Rail transport in Australia

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Rail transport in Australia
Oldest and newest QR unit.jpg
Passenger trains in Queensland
Infrastructure companyAustralian Rail Track Corporation, government and private companies
Major operatorsgovernment and private operators
System length
Total36,064 km (22,409 mi)[citation needed]
Electrified3,448 km (2,142 mi)[1]
Track gauge
1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge18,007 km (11,189 mi)[1]
1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in)
broad gauge
2,685 km (1,668 mi)[1]
1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)
narrow gauge
11,914 km (7,403 mi)[1]
Passenger rail services in Australia en.png
Passenger trains in Australia (2015)

Rail transport in Australia is a component of the Australian transport system. It is to a large extent state-based, as each state largely has its own operations, with the interstate network being developed ever since Australia's federation in 1901. As of 2022, the Australian rail network consists of a total of 32,929 kilometres (20,461 mi) of track built to three major track gauges: 18,007 kilometres (11,189 mi) of standard gauge (1435 mm / 4 ft 812 in), 2,685 kilometres (1,668 mi) of broad gauge (1600 mm / 5 ft 3 in), and 11,914 kilometres (7,403 mi) of narrow gauge (1067 mm / 3 ft 6 in) lines.[1] Additionally, about 1,400 kilometres (870 mi) of 610 mm / 2 ft gauge lines support the sugar-cane industry.[2] 3,488 kilometres (2,167 mi), around 11 per cent of the Australian heavy railways network route-kilometres are electrified.[1]

Except for a small number of private railways, most of the Australian railway network infrastructure is government-owned, either at the federal or state level. The Australian federal government is involved in the formation of national policies, and provides funding for national projects.

Total employment in rail transport in Australia (thousands of people) since 1984

National issues[edit]

Uniform gauge[edit]

The Spirit of Progress press launch with locomotive S302 Edward Henty, at Spencer Street station prior to the demonstration run to Geelong, in 1937

Very little thought was given in the early years of the development of the colony-based rail networks of Australia-wide interests. The most obvious issue to arise was determining a track gauge. Despite advice from London to adopt a uniform gauge, should the lines of the various colonies ever meet, gauges were adopted in different colonies, and indeed within colonies, without reference to those of other colonies. This has caused problems ever since.[3]

Attempts to fix the gauge problem are by no means complete. For example, the Mount Gambier line is isolated by gauge and of no operational value.


With the electrification of suburban networks, which began in 1919, a consistent electric rail traction standard was not adopted. Electrification began in Melbourne in 1919 using 1500 V DC. Sydney's lines were electrified from 1926 using 1500 V DC, Brisbane's from 1979 using 25 kV AC, and Perth's from 1992 using 25 kV AC. There has also been extensive non-urban electrification in Queensland using 25 kV AC, mainly during the 1980s for the coal routes. From 2014 Adelaide's lines are being gradually electrified at 25 kV AC. 25 kV AC voltage has now become the international standard.[4]


The first railways in Australia were built by private companies, based in the then colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

The first railway was privately owned and operated and commissioned by the Australian Agricultural Company in Newcastle in 1831, a cast-iron fishbelly rail on an inclined plane as a gravitational railway servicing A Pit coal mine. The first steam-powered line opened in Victoria in 1854. The 4 km long Flinders Street to Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) line was opened by the Hobsons Bay Railway Company at the height of the Victorian gold rush.

In these early years there was very little thought of Australia-wide interests in developing the colony-based networks. The most obvious issue to arise was determining a uniform gauge for the continent. Despite advice from London to adopt a uniform gauge, should the lines of the various colonies ever meet, gauges were adopted in different colonies, and indeed within colonies, without reference to those of other colonies. This example has caused problems ever since at the national level.

In the 1890s, the establishment of an Australian Federation from the six colonies was debated. One of the points of discussion was the extent that railways would be a federal responsibility. A vote to make it so was lost narrowly, instead the new constitution allows "the acquisition, with the consent of a State, of any railways of the State on terms arranged between the Commonwealth and the State" (Section 51 xxxiii) and "railway construction and extension in any State with the consent of that State" (Section 51 xxxiv). However, the Australian Government is free to provide funding to the states for rail upgrading projects under Section 96 ("the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit").

