Commonwealth Railways

The Commonwealth Railways were established in 1917 by the Government of Australia with the Commonwealth Railways Act to administer the Trans-Australia and Port Augusta to Darwin railways. It was absorbed into Australian National in 1975.

Commonwealth Railways
IndustryRailway operator
SuccessorAustralian National
DefunctJune 1975
Area served
Northern Territory
South Australia
Western Australia
ParentGovernment of Australia

Operated railwaysEdit

Trans-Australian RailwayEdit

Construction of the standard-gauge Trans-Australian Railway between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie commenced in 1912. Despite the inhospitable nature of the terrain[1] and wartime supply problems, satisfactory progress was made, and the two tracklaying machines, one working from each end, met near Ooldea on 17 October 1917.

The promise to construct the Trans-Australian Railway had been one of the principal inducements to Western Australia to join the Commonwealth of Australia during federation, and it was for the purpose of surveying and constructing this railway that the Commonwealth Railways Department was initially formed. It was a matter of misfortune that its two termini were break-of-gauge stations connecting with narrow-gauge lines that formed part of the transcontinental link.

In 1937 the eastern end was extended south to Port Pirie, enabling one less break of gauge in the trip across Australia, but at the same time establishing a three-gauge junction at Port Pirie with the 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) broad gauge South Australian Railways line to Adelaide.

The Trans-Australian Railway remained an isolated stretch of standard-gauge track between two narrow-gauge railways until 1968, when the Kalgoorlie to Perth standard-gauge line replaced the line at the western end, and 1970 when a standard-gauge line from Port Pirie to Broken Hill replaced a narrow-gauge line, completing the long-delayed project to connect Perth to Sydney with one standard gauge.

The Trans-Australian Railway remained fundamentally a single-track main line, the only branch line being a short section from Pimba to Woomera (officially known as a stores siding, though a passenger service operated when Woomera was the base of a large rocket testing range). There are two junctions: one on the outskirts of Port Augusta is the line to Whyalla, which opened for traffic in 1972; and one at Tarcoola is the Central Australia Railway, which opened in 1980.

North Australia RailwayEdit

NT class locomotives at Wirrabara in 1987

The North Australia Railway was the name given to the Northern Territory narrow-gauge railway that extended south from Darwin to Birdum. Construction of this line was commenced by the Government of South Australia, being known then as the Palmerston & Pine Creek Railway, it opened in 1889.[1]

When the administration of the Northern Territory passed from South Australia to the Commonwealth Government on 1 January 1911 the railway was transferred to Commonwealth ownership. The railway was initially placed under the control of the Administrator of the Northern Territory. At this time it was known as the Northern Territory Railway, but was transferred to the control of the Commonwealth Railways Commissioner in 1918.[2]

It was renamed the North Australia Railway in 1926. Extensions to Birdum were completed in 1929, but during and following World War II the effective railhead was Larrimah, a few miles north.

The railway gained increased importance in the 1960s and early 1970s through the mining of iron ore from the Frances Creek deposits, about 230 kilometres south of Darwin. Ore traffic exceeded one million tons per annum, but after the mine closed, other traffic was not enough to justify keeping the railway open and it closed in 1976.[3]

Australian Capital Territory RailwayEdit

In March 1913 work began on an 8.5 kilometre standard-gauge line from Canberra to Queanbeyan on the Bombala line. The line was constructed by the New South Wales Public Works Department on behalf of the Federal Government.[4] Canberra station along with the line to Queanbeyan was owned and staffed by Commonwealth Railways even though all services on the line were operated by the New South Wales Government Railways.[5]

Central Australia RailwayEdit

Preserved NSU class locomotive in Alice Springs in September 2006

The Central Australia Railway extended from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. Work on the first section of this railway was commenced by the South Australian Railways in 1878.[1]

Under South Australian ownership the railway, known as the Great Northern Railway, was extended in stages and reached Oodnadatta in 1891. The South Australian Government subsequently made offers to several syndicates to construct a line north from Oodnadatta to Pine Creek on the land grant system, however negotiations were unsuccessful and Oodnadatta remained the railhead.

Like the North Australia Railway, this railway passed to Commonwealth ownership on 1 January 1911, but continued to be operated by the South Australian Railways until the Commonwealth Railways took over operations on 1 January 1926. An extension of the railway to Alice Springs was completed in 1929.

In the years following World War II large tonnages of coal were railed from Leigh Creek and heavy demands were placed on the railway. In many ways the original line was inadequate; sharp curves and heavy gradients limited train loads, whilst light track and bridges restricted speeds and axle loads. Consequently, a new standard-gauge Stirling North to Marree line was constructed and extended from Stirling North, via Telford to Marree. During the construction stages, and after washaways on the old line, but with the new standard-gauge line available to that point, complete trains of narrow-gauge wagons were carried (Piggyback) style to Brachina, 140 kilometres from Stirling North.[6][7] Completed in 1957, the new line enabled much larger quantities of coal to be carried.[8]

The old narrow-gauge line between Marree and Hawker was closed, but between Stirling North and Hawker it was retained and used to a limited extent for some years. The line between Stirling North and Hawker was closed in 1972 and the section between Stirling North and Quorn handed over to the operations of the Pichi Richi Railway.


