Across Australia by train

This article is an itinerary.
The Ghan arriving in Darwin

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.

Understand

The Indian Pacific she goes rollin' down the track. Five thousand miles to travel before she's there and back. Slim Dusty - Indian Pacific

Take your time

These are not high speed transcontinental trains. They are laid-back kind of trains that know how to take their time and enjoy the scenery. The trains are privately run by Great Southern Rail.

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.

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 1420 km 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 5 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 the train may not be along to pick you up for another week. The motorail gives you the option of driving one way, and catching the train back.

Prepare

Any way you look at it, The Ghan and the Indian Pacific are expensive, unless you purchase a Rail Pass. The standard "Red Service" Daynighter reclining seat is $716 from Darwin to Adelaide, although the price is cut in half if you book a prepaid, non-refundable, non-changeable "Rail Saver" fare or use a child, backpacker or YHA fare. A "Red Service" twin share sleeper cabin is $1312/800 standard/concession per person, with no Rail Saver available. Don't expect luxury: the trains used are refurbished 1970s-vintage American models.

If you fork out $1973/1357, you can upgrade to "Gold Service", which has single cabins (shared shower), twin cabins (shower en suite) and includes all meals in the dedicated restaurant car. Add another $1000 on top, and you can get a double-sized "Platinum Service" cabin.

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.

You can also leverage some value out of taken stops at the destinations along the way, with Alice Springs being the perfect stopping point on the Ghan, and Broken Hill and Adelaide both being good options on the Indian Pacific. There aren't too many other options, though, with small towns, infrequent service and inconvenient arrival times making the other towns a hassle to stop at.

If you have a non-Australian passport, you can purchase a Rail Pass and save a considerable amount of money. The Ausrail Pass ($722 for 3 months, $990 for 6 months) allows unlimited travel on "all long distance services in any direction as often as you like over a six month period". If you only want to explore one part of the country, there are other passes available for even less money that cater to specific sections.

Get in

Darwin can be reached by plane from all major Australian cities and a few international destinations like Singapore, but does not have any other train services.

Sydney, Perth and Adelaide 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 through 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. This trip costs considerably less than the privately run Indian Pacific on the same route.

The Ghan

The Ghan

This itinerary assumes you start from Darwin and head south, but it's also possible in the opposite direction.

From Adelaide (2979 km), departures are on Sunday 12:20PM throughout the year and Wednesdays at the same time between June and August.

The Indian Pacific

The route of the Indian Pacific
Indian Pacific at Sydney Central

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.

Stay safe

As it is a long journey, 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.

Go next

On a connecting train

The Overland train (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.

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.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Monday, December 14, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.