Across Australia by train
- This article is an itinerary.
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
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.
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.
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.
This itinerary assumes you start from Darwin and head south, but it's also possible in the opposite direction.
- Darwin — From Darwin (0 km), there is a departure every Wednesday (10AM) throughout the year, and an additional service on Saturdays (9AM) between June September. 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 12:20PM throughout the year and Wednesdays at the same time between June and August.
- 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.
- Tennant Creek (945 km) — The Ghan isn't the way to see Tennant Creek. The train passes through in the early hours of the morning. The attractions of Tennant Creek require a car, and you aren't going to hire one here. There really isn't much of an experience to be had in town. If you are desperate enough to get off here, the local accommodation providers know the timetables, and you can see if you can arrange to be picked up from the station. Don't consider walking. Tennant Creek isn't the kind of place you want to be trying to find your way to your accommodation late at night.
- 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.
- Chandler and Marla— Chandler is a tiny settlement where The Ghan intersects the Stuart Highway. 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. If you do decide to get off, the motel, service station, and associated facilities are just across the road from the station.
- Coober Pedy (Manguri) — By prior arrangement only, The Ghan can stop at Manguri, 42 km away from the town of Coober Pedy. You must have pre-arranged a pickup from here, since the location is very remote. The roads to Coober Pedy are dirt, and can be effected by the weather. If you can't demonstrate an arranged pickup is there, you may not be allowed to disembark.
- Tarcoola — At the former mining town of Tarcoola, the Ghan merges with the Indian Pacific line coming in from Perth to the west. There are no shops, no accommodation, and if that doesn't seal the deal, the pub has closed. If you want to change between The Ghan and the Indian Pacific, don't do it here. Port Augusta or Adelaide are your two options.
- Kingoonya — Markets itself as a "seriously outback town". Small town with just a pub. The train can stop here with prior arrangement, and the station is just across the road from the town. The Kingoonya Waterhole Hotel is just a couple of minutes walk from the station and accommodation is available.
- Woomera (Pimba) — Pimba is located at the turnoff to Woomera on the Stuart Highway. It is around 6 km from Pimba to the formerly closed township of Woomera that supported the rocket and missile test range. As well as the missile park and its two museums, Woomera has a school, theatre, military-run hospital, swimming pool, gym and a hotel, together with a bowling alley, bank, post office, radio station and an IGA supermarket. You'll need to arrange a lift into town from the station.
- Port Augusta — Railway buffs may wish to get off here and ride the Pichi Richi Railway 78 km to Quorn, running along the original Ghan track and using original Ghan equipment. Departures are limited, especially outside the winter season. The town itself has all the facilities you need to break your journey.
- Port Pirie — The station is in the suburbs, around 5 km from the town centre. The old station in the centre of the town is closed and is a museum, including many items of railway heritage. Again, Port Pirie is a major town, with enough facilities to break your journey if you wish. You can get a taxi into town from the station.
- Adelaide (2979 km) — The end of the line — unless you switch onto the Indian Pacific and continue onward to Perth, Sydney or Broken Hill.
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.
- 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.
- Southern Cross
- Kalgoorlie — An alternative to the long distance train Indian Pacific, the local Prospector rail service runs a daytime service daily between Kalgoorlie and Perth, making it simple to get off here and resume your journey by train any day you wish. The Kalgoorlie railway station itself is easy walking distance to the centre of town and accommodation.
- Port Augusta — Also known as the "Crossroads of Australia", this is not only a meeting place of the Indian Pacific and the Ghan, but as described above also the Pichi Richi railway.
- Port Pirie
- 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 a limited train service from here to the city centre, but you'll almost certainly find the bus service quicker and more convenient. 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.
- Peterborough — The town of Peterborough is a railway town. In Australia's rail era, Peterborough was at the crossroads of Australia, situated as it was at the intersection of the east-west railway linking Port Pirie and Broken Hill, and the north-south line linking Adelaide to Alice Springs via Quorn. Peterborough once had all three railway gauges running through its railway yard. The town is still railway themed, and the triple gauge turntable is now at the centre of the Steamtown Heritage Rail Centre. The Indian Pacific is now the only train the town sees, and if you like absorbing railway history, then it is certainly possible to break your journey here (the train passing through just before midnight on the westward run, and around lunchtime on the eastward). The station is in the centre of town, and adjacent to the railway museum.
- Broken Hill — Broken Hill is an ideal place to break your trip. 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 the sunset. Broken Hill is worth a few days if you have them to spare, unfortunately you can't take your car off the motor rail here.
- Parkes — About 450 km west of Sydney, the town of Parkes hosts an important radio telescope and an Elvis festival every January.
- Orange (East Fork)
- 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 also on 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.
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.
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.