Early days of Australian rail transport


When Australia’s remote inland was first settled, there were no trains to carry passengers and freight.

Overland travel meant a difficult journey by foot, horseback, wagon or camel. The alternative was to travel by ship around the continent and complete the overland journey from the nearest port. This meant that people and news travelled slowly and freight was expensive.Camel train team, changing pastures ca. 1910.

Australia’s first trains began operating in 1854, when the country was still a group of separate colonies. The first train lines in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide spanned only a few kilometres.

As early as 1855, some visionaries dreamed of a network of railways crossing the country and connecting all the major settlements, increasing access to inland Australia and its resources. In reality, the early railway lines that developed were bound within states, linking major cities and ports with industrial and agricultural areas.

Railways were expanded as settlers began to venture further inland in search of arable land for farms, and miners looked further inland for gold. Railways were needed to bring farm and mining produce to the capital cities and ports.

The railways were also valuable to alleviate the isolation of remote settlements and reduce the cost of supplies. These early inland rail lines formed the basis for the systems that would eventually become Australia’s transcontinental railways.

Early Australian trains were powered by steam engines that burned coal and poured black soot from their chimneys. In the 1950s, these were replaced by cleaner and more efficient diesel locomotives. Electric train followed and are now most the most common train in the built up areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

Diesel trains are still used for country routes and some steam trains still operate for tourists and heritage enthusiasts in many parts of Australia.

Rail gauge incompatibility

When railway construction began in Australia in the 1850s, the engineers favoured the gauge system they were most familiar with: the emerging standard gauge (rails 1,425 millimetres apart) from England and Europe or the broad gauge (rails 1,590 millimetres apart) from Ireland.

A third system of a narrow gauge (rails 1050mm apart) was chosen for Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. The narrow gauge system was also used in other states for industries such as timber cutting and mining. The narrow gauges had advantages when working in the mountains as less earth had to be cut out of the side of hills to build the lines.

Despite initial attempts to work together for a uniform approach, the colonies were driven by economic and political pressures to develop their own systems.

When train lines were expanded to travel between states, the lines, equipment and operating practices were incompatible. Passengers and freight would often have to be transferred from one train to another at state borders. In 1917, a person wanting to travel from Perth to Brisbane on an east-to-west crossing of the continent had to change trains six times.

Gauge widths still vary for lines within states. Some narrow gauge railways are still maintained and operated by enthusiasts for their heritage value.

Mainland interstate lines have now been standardised, so that passengers and freight can travel between capital cities without the need to change trains.

Establishment of a transcontinental railway

The first freight train heading for Darwin from Alice Springs in February 2004.

Railways expanded rapidly across the country, but the problems of distance and expense continued and held back the completion of a transcontinental railway throughout the 1900s.

A train route crossing Australia from north to south was noted in the 1870s as an important facility to improve trade and communications with Darwin and, in turn, with Asia and Europe, but it took over a century for it to be completed.

The route of The Ghan that would eventually link Adelaide to Darwin began construction in 1878. This south-to-north line reached Oodnadatta, in South Australia, in 1891. This remained the end of the line until it was extended to Alice Springs in 1929.

From its first days until the completion of a new all-weather standard gauge route in 1980, The Ghan was prone to long delays and floods along the tracks.

In February 2004, the line between Alice Springs and Darwin was finally completed.

Modern Australian train journeys

Today, there are several long distance and interstate train routes across different parts of Australia. They are still economically important for transport of goods and for tourism.

Rail travel offers a unique and popular way to see the Australian countryside. Within each state there are also many shorter commercial and specialist heritage train journeys in operation.

The Ghan

The Ghan journeys from Adelaide in the south, through Alice Springs in central Australia, to Darwin in the far north. Its name is an abbreviation of ‘Afghan’, a reference to the camels that were once the preferred means of desert transport in Australia, and the camel men that drove them.

The Ghan’s journey crosses several diverse Australian landscapes: temperate Adelaide, the arid Red Center, the unique Katherine and tropical Darwin.

The Indian Pacific

The Indian Pacific travels across The Nullarbor

The Indian Pacific travels from Sydney on the Pacific Ocean in the east, through Adelaide, to Perth on the Indian Ocean in the west. It is one of the world’s longest train journeys and includes the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track: 478 kilometres.

The trip travels through the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, the treeless plains of The Nullarbor and the historic towns of Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie.

The journey from Sydney to Perth covers 4,352 kilometres and takes three days and nights.

Puffing Billy

Puffing Billy is probably the most famous steam train in Australia and is a popular tourist attraction. It still runs on its original mountain track in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, forty kilometres east of Melbourne.

Built in the early 1900s as one of four trial lines in the district, Puffing Billy winds along a 24.5 kilometre track through rain forests and mountain communities.

Puffing Billy also hosts an annual Great Train Race where runners race the train up a thirteen-kilometre stretch of the mountain track.

Other Australian rail journeys

Other rail journeys that provide travellers and tourists alike with the opportunity to experience some of Australia’s unique and varied scenery by train include:

  • The Great Zig Zag railway, providing spectacular views of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales
  • The Overland between Melbourne and Adelaide, which has been operating since 1887
  • The Sunlander running from Brisbane to Cairns in Australia’s north
  • The Queenslander, another long-distance train running between Brisbane and Cairns in Queensland
  • The high-speed Tilt Train between Brisbane and Rockhampton in Queensland
  • Pichi Richi Railway, a heritage steam train in Quorn, South Australia
  • The Gulflander, an historic rail journey between Normanton and Croydon on Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland
  • Kuranda Scenic Railway, a stunning journey through the tropical hill country between Cairns and Kuranda in far north Queensland
  • Bellarine Peninsula railway, an historic steam train journey between Drysdale and Queenscliff in Victoria
  • Hotham Valley tourist railway in Western Australia
  • The SteamRanger ‘Cockle’ Train, a scenic stream train journey from Goolwa to Victor Harbour in South Australia.

Trams around Australia

All major Australian cities have run trams as a form of public transport and many, including Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, still do. Other cities have turned their historic tram routes into tourist attractions, providing international and Australian visitors with a unique alternative to sight-seeing. Find out more about Australian trams, past and present, on the Railpage website’s Trams of Australia section.