Suburban electrification began in Melbourne in 1919 (1500 V DC). Sydney's lines were electrified from 1926 (1500 V DC), Brisbane's from 1979 (25 kV AC), and Perth's from 1992 (25 kV AC). Mainline electrification was first carried out in Victoria in 1954, closely followed by New South Wales which continued to expand their network. These networks have fallen into decline, in contrast to Queensland where 25 kV AC equipment was introduced from the 1980s for coal traffic.

Diesel locomotives were introduced to Australian railways from the early 1950s. Most units were of local design and construction, using imported British or American technology and power equipment. The three major firms were Clyde Engineering partnered with GM-EMD, Goninan with General Electric, and AE Goodwin (later Comeng) with the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). The major British company was English Electric, with Swiss firm Sulzer also supplying some equipment.[5] This continues today, with Downer Rail and UGL Rail the modern incarnations of Clyde and Goninan respectively.


Note: Narrow gauge below is 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in), standard gauge below is 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) and broad gauge below is 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in)

Government funding[edit]

Total private and public sector railway engineering construction value (thousands of Australian dollars, monthly).

While Australian federal governments have provided substantial funding for the upgrading of roads, since the 1920s they have not regularly funded investment in railways except for their own railway, the Commonwealth Railways, later the Australian National Railways Commission, which was privatised in 1997. They have considered the funding of railways owned by State Governments to be a State responsibility.

Nevertheless, Australian governments have made loans to the states for gauge standardisation projects from the 1920s to the 1970s. From the 1970s to 1996, the Australian Government has provided some grant funding to the States for rail projects, particularly the Keating Government's One Nation program, announced in 1992, which was notable for standardising the Adelaide to Melbourne line in 1995. Significant government funding was also made available for the Alice Springs to Darwin Railway, opened in 2004. Substantial funding is now being made available for freight railways through the Australian Rail Track Corporation and the AusLink land transport funding program.

Australian Rail Track Corporation[edit]

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is a federal government owned corporation established in 1997 that owns, leases, maintains and controls the majority of main line standard gauge railway lines on the mainland of Australia, known as the Designated Interstate Rail Network (DIRN).

In 2003 the Australian and New South Wales Governments agreed that ARTC would lease the NSW interstate and Hunter Valley networks for 60 years. As part of this agreement, ARTC agreed to a $872 million investment programme on the interstate rail network.[8] The funding sources for the investment included an Australian Government equity injection into ARTC of $143 million and a funding contribution of almost $62 million by the New South Wales Government.


Under the AusLink program introduced in July 2004, the Australian Government has introduced the opportunity for rail to gain access to funds on a similar basis to that of roads. AusLink established a defined national network (superseding the former National Highway system) of important road and rail infrastructure links and their intermodal connections.

Rail funding has been announced for signalling upgrades to numerous railway lines, gauge conversion of existing broad gauge lines in Victoria to standard gauge, new rail links to intermodal freight precincts, and extensions to existing crossing loops to permit longer trains to operate.

Funding is focused on the National Network, including the following rail corridors, connecting at one or both ends to State Capital Cities:

Infrastructure Australia[edit]

After the 2007 federal election, the government body Infrastructure Australia was created to oversee all rail, road, airports and other infrastructure at a national level.

Rail infrastructure[edit]

Looking along the Trans-Australian Railway

Construction and maintenance of network infrastructure is consolidated into non-profit government bodies and contracted private: in the case of the interstate network and various non-urban railways of New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia, the Australian Government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC); the New South Wales Regional Network, John Holland Rail; and rail infrastructure throughout the southern half of Western Australia, Arc Infrastructure.

ARTC "has a working relationship with Queensland Rail about the use of the 127 kilometres of standard gauge line between the Queensland border and Fisherman Island. ARTC intends to start discussions with Queensland about leasing this track once the NSW arrangements are bedded down".[8] ARTC also maintains the NSW Hunter Valley network under contract.

