghan name is said to have originated in Quorn in 1923 when the Great Northern Express was dubbed The Afghan Express by railwaymen. Whether the train was named after the Afghan camel drivers or was a private staff joke at the expense of Commonwealth Railways Commissioner George Gahan, as has also been suggested, probably no one will ever know. Commissioner Gahan was on the first train to Alice Springs in early August 1929.

From 1926 the Commonwealth Railways had assumed management and maintenance of the Great Northern Railway and without its input, the line would probably have never reached Alice Springs. From the outset, the service was equally as popular with tourists as it was with outback residents travelling to and from the big city. A new set of carriages were built in Port Augusta that included nine sit-up cars, one sleeping car, a special service car, a small buffet car and five relay brake vans. The sleeping, buffet and special service cars were all elaborately decorated vehicles modelled on designs perviously used by Commonwealth Railways for their Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie standard gauge railway service.

Many of these cars are now in possession of Pichi Richi Railway. Each car has the unusual feature of having horizontally slatted outside louvres based on "Sudan Government Railway" practice which kept the hot summer sun off the window glass, but managed to obscure most of the view from the windows.

The Old Ghan Museum, Tea Rooms and Heritage Railway near Alice Springs is run by the Ghan Preservation Society. The Museum is housed in the original Macdonnell Siding buildings in Norris Bell Avenue, 8 kilometres south of Alice Springs. Every Sunday the museum operates a tourist railway journey in a train hauled by an old Ghan locomotive along 30km of the original Ghan line to Ewaninga siding. The museum displays rolling stock and steam and diesel locomotives used on the original Ghan Railway.

It was expected that the railway would assist the development of the pastoral and mining potential of the inland, but the Central Australian Railway never lived up to the many promises made, or the financial success which had been envisaged. Unfortunately, the flash floods and the extreme climate of the outback made the line anything but reliable. It was not uncommon for passengers to be marooned for several days waiting for flood waters to recede or for trackside workers to arrive to repair a section of track that had been washed away. Legend has it that the driver would then have to shoot wild animals to keep the passengers fed. In the 1970's the train was not sighted for three months and essential supplies like milk were flown in daily until it meandered through the gap one day to a community reception and breakfast in Alice Springs which astounded the passengers.

Fourteen maroon and silver painted NSU-class diesel electric locomotives were introduced in 1954 and soon replaced Commonwealth Railways' steam locomotives. A few have survived and can be seen on static display at Maree, Wishart, Steamtown at Peterborough, Adelaide River and operational at Alice Springs (Ghan Preservation Society) and the Pichi Richi Railway at Quorn.

The NT class was the second Commonwealth Railways diesel locomotive built for service on the Central and North Australia Railways, and was introduced in 1965. Most of the 13 examples of this class had been withdrawn and scrapped by the time the narrow guage Ghan line was closed in 1980. Only NT 76 has survived into preservation. It is owned and operated by Pichi Richi Railway (Quorn South Australia).

The last narrow gauge Ghan pulled out of Marree at 1:16 am on 25th November, 1980 upon completion of the new standard gauge line to Tarcoola, marking the end of an era and a significant chapter in South Australia's and the Northern Territory's railway history.

The track was offered for tender and was bought by a local businessman, Leon Samsonenko, who sliced much of the track up and sold it as polished souvenirs. The sleepers were collected and sold. Many of these are used in gardens around Alice Springs and there is a house built with railway sleepers by Samsonenko. In 1988 the Ghan Preservation Society opened a museum at the MacDonnell Siding near Alice Springs, which traces the history of the line. They also operate occasional trips to the Ewaninga Siding south of Alice Springs.

Today, apart from a few small isolated sections of rail, the original Ghan track is no more. Between 1980 and 1983 the various items of narrow gauge rolling stock remaining on the Central Australia Railway were disposed of by tender, or returned to Port Augusta for use on other Australian National systems. Much of it has survived and is on display in various museums around Australia, the largest assembly of rolling stock being held by the Pichi Richi Railway.

The New Standard Gauge Ghan Railway

In the 1950s, a decision was thus made to rebuild the entire line with a straighter alignment some 150 km east of the existing track, this time using standard gauge. In 1957, the line from Stirling North (near Port Augusta) to Marree was rebuilt along this new alignment and connected to Adelaide. Some sections of the narrow gauge track that was bypassed by this new section of line remains in operation as the Pichi Richi Railway. New track was laid from Tarcoola to Alice Springs in 1980 and in July 2001, construction of a new standard gauge line between Alice Springs and Darwin commenced. Darwin was reached on 17th September 2003, completing the new standard gauge line from Adelaide to Darwin. Four months later, the first cargo train to use the line reached Darwin.

The first Ghan to arrive in Darwin, 3rd February 2004. Photo: Northern Territory Government

More than 300 passengers travelled aboard the new standard gauge Ghan passenger train when it began its first journey from Adelaide's Keswick Station to Darwin on 1st February 2004. The train consisted of two locomotives pulling 43 carriages, all extending for more than a kilometre, and weighing more than 2,000 tonnes. Promoted as one of the world's great train journeys, and rightly so, The Ghan these days makes only four stops on its way to Darwin. Though it takes a different path to the original Ghan, the new train still passes through some of the harshest country on earth on its 47 hour, 2979km journey between Darwin Adelaide.

The Ghan
The Ghan and the Indian Pacific are Australia's two iconic long distance railways, famous as much as anything because they cross the vast continent from one side to the other. Whereas the Indian Pacific travels from east to west, The Ghan travels north to south, providing a rail link between Darwin and Adelaide via Alice Springs. The Ghan is a great way to see Australia's Red centre - you get a real feel for the scale of the Australian outback, which you simply don't on an aeroplane. The journey is ideally split into two 24-hour sectors with a stop-over in Alice Springs.
  • More

  • Algebuckina bridge

    Following The Original Ghan Line
    It is possible to follow the path of the old Ghan train along what is known as the Old Ghan Railway Heritage Trail, but a 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended. It does get travelled in sedans but needs the utmost care. It is best test travelled from April to September and takes a week or more. The drive begins at Port Augusta, South Australia, and finishes at Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Length: 1,050 km. The Oodnadatta Track follows closely a similar route as the Old Ghan Railway and is often used to follow the path taken by the old line through South Australia.

    Curdimurka Siding

    The route is an adventure of historical interest with railway sidings, stone railway buildings, track remnants, bridges and railway infrastructure. The route was also followed by the Overland Telegraph in 1872 and that linked Australia with the rest of the world for the first time with telegraph communication under the sea. Telegraph Repeater Station ruins and settlements are also on route. One of the main reasons the route evolved is it also follows the natural artesian springs that surface from the Great Artesian Basin, so providing water at regular intervals. You can visit the Bubbler and Blanches Cup to name two.

Iconic Trains

sydney wildlife whale watching The Ghan

sydney wildlife whale watching Indian Pacific

sydney wildlife whale watching Spirit of Queensland

sydney wildlife whale watching Sydney-Melbourne XPT

sydney wildlife whale watching Savannahlander

sydney wildlife whale watching Spirit of The Outback

sydney wildlife whale watching Kuranda Railway

sydney wildlife whale watching The Gulflander

Content © 2020 Stephen Yarrow | Email us