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Passengers on The Ghan stretch their legs at Finke (near the South Australia / Northern Territory border) while the steam locomotive takes on water, around 1948, early on a winter day. Photo: Dorothy Pyatt, State Library of South Australia, Wikimedia Commons.

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NM class engine hauling The Ghan in Heavitree Gap approaching Alice Springs, around 1930. Photo: Chris Drymalik Collection - a_h053

History of The Ghan

David Matheson

 21 July 2022

The Ghan operates today between Adelaide and Darwin. From 1929 it operated along the narrow gauge line between Port Augusta and Alice Springs, but it has a history that extends back further many years.


Adelaide–Darwin Transcontinental Railway

Completion of a transcontinental railway between Adelaide and Darwin was a dream that took over 125 years to fulfil. A crowd of around 2000 people saw South Australian Governor William Jervois turn the first sod at Port Augusta on 18 January 1878. Jervois said, ‘If it only went to Port Darwin it would be worth constructing, but in going there, it goes to Java, British India, Siam and China.’ The Governor clearly believed that the railway would open up possibilities for development of inland and northern Australia, and also open possibilities of trade with Asia. Although Jervois officially turned the first sod, a team engaged in early construction work had already been in the field for around three months.


Port Augusta was linked to Alice Springs with a narrow (1067 mm) gauge railway, but completion of the line took almost half a century. Initial construction of the railway proceeded quickly and the 40-km section between Port Augusta and Quorn was opened on 15 December 1879. From Quorn the next sections were opened to Hawker (65.5 km) on 28 June 1880, Beltana (126 km) on 1 July 1881, Government Gums (later called Farina)(88.2 km) on 22 May 1882, Hergott Springs (later called Marree)(52.7 km) on 7 February 1884, Coward Springs (126.8 km) on 1 February 1888, William Creek (74.8 km) on 1 June 1889, Warrina (108.1 km) on 1 November 1889 and Oodnadatta (87.6 km) on 7 January 1891. Oodnadatta was the terminus of the line for almost 38 years. Eventually it was extended to Rumbalara (275.1 km) on 23 December 1928 and to Stuart (later called Alice Springs)(196.8 km) on 2 August 1929.


In 1882 Quorn was linked by railway to Adelaide via Peterborough and Terowie. Between Adelaide and Terowie the line was broad (1600 mm) gauge, so passengers needed to change trains at Terowie to proceed further. From 1937 passengers from Adelaide were able to travel a different route with the completion of the broad gauge line between Adelaide and Port Pirie and a standard (1435 mm) gauge railway between Port Pirie and Port Augusta. The railway took on great importance during the Second World War with the transport of troops and equipment to the north of Australia. A further route change occurred in the 1950s when the development of the Leigh Creek coalfields led to a new standard gauge line being built between Stirling North (near Port Augusta) and Marree. Between Brachina and Maree the original alignment was retained and the narrow gauge line was replaced by standard gauge. From 27 July 1957 passengers travelling between Adelaide and Alice Springs would travel by broad gauge between Adelaide and Port Pirie, standard gauge between Port Pirie and Maree, and narrow gauge between Maree and Alice Springs.


The narrow gauge line to Alice Springs was prone to washaways and it was eventually decided that it should be bypassed entirely. On 9 October 1980 a standard gauge railway was opened between Tarcoola, located on the Port Augusta–Kalgoorlie Trans Australian Railway, and Alice Springs. Adelaide was connected to standard gauge for freight services in 1982 and then in May 1984 Adelaide Terminal (now Adelaide Parklands Terminal) railway station opened for long-distance passenger trains. It was then possible for the first time to travel between Adelaide and Alice Springs on a single gauge without the need to change trains. The narrow gauge line between Marree and Alice Springs was closed and most of the track was later taken up.


In 1997 the Northern Territory Government and the South Australian Government called tenders for a standard gauge railway between Alice Springs and Darwin. The first sod for construction of the line was turned in April 2001. It was built by the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium (APTC) under a Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) model. With much better technology and mechanisation available than previous railway construction in Australia, the line was completed in less than three years. It had taken 50 years for the narrow gauge railway between Port Augusta and Alice Springs to be completed, and then another 75 years before a railway connection between Alice Springs and Darwin was finally realised. But in 2004 the dream of a transcontinental railway between Adelaide and Alice Springs was achieved.


