- See Rail travel in Australia for general information about travelling by train in Australia
Australia can be crossed by two great railway journeys, The Ghan, which crosses north to south straight through the heart of Australia, from Darwin to Adelaide, and the Indian Pacific, which crosses east to west, from Sydney to Perth.
|The Indian Pacific she goes rollin' down the track. Five thousand miles to travel before she's there and back.
—Slim Dusty - "Indian Pacific"
History of the Ghan
The Ghan is named after the Afghan cameleers that transported goods to Australia's remote centre prior to the construction of the railway. The sand and heat made the trip entirely unsuited to horses. The cameleers overwhelmingly weren't from Afghanistan, they were just known as Afghans in the Australian vernacular.
The construction of the original Ghan from Adelaide started in 1878, with Oodnadatta reached in 1891 and, after a thirty-year break, Alice Springs in 1926. A separate but unconnected track from Darwin to Katherine in the north was also completed in the same year; this line was closed in 1976.
Unfortunately, the original Ghan was twisty, narrow-gauge and built straight through many valleys prone to flash floods that washed away tracks and bridges. A decision was thus made to rebuild nearly all of the line in standard gauge, over 100 km to the west. The new line to Alice Springs opened in 1980, and the remaining 1,420 km (880 mi) section across the continent to Darwin opened in 2004.
History of the Indian Pacific
A single train journey from Sydney to Perth (linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans) became possible with the completion of the standard gauge railway in 1969 when the last standard gauge link was completed between Broken Hill and Peterborough. Prior to this, travelling across Australia by train between Perth and Sydney was a relay of trains. At certain times in history there were four changes of railway gauge, at Broken Hill, Peterborough, Port Pirie, and Kalgoorlie. The great mining town of Broken Hill was linked by the narrow-gauge railways to Port Pirie (north of Adelaide) before it was linked with Sydney. You can see some of this history in the Sulphide Street Railway Museum in Broken Hill, at Steamtown in Peterborough, and at the museum in the old station at Port Pirie. The railway line in Port Pirie ran right down the main street of the town. In the 1930s, the transcontinental trip was over five days, with changes of trains through Albury, Melbourne, Adelaide, Port Pirie and Kalgoorlie.
The breaks of gauge were due to the states each having their own gauge, and the Commonwealth completing the missing link between Port Pirie and Kalgoorlie in standard gauge (the same as New South Wales).
Some towns along the line enjoyed several services a day during their heyday. The full Sydney to Perth service ran three times a week. Today, however, the irony is that railway buffs can see more of the rail history of the line and the towns along it travelling by car than by train. You can spend a good half day exploring the history of Peterborough and of Port Pirie, but passenger trains no longer stop in either of them.
These are not high-speed transcontinental trains. They are slow, laid back and luxurious trains that know how to take their time and let you enjoy the scenery. The trains are privately run by Journey Beyond. The current iteration of both routes was not built for passenger traffic, but rather to serve the very lucrative freight business.
Any way you look at it, The Ghan and the Indian Pacific are expensive. The more economical "Red Service" has been discontinued, and both trains now cater exclusively to the luxury market with an all-sleeper configuration. The lowest class of service is "Gold Service", which has single cabins (shared shower), twin cabins (shower en suite) and includes all meals in the dedicated restaurant car. This will set you back at least $2,115 on The Ghan, and $2,475 on the Indian Pacific in the low season, increasing to $2,845 on the Ghan and $2,835 on the Indian Pacific during the peak season. Add another $2000-4000 on top, and you can get a double-sized "Platinum Service" cabin, which also gets you a quieter dedicated lounge on board, and complimentary transfers from and to your place of accommodation at the start and end of your journey respectively.
If you have a car in Australia, the value proposition can improve slightly, if you take your car with you. On the premium fare there are often deals available to take a car for $99 extra, which you can then offset against the price of renting a car at your destination, or if you drive one way, the prospect of the 3000 km drive home. Taking your car with you is only possible when travelling from Adelaide to Perth and vice versa on the Indian Pacific, and when travelling from Adelaide to Darwin and vice versa on The Ghan. You will need to call Journey Beyond to make arrangements in advance if you want to take your car with you.