On 1 January 2012, John Holland commenced the operation and maintenance of the New South Wales Regional Network under contract from Transport for NSW, comprising 2,700 kilometres of operational freight and passenger rail lines.[9]

Arc Infrastructure has a lease until 2049 on 5,100 kilometres of Western Australian rail infrastructure, from Geraldton in the north, to Leonora and Kalgoorlie in the east, and south to Esperance, Albany and Bunbury.[10][11] It is responsible for maintaining the network and granting access to operators.

Other railways continue to be integrated, although access to their infrastructure is generally required under National Competition Policy principles agreed by the Federal, State and Territory governments:

Inland Rail is a railway construction project extending from Melbourne to Brisbane along a route west of the Great Dividing Range. Construction in stages commenced in 2018 and is scheduled to be completed in 2025, using existing routes where appropriate.


Rail freight[edit]

Pacific National intermodal service from Perth in Western Australia
A TasRail container train with Driving Van DV2150 in Devonport, Tasmania

The major freight operators on the rail networks (excluding integrated mining railways) are:

Other rail freight operators include:

Licensing of personnel with nationally recognised credentials facilitates the transfer of those employees from one state or operator to another, as traffic demands.

Total freight movement[edit]

Including the mining railways, in 2015–16, there were 413.5 billion tonne kilometres of freight moved by rail. Overall railway freight in Australia is dominated by bulk freight, primarily iron ore and coal. In 2015–16, Australian railways carried over 1.34 billion tonnes of freight, 97 per cent of which were bulk movements. Intrastate bulk freight in Western Australia, principally iron-ore movements, accounted for 61 per cent of national rail freight tonnes. Bulk movements in Queensland and NSW, principally coal, were 17 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.[12]

Long-distance passenger[edit]

Map of passenger railway services in Australia
State Government owned rail services:
  NSW TrainLink services
  V/Line services
  Transwa services
Journey Beyond services:

Unlike the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Long-distance rail and regional rail in Australia mostly operates on a state-by-state basis. The main companies that provide service are Journey Beyond, NSW TrainLink, Queensland Rail and V/Line.

Journey Beyond operates four long-distance trains, the first three being upmarket "experiential" services:

New South Wales government-controlled NSW TrainLink operates ten long-distance passenger routes. All routes originate from Sydney:

  • Grafton XPT: daily
  • Casino XPT: daily
  • Brisbane XPT: daily
  • Canberra Xplorer: 3 round trips per day
  • Melbourne XPT: 2 round trips per day
  • Griffith Xplorer: 2 round trip per week
  • Central West XPT (to Dubbo): daily
  • Outback Xplorer (to Broken Hill): 1 round trip per week
  • Armidale Xplorer: daily
  • Moree Xplorer: daily

V/Line, a Victorian government-owned not-for-profit statutory corporation,[13] operates both regional and long-distance services along the Victorian regional network. V/Line operates eight long-distance services from Melbourne:

Queensland Rail, a state entity, operates several passenger lines under its train subsidiary. Six routes target the domestic market:

An additional three Queensland Rail routes are aimed at providing tourist services:

The Public Transport Authority, a government agency of Western Australia, operates various buses and four long-distance rail routes through its Transwa subsidiary. All routes originate from Perth:

Urban rail[edit]

Urban light rail and trams[edit]

Tourist and heritage railways[edit]

There are many heritage railways and heritage tramways in Australia, often run by community organisations and preservation societies. There are also some privately operated passenger services, such as:

  • The Skitube Alpine Railway is a private railway in the New South Wales snowfields. Owned by the Perisher Ski Resort, it connects the main entrance of this tourist destination with ski areas that are inaccessible via road. The line mainly operates underground.
  • The Byron Bay Train service operates as a shuttle between Byron Bay station in the Byron Bay township and North Beach station. The privately run service operates on a 3 km section of the disused Murwillimbah line.

Private railways[edit]

Cane train near Mackay
BHP iron ore train arriving into Port Hedland, Western Australia.


Tramways with 610 mm (2 ft) gauge for the transport of sugarcane have always been operated as private concerns associated with the relevant sugar cane mill. These tramways are quite advanced technically, with hand-me-down rails cascaded from the normal rails, remote-controlled brake vans, concrete sleepers in places, and tamping machines in miniature. The twenty or so separate tramways cooperate in research and development.


