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The Indian Pacific led by CL16 with a double consist near Port Augusta in the 1970s. Photo:  Australian National Railways.

The Indian Pacific led by a Western Australian Government Railways L class diesel with 14 cars in the 1970s. Photo: Western Australian Government Railways.

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History of the Indian Pacific

David Matheson

 19 February 2020

A trip on the Indian Pacific is one of the world’s great train journeys. It runs on the east–west transcontinental route that spans Australia from east to west between Sydney, Adelaide and Perth, a total distance of 4350 km. The Indian Pacific operates on standard gauge tracks throughout.


Railways across the continent

Originally named The Indian-Pacific, the train made its inaugural run in 1970. Prior to this time a journey between Sydney and Perth involved numerous changes of train. A railway journey across Australia between Sydney and Perth became possible from October 1917 when the Trans-Australian Railway was completed between Port Augusta in South Australia and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. This section of line was 1692 km in length and had taken five years to build, with most of the construction occurring during the First World War. It traversed remote and arid areas of Australia, and crossed the vast Nullarbor Plain. Although a transcontinental railway journey between Sydney and Perth was possible from 1917, it required numerous changes of trains and travelled a lengthy route via Melbourne, Adelaide, Terowie, Quorn, Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie.


The New South Wales town of Broken Hill was connected by railway to Port Pirie in South Australia in 1888. Despite being in New South Wales, Broken Hill was considerably closer to Adelaide than to Sydney, and most freight was transported to the South Australian cities of Adelaide or Port Pirie. It was not until 1926 that a railway connection was completed between Sydney and Broken Hill. A railway journey between Sydney and Perth could from then be made via Broken Hill, without the need to travel via Melbourne and Adelaide. Nevertheless, changes of gauge and train were still necessary. Completion of the standard gauge line between Port Augusta and Port Pirie in 1937 further reduced the total journey across Australia and eliminated the need to travel via Terowie and Quorn.


Railway standardisation

Breaks of gauge became a major problem for Australian railways during the Second World War when there were large movements of troops and equipment across state borders. In early 1956 the Commonwealth Government established the Government Members Rail Standardisation Committee to investigate railway gauge unification in mainland Australia. The committee was led by William Charles (Bill) Wentworth, MP, and recommended three major standardisation projects: Wodonga–Melbourne; Broken Hill–Adelaide via Port Pirie and Kalgoorlie–Perth–Fremantle. The recommendations were adopted and work commenced.


In 1962 the line from Wodonga to Melbourne was standardised. It became possible to travel between Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s two largest cities, without changing trains. Attention then turned to the Sydney to Perth transcontinental railway.


On 4 November 1968 the first standard gauge freight train operated between Kalgoorlie and Perth. The train had departed from Port Pirie and ran to Forrestfield yard in Perth. Standard gauge reached East Perth Terminal on 15 June 1969 and standard gauge passenger trains between Perth and Port Pirie were inaugurated. The standard gauge line linking the east and west of Australia was finally completed in late 1969. A ceremony was held at Broken Hill on 29 November to mark the achievement.


With the line complete it was soon time for services to begin. The first standard gauge freight train between Sydney and Perth began its journey on 12 January 1970. As a result of industrial action in South Australia the train was diverted to travel via Melbourne and Adelaide and bogie exchanges were required. Thus, the first official east–west standard gauge freight train did not travel on standard gauge for the entire journey.


Inaugural journey of The Indian-Pacific

Australia’s first passenger train to cross the continent on a single gauge was a major event. Following a dinner at the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney, there was a ceremony at Central station, where a plaque was unveiled by the Governor-General, Sir Paul Hasluck. A large crowd watched The Indian-Pacific depart at 10.50 pm. It was hauled by 46 Class electric locomotives from Sydney to Lithgow, and then by diesel-electric motive power for the remainder of its journey. As the train made its way across the country it was cheered by crowds of people in towns and by trackside observers.


The inaugural service of The Indian-Pacific had on board numerous dignitaries and invited quests. It was followed shortly afterwards by a second consist of The Indian-Pacific that was run for the media. At Port Pirie another commemorative plaque was unveiled by the Governor-General, who was a passenger on the first train. The two trains were combined to form a 26-car consist, a load of 1290 tons (1311 tonnes), which was reported as the longest and heaviest passenger train ever operated in Australia until that time. Despite the train departing Port Pirie 134 minutes late, it arrived at East Perth Terminal on time at 11.20 am on 26 February, where it was welcomed by a crowd of over 10,000 people.


The inaugural service was hauled by the following locomotives throughout its journey:

Sydney–Lithgow                    4601, 4602 (Department of Railways, New South Wales)

Lithgow–Broken Hill              42103, 42106 (Department of Railways, New South Wales)

Broken Hill–Port Pirie            604, 605 (South Australian Railways)

Port Pirie–Kalgoorlie              CL1, GM25, GM47 (Commonwealth Railways)

Kalgoorlie–Perth                     L260, L261 (Western Australian Government Railways)


Regular services

When it commenced regular services The Indian-Pacific traversed four different railway systems, and its operating costs were apportioned according to the distance the train traversed on each system:

  • Commonwealth Railways: 45 %

  • Department of Railways, New South Wales: 28.5 %

  • Western Australian Government Railways: 16.5 %

  • South Australian Railways: 10 %.