You cannot get off and board a few days later at most intermediate stations, as these trains are meant to be luxury rail cruises rather than practical modes of transportation. The exceptions are Adelaide, which is allowed as an intermediate stopping point for passengers on the Indian Pacific, and Alice Springs, which is allowed as an intermediate stopping point for passengers on The Ghan. Both these intermediate stops have to be arranged in advance, and you will need to book each leg separately if you want to stop off.
Sydney and Perth are well-connected by air, each with services to all other Australian capital cities and international destinations. There are public train services up and down the east coast connecting the nearby country towns to Sydney. There is a public train once a week to Broken Hill, which you can catch from Sydney, and then join the Indian Pacific there. Similarly, Perth is also served by trains connecting it to nearby country towns near the west coast, and also has a service to Kalgoorlie where you can join the Indian Pacific. These trips costs considerably less than the privately run Indian Pacific on the same routes. Adelaide's railway network is limited to some suburban rail services, and does not have any services to the country towns.
This itinerary assumes you start from Darwin and head south, but it's also possible in the opposite direction. The Ghan takes 54 hours to travel 2,979 km (1,851 mi). The Ghan only operates between March and November, and does not operate between December and February as that is the rainy season in northern Australia.
- 1 Darwin — From Darwin (0 km), there is a departure every Wednesday at 10AM between March and November. The three-day, two-night journey takes around 50 hours from end to end. The station is a fair way from central Darwin, about 20 minutes drive. The railway's primary purpose is freight, and the line goes straight to the port at East Arm, without passing through any built-up areas. Dedicated buses connect between the Darwin Transit Centre in Mitchell St and the rail station for an additional fee. Taxis are possible, but expensive. There is no scheduled bus.
From Adelaide (2979 km), departures are on Sunday 12:15PM between March and November, with an additional train on Wednesdays at the 12:10PM between April and October.
- 2 Katherine (312 km) — The Ghan stops here for around five hours, with an optional guided "Whistle Stop Tour" available. The old railway from Darwin to Katherine stopped in central Katherine, and you can visit the site of the railway station. You can walk the old high level railway bridge across the Katherine river following the old alignment. However, it is around 10 km from the old station to the new one, so if you want to see Katherine, the tour may be your best option.
- 3 Alice Springs (1420 km) — Alice Springs is the former northern terminus of The Ghan and the largest town by far en route. The train stops here for around four hours, long enough for a quick peek around town. The station is on the edge of the CBD, a couple of blocks walk to the Todd mall. Many people opt to break their journey here for a few days and visit Uluru, about 400 km away, but there is plenty to do for a few days in Alice and surrounds even if you don't venture to the Rock. Alice Springs has all the services to make it possible.
- 4 Marla — Marla is a purpose built highway service centre with nothing else there except the highway, train line and the station. The highlight of any visit there is to see The Ghan when it passes through, and the desert stretching off into the distance, if you are actually on The Ghan looking at the desert stretching off into the distance, best to stay on board. Only the northbound train stops here, during which you may step off the train to stretch your legs and watch the sunrise, but you may not begin or end your journey here.
- 5 Manguri — Only the southbound train stops here, and only between on journeys made between March and November, during which you can get off to stretch your legs and gaze at the stars, but you may not begin or end your journey here.
- 6 Adelaide (2979 km) — The end of the line — unless you switch onto the Indian Pacific and continue onward to Perth or Sydney.
The Indian Pacific
This route connects the Perth on the Indian Ocean with Sydney on the Pacific Ocean. The 4,352 km trip takes about three days and is distance-wise by far the longest in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the longest domestic rail journeys in the world. It's notable for the 478 km long section across the Nullarbor Plain, which is the longest straight railway stretch in the world. Unlike The Ghan, the Indian Pacific runs year-round. From Sydney, the train departs every Wednesday at 1:55PM, while from Perth, the train departs every Sunday at 10AM.
