The Adelaide-Darwin railway is a 2,979 kilometre south-north transcontinental railway in Australia, between the cities of Adelaide and Darwin. Built in stages in the twentieth century, the line was completed in 2004 when the Alice Springs to Darwin line opened. It is used by The Ghan passenger train and freight trains operated by One Rail Australia.
The Northern Territory Acceptance Act 1910 that saw the Commonwealth Railways assume responsibility for the South Australian Railways' northern narrow gauge lines along with those in the Northern Territory, required the building of a South-North railway although no date was specified. Two routes were considered; a standard gauge line branching off the Trans-Australian Railway at Tarcoola or a cheaper narrow gauge extension of the line from Oodnadatta that had opened in 1891. In the end the latter was chosen with the Central Australia Railway (CAR) opening to Alice Springs in August 1929. Meanwhile, the North Australia Railway (NAR) opened in stages south from Darwin to Birdum, the latter being reached in 1929.
As a result of the opening up of the Leigh Creek coalfields in the late 1940s and capacity restrictions on the CAR, a new standard gauge line was built, opening on 17 May 1956 from Stirling North to Marree in July 1957 bypassing the line via Quorn.
By 1967, the Commonwealth Railways were looking at an alternative to the often flooded CAR and the current route was suggested as one of three options although the route may be different to the current version. Construction of the current 830 kilometre line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs began in April 1975, opening in October 1980 with the CAR closed shortly after. Meanwhile, the NAR had closed in June 1976 following the closure of the iron ore mine at Francs Creek.
In January 1983, the Fraser Government announced its intention to extend the standard gauge line from Alice Springs to Darwin with a projected 1988 completion date. However, after a change of government in March 1983, the Hawke Government cancelled the project.
In June 1999, the AustralAsia Rail Corporation (a company owned by the Northern Territory and South Australian Governments) awarded the contract to build and operate the 1,420 kilometre Adelaide to Darwin railway line as a Build, Own, Operate and Transfer project to the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium (APTC). The APTC contracted FreightLink to implement the project and to operate the railway. It cost $1.2 billion to build.
The Federal Government contributed $165 million from the Centenary of Federation Fund, the Northern Territory Government contributed $165 million and the South Australian Government contributed $150 million to the AustralAsia Rail Corporation for the construction of assets by the APTC and FreightLink that were later leased for a peppercorn rent to FreightLink in addition, the three governments contributed about $26 million each, a total of $79 million in further funding to support the APTC directly, by way of mezzanine debt financing (subordinated debt), equity, and contingent equity.
Construction began in July 2001 with the line completed in September 2003. On 17 January 2004 the first freight train reached Darwin. On 4 February 2004 the first passenger train arrived in Darwin from Adelaide, travelling 2,979 km in 47 hours.
The FreightLink board, shareholders and lenders on 19 May 2008 agreed to sell its ownership of the Adelaide to Darwin rail link having failed to make a profit since the railway line opened. On 6 November 2008, Freightlink went into voluntary administration after failing to reach agreement with creditors on the terms of a sale of the business.Genesee & Wyoming Australia (GWA) purchased the assets of FreightLink on 10 June 2010 for $334 million including the 50-year lease on the Adelaide-Darwin railway. In 2020 GWA became One Rail Australia.
The line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs is owned by the Australian Rail Track Corporation and leased on a long term basis to One Rail Australia. The line from Alice Springs to Darwin is owned by One Rail Australia, and will transfer to the state and federal governments in 2054.
The line consists of:
The Ghan passenger service traverses the line weekly. These are hauled by Pacific National locomotives. One Rail Australia is the only freight operator. The line has facilitated bulk commodity exports from iron ore and copper mines in central Australia, including Oz Minerals' Prominent Hill copper mine. Following a derailment event in December 2011, Oz Minerals elected to use the line to export to the south via Port Adelaide, rather than their previous outport, Darwin.
The original CAR and NAR had many stations and halts along their routes, however the new standard gauge railway only has stations at Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin plus passing loops at Illoquara and Newcastle Waters.