'The Southern Spirit' takes passengers the coastal route between Adelaide and Brisbane (Image: Great Southern Railway)
Article Words : Anthony Lambert | 05 June

How to travel Australia by rail

For a country almost the size of Europe, Australia has 
few railways – but it does offer some of the world’s 
greatest train rides. Hop aboard, mate!

If travel is about broadening horizons – best done by meeting new people – then taking the train is the way to go, especially in Australia.

Apart from on city commuter services, everyone aboard a train here is there by choice. There’s far more romance in rail too; it’s quicker to fly or, probably, drive – but you can’t really move around in either planes or coaches. On a train, with its convivial lounge and dining cars, you might strike up conversations with people of dozens of nationalities: gregarious journeys are virtually guaranteed.

Australians are proud of the role railways have played in their country’s short Western history. At East Perth station, you can see one of the first coaches imported into Western Australia from the UK, in 1876; it’s one of many items of railway memorabilia displayed in the waiting area. You don’t see that attachment to heritage at Euston.

However, the colonists didn’t make it easy for themselves, adopting 22 different track gauges – a world record for a single country. This lack of prescience was responsible for irking Mark Twain: while on a lecture tour in 1895, the American writer was turfed out of his train at Albury in the middle of the night because of the break of gauge at the New South Wales/Victoria border.

Much has been done in the intervening years to remedy such handicaps, caused by a ‘paralysis of intellect’ as Twain wrote in Tramps Abroad (conveniently forgetting the early gauge anomalies of his own country). Lines have been re-gauged and new ones built, so that now the interstate and New South Wales networks is standard gauge; two other gauges still dominate Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia.

Despite these improvements, don’t expect European levels of coverage and service. They are precluded by low population density and vast distances – it’s further from Perth to Melbourne than London to Moscow.

Equally, don’t expect Swiss timekeeping standards. There are few stretches of anything but single track, so if a train breaks down, long delays are inevitable. Tight connections at your journey’s end should definitely be avoided.

The main trains

Though there are many trains worth taking, two dominate – the Indian Pacific and The Ghan. Unlike many other ‘tourist trains’, they’re also used as a means of transport – which ensures a wide range of classes, prices and fellow passengers.

East-West: Indian Pacific

Route: Perth – Adelaide – Sydney
Duration: Three nights in either direction
Distance: 4,352km (2,698 miles)
Cost: from A$868 (£576)

Inaugurated in 1970, the Indian Pacific is named after the two oceans it connects. It covers 4,352km over three days/three nights, though many passengers choose to break the journey at least once, usually in Adelaide.

Departing from East Perth, the train eases through the ’burbs before climbing through the Avon Valley; the trees are often dotted by parrots and black cockatoos. Hills dwarf the line as the first lunch is served. The train ploughs across the wheatfields that make Western Australia the country’s breadbasket, passing the cereal-loading silos of Merredin.

The first stop is Kalgoorlie, one of the richest gold repositories in the world. Within a week of the precious metal being discovered here in 1893, there were more than 700 prospectors in town. An off-train excursion visits the country’s biggest open-pit mine and Kalgoorlie’s numerous historic buildings.

Eastwards lies emptiness. But for many, this is the highlight of the Indian Pacific, especially crossing the Nullarbor Plain – the planet’s largest limestone karst landscape. Part of this traverse is via the longest stretch of dead-straight railway track in the world – some 478km. Nullarbor means ‘no trees’ in Latin but the plain is far from empty of life; 794 species of plants and 56 species of mammals have been found within its 270,000 sq km expanse. Indeed, you’d be unlucky not to see camels, kangaroos or emus.

Heading south

Until wooden sleepers were replaced by concrete, there were tiny settlements dotted along the line for railway workers. These were supplied by weekly ‘tea and sugar trains’; today, only Father Christmas is taken out to the communities on the Nullarbor.

Indian Pacific passengers are given an hour to explore Cook, the best-known of the communities (population: four, give or take). There isn’t much to see: a row of houses and some derelict buildings; ‘his’ and ‘hers’ holding cells; a shop in the station. But the atmosphere is unforgettable. Most people leave wondering how they’d cope with such profound isolation – and profoundly grateful they don’t have to.

At the end of the Nullarbor the railway enters sand hills, the vegetation gradually thickening as the landscape morphs into the fringe of the Great Victoria Desert. Tarcoola is the junction for the line to Alice Springs and Darwin. From here, the Indian Pacific continues past market gardens and the junction for Sydney (at Crystal Brook) towards Adelaide.

After the Adelaide detour, the train backtracks to Crystal Brook, then turns east through the wheatfields of South Australia. It affords a glimpse of the fine station at Jamestown, now a museum. Around Cockburn you might spot the symbol of the Indian Pacific, the wedge-tailed eagle.

A long stop is made at Broken Hill, a town made rich by silver, zinc and lead, and thus able to afford the impressive buildings that encourage some to break their journey here. Besides underground mine tours, the town has a restored mosque built for Afghan camel drivers, art galleries and a transport museum.

Approaching Sydney

Between undulating sand dunes lies the Menindee Lakes system, which holds more water than Sydney Harbour. Near Orange, named after the Prince, is the highest feature between Perth and Sydney: Mt Canobolas, a 1,395m extinct volcano.

