Darwin railway station, about 1914. Photo: Northern Territory Library, <>.
Katherine railway bridge, 1926. Photo: Northern Territory Library, <>.
Top End Railway History
14 July 2019
In 2004 the north–south transcontinental standard gauge railway opened between Darwin and Alice Springs, connecting Darwin to the rest of mainland Australia by rail. But the Darwin region, often referred to as Australia’s ‘Top End’, has a much longer railway history.
Opening and extending the first line
The first train services in the Northern Territory commenced between Palmerston (now Darwin) and Adelaide River on 16 July 1888. A daily service was operated by Charles and Edward Millar, the contractors building the line, using rolling stock owned by the South Australian Railways. It was a narrow gauge (1067 mm) line that was soon extended further south. The line reached Pine Creek and came under the ownership of South Australian Railways on 30 September 1889. Three services operated between Palmerston and Pine Creek in each direction weekly. On 1 January 1911 the administration of the Northern Territory was transferred from the South Australian Government to the Australian Government, which also took over the railway between Darwin and Pine Creek.
The line was extended from Pine Creek to Emungalan, on the northern side of the Katherine River, in 1917, to Katherine in 1926, and to Mataranka in 1928. Its maximum length was achieved when it reached Birdum, 316 miles 17 chains (508.9 km) from Darwin in 1929, the same year that the Central Australian Railway reached Alice Springs from the south. It was intended that a railway would be constructed between Alice Springs and Birdum, thus connecting Adelaide and Darwin, but the north–south transcontinental line was not built for many years.
North Australia Railway
Officially named the North Australia Railway, the Darwin–Birdum railway was often referred to as the Never-Never line. Traffic was generally light on the line, reflecting the small population in the Northern Territory. Cattle, agricultural produce and iron ore were transported, along with machinery and other goods. Services were slow, with trains restricted to a maximum speed of 40 km/h. Slow speeds and lengthy stops at stations and sidings resulted in long journey times. Passenger services typically operated once a week.
During the Second World War the North Australia Railway was used extensively for transporting troops, military supplies and equipment. The line was upgraded and additional locomotives and rolling stock were obtained. Railway personnel from other parts of Australia volunteered for service in the Northern Territory. Japanese bombs targeted the line but it was quickly repaired to maintain operations. NF Class locomotive No. 6 was destroyed and blown into Darwin Harbour during the first Japanese air raid on the city on 19 February 1942.
Traffic declined again following the end of the war, but increased following the opening of a spur line to the Frances Creek iron ore mine (near Pine Creek) in 1966. The maximum amount of freight hauled on the North Australia Railway was in 1969–70, when 1,158,354 tons were carried, with 95.7 % of this being iron ore. By 1974 changing economic conditions forced the Frances Creek mine company into liquidation.
During Cyclone Tracy, which hit Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974, the North Australia Railway experienced some damage to buildings and rolling stock, but the city of Darwin suffered extensive destruction and large loss of life. The immediate economic downturn following the cyclone led to a reduction in train operations. A large operating deficit was of considerable concern to the government and a decision was made to suspend services. The last train was hauled by locomotive NT69 on 30 June 1976.
Steam engines operated services on the North Australia Railway from its opening, and nine different classes of steam locomotives operated on the line at various times. Small 0-4-0 saddle tank engine Sandfly was used in construction work on the line from 1887 and later used for shunting work. Sandfly has been preserved and is located at the Qantas hangar at Parap in Darwin. Another engine used in construction work was Silverton, which was purchased by South Australian Railways at the end of 1889 and operated in South Australia as Y Class engine No. 106. From the opening of the line 2-6-0 NF Class engines were used to haul train services. NFA, NG and NM Classes followed later. During the Second World War NFB, NFC and NGA engines were sent north to assist with operations. The first diesel-electric locomotives were NSU Class units, which began service in 1956. Steam power quickly disappeared and the last steam-hauled train was hauled by NFB97. NT Class diesels operated on the line from 1966.
Passengers services on the line were usually formed by mixed trains, but railcars also operated. A Sentinel-Cammell steam rail car was in service from 1924 to 1936, a Leyland Titan petrol railcar operated from 1941 until 1954, and diesel-hydraulic railcars from 1955 to 1965.
Alice Springs–Darwin railway
Following the cessation of train operations in 1976 the Top End was without railway services until 2004. The dream of a north–south transcontinental railway finally became a reality, but the new line mostly used a different route to the old North Australia Railway. Alice Springs had been connected with Adelaide in 1980 by a standard gauge (1435 mm) railway via Tarcoola on the Port Augusta–Kalgoorlie Trans Australian Railway. 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.
The length of the line between Alice Springs and Darwin is 1420 km, and it required 97 bridges, 146,000 tonnes of rail and around 2,000,000 sleepers. It was built by the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium (APTC) under a Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) model. Two sleeper factories and depots were established: at Tennant Creek and Katherine. Track-laying gangs gradually moved further away from the depots. The final thermit weld was made at Alice Springs on 18 September 2003, completing the railway link, although work on other infrastructure continued.
On 15 January 2004 the first standard gauge train to Darwin departed from Adelaide. FreightLink service 001 was 1.1 km in length and conveyed 82 containers. Ceremonies were held at Adelaide, Port Augusta, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin. The train arrived at the end of its journey in Darwin on 17 January.
The first run of The Ghan passenger train on the complete north–south journey departed from Adelaide on 1 February 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 115 years after the first train service in the Top End, Darwin was finally connected to the rest of mainland Australia by standard gauge railway.
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Fischer, T, ‘All aboard the first freight train to Darwin’, Railway Digest, vol. 42, no. 3, March 2004, pp. 30–1.
Fischer, T, ‘At last – the first Ghan to Darwin’, Railway Digest, vol. 42, no. 4, April 2004, pp. 32–3.
Harvey, JY, The never-never line: the story of the North Australia Railway, Hyland, Melbourne, 1987.
Steam locomotive NFB88, railway precinct, Katherine, Northern Territory, Tuesday, 26 September 2017.
NSU 63, railway precinct, Adelaide River, Northern Territory, Thursday, 28 September 2017.