The first suggestion of a transcontinental railway between Adelaide and the tropical north came from a Melbourne businessman, J. Roberston in 1858 which was four years before land speculators financed John McDouall Stuart's trip across the continent. The South Australian government showed no interest at that time but private interest led to the formation of the Great Northern Railway Company of South Australia in 1869.
It was incorporated in London on 13 April 1869 with a capital of one million pounds to 'enter into an agreement or agreements with the government of South Australia for the construction of a railway from Port Augusta'. Nothing came of this or later proposals but in 1878 South Australia finally began to build its 3 feet 6 inch gauge Great Northern Railway. Starting in Port Augusta it was expected to reach Darwin within a short time. It wound its way through the Pichi Richi Pass, resulting in the establishment of several new towns, and crossed the western plains via Hawker, Beltana and Farina reaching Marree in 1883. Many years later it was extended to reach Oodnadatta in 1891.
In 1883, the John Cox Bray Government introduced the Palmerston and Pine Creek Railway Bill. The £959,300 contract went to C & E Millar of Melbourne and the line reached Pine Creek in 1888. It was officially opened on 30 September 1889. Some 3000 Chinese labourers worked on this part of the line. Many different proposals have been made since to join Pine Creek with Oodnadatta. In 1906 Premier Tom Price offered the whole of the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth Government for £3,400,000 if it would start with the railway within 12 months.
When the Commonwealth Government took control in 1926 it extended the line from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs and from Pine Creek to Birdum. Both places were reached during 1929. During the Second World War Larrimah, nine kilometres north of Birdum, became the effective railhead. The thousand or so kilometres between Birdum and Alice Springs were never completed. Originally the terminus of the railway - 'the line to nowhere' Larrimah is now just another stopover point on the Stuart Highway with an outback pub, the Larrimah Hotel, which was actually the pub at Birdum until it was moved to Larrimah in 1952. The line was closed in 1976.
Since that time the southern part of the line has been relocated from the Flinders Ranges and Oodnadatta to Tarcoola whereas other parts, both north and south, have been pulled up. When the relocation of the line via Tarcoola was completed the continuation of the line from the Alice to Darwin was considered as 'ultimately inevitable' and became the subject of a government sponsored feasibility study. Seventeen years later 'the Holy Grail' as many people began to call it, was seen as South Australia's lifeline to future prosperity.
In 1997 it was estimated that the construction would create 4600 direct jobs and 9600 indirect jobs. Whyalla in particular would gain from the production of the steel rails. Coober Pedy was predicted to become the Ruhr Valley of Australia.
Two years later, in 1999, it was expected that 1.8 km. long trains would carry up to 300 double stacked containers for the Asian markets. After the deal was finally signed and sealed between the various partners, Mayor Joy Baluch of Port Augusta said that it was just the tonic needed for her city and that she had always known 'that God had his hand on my city'.
By the end of 2002 the project was already six months ahead of schedule, advancing some two kilometres each day. The building of the line has provided many employment opportunities for local residents. More than 300 people from Darwin, 240 from Katherine, 130 from Tennant Creek, 50 from Alice Springs and 120 from South Australia have gained employment on the line. The contract for the maintenance of the Port Augusta-Tarcoola section was won by Transfield Services.
Unloading some of the new sleepers for upgrading of the existing line.
Ready to be used
Reloading for placement
Transfield's fully automated removal of old sleepers
Fasteners used to secure the rails to the sleepers.
The contract for the maintenance of the Tarcoola-Alice Springs section and the building of the Alice Springs-Darwin line is held by ADrail.
One of the nearly hundred bridges needed.
Cement sleeper plant at Tennant Creek.
One of the many level crossings (at Pine Creek) waiting for the track.
Some 1400 kilometres of earthworks need to be completed
Placing the rails on the completed earthworks.
Positioning the rails to the correct gauge.
After the placing of sleepers, the rails are positioned into the slots.
Possible future customers
Darwin where new harbour facilities are being built at the East Arm Wharf ready for the arrival of the trains from Adelaide. The Northern Territory Government will spend $9 million on a Business Park in the East Arm Development Area.