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Melbourne Express crossing the Sleeps Hill Viaduct in South Australia, hauled by two Rx Class locomotives. Photo: State Library of South Australia, B 58892/510.

The Overland hauled by South Australian Railways 500 Class locomotive No. 507 at Mile End, near the Adelaide terminus. Photo: State Library of South Australia, B 58892/514.

History of The Overland

David Matheson

 21 November 2022

The Overland operates a passenger service between Melbourne and Adelaide. It continues the history of a train service that has operated between these two cities since 1887.


Melbourne and Adelaide Expresses

The first direct train service between two of the Australian colonies began in 1887, operating between Melbourne and Adelaide. Although it was already possible to travel by train between Sydney and Melbourne, that journey required a change of trains because different railway gauges were used in New South Wales and Victoria. Since Victoria and South Australia both used broad (1600 mm) gauge railways, when the lines extending from Melbourne and Adelaide met near the border at Serviceton, a direct train trip between the cities was possible. At this time the railway route between Melbourne and Ballarat proceeded via Geelong because the line to Ballarat through Bacchus Marsh was not completed until December 1889.


Express trains from both Melbourne and Adelaide made their inaugural journeys on 19 January. The train was not officially named and was referred to in early timetables simply as ‘Express’. However, some sources have suggested that it was generally referred to as the Inter-colonial Express, and then later the train was named after its destination city: the Adelaide Express or Melbourne Express. Adelaide Express and Melbourne Express probably began to be used within the early years of the train’s inauguration and came into widespread usage. The first westbound train departed from Adelaide at 3.30 pm, while the eastbound service left Melbourne at 4.05 pm, with the trains crossing at Dimboola. Although the locomotives that hauled the inaugural trains have not been recorded, the train from Melbourne probably departed behind an A Class 4-4-0 locomotive, while the service from Adelaide was almost certainly hauled between Adelaide and Murray Bridge by an R Class 4-6-0 locomotive, two of which had been ordered to operate this service, and then a Q Class 4-4-0 locomotive to Serviceton. One of the carriages on each service was a Mann boudoir sleeping car, with four of these imported from the United States of America by South Australian Railways. They were reported by some newspapers to be the ultimate in comfort and elegance, although there was criticism that the compartments were too close together and did not have enough space when they were not in sleeping configuration.


From the inauguration of the train service, the carriages that formed the express passenger trains between Melbourne and Adelaide were joint stock owned by Victorian Railways and South Australian Railways. In addition to the four sleeping cars, there were eight composite sitting carriages and four brake vans. Three Post Office vans and three mail luggage vans were also added to the joint stock before services began. A joint station was established near the border at Serviceton, and cost £20,000, which included station buildings and offices, Station Master’s residence, 12 cottages and locomotive servicing facilities. The train stopped for dinner and breakfast at Ballarat and Murray Bridge, with a refreshment stop at Serviceton.


New rolling stock was brought into service between 1907 and 1910, and this changed the train’s appearance. Six AVE first class corridor vestibule bogie cars were built at Newport Workshops in Melbourne, and six BE second class cars were built at Islington Workshops in Adelaide. Newport also built one ABVE composite car, a mail and baggage van and two Travelling Post Offices, while brake vans were built at both Newport and Islington. Three dining cars for use on both the Adelaide Express/Melbourne Express and the Sydney Express were also built at Newport, and were given the names Goulburn, Campaspe and Wimmera. On the Adelaide Express/Melbourne Express they were used between Melbourne and Ararat. A dining car named Adelaide was introduced between Adelaide and Tailem Bend in 1927.


Improvements in locomotive technology saw new engines allocated to the train. In Victoria this included the 4-4-0 AA Class 4-4-0 in 1900, the 4-6-0 DD Class 4-6-0 in 1902 and the 4-6-0 A2 Class in 1907. The A2 Class hauled the train in Victoria until the 1950s. South Australia’s R Class were rebuilt to become the more powerful Rx Class from 1899, and a number of new Rx Class members were also built. They became the mainstay of broad-gauge haulage on South Australian railways until the 1920s. In 1926 South Australian Railways introduced the 4-8-2 500 Class, the 4-6-2 600 Class and the 2-8-2 700 Class, which were the heaviest locomotives in Australia when they began operating. A single 500 Class was able to replace three Rx Class hauling a 10-car Melbourne Express up the Mount Lofty Range. 500 Class were mainly used between Adelaide and Tailem Bend while the 600 Class hauled the express between Tailem Bend and Serviceton.


