Adelaide–Darwin railway line

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Tarcoola–Darwin railway line
Port Darwin - East Arm Wharf
Darwin Berrimah Terminal
Darwin Intermodal
-- Darwin to Katherine --
Elizabeth River
Darwin River
Finniss River
Adelaide River West Branch - 1
Adelaide River West Branch - 2
Union Reef Loop (iron ore)
Edith River
Katherine River
-- Katherine to Alice Springs --
Katherine sidings
King River
Newcastle Waters
Tennant Creek
Opened 2004
Opened 1980
Alice Springs yard
Alice Springs
Alice Springs (CAR)
-- Alice Springs to border --
Bohning Cattle Yards / Roe Creek loop
Mereenie siding & triangle
Hugh River
Hugh River loop, siding & spur
Finke River (Larapinta)
Impadna loop, siding & spur
Kulgera yard
Kulgera loop siding & yard
-- border to Manguri --
Marryat loop & siding
Alberga River
Chandler loop siding, triangle & spurs
unnamed river
Marla loop, siding & spur
Cadney Park loop and siding
Rankin Dam
Wirrida Iron ore circle
Quarry 555 siding
Opened 1980
Existing lines
Trans-Australian Railway
Port Augusta
Adelaide-Port Augusta line
Adelaide Parklands Terminal


The Adelaide–Darwin railway line is a railway line in Australia, between the South Australian town of Tarcoola and the Northern Territory city of Darwin. Preceded by a number of other shorter railways, a line through to Darwin was fully realised in 2004 when the final link from Alice Springs to Darwin was opened. Forming the main section of the 2,975 kilometres (1,849 mi) rail corridor between the cities of Adelaide and Darwin, the line is used by The Ghan passenger train and interstate freight trains operated by Aurizon.

The Adelaide–Darwin rail corridor, completed in 2004. Construction of the first of its five constituent lines had started 87 years earlier – and its ill-fated predecessor 39 years before that.

First steps towards a transcontinental railway[edit]

Darwin's railway station, known as the Berrimah passenger terminal
The Berrimah rail maintenance depot and freight terminal, at East Arm, are 1 km before the Berrimah passenger terminal and 5 km before the extreme end of the line at East Arm wharfs
Elizabeth River Bridge, 17 km south of Darwin, built for rail and road traffic by the Alice Springs–Darwin railway project in 2003

Under the provisions of the Northern Territory Acceptance Act 1910, the Commonwealth Railways assumed responsibility for the South Australian Railways' narrow gauge lines in the far north of South Australia and the Northern Territory. The Act mandated the building of a south–north railway although, crucially, no date was specified.[2][3] Two routes were considered: a standard gauge line branching off the Trans-Australian Railway at Tarcoola or a cheaper extension, from Oodnadatta, of the narrow gauge Central Australia Railway (CAR) line that had opened in 1891. Eventually the latter was chosen, and the extension to Alice Springs was opened in 1929.[4] Meanwhile, the North Australia Railway (NAR) opened in stages south from Darwin to Birdum, the latter being reached in 1929.[5]

In the late 1940s, the South Australian Government developed the Leigh Creek coalfields, 271 km (168 mi) north of Port Augusta to provide coal for a power station in Adelaide and, later, for a new power station built at the port. The infrastructure of the CAR was inadequate for the increased tonnages to be carried, so the federal government funded a new standard gauge line from Stirling North to the coalfields (and on to Marree to provide cattle transport).[6]: 133  The northernmost two-thirds followed an alignment generally within 8 km (5 mi) of the narrow-gauge line but the southern third avoided the impediments of the mountainous section near Quorn and Hawker.[7][8] The new standard-gauge line covered one-third of the distance to Alice Springs, and a Commonwealth Railways booklet mentioned its "special importance to the Northern Territory as it is the first stage in the ultimate conversion of the narrow-gauge railway to Alice Springs to standard 4 ft 8+12 in gauge".[9]: 257 

