Rail transport in Australia

Rail transport in Australia

Rail transport in Australia is to a large extent state-based. The Australian rail network consists of a total of 33,819 km of track of three major gauges, of which 2,540 km is electrified. Fact|date=March 2008

The majority of the Australian railway network infrastructure is government-owned, either at the federal or state level, except for a small number of private railways. The majority of railway operators were once state government agencies, but with privatisation in the 1990s, private companies now operate the majority of trains in Australia.

The Australian Federal Government has involvement in the formation of national policies, and provides funding for national projects.

National issues

Uniform gauge

Very little thought was given in the early years of the development of the colony-based rail networks of national interests. The most obvious issue to arise was determining a gauge for each network. Despite advice from London to adopt a uniform gauge, should the lines of the various colonies ever meet, gauges were adopted in different colonies, and indeed within colonies, without reference to those of other colonies. This has caused problems ever since at the national level.

Attempts to fix the gauge problem are ongoing and by no means completely unified even as of 2005. For example, the Wolseley to Mt. Gambier line is isolated by gauge and of no operational value. The various governments and private interests squabble about who should pay to fix it.


With the electrification of suburban networks, which began in 1919, a consistent electric rail traction standard was not adopted. Electrification began in Melbourne in 1919 using 1500 V DC. Sydney's lines were electrified from 1926 using 1500V DC, Brisbane's from 1979 using 25 kV AC, and Perth's from 1992 using 25 kV AC. There has also been extensive non-urban electrification in Queensland using 25 kV AC, mainly during the 1980s for the coal routes.


Early years

The first railways in Australia were built by private companies, based in the then colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The first line opened was in South Australia in 1854, a horse-drawn line from Goolwa to Port Elliot. The first steam-powered line opened in Victoria in 1854. The private companies soon got into financial trouble, and were taken over by the respective Governments, on public interest grounds.

In these early years there was very little thought of national interests in developing the colony-based networks. The most obvious issue to arise was determining a uniform gauge for the continent. Despite advice from London to adopt a uniform gauge, should the lines of the various colonies ever meet, gauges were adopted in different colonies, and indeed within colonies, without reference to those of other colonies. This example has caused problems ever since at the national level.


*1854 – Victoria - Melbourne to Port Melbourne railway opened - 1600 mm
*1855 – New South Wales - Sydney to Granville railway opened - 1435 mm
*1856 – South Australia - Adelaide to Port Adelaide railway opened - 1600 mm
*1865 – Queensland - Ipswich to Bigges Camp on the way to Toowoomba railway opened - RailGauge|3ft6in
*1871Tasmania - Deloraine to Launceston railway opened - 1600 mm, converted to RailGauge|3ft6in in 1888
*1879 – Western Australia - Geraldton and Northampton railway opened - RailGauge|3ft6in
*1883 – Railways of New South Wales and Victoria meet at Albury
*1887 – Railways of Victoria and South Australia meet at Serviceton
*1888 – Railways of New South Wales and Queensland meet at Wallangara
*1889Northern Territory - Darwin to Pine Creek railway opened - RailGauge|3ft6in
*1915Canberra to Queanbeyan railway opened - 1435 mm
*1917 – Standard gauge Trans-Australian Railway completed between Kalgoorlie, Western Australia and Port Augusta, South Australia
*1919 – Railways of New South Wales and South Australia meet at Broken Hill, New South Wales with break-of-gauge
*1925Great White Train is created to promote industry and tours in New South Wales.
*1932 – Standard gauge Sydney-Brisbane railway completed with the opening of bridge at Grafton
*1937Trans-Australian Railway extended to Port Pirie and the broad gauge railway from Adelaide to Redhill extended to Port Pirie
*1962Albury to Melbourne standard gauge railway opened, completing the Sydney-Melbourne railway
*1968Kalgoorlie to Perth standard gauge railway opened
*1969Broken Hill to Port Pirie standard gauge railway opened, completing the Sydney-Perth railway
*1980Tarcoola, South Australia to Alice Springs standard gauge railway opened
*1982Adelaide to Crystal Brook, South Australia standard gauge railway opened
*1995Melbourne-Adelaide railway standard gauge railway completed
*2004Adelaide-Darwin railway standard gauge railway completed

Towards a federal union

In the 1890s, the establishment of an Australian Federation from the six colonies was debated. One of the points of discussion was the extent that railways would be a federal responsibility. A vote to make it so was lost narrowly, instead the new constitution allows "the acquisition, with the consent of a State, of any railways of the State on terms arranged between the Commonwealth and the State" (Section 51 xxxiii) and "railway construction and extension in any State with the consent of that State" (Section 51 xxxiv). However, the Australian Government is free to provide funding to the states for rail upgrading projects under Section 96 ("the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit").