Regular revenue services of The Indian-Pacific commenced from Perth on 1 March and from Sydney on 2 March 1970. Upon its inauguration two services operated in each direction weekly. On 21 July 1973 a third weekly service was introduced, and then on 23 July 1975 a fourth service was added.


Competition from airlines later led to declining passenger numbers and the Indian Pacific was reduced to three services each week from 26 April 1983. Further declines in patronage resulted in further service reductions: from 22 June 1991 two services operated each week, and then on 1 March 1992 this became one service each week between Sydney and Perth, with an additional service between Adelaide and Perth.


The state railways relinquished their ownership and control of the Indian Pacific in 1993 and 1994. On 1 February 1993 Australian National took control of the New South Wales share of ownership from the State Rail Authority of New South Wales. Australian National became the sole owner of the Indian Pacific, with full responsibility for its management, on 24 January 1994. Australian National also restored services to twice weekly.


On 17 August 1986 the Indian Pacific began operating to Adelaide. Prior to this time the train stopped at Port Pirie, where passengers travelling to Adelaide would change to a connecting train, which operated over broad gauge tracks to Adelaide station. Extension of standard gauge tracks from Crystal Brook (near Port Pire) to Adelaide enabled the Indian Pacific to service Adelaide directly, adding 389 km to the total journey. Between Crystal Brook and Adelaide the train retraces it journey before continuing to its final destination. It no longer stops at Port Pirie.


Australian National was sold by the Australian Government on 1 November 1997, with various buyers taking over its assets. The Indian Pacific, The Ghan and The Overland passenger trains were sold to Great Southern Railway (GSR). The sale included 180 items of rolling stock, including sleeping and sitting cars, lounge and dining cars, and service stock. GSR contracted its locomotive services to the National Rail Corporation. On 28 March 2012 it reduced the Indian Pacific from two to one service each week. However, a second service operated each week in the peak season from September to November each year before this was discontinued in 2015.


Various locomotives have hauled the Indian Pacific throughout its history. When it first commenced in 1970 it was hauled by locomotives belonging to the different railway systems over which it passed. Between Sydney and Lithgow two 46 Class electric locomotives hauled the train, with 86 Class locomotives being used after their entry into service in the middle of the 1980s. From Lithgow the train was worked by diesel-electric locomotives throughout the remainder of the journey. Two 44 Class locomotives typically hauled the train from Lithgow to Broken Hill, with 80 Class being used from the late 1970s. At Broken Hill South Australian Railways 600 Class locomotives initially worked the train, with 700 Class being used from 1971. From Port Pirie Commonwealth Railways locomotives took the train to Kalgoorlie. These included GM and CL Class locomotives, and then AL Class from their entry into service in 1976. Western Australian Government Railways hauled the train from Kalgoorlie to Perth. Initially K Class units were allocated two work the Indian Pacific, but later the L Class became the dominant motive power on the train over this section.


In January 1994, when the Indian Pacific came under the sole ownership of Australian National, CLP Class locomotives (rebuilt former Commonwealth Railways CL Class) began hauling the train into and out of Sydney, with two hauling it between Sydney and Adelaide and one between Adelaide and Perth. CLP10 and CLP11 hauled the initial service to Sydney. Another change of ownership in November 1997 led to a new allocation of motive power. When Great Southern Railway became the owners of the train in November 1997, NR Class locomotives began hauling the train. Typically one NR Class unit and another locomotive haul the train between Sydney and Adelaide, and a single NR Class works it between Adelaide and Perth.


When the Indian Pacific was envisaged, Commonwealth Railways took responsibility for procuring rolling stock for the new service. Tenders were called in May 1966 and a contract for 58 stainless steel carriages was awarded to Commonwealth Engineering, which had its manufacturing plant located at Granville in New South Wales. The carriages were similar to eight sleeping cars and one dining car that Commonwealth Railways had earlier ordered from Commonwealth Engineering. The contract consisted of five first class twinette sleeping cars (ARL), four deluxe twinette sleeping cars (ARM), six first class roomette sleeping cars ARJ), twelve economy class sleeping cars (BRJ), six dining cars DF), four first class lounge cars (AFC), six economy class lounge cars (CDF), four power vans (HGM), five luggage/brake vans (HM) and six crew cars (ER). Subsequent contracts with Commonwealth Engineering for a further 57 carriages brought the total to 115. These carriages operated on the Indian Pacific, but also on the Trans Australian and other Commonwealth Railways/Australian National trains. The Commonwealth Engineering-built rolling stock continues to form the Indian Pacific today. They have undergone refurbishment at different times and some have been sold.


In 2019 Great Southern Railway was re-branded as Journey Beyond Rail, which continues to operate the Indian Pacific. It now caters for luxury travellers making a holiday journey across Australia by rail.



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Passengers joining the Indian Pacific, East Perth Terminal, 11 October 2009.


NR27 and DL40 with 6AS8, eastbound Indian Pacific, Marangaroo, 26 March 2011.

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