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Three Fortescue Metals Group C44-9W locomotives, with unit 012 leading, hauling a 220 wagon loaded iron ore train, May 2008. Photo: Geez-oz, Wikimedia Commons.

Rio Tinto ES44DCi locomotive 8181 at the head of an iron ore train loading at the Brockman 4 mine, 9 June 2012. Photo: Calistemon, Wikimedia Commons.

Pilbara Region Railways

David Matheson

2 July 2018

The Pilbara region is an area of over 500,000 square kilometres located in the north of Western Australia. It is an arid region that has significant deposits of resources, particularly iron ore. The major towns in the Pilbara are Port Hedland, Karratha and Newman.


Pilbara region railways

The Pilbara region of Western Australia has four privately-owned standard gauge railway networks for transporting iron ore from mines to ports. Numerous mines over a large area are linked by these railways. The railways are owned and operated by BHP, Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), Rio Tinto and Roy Hill. Most lines travel in generally a northerly direction from mine to port. Between Solomon Junction (around 200 km south of Port Hedland) and Port Hedland, railway lines owned by BHP, Fortescue Metals Group and Roy Hill all follow a similar route. In 2016–17 the movement of iron-ore in Western Australia comprised around 64 per cent of rail freight tonnages in Australia.


Railway history in the Pilbara

The first rail lines in the Pilbara were two tramways of two feet (610 mm) gauge. One operated between Roebourne and Cossack from 1887 until 1925, and the other operated between Whim Well copper mine and the jetty at Balla Balla, 116 km south-west of Port Hedland, between 1908 and 1917.


A 3 feet, 6 inch (1067mm) gauge railway between Port Hedland and Marble Bar was officially opened in 1911, although regular services did not commence until July 1912. The line was 185 km in length. It conveyed passengers, wool and general goods, as well as being used to transport defence supplies during the Second World War. The line made financial losses throughout its existence and the last train operated on 27 October 1951.


The first iron ore railway in the Pilbara region was officially opened by the Premier of Western Australia between Goldsworthy and Finucane Island (Port Hedland) on 28 June 1966. It was 113 km in length and was operated by Goldsworthy Mining. In 1972 the line was extended to Shay Gap. The Goldsworthy railway is now part of the BHP network, but is not currently operational.


Hamersley Iron commenced railway operations with the opening of the Hamersley railway line between Tom Price and Dampier on 1 July 1966. The Hamersley railway is now part of the Rio Tinto network.


On 22 January 1969 the Mount Newman Mining Company opened the Mount Newman iron ore railway opened between Port Hedland and Newman, a distance of 426 km. The Mount Newman railway is now part of the BHP network.


Cliffs Robe River Iron Associates opened its railway from Pannawonica to Cape Lambert (near Wickham) on 15 August 1972. This line is now part of the Rio Tinto network.

The iron ore railway networks in the Pilbara region continued to expand with the opening of new lines. Various iron companies merged, were renamed or were taken over by other companies. Today four iron ore companies operate railway networks in the Pilbara.



BHP is a mining, metals and petroleum company, and is the largest mining company in the world. The BHP iron ore business in the Pilbara is known as Western Australia Iron Ore (WAIO) and is part of BHP’s Minerals Australia asset group. Its railway network in the Pilbara includes 1342 km of lines that service five operational mines and connects with two separate port facilities located in Port Hedland. Two heavy haulage railway lines carry iron ore from inland mining operations to the port for shipment. The railway line between Newman and Port Hedland is 426 km long, making it one of Australia’s longest privately-owned railways. Iron ore is transported from the mine hubs of Newman, Yandi, Mining Area C and Jimblebar to the port facilities of Finucane Island and Nelson Point, located in Port Hedland. A line of about 50 km in length branches off the Newman–Port Hedland line at Yandina Junction and extends to Mac. Production at the Yarrie Mine in the northern Pilbara was suspended in 2014 and the 208 km long Goldsworthy railway line between the mine and Finucane Island (Port Hedland) was mothballed. BHP’s railways include a network of spur lines, loops and marshalling yards. The BHP iron ore railway network is one of the most productive heavy haulage railways in the world. Its fleet includes around 180 locomotives.


Fortescue Metals Group (FMG)

Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) is an Australian company and is one of the largest iron ore producers in the world. It has extensive iron ore operations in the Pilbara region. FMG has 620 km of railway lines linking mines with port facilities at Port Hedland. Its railway tracks can carry axle loads of up to 40 tonnes. The company’s rail support centre, which includes locomotive and ore car maintenance workshops, is located at Thomas Yard, 15 km from Port Hedland. A Train Control Centre in Perth is introducing an Integrated Train Control System to track trains by GPS and provide operating instructions to trains via digital communications. Fortescue operates up to 14 trains a day, each carrying 32,880 tonnes of iron ore. Its rail fleet compromises 45 locomotives, 3244 ore wagons, 30 fuel tanker wagons, 37 ballast wagons, 10 side dump cars, 19 rail carrying cars and eight compressor cars.