- 1 Perth — Either the destination of the Indian Pacific journey, or the point of departure, Perth is a useful terminus. The train Indian Pacific departs from the East Perth terminal, just two stations away from the Perth CBD. The city caters for all levels of travellers, with budget backpackers well catered for in Northbridge, the suburb immediately north of the city railway station - to the hotels in the CBD which cater for the high spenders.
- 2 Kalgoorlie — Only the eastbound train stops here. An alternative to the long distance train Indian Pacific, the local Prospector rail service runs a daytime service daily between Kalgoorlie and Perth, but covering the distance in half the time it takes the Indian Pacific to do so. The Kalgoorlie railway station itself is easy walking distance to the centre of town and accommodation Passengers on the eastbound train may join at tour of the town here while the train is stopped, but this is not available to westbound passengers as the train passes through in the middle of the night. The train passes through the picturesque Avon Valley on its way between Perth and Kalgoorlie.
- 3 Rawlinna — Only the westbound train (towards Perth) stops here, and there is a live music performance on the platform. During the summer months, dinner is served on the platform, while at other times of the year, you will return on board the train to have dinner in the restaurant car.
- 4 Cook — Originally founded to service the railway, today it is a ghost town, where you will be allowed to walk around the station while your train is refuelled.
- 5 Adelaide — The capital of South Australia has many attractions and facilities, and is the gateway to many more. The Keswick station has been renamed the Adelaide Parklands Terminal, on account of it being on the outside of the Adelaide city greenbelt. There is no suburban rail service from Adelaide Parklands Terminal to Adelaide City Terminal, the bus is a 15 minute walk from Adelaide Parklands Terminal. Taxi to the city is expensive, around $20, or you can call Uber. There are no real facilities or attractions in the station vicinity. The station itself is very basic, its only purpose to serve the Indian Pacific and Ghan trains that arrive a couple of times week. You can get your car off here, and transfer between the two transcontinental services.
- 6 Broken Hill — Only the westbound train stops here. Tours are offered here in the couple of hours that the train is at the station, with the coaches pulling up at the station at the same time as the train. If you choose not to take the coach tour, the railway station is right in the centre of town, and you can easily walk and spend time browsing the windows of a few galleries, returning to the station for breakfast. The tour is not available to for passengers on the eastbound train as the train passes through in the middle of the night.
- 7 Mount Victoria — Only the eastbound train (towards Sydney) stops here. Passengers may get off here to join a tour of the Blue Mountains, and you will be later transported onwards to Sydney on one of NSW Trainlink's trains.
- 8 Sydney — The orange-coloured Sydney Central station is located just south of the Central Business District, and is actually smaller than you might expect. In addition to being the eastern terminus for the Indian Pacific, it is one of the main nodes in the city's public transport system. Things to see at the station itself include the flags of Australian states and territories hanging from the ceiling and the small exhibition of Australian railway history. If you've just arrived by train, exit the main entrance, and walk straight on for half an hour or so and you'll see the Opera House on your right-hand side and Harbour Bridge on your left.
Though the journeys are long, and there are few chances of people just wandering in onto the train like in other countries, it is nevertheless wise to secure your room or items.
On a connecting train
The Overland (which is also a Great Southern Rail train) operates between Adelaide and Melbourne. Unlike the Indian Pacific or The Ghan, The Overland is a day trip and takes 10 hours.
Sydney and Perth are both served by country rail services that connect to various country towns. Country rail services from Sydney are operated by NSW TrainLink, while those from Perth are operated by TransWA. NSW TrainLink also operates the Melbourne XPT from Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra, as well as the Brisbane XPT from Sydney to Brisbane. From Brisbane, the Gold Coast is easily accessible on the suburban network of Queensland Rail, which also operates the long distance Spirit of Queensland all the way to Cairns.
And see what you missed
Australia's pioneers had a grand vision for the railways, to cover a continent, and there are many places where this grand history can be seen. If you are catching the train one way, and travelling by car the other way, you can catch up with some of the interesting railway history you may have missed.
The Oodnadatta Track basically follows the original alignment of the Ghan before it was moved. There are sections of track still in place, and you can walk on large sections of the alignment from the road. The Oodnadatta station looks largely unchanged from when it saw its last train service 40 years ago.
|Rail transport in Australia