Tue, Oct 07, 2003 - Page 16 News List

World's last great transcontinental

Since Australia was founded in 1901 a rail network running east to west and north to south has been a dream - and it will soon be realized

DPA , SYDNEY

The Ghan currently operates from Adelaide to Alice Spring. Bookings are being taken for its first journeys all the way to Darwin early next year.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIAN TOURISM COMMISSION

It has been so long in coming that some Australians won't believe it's real until they see a locomotive riding on it.

It's the 1,420km Alice Springs to Darwin railway line, the final stretch of a century-old dream of having steel tracks running all the way from Adelaide in the south of the continent to Darwin in the north.

Among the unbelievers is Tim Webb, born in 1929, the same year the service from Adelaide was extended to Alice Springs, the wellspring of Australia's Red Centre.

"It's not just a passing fancy for me," said 72-year-old Webb. "I've been waiting a long time for this moment."

There's hardly been a prime minister since the creation of Australia in 1901 who hasn't promised that the rail network would run east to west and north to south.

The oddity is that the completion came during the government of John Howard, an arch conservative and visceral opponent of big public works programs, but who saw the project through.

He described the last of the welding jobs this week as the "penultimate moment in a great Australian story."

The final moment will come early next year when trains set out from Adelaide and Darwin to make the two-day journey.

Public money has made the dream come true. More than A$1.2 billion (US$800 million) has been spent on laying 2 million sleepers and dumping 2 million tonnes of ballast.

It was in 1858 that the idea of an Adelaide to Darwin rail line was first proposed. The notion was ridiculed by the South Australian state government. Twenty years later it had second thoughts and started work on a line running north.

For most of its way the latest section runs atop a small embankment over the sand ridges of the Tanami Desert. Progress has been quite amazing. Over the 18 months of construction the tracks moved towards each other at a rate of 2.2km per day.

It's a single line and the primary purpose is as a "land bridge" to take exports from the south of the country for shipment from Darwin to Asia and the rest of the world. Imports would run in the other direction.

The benefit is not just time, but also money, with a reduction in shipping going up and down Australia's east coast where the environmentally sensitive Great Barrier Reef flanks the Pacific Ocean.

Darwin is getting ready. A A$200 million expansion of the harbor is underway. A freight rail terminal is going up nearby.

Also being built in the Northern Territory capital is a passenger terminal. The hope is that an extra 30,000 tourists a year will visit when they have the option of getting there on a passenger train.

The world famous Ghan luxury train will operate on the route. Stephen Bradford, the chief executive of Great Southern Railway, said tickets worth A$1 million had already been sold for the first few Ghan journeys.

"There will be a lot of excited people out there waiting for these tickets," Bradford said.

"For many, it's a journey of a lifetime, an opportunity to be part of history."

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