The railway twists and turns down a steep incline to reach the great agricultural centre of Bathurst. This is the oldest settlement west of the Great Dividing Range and walking tours explore its historic buildings.

Last stop before Sydney is Lithgow, starting point of the heritage Zig Zag Railway. It’s one of the country’s Victorian engineering wonders, but is currently suspended. Its viaducts can be seen as the Indian Pacific climbs up to Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains.

Katoomba is a popular resort, served by suburban services from Sydney. Among its attractions is the Scenic Railway, claimed to be the world’s steepest funicular, with a gradient of 52°(closed for rebuilding until autumn 2013). The views leaving Katoomba are impressive, the train crawling around tight curves to descend to the coastal bowl near Penrith and weave through the suburbs to the great sandstone edifice of Sydney Central station.

North-South: The Ghan

Route: Adelaide – Alice Springs – Darwin
Duration: Two nights in either direction
Distance: 2,979km (1,846 miles)
Cost: from A$862 (£572)

Few towns as small and remote as Alice Springs have achieved such fame; the idea of a settlement in the blisteringly inhospitable centre of a continent has attracted countless visitors. The railway made Alice: the first train from the south steamed into the town in 1929 and transformed its economy. In the first ten months, 15,000 head of cattle were railed south, reaching Adelaide in days instead of months.

The Ghan was named after the Afghans who came with camels imported from India during the 19th century; camels are now being exported from Australia to Saudi Arabia. The train no longer runs on the original narrow-gauge tracks; they were superseded by a new standard-gauge railway in 1980. In 2004, the railway finally reached the north coast at Darwin. This has increased The Ghan’s popularity, giving it the same trans-continental status as the Indian Pacific.

Alice’s wander-land

The full journey of 2,979km takes two nights, three days. Leaving Adelaide, the train scythes across fertile farming country towards the 700km-long Flinders Range. Sheep and pasture have become dominant by Crystal Brook, where the eastbound Indian Pacific turns for Sydney. The westbound Indian Pacific and The Ghan forge north to Port Pirie, where pandemonium once reigned at the former meeting point of three track-gauges.

Port Augusta, near the head of the Spencer Gulf, has long been a vital supply centre for the Outback, its streets still lined with attractive brick-houses ringed by shaded verandas. Roasted kangaroo tenderloin with sweet potato purée may be on the menu as the sun sets. Passengers will be astounded at the brilliance of the night sky, making it worth stepping off the train at Tarcoola, where The Ghan turns north.

Few will notice the stop at Manguri, which serves the opal-mining centre of Coober Pedy – here, temperatures of 50°C have encouraged some residents to live underground. As the sun rises, you quickly understand why the area is called the ‘Red Centre’. From the orangey soil grow desert bloodwood trees, silver cassia and gnarled corkwood – all part of the miracle of life in such a brutal climate.

Travelling through the Red Centre increases your respect for the early explorers, too. Scotsman John McDouall Stuart crossed it in 1862, following a route that would be taken by both the telegraph line and the original Ghan railway; many of the maps he drew were invaluable for the rail surveyors.

The approach to Alice is dramatic: a narrow gap in the MacDonnell Ranges allows the usually dry Todd River, the railway and a road to squeeze through to reach the town in its bowl of hills. Many break the journey here to visit the mighty monolith of Uluru.

Alice has a fame out of all proportion to its size and, some say, its just desserts. None of the reasons for its legend retain their potency: the Telegraph Station, which stuttered into life in 1872, is now a museum; cattle are no longer shipped out on trains; the Afghan camel-drivers are long gone. Yet it deserves a lengthier visit than the train allows.

The layover is only long enough to choose between a range of off-train tours: options include ‘Essential Alice’ (Flying Doctor Service Museum, Anzac Hill, Pioneers Women’s Hall of Fame, Reptile Centre, Telegraph Station); a ‘Pyndan Camel Tracks’ camel trek and the ‘Desert Park’ excursion. There’s also a shuttlebus for independent explorers.

Heading north across apricot-coloured sand, dotted with desert oaks and eucalypts, The Ghan leaves Alice to head for Tennant Creek, railhead for stock farms that can be larger than Belgium. Further north, a four-hour stop at Katherine allows time for a boat tour through the gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. After rain the water can rise 8m overnight; when Katherine was last flooded a 5m crocodile took up residence in the butcher’s department of Woolworths!

Lush forest flanks the train for the final stretch to Darwin. In the 1960s it was said that Darwin’s main import was civil servants, its chief export empty beer bottles. For visitors there are tours about the Catalina Flying Boat Base and the city’s 1942 bombing by the Japanese. Here the journey ends in one of the remotest cities on earth.

South-East: The southern spirit

The most recent addition to Australia’s network of Great Train Journeys is this six-day odyssey linking Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane. It is oriented entirely towards travellers and offers only Gold and Platinum Service (from A$4100/ £2760pp). There is a much wider range of off-train excursions available including visits to beaches, the lighthouse at Byron Bay, Hunter Valley vineyards, the Hume Dam, historic Albury-Wodonga, rock art and waterfalls.

Info: www.greatsouthernrail.com.au