To Alice Springs

As the narrow gauge railway extended north from Port Augusta, a fortnightly mixed train would operate to its terminus, so from 1891 this train was running between Port Augusta and Oodnadatta. There are various stories about the origin of the name The Ghan but it was definitely connected the camel drivers who established a route into Australia’s red centre and were thought to be from Afghanistan, although most came to Australia from what is now known as Pakistan. One story suggests that an engine driver at Quorn in August 1923 saw an Afghan man hurrying along the platform to a prayer place, and remarked to a group of people nearby, ‘We should call this the Afghan Express.’ The train’s name was later shortened to The Ghan. A camel and its handler is today used as a symbol for The Ghan, acknowledging the pioneering cameleers.


The Ghan commenced running as far as Alice Springs, then known as Stuart, in 1929, after the railway was completed. On 6 August 1929 the inaugural service arrived, hauled by NM Class 4-8-0 steam locomotive NM35. It was reported that the whole town’s population of around 100 people turned out to see the train arrive. The Ghan’s route followed the narrow gauge line between Port Augusta and Alice Springs via Oodnadatta, making a notoriously slow and unreliable journey. Nevertheless, from the 1930s tourists travelled on The Ghan and following the Second World War, passenger numbers continued to increase, many looking for adventure. During the steam era the train was typically hauled by Commonwealth Railways NM Class steam locomotives. In 1954 steam power gave way to diesels, with NSU51 and NSU52 leading the first diesel-hauled service of The Ghan into Alice Springs on 26 June. Improved sleeping and dining carriages were introduced and in 1961 the train became an air-conditioned service, which vastly improved the comfort of passengers.


The Ghan gained a reputation for its slow speed and rough ride, caused by the poor condition of the track. On some occasions there would be lengthy delays caused by the line being washed away. On some occasions when the train was delayed by a number of days it needed to be resupplied by air drops. There is a story that during one washaway the driver went out with a rifle to shoot goats to provide food for the passengers.


Standard gauge

From 1957 The Ghan operated as a standard gauge train between Port Pirie and Marree, and as a narrow gauge train between Marree and Alice Springs. In 1980 The Ghan began running as a standard gauge service between Port Pirie and Alice Springs via Tarcoola following completion of the standard gauge line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs. The first standard gauge service of The Ghan arrived in Alice Springs on 5 December 1980. It was worked by locomotive GM25 hauling 13 vehicles. Prior to 1980 a journey between Adelaide and Alice Springs by train, including the narrow gauge Ghan between Marree and Alice Springs took 46 hours and 55 minutes. Following the opening of the standard gauge line, a journey by train between Adelaide and Alice Springs, including the standard gauge service of The Ghan between Port Pirie and Alice Springs took 23 hours and 50 minutes, almost cutting the journey time in half. The last narrow gauge service of The Ghan departed Alice Springs on 26 November and was worked by locomotives NJ6 and NJ3 hauling 26 vehicles, perhaps the longest in its history. It carried numerous passengers who wanted to farewell the train, and there was a party atmosphere on board. With the introduction of the standard gauge Ghan into Alice Springs, connection was made at Port Pirie with broad gauge trains to and from Adelaide until standard gauge reached the current Adelaide interstate passenger terminal in 1984.

From its introduction The Ghan was operated by Commonwealth Railways, who also owned and maintained the railway line itself. On 1 July 1975 Commonwealth Railways assets and operations were transferred to the newly established Australian National Railways, later shortened to Australian National, who continued to operate The Ghan.


The assets of Australian National were sold to other organisations in 1997–98. On 1 November 1997 Great Southern Rail commenced operating The Ghan, Indian Pacific and The Overland interstate passenger trains. The Ghan had now become a privately owned and operated train. Today it is owned and operated by Journey Beyond.


Darwin at last

The first run of The Ghan passenger train on the complete north–south journey departed from Adelaide on 1 February 2004 and arrived in Darwin on 3 February. The train was hauled by locomotives NR74 and NR109, had 43 passenger carriages, and was 1069 metres in length. 330 passengers were on board, including invited guests and those paying fares to be on the first complete run of The Ghan. More than 126 years after construction was completed, Darwin was finally connected to the rest of mainland Australia by standard gauge railway and The Ghan became a transcontinental train, crossing Australia from south to north between Adelaide and Darwin.



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     Government Printer for the state of Victoria, Melbourne, 1930.

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The Ghan hauled by an NJ Class locomotive ready to depart Alice Springs on the Central Australia Railway, probably 1973. Photo: Hugh S Williams, Wikimedia Commons.

Interior of lounge car from the narrow gauge service of The Ghan, Old Ghan Railway Museum, Alice Springs, 3 October 2019.

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