Tramways were often associated with the transport of timber to sawmills. Various gauges were used, including the 610 mm (2 ft) gauge, which was also commonly used for cane haulage.[citation needed]

Wider gauges were sometimes used as well; Queensland had a number of 991 mm (3 ft 3 in) systems, some on wooden rails. In some areas 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) was used, a considerable investment of resources. In the early 21st century, the disused Queensland Rail line to Esk 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) in the Brisbane Valley was used for timber haulage.[citation needed]

Iron ore[edit]

Five isolated heavy duty railways for the cartage of iron ore in the Pilbara region of Western Australia have always been private concerns operated as part of the production line between mine and port, initially commencing in 1966 with Goldsworthy Mining Associates' Goldsworthy railway, and recently in 2008 with Fortescue Metals Group's Fortescue railway and in 2015 with Roy Hill Holdings' Roy Hill railway. These lines are continually optimising axle loads (currently the heaviest in the world) and train lengths, that have pushed the limit of the wheel to rail interface and led to much useful research of value to railways worldwide.[14] An open access sixth standard gauge iron ore network was proposed to the Oakajee Port in the Mid-West region to the south of the Pilbara but the project is currently on hold pending a viable business case.[15]

High-speed rail[edit]

Medium-speed passenger services[edit]

Several medium-speed rail services operate on existing track that has been upgraded to accommodate faster services and/or tilting technology. Some of these services use high-speed capable rolling stock.

  • In Western Australia, Westrail began using high-speed diesel railcars in 1971 on The Prospector service from Perth to Kalgoolie, and set a new Australian speed record.[citation needed] Now operated by Transwa, the railcars were replaced in 2004 with new units capable of 200 km/h (124 mph), although track condition currently limits this to 160 km/h (100 mph).[16] The same type of cars are used on the AvonLink service.[17]
  • New South Wales commenced operations with the XPT in 1982. Based on the British InterCity 125 train, it has a maximum service speed of 160 km/h (100 mph) and set an Australian speed record for the time of 193 km/h (120 mph) on a test run in 1992.[18] The train is not often used to its full potential, operating along winding steam-era alignments.[19] New South Wales trialled the Swedish X 2000 tilt train in 1995. Propelled by two specially modified XPT power cars, the train carried passengers between Sydney and Canberra in an eight-week trial.[20]
  • Queensland Rail's Electric Tilt Train service operates from Brisbane to Rockhampton, while the Diesel Tilt Train service runs from Brisbane to Cairns. These routes were partially upgraded in the 1990s at a cost of $590 million, with the construction of 160 km/h (99 mph) of deviations to straighten curves.[21] Both with a service speed of 160 km/h (100 mph),[22] the electric train set an Australian rail speed record of 210 km/h (130 mph) in 1999.[23]
  • In Victoria, the state government upgraded railway lines as part of the Regional Fast Rail project, with V/Line operating VLocity diesel railcars at a maximum speed of 160 km/h (100 mph) over the lines.[24] In the early stages of the project, the Victorian Government incorrectly referred to it as the 'Fast Train' or 'Very Fast Train', and this practice continues among some politicians and members of the public.[25][26][27]

High-speed rail[edit]

High speed rail has been repeatedly raised as an option since the 1980s, and has had bipartisan support for research and land purchase.

The focus usually falls on Sydney to Melbourne, where it is seen as a competitor to the busy Sydney–Melbourne air corridor, with Sydney to Brisbane also proposed. The benefits of regional city development are frequently raised.

A detailed study was undertaken from 2011 to 2013, after which the government indicated it would start purchasing land for a rail corridor. In 2016 the prime minister indicated a high-speed rail link might be funded privately and by value capture.