Narrow gaugeEdit

The Commonwealth Railways owned and operated 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow-gauge lines on the Central Australia Railway (Port Augusta via Quorn and Marree to Alice Springs); and the North Australia Railway.

Standard gaugeEdit

The Commonwealth Railways owned and operated 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard-gauge lines on the Trans-Australian Railway; the Central Australia Railway (both Tarcoola to Alice Springs and Port Augusta via Leigh Creek to Marree); and Whyalla to Port Augusta.

Named trainsEdit

The GhanEdit

Preserved carriage from the narrow-gauge Ghan in Alice Springs in February 2009

The Ghan train commenced operation for the Commonwealth Railways when they took over the narrow-gauge Central Australia Railway from the South Australian Railways in 1926. It ran between Port Augusta and Oodnadatta initially, being extended to Alice Springs in 1929. When the new standard gauge to Marree line opened in 1957 the journey was broken into two. A standard-gauge run from Port Pirie Junction to Marree, with the rest of the journey remaining on narrow gauge.

Indian PacificEdit

The Indian Pacific commenced operating in February 1970 between Sydney and Perth following completion of the standard gauge line. Commonwealth Railways were responsible for the train from Port Pirie to Kalgoorlie.

Tea & SugarEdit

The Tea & Sugar was a train that serviced isolated Australian towns between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie. The train provided all the supplies for remote towns in South and Western Australia that were mainly inhabited by railway workers who maintained the line.


GM class on the Trans-Australian at Rawlinna in May 1986

The Trans-Australian Passenger train ran between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie that commenced in 1917 and was still being operated by Australian National when it ceased in 1991.


For its standard gauge operations, Commonwealth Railways purchased G, K, KA, C, CA, CN and L class steam locomotives. From 1951 it purchased Clyde Engineering built GM and CL class diesel locomotives. It also purchased three CB railcars.

For its narrow gauge operations, NC, NSU, NT and NJ diesels were purchased to replace steam locomotives inherited from the South Australian Railways in 1911.



Australian National Railways was established by the Whitlam Federal Government following a commitment made in the 1972 election to invite the states to hand over their railway systems to the federal government. In July 1975 Australian National Railways was formed taking over the operations of Commonwealth Railways.

During the next two years discussions between the state governments of South Australia and Tasmania and the federal government resulted in all South Australian Railways services (except the Adelaide metropolitan passenger network) and all Tasmanian Government Railways services transferring to Australian National Railway in March 1978, the latter being rebranded AN Tasrail.


  1. ^ a b c Ways in the Wastelands, Gigney, ME Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, November 1956 pp149-160
  2. ^ "The North Australia Railway, 1911–1939", Harvey, JL Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin August & November 1970 pp169-192;241–259 February, March, April 1971 pp39-47;58–65;73–88
  3. ^ "The Closure of the North Australia Railway", Bayley, William A Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin June 1977 pp121-127
  4. ^ Stokes, HJW (1984). Railways of the Canberra and Monaro Districts. Canberra: Australian Railway Historical Society, ACT Division.
  5. ^ "Canberra Line Handover" Railway Digest May 1985 page 136
  6. ^ "The 'Pick-a-Back' Train" Buckland, JL Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin December 1955 pp157-162
  7. ^ "Carpe Diem – Seize the Day" Smith, Keith A Australian Railway History March 2006 pp103-112
  8. ^ "The Stirling North-Marree Standard Gauge Railway" Castle, BJ Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin February 1958 pp17-22
  9. ^ Alice to Darwin railway construction begins ABC 7:30 Report transcript 17 July 2001

Further readingEdit

  • Anchen, Nick (2017). Iron Roads in the Outback: The Legendary Commonwealth Railways. Ferntree Gully, Vic: Sierra Publishing. ISBN 9780992538828.
  • Anchen, Nick (2019). Outback Railwaymen: Life on the Commonwealth Railways. Ferntree Gully, Vic: Sierra Publishing. ISBN 9780992538880.
  • Fluck, Ronald E; Marshall, Barry; Wilson, John (1996). Locomotives and Railcars of the Commonwealth Railways. Welland, SA: Gresley Publishing. ISBN 1876216018.
  • Henshaw, CH, "Overland to Perth in 1928", Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, April 1964.
  • Luke, Monte (1997). Riders of the Steel Highways: The History of Australia's Commonwealth Railways 1912-1975. Port Augusta, SA: VM & BM Luke. ISBN 0646346520.

External linksEdit