North Australia Railway

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North Australia Railway
Line length 316 mi (509 km)
Track gauge 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm)
Stokes Hill Jetty
Fort Hill Boom Jetty
0 mi Darwin (Palmerston)
0.7 mi Petrol Sidings
Navy Sidings
Parap (Vestey's Sidings)
Parap Workshops (2 1/2 Mile)
RAAF Siding
Knuckey's Lagoon
Elizabeth River
29 mi Noonamah
Darwin River
Quarry Sidings
Darwin River
Rum Jungle
58 Mile Camp
Ballast Sidings
Stapleton Creek
Snake Creek Depot
Adelaide River North
Adelaide River
77 mi Adelaide River
88 Mile
Bridge Creek
Brocks Creek
Fountain Head
112 Mile
Grove Hill
Spring Hill
Lady Alice Camp
Union Reefs
Frances Creek
146 mi Pine Creek
Cullen River
Fergusson River
Horseshoe Creek
Edith River
Edith River
191 Mile Camp
Katherine River
Evacuated Workshops
201 mi Katherine
Katherine Workshops
Katherine South
Petrol Sidings
316 mi Birdum

The North Australia Railway (NAR), also known as the Palmerston to Pine Creek railway, was a 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge railway which ran from Darwin, once known as Palmerston, to Birdum, just south of Larrimah.


One of the only remains of the railway in Darwin is of an old platform in the suburb of Winnellie
Map of North Australia Railway in 1936
Disused NAR bridge crossing the Katherine River, now converted to a footbridge
0-6-0 Shunter
2-6-0 Main Line

In the nineteenth century the Northern Territory was administered by the Government of South Australia. The John Cox Bray Government introduced the Palmerston and Pine Creek Railway Bill in 1883. The £959,300 contract was awarded to C&E Millar of Melbourne on the proviso that they could use coolie labour. The line reached Pine Creek in 1888 and officially opened on 30 September 1889.[1] Singhalese and Indian gangs did the grubbing and earthwork and 3,000 Chinese labourers laid over one kilometre of track per day. A total of 310 bridges and flood openings were built.

Commonwealth takeover[edit]

The Commonwealth Government took control in 1911, having promised to complete the railway from Adelaide to Darwin but without setting a time frame for so doing.

The line was extended to near Katherine in 1917. A further extension saw the line reach Birdum in 1929.

In 1930 a mixed train, called Leaping Lena[2] ran to an established timetable.

  • Depart Darwin at 08:00. on Wednesdays
  • Arrive at Pine Creek at 16:46
  • Depart Pine Creek 08:00 on Thursdays
  • Arrive at Katherine 11:00 on Fridays
  • Depart Katherine 12:00 Fridays
  • Arrive at Birdum 17:51 Fridays

During World War II Larrimah, nine kilometres north of Birdum, became the effective railhead as it was on the Stuart Highway, unlike Birdum. The 100 metre bridge across Birdum Creek is still present. There were locomotive turning triangles at both locations. The busiest time for the railway was during World War II. As many as 247 trains ran per week in 1944.

Proposed extensions[edit]

A railway line from Alice Springs to Darwin had been discussed and promised by politicians for many years.

A railway between Alice Springs and Birdum was proposed as early as 1918, before the two lines had reached those locations.[3][4]

A private company proposed a railway from Birdum to Bourke, New South Wales in 1932.[5][6]

Following the outbreak of the Pacific War, the Australian Army surveyed a rail route from Alice Springs to Birdum in 1942[7][8] and from Mount Isa, Queensland to Birdum via Tennant Creek in 1943.[9]

A railway from Dajarra, Queensland to Birdum was considered in 1952-53[10] but the Cabinet decided not to proceed.[11]

Construction of a standard gauge railway to Darwin was first seriously proposed in 1965 when construction of a new standard gauge line to Alice Springs was discussed.[12]

Closure and completion[edit]

The Federal Government promulgated an order to close the narrow gauge North Australia Railway line on 20 May 1976, with services ceasing on 30 June of that year, as result of the loss of iron ore traffic originating from the Frances Creek operation. Maintenance gangs were withdrawn in December 1977. Heavy floods in 1978 destroyed significant parts of the railway, effectively eliminating any hope of the railway re-opening. In 1985, some rails and sleepers were lifted and sent to AN Tasrail.[13]

Nearly 20 years later, the AustralAsia Rail Corporation a consortium was formed to build the standard gauge link between Alice Springs and Darwin.

Construction on the new standard gauge line from Alice Springs commenced in July 2001 and was completed on 17 September 2003. The first freight train reached Darwin on 17 January 2004 and the first Ghan passenger service ran from Adelaide to Darwin in early February 2004. The line runs near the route of the North Australia Railway in places but uses very little of the old infrastructure.

The Pine Creek railway station is on the National List of Significant Places at the National Trust of Australia.


  1. ^ "The Palmerston and Pine Creek Railway" Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin February/March 1968 pp25-48; 63-71
  2. ^ "The Darwin Sentinel - Leaping Lena" Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin February 1987 pp35-40
  3. ^ Alice Springs - Birdum Railway Proposal 1918, NAA B300 5497/4, National Archives of Australia
  4. ^ Port Augusta - Darwin Railway (1920), NAA A458 C206/2/57, National Archives of Australia
  5. ^ JA Hobler Development of the Northern Territory Birdum - Bourke Railway, NAA: A1 1932/3302, National Archives of Australia.
  6. ^ Bourke to Darwin railway proposition, NAA B300 7513, National Archives of Australia
  7. ^ Alice Springs - Birdum Railway Proposal, NAA B300 5497/4, National Archives of Australia
  8. ^ Darwin - Planning: Alice Springs - Birdum Railway, NAA: AWM54 625/5/23, 1942. (File in custody of Australian War Memorial.)
  9. ^ Proposed Railway from Mt Isa to Birdum. Also, Condition of Railway between Hughenden and Duchess, NAA: MP742/1 325/45/200, National Archives of Australia.
  10. ^ Construction of railway from Dajarra, Queensland to Birdum, Northern Territory, NAA: A4940 C672, National Archives of Australia.
  11. ^ Construction of railway from Dajarra (Queensland) to Birdum (Northern Territory) - no decision, NAA: A4905 564, National Archives of Australia.
  12. ^ Alice Springs - Birdum NT railway proposal: NT standard gauge railway, Alice Springs - Darwin intergovernmental study 1965, NAA: B300 5497/5, National Archives of Australia.
  13. ^ Harvey, JY (1987). The Never-Never Line. South Yarra: Hyland House. pp. 219–221. ISBN 0 947062 20 3. 

External links[edit]