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Sandfly, Qantas hangar, Parap, Darwin, 25 September 2017.

The Ghan at Katherine station, 27 September 2017.

Top End Railways Today

David Matheson

30 July 2019

The Darwin region is often referred to as Australia’s ‘Top End’. It is connected to the rest of mainland Australia by a standard gauge railway extending to Tarcoola, on the Port Augusta–Kalgoorlie Trans Australian Railway, and then to Adelaide. The north–south transcontinental railway was completed in 2004 and brings regular train services to Darwin. A number of relics of the North Australia Railway, which operated in the Darwin region from 1888 to 1976, can also be found in the Top End.


Freight Services

Genesee & Wyoming Australia (GWA) manages and operates the railway line from Darwin to Tarcoola, a distance of 2246 route kilometres. GWA has a BOOT (Build, Own, Operate, Transfer) contract with the AustralAsia Railway Corporation for the line between Darwin and Alice Springs, while the line between Alice Springs and Tarcoola is owned by ARTC (Australian Rail Track Corporation) but is on long-term lease to GWA. GWA is also a freight rail operator throughout much of mainland Australia. GWA operates intermodal terminals in the Top End at Darwin and Katherine. The GWA website provides information about its network and services. Currently twelve freight trains per week operate between Adelaide and Darwin. In the 2014–15 financial year (the latest figures available) a total 860,000 tonnes of freight were carried, including containerised general freight, automotive and specialised products. Freight services in Darwin operate to and from a terminal at the port at East Arm, around 16 km by road from Darwin Central Business District.

Freight trains between Adelaide and Darwin are generally hauled by FQ Class locomotives. These units entered service in 2003, and were obtained for service on the new standard gauge line, which was about to be opened. There are four members in the class and they were built by Downer EDI at Port Augusta in South Australia. They have a traction output of 2863 kW and weight of 134.0 tonnes. FQ01 and FQ02 are painted with Aboriginal art designs.


The Ghan

Darwin is serviced by The Ghan passenger train, operated by Great Southern Rail, which runs on the north–south transcontinental route between Adelaide and Darwin once a week in each direction. The Ghan has a lengthy history. It operated as a narrow gauge (1067 mm) passenger train from Port Augusta in South Australia, extending to Alice Springs via Oodnadatta in 1929. It was a notoriously slow train and often experienced delays. A new standard gauge line opened to Alice Springs in 1980, providing a faster and more reliable service for The Ghan. In 2004 the railway line between Alice Springs and Darwin was opened and The Ghan began regular standard gauge services over the complete distance between Adelaide and Darwin. A journey between Adelaide and Darwin on The Ghan is 2970 km in length, and its average running speed is 85 km/h. It is usually hauled by two NR Class locomotives, which are owned by Pacific National. The number of carriages in The Ghan’s consist varies, but typically averages 30 carriages, which includes passenger carriages, crew quarters, restaurant and lounge cars, and power vans. Its average length is 774 metres and the average weight is 1400 tonnes.


The Ghan does not operate between mid-December and mid-January. In the Top End The Ghan stops at Katherine in both directions to enable passengers to participate in off-train excursions. The Ghan operates to and from Darwin railway station, which is located at East Arm, around 18 km by road from Darwin Central Business District. The station is open when The Ghan arrives and departs, but is closed at other times. Transfers from selected hotels in Darwin to the railway station are available for guests travelling on The Ghan. The railway station at Katherine was opened in 2004 to service the new standard gauge railway line. It is located approximately 6 km west of Katherine township.


North Australia Railway

The North Australia Railway was the name given to the railway in the Northern Territory extending south from Darwin to Birdum. It was opened in stages from 1888 to 1929. The last train ran on the line on 30 June 1976. Various relics of the North Australia Railway can still be seen, particularly in Darwin, Adelaide River, Pine Creek and Katherine.