By 1967, interest in a transcontinental route had revived again. Extension of the route then in existence was one of three options considered, but a route far to the west, largely free of flood events, was chosen.[10] Construction of the current 828 km (515 mi) kilometre line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs began in April 1975, opening in October 1980; the CAR closed shortly after.[11][12] By then, the NAR had closed (in June 1976) following the closure of the iron ore mine at Frances Creek.[5]

In January 1983, the federal government announced its intention to extend the standard gauge line from Alice Springs to Darwin to complete the Adelaide–Darwin rail corridor. It was planned to open in 1988, Australia's bicentenary year.[13][14] However, after a change of federal government in March 1983, the new government cancelled the project, and the project languished for a further 16 years.[5]


In June 1999, the AustralAsia Rail Corporation (a company owned by the Northern Territory and South Australian Governments) was awarded the contract to build and operate a 1,420 kilometre Alice Springs to Darwin line as a Build, Own, Operate and Transfer project to the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium (APTC).[5][15] The APTC contracted FreightLink to implement the project and to operate the railway. It cost $1.2 billion to build.[16]

The Federal Government contributed $165 million from the Centenary of Federation Fund, the Northern Territory Government contributed $165 million and the South Australian Government contributed $150 million to the AustralAsia Rail Corporation for the construction of assets by the APTC and FreightLink that were later leased for a peppercorn rent to FreightLink. In addition, the three governments contributed about $26 million each, a total of $79 million in further funding to support the APTC directly, by way of mezzanine debt financing (subordinated debt), equity, and contingent equity. Construction began in July 2001; completion occurred in September 2003.[5][17][18] On 17 January 2004 the first freight train reached Darwin.[19] On 4 February 2004 the first passenger train arrived in Darwin from Adelaide, travelling 2,979 km in 47 hours.[20][21]

FreightLink failed to make a profit in the first four years, and on 19 May 2008 the company announced that the board, shareholders and lenders had agreed to sell the company's ownership of the Alice Springs to Darwin line, citing its inheritance of a large amount of debt from the construction phase that it was unable to manage.[22][23][24] On 6 November 2008, Freightlink went into voluntary administration after failing to reach agreement with creditors on the terms of a sale of the business.[25] Genesee & Wyoming Australia (later acquired by Aurizon) purchased the assets of FreightLink on 10 June 2010 for $334 million, including the 50-year lease on the Tarcoola–Darwin line.[16][26]

As of 2022 the line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs is owned by the Australian Rail Track Corporation and leased until 2047 to Aurizon.[27][28] The line from Alice Springs to Darwin is owned by Aurizon until 2054, when ownership will pass to the Australian Government and the build–own–operate–and–transfer agreement will end.[29] Aurizon undertakes train control on the entire Tarcoola–Darwin line.[30][note 1]


Two experiential tourism trains operate on the line: The Ghan service operated by Journey Beyond, which traverses the whole line and through to Adelaide weekly in each direction with a scheduled duration of 53  hours 15 minutes;[31]: 108  and the company's Indian Pacific, an east–west service that runs on the southernmost 727 kilometres (452 miles) before heading west to Perth.

A freight train near Alice Springs headed for Darwin in January 2004 (click for wider view)

Aurizon is the only freight operator in the Tarcoola–Darwin section. Trains originate or terminate at intermodal terminals at Berrimah (Darwin) and Islington (Adelaide); they stop at intermodal points in Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs.[31]: 79 

The line has facilitated bulk commodity exports from iron ore and copper mines in central Australia, including Oz Minerals' Prominent Hill copper mine.[32] Following a derailment event in December 2011,[33] Oz Minerals elected to use the line to export to the south via Port Adelaide.[34]

