After a century's delay, Australia gets transcontinental rail link

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The Independent Online

A century-old dream of a railway spanning the heart of the Australian continent finally became reality yesterday when the first freight train left Adelaide for the inaugural 3,000km (1,900-mile) journey north to Darwin.

A century-old dream of a railway spanning the heart of the Australian continent finally became reality yesterday when the first freight train left Adelaide for the inaugural 3,000km (1,900-mile) journey north to Darwin.

The railway, probably the world's last great transcontinental route, links the remote Northern Territory with Australia's southern cities, opening up opportunities for trade and tourism. Until now, freight had to travel by ship or along a single-lane highway, often on the back of enormous triple-lorry "road trains".

The first passenger service, called the Ghan, will leave on 1 February, carrying a load of excited railway fanatics who have paid up to A$12,000 (£5,000) for the privilege. The 47-hour trip through the Red Centre to the tropical north will be among the world's legendary train rides. Passenger ticket sales have already surpassed A$15m.

Yesterday thousands of well-wishers and trainspotters gathered at Adelaide's Keswick station to watch history in the making. Hundreds more lined the track to watch the 1.2km-long train pull out a few minutes late, after a ceremony attended by politicians and dignitaries.

The train, powered by two locomotives painted with Aboriginal artwork, will stop in the dusty Outback settlements of Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek (a 20-minute stop at 1am) before arriving in Darwin on Saturday.

The South Australian premier, Mike Rann, described construction of the line as "an act of nation-building" that would finally link Darwin - a city closer to Singapore and Jakarta than Sydney and Melbourne - with the rest of Australia. "It's the north-south link that we've always wanted," Mr Rann said. "It's finally become a reality."

The chief minister of the Northern Territory, Clare Martin, said the line would end the north's isolation. "It's a moment the Territory has been waiting for for a long time," she said.

The dream began in the steam age, with the railway first promised by the prime minister Alfred Deakin in 1907. The line reached Alice Springs in 1929, but there it stopped, halted by the Great Depression, a world war and the pusillanimity of successive prime ministers who promised to extend it to Darwin. So repeatedly were Territorians' hopes raised and dashed that it came to be known as the "never-never line".

The Alice to Darwin extension is Australia's biggest infrastructure project, costing A$1.4bn (£595m). For two years, construction gangs battled some of the harshest terrain on earth, laying track at a rate of 4.2km a day, building 90 bridges and making 1,500 culverts.

Workers faced daytime temperatures of up to 50C; in summer, track-laying began at 2am because the machinery became impossibly hot when the sun rose. In the wet season, the northern crew downed tools for three months to prevent their labours being washed away by torrential downpours. In the desert, toiling in one of the world's driest regions, they had to sink boreholes for water.

Now their work has reached fruition, and sceptics are already calling the railway a white elephant. Chris Corrigan, head of a shipping company that will be competing with the line, said: "They've built a railway for five trains a week and a few cartons of beer, and I've described the financial returns on that as being smaller than a tick's testicles."

Bruce McGowan, chief executive of Freightlink, the company operating the freight service, said he was confident it would be viable within three years. The line is expected to carry 800,000 tons of goods a year by 2010.

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