The North Australia Railway commenced from the Darwin Central Business District and also serviced Stokes Hill Wharf. Most of the right of way from the line in suburban Darwin is now a cycle path. In the suburb of The Narrows a section of 700 metres of track and a steel bridge has been retained. It is near the Stuart Hwy and opposite Shiers St.


Sandfly is an 0-4-0 saddle tank engine that was the first locomotive to be used within the Northern Territory. It was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in the United States in 1886 and assisted in construction of the section of the North Australia Railway between Darwin and Pine Creek from 1887. Following this it was used in shunting work until 1950. In 1959 it was moved to Port Augusta in South Australia, where it was displayed on the railway station, and then from 1983 it was displayed at the railway terminal in Adelaide. Following the completion of the standard gauge line to Darwin, Sandfly was returned to Darwin in 2005. In 2008 it was transferred to the Qantas Hangar in the Darwin suburb of Parap for restoration. Its restoration has been completed and it remains on display at the Qantas Hangar, which also has a collection of motor vehicles and other machinery. Visitors to the Qantas Hangar are welcome.


Adelaide River Railway Heritage Precinct

Adelaide River Railway Heritage Precinct contains a range of items regarding the North Australia Railway. Within the precinct are the railway station, water tower, locomotives and historic rolling stock. Mount Isa Mines No. 3, an 0-4-0 saddle tank locomotive built by Hudswell Clark in 1910, was donated to the Friends of the North Australia Railway in 2007 and is on display. Inside the station building is a museum displaying historical photographs, tools and other items. The museum is open daily between May and October, except Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Diesel-electric locomotive NSU63, which operated on the North Australia Railway from 1956 to 1967, is displayed next to the Stuart Hwy on the southern side entrance to the town. Adelaide River is approximately 110 km south of Darwin.


Pine Creek Railway Precinct

Pine Creek Railway Precinct has a range of items regarding the former narrow gauge railway between Darwin and Birdum. Located within the precinct is former North Australia Railway 2-6-0 steam locomotive NF5, built by Beyer Peacock in 1877, former Western Australian Government Railways diesel locomotive TA1814, an historic passenger carriage, as well as the former railway station building and the station master’s house built in 1889. Public access to the railway precinct is open at all times, and is located near the town centre. The locomotives and carriage are within a locked compound, but can be viewed through the fence. The station building is open daily from May to September. Pine Creek is approximately 230 km south-east of Darwin.


Katherine Railway Precinct

The railway line to Katherine was opened in 1926 when the bridge over the Katherine River was completed. It provided a link to Darwin for 50 years until the North Australia Railway ceased operating in 1976. The historic railway precinct at Katherine includes the old railway station, 2-6-0 steam locomotive NFB88, some goods wagons, the original railway bridge over the Katherine River that opened in 1926, a water tank, loading platform and other infrastructure. NFB88 was built as a Y Class engine for the South Australian railways by James Martin & Company at Gawler in South Australia in 1892, and rebuilt in 1919. Public access to the railway precinct is open at all times, and is located near the town centre. The station building is open on Tuesdays to Saturdays; it includes a display room with various photographs and artefacts. Most of the infrastructure within the historic railway precinct dates from the opening of the railway in 1926. Katherine is approximately 320 km south-east of Darwin.



Adelaide River Railway Heritage Precinct <>.

Anchen, N, Iron roads in the outback, Sierra, Melbourne, 2017.

AustralAsia Railway Corporation <>.

Australian Steam-Mount Isa Mines No. 3 <>.

Bromby, R, Rails to the Top End: the Adelaide–Darwin transcontinental railway, 3rd. ed., Paul Fitzsimons, Alice Springs, 2004.

Genesee & Wyoming Australia <>

Harvey, JY, The never-never line: the story of the North Australia Railway, Hyland, Melbourne, 1987.

Pine Creek Railway Precinct <>.

Railway Station Katherine <>


Passenger railway terminal, Darwin, 28 September 2017.




Locomotive FQ02, passenger railway terminal, 28 September 2017.

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