Figures for Darwin's dry bulk exports illustrate the fickle nature of mining. In financial year 2010–11, export product delivered to Port Darwin by rail – comprising iron ore, manganese, and copper concentrate – exceeded 3 million tonnes for the first time.[35] With copper traffic ceased, the figure in 2013–14 for iron and manganese was 2.7 million tonnes. After mining of iron ore ceased in 2015–16, only manganese remained. In 2018–19, manganese exports totalled 900,000 tonnes.[36]

Since 2009 the company has hauled iron oxide / copper / gold ore mined at Prominent Hill[37][note 2] from a 1.5 km (0.9 mi) siding at Wirrida, 95 km (60 mi) west of the mine and 129 km (80 mi) from Northgate. In 2012 a new iron ore mine was opened at Peculiar Knob,[note 3] 22 km (14 mi) from Prominent Hill; until production ceased in 2015 its product was loaded at Wirrida, at a balloon loop immediately north of the Prominent Hill loading site.[38][39][40]

During 2019, a large-scale track upgrade program was started between Adelaide and Tarcoola to allow heavier freight trains to operate at higher speeds. Rails were placed during the year[note 4] and finishing works such as replacing wooden sleepers with concrete ones were scheduled for 2020.[41]


The original CAR and NAR narrow-gauge lines had many small stations and halts along their routes for pick-up and set-down of wagons and less-than-car loads, and passengers, but freight traffic has been all-through on the post-2004 standard-gauge route; stations only exist at Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin.[42] Additionally there are crossing loops, most of them 1859 m (2000 yds) long: 12 south of Alice Springs and 3 to the north.[30]


  1. ^ Train control is from Northgate block point, 6 km (3.7 mi) from Tarcoola, where the line diverges from the Trans-Australian Railway. It ends at Berrimah passenger terminal at Darwin. Northgate block point is 731 km (454 mi) from the Adelaide datum at Adelaide Parklands Terminal, near the Adelaide suburb of Keswick. Berrimah passenger terminal is 2,974 km (1,848 mi) from the Adelaide datum.
  2. ^ 29°43′38″S 135°34′01″E / 29.727286°S 135.567022°E / -29.727286; 135.567022.
  3. ^ 29°35′13″S 135°22′58″E / 29.586848°S 135.382827°E / -29.586848; 135.382827.
  4. ^ 70,000 tonnes of 60 kilograms per metre rails replaced 47 kg/m rail, increasing the axle load limit to 25 tonnes.


