Adelaide to Darwin railway - 10 years on


By Benjamin Haslem

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the inaugural journey on the Adelaide to Darwin railway.

In my past role at Jackson Wells, I worked with a team that provided public relations support to the project, from financial close up to the first journey and beyond.

I provided on-the-ground PR support during the inaugural trip, which left Adelaide on 15 January 2004 and arrived in the Northern Territory (NT) capital of Darwin two days later.
Wells Haslem Chairman, John Wells also worked on the project.

Former Deputy Prime Minister (and railway enthusiast), Tim Fischer, was appointed ambassador on that first journey, riding aboard two passenger carriages coupled behind the locomotives (pictured above). 

Tim provided regular media updates throughout the journey via satellite phone.

He was an instant hit. When the train passed through an NT one-horse town at 2am, a family was standing trackside holding a large 'Welcome Tim' banner. 

A small group of journalists joined the train in Alice Springs. I flew to Alice Springs for the train's arrival and departure and then again by plane to Darwin, where the train was greeted by then Prime Minister John Howard and a large crowd at the Port of Darwin (below right).


A railway line linking Australia's 'northern capital' Darwin with Adelaide had long been mooted.
A line from Adelaide to Alice Springs in the nation's heart was completed in 1929 but no track had extended further south from Darwin than to the tiny hamlet of Larrimah (pop. 11), 182km drive south-east of Katherine. 
The Darwin to Larrimah line was completed in 1929 and closed in 1976.

The Adelaide to Darwin railway line was not without its controversies. 

In 2000 the AustralAsia Rail Corporation (owned by the South Australia and Northern Territory governments) awarded the contract to build the line to the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium, which included Kellogg Brown & Root, John Holland Group and Macmahon Holdings.
The Federal Government also invested heavily in the project.

The FreightLink consortium was contracted to build and operate the line under a Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) scheme, with ownership eventually transferring back to public hands after 50 years. 

The line runs from Tarcoola (at the junction with the Adelaide to Perth railway line) to Darwin. 

Critics of the project said it was destined to be a white elephant, with insufficient demand for domestic and export rail freight to cover operating expenses. It was more cost effective to send freight into South-East Asia by ship from southern ports than by rail through the Port of Darwin, which was upgraded as part of the project.

FreightLink argued the railway line would generate strong economic growth, particularly by making previously uneconomic mining projects feasible because it was less expensive to send minerals by rail than road.

The challenge for FreightLink was explaining to a sceptical media that it would take several years for freight volumes to grow sufficiently for the project to return a profit.


FreightLink agreed to sell its ownership of the rail link in May 2008, after failing to make a profit, later being placed in voluntary administration. 

The line is now owned by the US railroad company Genesee & Wyoming Inc, which purchased it for A$334 million.

The critics will argue they had the last laugh but the bottom line is a railway line exists, carrying both freight and the famous Ghan passenger train through Australia's heart from south to north.