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Trans-Australian Railway

The railway now known as The Ghan runs between Darwin in the North and Adelaide in the South, while the line currently known as the Indian Pacific runs between Perth in Australia's west to the cosmopolitan city of Sydney in the east. In the 19th Century each of these routes were known in turn as the Trans-Australian Railway. The railways of Australia, with few insignificant exceptions, were constructed by the State Governments. State ownership and construction arose practically from conditions which make the system essential, those conditions being, that as soon as settlement began to spread inland from the coastal districts it was essential that economical carriage should be provided for the products raised from the land, wool, wheat, etc., and for the necessaries of life required by the settlers.

By 1920 the Commonwealth owned the Port Augusta to Ordnadatta line (leased to the South Australian Railway Authorities) and the Port Darwin to Pine Creek line, the Southern and Northern portions respectively of the Transcontinental North and South Railway, and was engaged in making the connection between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta, so as to complete the Transcontinental East and West line.

A question of vital interest to Western Australia was that of the construction of a railway connecting Perth with the eastern States. If only for military reasons, it was felt that the chain of steel should be forged. Sir John Forrest, treasurer of the commonwealth of Australia, was wont to say that the principal reason which led the western State to join the Commonwealth was that assurances were given to him that the railway would be built. The railway, he maintained, was the inducement offered to Western Australia, just as the possession of the federal capital within her territory was the inducement to New South Wales. But the Constitution imposed no obligation to construct the line, and nobody bad any authority to pledge the Commonwealth in advance to do anything which the Constitution did not require to be done. The alleged compact may not have weighed with the Federal Parliament, but the undesirableness of having a whole State cut off by a great distance from the rest of the Commonwealth, without railway connection, certainly did.

The project was promised in the program of the Barton Government in 1901, and had been part of the policy of every successive Ministry. The whole of the Western Australian members were continually Insistent about it. At length, in 1907, an Act was passed providing money for the survey of the 1,063 miles of route between Port Augusta, at the head of Spencer's Gulf, and Kalgoorlie, in the Western State, whence a railway already ran to Perth. The surveyors found, as was expected, that the country to be traversed by the line was largely unfit for human habitation; but they also found plenty of good grass land which in favorable seasons would be valuable. Acting on the surveyor's report, the Fisher Government, in 1911, secured the passage of a measure to authorize the construction of the line, which was estimated to cost about four million pounds.

How to attract population to the Northern Territory had been a problem which invited many experiments since 1863, when it was annexed by royal letters patent to South Australia. The prospects for the development of that region were brighter than ever at the end of 1920, chiefly owing to the completion of the Trans-Australian railway which would permit of extensive migration, settlements and exploitation of the country's natural resources.

The Northern Territory entered the commonwealth as a part of the state of South Australia in 1901 upon the formation of the federation. In accordance with a provision in the commonwealth constitution act of 1900 and a contract agreement entered into in 1907, the Northern Territory was transferred to the commonwealth. This was formally approved in 1911 when the necessary legislation was passed by the two parliaments concerned. At the same time the commonwealth assumed all responsibility for the state loans contracted by South Australia in the interest of the territory. It also purchased the railway from Port Augusta to Oodnadatta, and began the arduous undertaking of constructing the Trans-Australian railway system.

A great deal of the development of the Northern Territory, which opened up large areas of unoccupied land to graziers and settlers from the southern parts of Australia, was chiefly due to the expert management of Dr. Gilruth, the administrator of the territory. As a result of his energetic work profitable settlements were springing up along the newly completed lines. The whole situation was an improvement over the condition of the territory when controlled from Adelaide.

Although the railway was officially opened in November 1917, considerable work still remained undone. Throughout the course of the construction work many difficult situations presented themselves. Frequent failures by contractors to meet the terms of the contracts delayed the immense undertaking. A lack of suitable water for locomotives, causing numerous delays and heavy unforeseen expenses, was another handicap of no slight importance. The sub-normal industrial conditions brought on by the Great War held up the construction of large sections of the road for fully a year and often longer. Lack of water for locomotives was a very serious problem which must be solved, since there was no running stream throughout the length of the railway.

When completed, the Trans-Australian railway was linked with the Western Australian system 387 miles from the sea and with the South Australian railway system at about 260 miles from Adelaide. In order to determine whether possibilities for pastoral and mineral development existed in the section, and whether conditions were favorable to the construction of reservoirs, explorations were made in 1917-1918 extending to seventy miles north of the line. The road ran almost entirely through unexplored territory. It opened up vast spaces in western and southern Australia. It was expected that the mining fields along this line would be developed to the great advantage of this region. All along the route of the railway valuable clays, salt and barytes had been discovered. Gold, opal, copper, tin and gypsum mines were also in evidence.

Named after the Afghan cameleers who once traversed this route, The Ghan runs from one edge of this continent to the other, through the very center of Australia. The colony of Queensland initially seemed likely to be the first to put into practical execution the long-cherished hope of a trans-Australian railway, which would connect the northern with the sonthern shores of the island continent, and bring the colonies within 30 days of England, making those which are now practically most distant from Europe the nearest in point of time, as they ore by right of geographical position. The original route proposed in 1880 for th« trans-Australian railway was from Port Augusta in South Australia to Palmerston, tho central port of the northern coast, adopting generally tho line passed through by the existing overland telegraph. The distance to bo traversed in a direct line from tho northern terminus of the South Australian Railway to Palmerston is 1,400 miles, and considerable connecting links would have to be constructed between tho existing lines in the adjoining colonics to complete direct communication between Port Augusta and Melbourne and Sydney.

There would have been, on the completion of the projected line from Roma to the Gulf of Carpentaria, continuous railway communication between the northern and southern coasts of Australia, having the additional advantage of traversing the whole of the most settled districts, and connecting all the principal cities, except those in Western Australia. The Queensland Government passed an Act authorising the construction of the trans-continental railway, and a syndicate agreed to perform the work, on the condition of receiving, among certain other privileges, an area of 8,000 acres of land for each mile of railway constructed, but nothing came of this scheme.

In 1887 a Royal Commission collected evidence and make a recommendation as to the best means of completing the Trans-Australian railway. Port Darwin, which would be the terminus of the Trans-Australian railway, had the largest and safest harbor on the north coast of Australia. HMS Myrmidon and Flying Fish made a careful survey of the harbor itself and of the approaches from the east through Clarence and Dundas Straits. As the terminus of the overland telegraph line and of the two cables from Java, Port Darwin is a place of great importance. The attention of the Imperial Government had been called to the natural facilities which it offers for an Imperial station for coals and munitions of war. In addition to the necessity of protecting telegraphic communication, the steamers in the Australian and China trade make Port Darwin the first place of call, and the last port of departure. In view also of the large trade which must arise out of the Trans-Australian railway, and the strategic position of Port Darwin, it must be the chief port of North Australia.

It was not until the railway line reached Alice Springs in 1929 that the town began to prosper. A long overdue rail extension connecting Alice Springs to Darwin (The “Ghan”) was completed in 2004 and is now one of the most booked train journeys in the world.

Trans-Australian railway

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:10:28 ZULU