  1. ^ Darwin Line SA Track & Signal
  2. ^ Northern Territory Acceptance Act 1910 Federal Register of Legislation
  3. ^ Northern Territory Acceptance Act 1910 Commonwealth of Australia Consolidated Acts
  4. ^ "Australian Commonwealth Railway Developments" Railway Gazette 28 January 1927 page 116
  5. ^ a b c d e History of the railway AustralAsia Railway Corporation
  6. ^ Fitch, Ronald J. (2006). Australian Railwayman: from cadet engineer to railways commissioner. Dural, New South Wales: Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd. ISBN 1877058483.
  7. ^ Newland, Andrew; Quinlan, Howard (2000). Australian Railway Routes 1854 - 2000. Redfern: Australian Railway Historical Society. p. 67. ISBN 0-909650-49-7.
  8. ^ Port Augusta to Marree Chris's Commonwealth Railways
  9. ^ Fuller, Basil (1975). The Ghan: the story of the Alice Springs Railway. Adelaide: Rigby. ISBN 0727000160.
  10. ^ "The Senate - Alice Springs Railway". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 23 April 2017. Paid subscription required subscription: the source is only accessible via a paid subscription ("paywall").
  11. ^ "In Brief" Railway Gazette International June 1975 page 210
  12. ^ Standard Gauge to Alice Springs – Construction of Tarcoola–Alice Springs Railway Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin June 1981 pages 117–139
  13. ^ "Preliminary work starts on 1500km Alice - Darwin link" Railway Gazette International April 1981 page 262
  14. ^ "Premier launches Alice - Darwin line" Railway Gazette International March 1983 page 152
  15. ^ Darwin deal Railway Gazette International July 1999
  16. ^ a b "Taxpayer funds sought from new rail owner". The World Today. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 10 June 2010.
  17. ^ Industry unites at Australian showcase Railway Gazette International November 2003
  18. ^ "Transcontinental link is ready for business" Railway Gazette International January 2004 page 20
  19. ^ Australia's last frontier is conquered Railway Gazette International February 2004
  20. ^ "Completion of the Adelaide to Darwin railway line". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 8 December 2006.
  21. ^ First Train AustralAsia Railway Corporation
  22. ^ Calacouras, Nick (20 May 2008). "Railway up for sale". NT News. Darwin, Australia: Nationwide News Pty Limited.
  23. ^ Vesna Poljak and Michael Smith (19 May 2008). "Banks force sale of $1.2bn Adelaide-Darwin rail link". Australian Financial Review. p. 1 and 19.
  24. ^ Calacouras, Nick (20 May 2008). "Railway up for sale". Northern Territory News. News Ltd. Retrieved 20 May 2008.
  25. ^ "End of the line as train sale derailed". Northern Territory News. News Ltd. 7 November 2008. Retrieved 12 November 2008.
  26. ^ "FreightLink-owned Adelaide-Darwin railway to be sold to US company Genesee & Wyoming". The Advertiser. Adelaide. 9 June 2010. Retrieved 9 June 2010.
  27. ^ Our Network Australian Rail Track Corporation
  28. ^ Network map Archived 4 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine Genesee & Wyoming Australia
  29. ^ AustralAsia link making rapid progress Railway Gazette International 1 April 2002.
    Paid subscription required subscription: the source is only accessible via a paid subscription ("paywall").
  30. ^ a b Vincent, Graham (2020). "Darwin line" (PDF). SA Track and Signal. Retrieved 19 December 2020.
  31. ^ a b "Trainline 6 Statistical Report" (PDF). Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics. 2018. Retrieved 3 February 2021.
  32. ^ "First Prominent Hill shipment set for export". ABC News. 29 April 2009. Retrieved 30 May 2016.
  33. ^ "Train derailment copper concentrate recovered". ABC News. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  34. ^ "Oz Minerals - Intermodal Solutions Group". Intermodal Solutions Group. Retrieved 30 May 2016.
  35. ^ "Dry Bulk Exports". Darwin Port. Archived from the original on 5 November 2016. Retrieved 30 May 2016.
  36. ^ "Dry bulk". Darwin Port. Darwin Port Operations Pty Ltd. 2019. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  37. ^ First production from Prominent Hill copper-gold operation OZ Minerals ASX announcement, 26 February 2009. Accessed 12 January 2010.
  38. ^ "Monitor mining operations: South Australia". Mapbox. 2020. Retrieved 19 December 2020.
  39. ^ Vincent, Graham (2020). "Northgate-Wirrida" (PDF). SA Track and Signal. Retrieved 19 December 2020.
  40. ^ Vincent, Graham (2020). "Tarcoola" (PDF). SA Track and Signal. Retrieved 19 December 2020.
  41. ^ Powell, Jake (3 August 2020). "$252m rail upgrade contracts soon to be awarded". The flapping mouth. iSeekplant Pty Ltd. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  42. ^ "Network Operating Guide, Part 32, Tarcoola to Darwin" (PDF). Australia Southern Railroad. 2 January 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 10 June 2010.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bromby, Robin (2004). Rails to the Top End: The Adelaide-Darwin Transcontinental Railway (4th ed.). Alice Springs: Paul Fitzsimons. ISBN 9780958176019.
  • Rozycki, Jack (Jan–Mar 2003). "The Never Never Line. Australia's biggest project: the Adelaide-Darwin railway". Australian Geographic 69: 50–67.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]