The Overland

Victorian Railways began using the name The Overland in June 1926. However, South Australian Railways did not recognise the name until 4 November 1935. Also in 1926, two new steel sleeping cars entered service for use on The Overland. Improvements in locomotives and rolling stock saw almost 60 minutes cut from the westbound journey time and almost 30 minutes from the eastbound journey in the 1928 timetable.


In 1935, as Australia emerged from the Depression, The Overland was given a facelift to reflect its prestigious identity. The carriages were painted hawthorn green with black and yellow trim, and chromium lettering was attached to the outside. Further timetable improvements were also introduced in 1935 and the following years. By 1939 The Overland departed from Melbourne at 7.00 pm, arriving in Adelaide at 8.25 am, while the eastbound service left Adelaide at 7.30 pm, arriving in Melbourne at 9.35 am.


The Second World War (1939–45) and the years immediately following brought little change in the operation of The Overland. Victorian Railways introduced the 4-6-4 R Class in 1951 and they saw some service hauling The Overland. However, the era of steam locomotives hauling express trains in Australia was rapidly drawing to an end, and the first diesel-hauled run of The Overland was on 13 October 1952. The train was hauled from Melbourne to Serviceton by two Victorian Railways B Class locomotives, and then from Serviceton to Adelaide by two South Australian Railways 900 Class locomotives.


New rolling stock commenced service on the train in 1950 when roomette carriages built at Islington Workshops were introduced, and were followed shortly afterwards by twinette carriages. The following year new first class sitting cars were added to the train, and these were followed by composite sitting cars in 1953. The new carriages were but from Corten steel and had fluted panels and maroon trim, giving a modern look to the train. A club car was added to The Overland in 1972.


By 1977 the departure time from Melbourne was 8.55 pm and arrival in Adelaide was 8.50 am, which was a total journey time of 12 hours and 25 minutes. This contrasts very favourably to the 18 hours and 35 minutes for the journey 90 years earlier in 1887. The eastbound train departed from Adelaide at 7.10 pm and arrived in Melbourne at 9.00 am. Its journey time of 13 hours and 20 minutes was also considerably faster than the 17 hours and 45 minutes eastbound in 1887.


The most serious accident involving The Overland occurred in the early hours of the morning on 7 September 1951 at Serviceton. Running 79 minutes late upon arrival, the eastbound Overland was changing locomotives in dense fog and A2 Class engines 953 and 946 had just attached to the train. At that moment the westbound service, travelling at 73 km/h and hauled by A2 Class 977 and 958, collided head-on with it. Sadly, the fireman on 977 was killed instantly. Around 600 passengers were on the two trains, each consisting of 12 carriages. The four locomotives absorbed most of the impact and 953, 958 and 977 were condemned and subsequently scrapped. Some of the carriages were derailed but did not sustain major damage. Leaking oil from 953 caught fire. Local townsfolk and emergency personnel rushed to the scene. Injured passengers and crew were treated and some were taken to hospital. Staff at the refreshment room supplied passengers with food and drinks over the following 11 hours. Alan Hannan, the driver of 977, the leading engine on the westbound train, was committed on a charge of manslaughter, with a jury finding him not guilty. Following a Victorian Railways inquiry, Hannan was restricted from driving on main lines again.


On 1 March 1978 South Australian Railways was disbanded, with South Australian regional services incorporated into Australian National Railways, later shortened to Australian National. Keswick Terminal, 3 km from Adelaide station, became Australian National’s terminus for regional and interstate trains on 18 May 1984. The first arrival was The Overland, hauled by Australian National’s newest locomotive at the time, BL26 Bob Hawke.


In 1995 the railway between Melbourne and Adelaide was converted to standard gauge as part of an infrastructure development program. After a four-month shutdown to complete the standardisation, The Overland commenced running as a standard gauge train. The first eastbound service departed from Adelaide Rail Passenger Terminal on 1 July and the first westbound service departed from Melbourne’s Spencer Street station on 2 July. Between Melbourne and Ararat the standard gauge line traverses a different route than the original main line, proceeding via North Shore (near Geelong) instead of Ballarat. Thus, The Overland no longer travels through Ballarat and the length of the journey has increased.