The Queensland Rail Electric Tilt Train's record speed of 210 km/h is just above the internationally accepted definition of high-speed rail of 200 km/h (120 mph).[28] The maximum test speed of 193 km/h set by NSW TrainLink's XPT is approximately that. The Transwa WDA/WDB/WDC class railcars used on the medium-speed Transwa Prospector service are high-speed capable, but are limited to 160 km/h in service.[29] The XPT is also theoretically capable of reaching speeds of 200 km/h.[30]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Trainline 9" (PDF). Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics. Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. 26 May 2022. Retrieved 27 May 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link): 64 
  2. ^ Trainline 5 (PDF). Canberra: Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics. November 2017. p. 59. ISBN 9781925843354. Retrieved 12 January 2022.
  3. ^ Lewis, Mia. "Australian Railways: How Technologies Help Increase Efficiency and Save Wildlife". Magora Systems. Retrieved 31 May 2017.
  4. ^ IEC 60850:2000 – "Railway Applications. Supply voltages of traction systems"
  5. ^ "Diesel Traction (Chapter 7, page 473)". Technology in Australia 1788–1988. austehc.unimelb.edu.au. Retrieved 6 September 2009.
  6. ^ Kerr, J. 'Triumph of Narrow Gauge' Boolarong Publications 1990
  7. ^ Collins, Ben (2 May 2014). "World's heaviest haul railways defining the Pilbara then and now". ABC North West WA. Karratha, WA: Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  8. ^ a b "Media release, December 2003". John Anderson, Minister for Transport and Regional Services, www.ministers.dotars.gov.au. Archived from the original on 28 December 2005. Retrieved 27 April 2006.
  9. ^ "Country Rail Contracts". NSW Government. Archived from the original on 31 March 2015. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  10. ^ Annual Report 31 December 2012 Archived 4 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine Brookfield Infrastructure Partners
  11. ^ Non-urban rail routes covered by the WA rail access regime Economic Regulation Authority
  12. ^ BITRE 2019, p. 5.
  13. ^ V/Line Corporation (6 September 2019). "V/Line Annual Report 2018-19". V/Line. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  14. ^ Tuzik, Jeff (17 January 2017). "Investigating Wear and Damage Mechanisms". Interface, the Journal of Wheel/Rail Interaction. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  15. ^ Burns, Stuart (23 October 2019). "There's No Shortage of Iron Ore – There's a Shortage of it at the Right Cost". MetalMiner. Chicago. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  16. ^ "Prospector". Archived from the original on 22 June 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2013. Transwa website: Prospector – Perth to Kalgoorlie train service
  17. ^ "Australia's fastest trains enter service". International Railway Journal. Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation. September 2003. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  18. ^ "Australian rail speed records". railpage.org.au. Archived from the original on 25 April 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  19. ^ Philip Laird (2001). Where Are We Now: National Patterns and Trends in Transport. Back on Track. UNSW Press. p. 31. ISBN 0-86840-411-X.
  20. ^ David Bromage. "X2000 in Australia". railpage.org.au. Archived from the original on 3 July 2008. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  21. ^ Philip Laird (2001). Appendix B: Australia's Gauge Muddle and Prospects. Back on Track. UNSW Press. p. 191. ISBN 0-86840-411-X.
  22. ^ "Tilt Train Fleet Back to Normal Service". QR Corporate: Media Releases. corporate.qr.com.au. 24 May 2007. Archived from the original on 19 July 2008. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  23. ^ "QR History: QR in the future". Queensland Rail Limited. Archived from the original on 19 July 2008. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  24. ^ "Public transport – VLocity trains". Department of Transport, State Government of Victoria. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  25. ^ Kenneth Davidson (22 September 2003). "Fast train is a big waste of money". The Age. Melbourne: theage.com.au. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  26. ^ David Broadbent (19 December 2004). "Not even Libs believe Doyle's buy-out promise". The Age. Melbourne: theage.com.au. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  27. ^ Editorial (14 March 2008). "Rail safety is vital, no matter how far down the track". Melbourne: theage.com.au. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  28. ^ "General definitions of highspeed – UIC – International Union of Railways". 28 July 2011. Archived from the original on 28 July 2011. Retrieved 27 August 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  29. ^ Prospector Product Sheet UGL Rail
  30. ^ "To find out what the XPT can do". The Canberra Times. 13 June 1981.

Carroll, Brian (1976), Australia's railway days : milestones in railway history, Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-333-21055-0

External links[edit]