Rio Tinto Iron Ore

Rio Tinto is a multinational mining and metals corporation. In the Pilbara region it operates 15 iron ore mines, port facilities and associated infrastructure. The Rio Tinto Iron Ore railway system in the Pilbara is the largest privately-owned and operated railway system in Australia. Its network includes 1782 km of railway line, which services 15 mines and four port facilities. The longest line extends over 400 km from mines at West Angelas and Yandicoogina. Lines converge at Western Creek Junction, and then continue to ports at Cape Lambert (near Wickham) and Dampier. The Rio Tinto Iron Ore fleet comprises 191 locomotives and 11,500 wagons. Trains generally operate with three locomotives hauling either 167 or 236 ore wagons.


Roy Hill

Roy Hill is a mining, rail and port operation in the Pilbara region. The Roy Hill railway network consists of 395 km of track. Its main line is single track and 344 km in length. It transports iron ore from the Roy Hill Mine to the dedicated port facility at Boodarie, south of Port Hedland. Roy Hill is the newest of the railways in the Pilbara and loaded its first shipment of ore for export in December 2015. There are four passing loops on the Roy Hill line, each approximately 3.2 kilometres long. The track is capable of carrying axle loads up to 42.8 tonnes, which is the heaviest in the world. Trains are loaded at the Roy Hill Mine using a loading system that is controlled from the Remote Operations Centre (ROC) in Perth. Five ore trains operate from the mine each day, with each train being hauled by three diesel-electric locomotives in distributed power mode with one unit in the middle of the train. Trains are more than 2.7 km in length and consist of 232 ore wagons, conveying a total of 31,132 tonnes of ore. For the first 30 kilometres from the mine each train is assisted by bank locomotives at the rear of the train. The Roy Hill rolling stock fleet consists of 1196 wagons and a number of service vehicles.


Pilbara Railways Historical Society

Pilbara Railways Historical Society aims to preserve items representing the heavy haul railways of the Pilbara region. It operates the 6 Mile Museum in Karratha, containing a collection of locomotives and rolling stock. Visits can be made by appointment.


Longest train

The world record for the longest and heaviest freight train was set on 21 June 2001 by a BHP Iron Ore train between Yandi Mine and Port Hedland. Eight General Electric AC6000CW model diesel-electric locomotives hauled 682 wagons of iron ore. The train was 7.353 km in length and had a gross weight of 99,734 tonnes.


Pilbara Sky Rail

Mineral Resources Limited plans to build and operate a 330 km railway line in the Pilbara region from Iron Valley (north-west of Newman) to Port Hedland. Most of the line is proposed to use an elevated system up to two metres above the ground, which in some locations could be higher than six metres, such as when crossing over existing railway lines. The line would be built on concrete structures that could be re-located in the future. Driverless trains of over 2 km in length would consist of between 260 and 312 wagons, and be hauled by power cars that use a dual fuel (diesel and gas) system. When completed the railway would have the capacity to transport between 30 million and 40 million tonnes of iron ore annually. The project has been given approval by the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority.


Pilbara Railways website

Pilbara Railways <> is a website that provides information about the iron ore railways of the Pilbara region. It includes data about the locomotives and lines of the various Pilbara operators.



BHP <>.

Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, Freightline 2: Australian iron ore freight transport, Australian Government:

        Department of Infrastructure and Transport, Canberra, 2014.

Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics and Australasian Railway Association, Trainline 5: statistical report, Australian

        Government: Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Canberra, 2017.

Fortescue Metals Group <>.

Joyce, J & A Tilley, Railways in the Pilbara, J & A Publications, Perth, 1979.

Pilbara Railways <>.

Pilbara Railways Historical Society <>.

Pilbara Sky Rail <>.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore <>.

Roy Hill <>.

Western Australia Iron Ore <>.

BHP SD70ACe locomotive 4353 ‘Warman’ (left) and CM40-8M unit 5652 ‘Villaneuva’ (right) at the Boodarie depot, near Port Hedland.  Photo: Bahnfrend, Wikimedia Commons.

Map of the iron ore mines and railways in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, January 2016. Map: Peter Christener, Wikimedia Commons, location map.svg: NordNordWest. Main map was created using Open Street Map Data.



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