Government reforms in the second half of the 1990s led to the demise of Australian National. Its interstate passenger trains, The Ghan¸ the Indian Pacific and The Overland were sold for 16 million to the Great Southern Railway (GSR) Consortium. As part of the sale, 22 Overland carriages were transferred to GSR, including ten sitting cars, two club cars, six sleeping cars, three buffet cars and one power van. The first service of The Overland under GSR ownership departed from Adelaide hauled by NR77 on 1 November 1997. Under private ownership The Overland service began to be downgraded. Club cars were withdrawn and staff numbers were reduced. First class sitting cars were temporarily withdrawn but were reinstated with dirty interiors. The abolition of Senior Card discounts led many elderly passengers to make different travel arrangements. The number of services each week was reduced.


A refurbishment of carriages was announced by GSR on 8 July 1998. After some of the work had been completed, a launch of the ‘new Overland’ occurred at both Melbourne’s Spencer Street station and Adelaide’s Keswick Terminal on 21 March 1999. The refurbishment included painted interiors, new video screens and public address systems, new and cleaned carpets and cloth seat covers, and metal sheeting riveted over rusted roofs. Withdrawal of eight passenger stops from 5 September 1999 enabled journey times to be accelerated.


Despite the refurbishment, The Overland continued struggling to attract passengers. On 29 March 2000 it was announced that the Victorian and South Australian Governments would each contribute $800,000 to revitalise the train. Changes included running four services a week in each direction. This reduced costs for maintenance of rolling stock because only one train set was required to operate the service, with eastbound services operating during the day and westbound services continuing to run overnight.


From the introduction of the express passenger service between Melbourne and Adelaide in 1887 it had always operated as an overnight train. One of the most significant changes occurred on 7 May 2000 when the eastbound Overland began running as a daylight service. The day service later became permanent and the westbound train also began daylight operations. This arrangement remained in place until 2006. After 119 years of overnight services, on 27 February 2006 The Overland became an all-daylight train. It operated three days a week in each direction, meaning that one train set could still operate all services. Sleeping cars were no longer required. The westbound service departed from Melbourne at 7.35 am, arriving in Adelaide at 7.15 pm, while the eastbound train departed from Adelaide at 7.25 am and arrived in Melbourne at 6.40 pm.


A further refurbishment of carriages took place in 2006 and 2007. Two new standards of accommodation were introduced by GSR: Red Premium Service and Rd Service. On 1 August 2013 service frequencies were again reduced. The train now operated twice a week in each direction. Great Southern Rail was rebranded as Journey Beyond Rail in 2019.


The Overland today continues to operate two daylight services in each direction per week. Although many people consider that its glory days are over, the train continues to provide an important transport link between Melbourne and Adelaide, a service that has existed since 1887.



Banger, C, ‘The Overland under Great Southern Railway 1997–2016, Part 1’, Australian Railway History, June 2019, no. 980, pp. 20–7.

Banger, C, ‘The Overland under Great Southern Railway 1997–2016, Part 2’, Australian Railway History, July 2019, no. 981, pp. 19–26.

Banger, C, ‘The Overland under Great Southern Railway 1997–2016, Part 3’, Australian Railway History, August 2019, no. 982, pp. 4–11.

Banger, C, ‘The Overland under Great Southern Railway 1997–2016, Part 4’, Australian Railway History, September 2019, no. 983, pp. 4–9.

Harvey, JY, ‘Named trains of the Victorian Railways’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 283, May 1961, pp. 69–79.

Potts, D, ‘The Overland 112 Years down the track, Part 1: 1885–1950’, Newsrail, vol. 27, no. 12, December 1999, pp. 362–7.

Potts, D, ‘The Overland 112 Years down the track, Part 2: 1951–1975’, Newsrail, vol. 28, no. 1, January 2000, pp. 11–14.

Potts, D, ‘The Overland 112 Years down the track, Part 3: 1976–1991’, Newsrail, vol. 28, no. 2, February 2000, pp. 41–4.

Potts, D, ‘The Overland 112 (113) Years down the track, Part 4: 1992–1997’, Newsrail, vol. 28, no. 7, July 2000, pp. 200–2.

Potts, D, ‘The Overland 113 Years down the track, Part 5: 1997–1999’, Newsrail, vol. 28, no. 12, July 2000, pp. 362–6.

Potts, D, ‘The Overland 113 Years down the track, Part 6: 2000–’, Newsrail, vol. 29, no. 1, January 2001, pp. 10–15.

Rowland, EC, ‘An introduction to The Overland story’, Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, no. 471, January 1977, pp. 1–16.

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B74 and N464 with the last broad-gauge Overland, Footscray, 1 March 1995.

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NR 84 and BL27 hauling the standard-gauge service of The Overland on North Melbourne flyover, 27 September 1999.

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