Suburban electrification began in Melbourne in 1919 (1500 V DC). Sydney's lines were electrified from 1926 (1500V DC), Brisbane's from 1979 (25 kV AC), and Perth's from 1992 (25 kV AC). There was also extensive non-urban electrification in Queensland using 25 kV AC during the 1980s for coal routes.

Government funding

While Australian Governments have provided substantial funding for the upgrading of roads, since the 1920s, they have not regularly funded investment in railways except for its own railway, the Commonwealth Railways, later the Australian National Railways Commission, which was privatised in 1997. They have considered the funding of railways owned by State Government to be a State responsibility.

Nevertheless, Australian governments have made loans to the States for gauge standardisation projects from the 1920s to the 1970s. From the 1970s to 1996, the Australian Government has provided some grant funding to the States for rail projects, particularly the Keating Government's One Nation program, announced in 1992, which was notable for the standardisation of the Adelaide to Melbourne line in 1995. Significant government funding was also made available for the Alice Springs to Darwin Railway, opened in 2004. Substantial funding is now being made available for freight railways through the Australian Rail Track Corporation and the AusLink land transport funding program.

Australian Rail Track Corporation

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is a federal government owned corporation established in 1997 that owns, leases, maintains and controls the majority of main line standard gauge railway lines on the mainland of Australia, known as the Designated Interstate Rail Network (DIRN).

In 2003 the Australian and New South Wales Governments agreed that ARTC would lease the NSW interstate and Hunter Valley networks for 60 years. As part of this agreement, ARTC agreed to an A$872 million investment programme on the interstate rail network. [cite web | url = http://www.ministers.dotars.gov.au/ja/releases/2003/december/artc_summary.htm | title = Media release, December 2003 | publisher = John Anderson, Minister for Transport and Regional Services, www.ministers.dotars.gov.au | accessdate = 2006-04-27] The funding sources for the investment included an Australian Government equity injection into ARTC of $143 million and a funding contribution of almost $62 million by the New South Wales Government.


Under the AusLink program introduced in July 2004, the Australian Government has introduced the opportunity for rail to gain access to funds on a similar basis to that of roads. AusLink established a defined national network (superseding the former National Highway system) of important road and rail infrastructure links and their intermodal connections.

Rail funding has been announced for signalling upgrades to numerous railway lines, gauge conversion of existing broad gauge lines in Victoria to standard gauge, new rail links to intermodal freight precincts, and extensions to existing crossing loops to permit longer trains to operate.

Funding is focused on the National Network, including the following rail corridors, connecting at one or both ends to State Capital Cities:
*Sydney-Melbourne railway
*Sydney-Brisbane railway
*Sydney to Adelaide, via Sydney-Melbourne railway to Cootamundra and then the Cootamundra–Parkes line, Parkes–Crystal Brook line and the Adelaide-Darwin railway
*Melbourne-Adelaide railway
*Adelaide to Perth - Sydney-Perth railway
*Adelaide-Darwin railway
*Brisbane to Townsville - the North Coast railway line in Qld.
*Townsville to Mount Isa
*Hobart to Burnie, including link to Bell Bay, Tasmania
*Melbourne to Mildura via Geelong
*Sydney to Dubbo
*Some urban links in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, connecting the long distance links to each other and to ports and airports
*Hunter Valley rail links from Dubbo to Newcastle via the Dubbo-Merrygoen, Merrygoen–Binnaway, Binnaway-Werris Creek and Werris Creek–Port of Newcastle lines and the Merrygoen–Gulgong, Merrygoen–Sandy Hollow and Sandy Hollow–Muswellbrook lines

Infrastructure Australia

After the recent federal election, the government body Infrastructure Australia was created to oversee all rail, road, airports, etc at a national level.

Gauge change

*In 2006, federal and state money found to upgrade the Mildura, Victoria (Australia) line with gauge convertible concrete sleepers.

Rail infrastructure

Construction and maintenance of network infrastructure is consolidated into non-profit government bodies, in the case of the interstate network and the non-urban railways of New South Wales (the Australian Government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation) and Western Australia (WestNet Rail). This is intended to provide access to new and existing players.

The interstate rail network excludes the line from Perth to Kalgoorlie and between Brisbane and the New South Wales border. Nevertheless, the ARTC has rights to sell access between Kalgoorlie and Kwinana to interstate rail operators under a wholesale access agreement with the Western Australian track owner and operator, WestNet Rail. It also "has a working relationship with Queensland Rail about the use of the 127 kilometres of standard gauge line between the Queensland border and Fisherman Island. ARTC intends to start discussions with Queensland about leasing this track once the NSW arrangements are bedded down". [cite web | url=http://www.ministers.dotars.gov.au/ja/releases/2003/december/artc_summary.htm | title=Media release, December 2003 | publisher=John Anderson, Minister for Transport and Regional Services, www.ministers.dotars.gov.au | accessdate=2006-04-27] The ARTC also maintains the NSW rural branch lines under contract.

