Rail transport in Australia is a crucial aspect of the Australian transport network. Rail in Australia is to a large extent state-based. As at 2018, the Australian rail network consisted of a total of 36,064 kilometres (22,409 mi) of track on three major track gauges.
Except for a small number of private railways, most of the Australian railway network infrastructure is government-owned, either at the federal or state level. Most 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 is involved in the formation of national policies, and provides funding for national projects. Rail transport in Australia has often been neglected in favour of the Australian road transport network.
Very little thought was given in the early years of the development of the colony-based rail networks of Australia-wide interests. The most obvious issue to arise was determining a track gauge. 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.
Attempts to fix the gauge problem are by no means complete. For example, the Mount Gambier line is isolated by gauge and of no operational value.
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 1500 V 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. From 2014 Adelaide's lines are being gradually electrified at 25 kV AC. 25 kV AC voltage has now become the international standard.
The first railway was privately owned and operated and commissioned by the Australian Agricultural Company in Newcastle in 1831, a cast-iron fishbelly rail on an inclined plane as a gravitational railway servicing A Pit coal mine. The first steam-powered line opened in Victoria in 1854. The 4 km long Flinders Street to Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) line was opened by the Hobsons Bay Railway Company at the height of the Victorian gold rush.
In these early years there was very little thought of Australia-wide 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.
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 (1500 V DC), Brisbane's from 1979 (25 kV AC), and Perth's from 1992 (25 kV AC). Mainline electrification was first carried out in Victoria in 1954, closely followed by New South Wales which continued to expand their network. These networks have fallen into decline, in contrast to Queensland where 25 kV AC equipment was introduced from the 1980s for coal traffic.
Diesel locomotives were introduced to Australian railways from the early 1950s. Most units were of local design and construction, using imported British or American technology and power equipment. The three major firms were Clyde Engineering partnered with GM-EMD, Goninan with General Electric, and AE Goodwin (later Comeng) with the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). The major British company was English Electric, with Swiss firm Sulzer also supplying some equipment. This continues today, with Downer Rail and UGL Rail the modern incarnations of Clyde and Goninan respectively.
While Australian federal governments have provided substantial funding for the upgrading of roads, since the 1920s they have not regularly funded investment in railways except for their 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 Governments 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 standardising 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.
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 a $872 million investment programme on the interstate rail network. 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:
Construction and maintenance of network infrastructure is consolidated into non-profit government bodies and contracted private: in the case of the interstate network and various non-urban railways of New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia, the Australian Government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC); the New South Wales Regional Network, John Holland Rail; and rail infrastructure throughout the southern half of Western Australia, Arc Infrastructure.
ARTC "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". ARTC also maintains the NSW Hunter Valley network under contract.
On 1 January 2012, John Holland commenced the operation and maintenance of the New South Wales Regional Network under contract from Transport for New South Wales, comprising 2,700 kilometres of operational freight and passenger rail lines.
Arc Infrastructure has a lease until 2049 on 5,100 kilometres of Western Australian rail infrastructure, from Geraldton in the north, to Leonora and Kalgoorlie in the east, and south to Esperance, Albany and Bunbury. It is responsible for maintaining the network and granting access to operators.
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:
The major freight operators on the rail networks (excluding integrated mining railways) are:
Other rail freight operators include:
Licensing of personnel with nationally recognised credentials facilitates the transfer of those employees from one state or operator to another, as traffic demands.
Including the mining railways, in 2015-16, there were 413.5 billion tonne kilometres of freight moved by rail. Overall railway freight in Australia is dominated by bulk freight, primarily iron ore and coal. In 2015-16 Australian railways carried over 1.34 billion tonnes of freight, 97 per cent of which were bulk movements. Intrastate bulk freight in Western Australia--principally iron-ore movements--accounted for 61 per cent of national rail freight tonnes. Bulk movements in Queensland and NSW--principally coal--were 17 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.
Journey Beyond operates three primarily tourist cross-country trains:
New South Wales government-controlled NSW TrainLink operates ten long-distance passenger routes. All routes originate from Sydney:
V/Line, a nonprofit organisation marginally under the control of the Victoria government, operates both regional and long distance services along the Victorian regional network. Eight services in the long distance category, all of which operate from Melbourne, are available:
Queensland Rail, a state entity, operates several passenger lines under its Traveltrain subsidiary. Six routes target the domestic market:
An additional three Queensland Rail routes are aimed at providing tourist services. These services are operated under contract:
There are many heritage railways and heritage tramways in Australia, often run by community organisations and preservation societies. There are also some privately operated passenger services, such as:
Tramways with gauge for the transport of sugarcane 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.
Wider gauges were sometimes used as well; Queensland had a number of 991 mm (3.25 ft) systems, some on wooden rails. In some areas was used, a considerable investment of resources. In the early 21st century, the disused Queensland Rail line to Esk in the Brisbane Valley was used for timber haulage.
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.
Several medium-speed rail services operate on existing track that has been upgraded to accommodate faster services and/or tilting technology. Some of these services use high-speed capable rolling stock.
High speed rail has been repeatedly raised as an option since the 1980s, and has had bipartisan support for research and land purchase.
The focus usually falls on Sydney to Melbourne where it is seen as a competitor to the busy Sydney-Melbourne air corridor, with Sydney to Brisbane also proposed. The benefits of regional city development are frequently raised.
A detailed study was undertaken from 2011-2013, after which the government indicated it would start purchasing land for a rail corridor. In 2016 the Prime Minister indicated a high speed rail link might be funded privately and by value capture.
The Queensland Rail Electric Tilt Train's record speed of 210 km/h is just above the internationally accepted definition of high-speed rail of 200 km/h (120 mph). The maximum test speed of 193 km/h set by NSW TrainLink's XPT is approximately that. The Transwa WDA/WDB/WDC class railcars used on the medium-speed Transwa Prospector service are high-speed capable, but are limited to 160 km/h in service. The XPT is also theoretically capable of reaching speeds of 200 km/h.
Carroll, Brian (1976), Australia's railway days : milestones in railway history, Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-333-21055-0