Other railways continue to be integrated, although access to their infrastructure is generally required under National Competition Policy principles agreed by the Federal, State and Territory governments:
* Queensland – QR
* Tasmania – Pacific National
* Victorian non-interstate lines – Pacific National (however in November 2006 Pacific National reportedly agreed to sell the remainder of its lease of the network back to the Victorian Government for $133.8m. [cite news | title = Toll sells rail lease | pages = 17 | publisher = Canberra Times | date = 2 November 2006 ] )
* South Australian non-interstate lines – Australian Railroad Group
* Adelaide-Darwin railwayFreightLink


Rail freight

The major freight operators on the rail networks (excluding integrated mining railways) are:
*Pacific National – part of Asciano Limited, interstate network and branch lines in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania
*QRNational – interstate freight operator based in home state of Queensland
**Australian Railroad Group – subsidiary of QR Limited, Western Australian and South Australia branch lines

Other rail freight operators include:
*Southern Shorthaul Railroad
*South Spur Rail Services
*Patrick Rail Operations
*Specialised Container Transport
*Silverton Rail
*Independent Rail of Australia
*El Zorro

Licensing of personnel with nationally recognised credentials facilitates the transfer of those people from one state or operator to another, as traffic demands.

National passenger


State Government owned rail services:Great Southern Railway lines:legend|#f15c22|The Ghan]

Passenger rail operates on a state-by-state basis. The main federal body representing passenger rail is Rail Australia, but serves mostly to promote GSR, CountryLink, and QR services.

The Great Southern Railway, owned by Serco Asia Pacific, operates three passenger trains:
*The Indian Pacific (Sydney-Adelaide-Perth)
*The Ghan (Adelaide-Alice Springs-Darwin)
*The Overland (Melbourne-Adelaide)

New South Wales government-owned CountryLink passenger services link Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne via Sydney. Since the extension of the Ghan from Alice Springs to Darwin was completed in 2004, all mainland Australian capital cities are linked by standard gauge rail for the first time.

Urban and intrastate passenger

*Connex Melbourne operates the Melbourne suburban railway network.
*Yarra Trams operates the Melbourne tram network.
*V/Line operates regional trains and buses on the Victorian regional network.

*RailCorp is the government body responsible for all passenger rail services in New South Wales. It oversees two independent services:
**CityRail operates the Sydney suburban railway network and areas closely surrounding Sydney Such as Newcastle and the South Coast.
**CountryLink operates passenger trains in the remainder of New South Wales
**Metro Transport Sydney owns the small Sydney Metro Light Rail and Metro Monorail systems in Sydney, New South Wales. It is operated by Connex (Veolia).
*The Skitube Alpine Railway is a private railway in the New South Wales snowfields.

*QR operates Queensland rail services, including:
**Citytrain in South East Queensland, Brisbane's suburban railway network under the TransLink scheme.
**Traveltrain, providing tours, holidays and long-distance passenger services throughout regional Queensland.

*The Public Transport Authority (formerly known as Westrail) operates Western Australian public transport services, including:
* Transperth Trains over the Perth suburban railway network
*Transwa operating Western Australian regional passenger services.

*TransAdelaide operates the Adelaide suburban railway network including the Glenelg Tram.

Private railways


Tramways with 610 mm gauge for the transport of sugar cane have always been operated as private concerns associated with the relevant sugar cane mill. These tramways are quite advanced technically, with hand-me-down rails cascaded from the normal rails, remote-controlled brake vans, concrete sleepers in places, and tamping machines in miniature. The twenty or so separate tramways cooperate in research and development.


Tramways were often associated with Timbergetting and sawmilling operations. Various gauges were used, including the RailGauge|610mm gauge commonly used for cane haulling.

Wider gauges were sometimes used; Queensland had a number of 991mm systems, some on wooden rails. In some areas 1067mm was used, a considerable investment of resources. In the early 21st century, the disused QR line to Esk (RailGauge|3ft6in) in the Brisbane Valley was used for timber haulage.

Iron ore

Four isolated heavy duty railways for the cartage of iron ore in the Pilbara region of Western Australia have always been private concerns operated as part of the production line between mine and port. These lines have pushed the limit of the wheel to rail interface which has led to much useful research of value to railways worldwide.

In 2008, a fifth open access line built by Fortescue Metals Group opened. A sixth dual gauge open access iron ore network is proposed to the port of Oakajee.


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