Railway revival in a town like Alice

A luxurious trip across Australia's outback that once took two days can now be done in just 22 hours, reports Robert Milliken
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Its silver carriages gleaming in the outback sun, the Ghan stands at Alice Springs station waiting to take me on the overnight journey through the desert to Adelaide. A hot, dry wind blows down the tracks. The "winter" temperature is 28C.

The contrast could not be greater with my last overnight train journey, from Moscow to St Petersburg in the snow. But certain similarities apply. Uniformed attendants wait outside each carriage to direct passengers to their berths (although they do not knock on my door just before bedtime asking me to pay money to use the sheets, as they had on the Russian train).

I am in the Algebuckina car, between the Oodnadatta and the Oasis cars, named after rivers and settlements along the 1,500km-route south. My first- class berth is self-contained: a bed, a basin and a loo, all of which fold away to leave a comfortable seat. At 2pm, right on schedule, the train slides out of the station, through the red and ochre walls of the MacDonnell Ranges, heading confidently into the Never Never.

It was not always thus. Up to 16 years ago, buying a ticket on the Ghan and hoping to reach your destination on time was like taking a ticket in the lottery. The original tracks, built through shifting desert sands, frequently washed away in flash floods. Termites attacked the sleepers. The train was so slow that its unofficial theme song was "I'll Walk Beside You". The story is still told of a train that was stranded for two weeks by floods and of the engine driver who shot wild goats to feed his passengers.

Then in 1980, Australian National Railways, the government-owned rail company, decided that the Ghan should not be allowed to die. It built a new line, with concrete sleepers, across almost 1,000km of desert. It replaced the rickety rolling stock with luxurious, air-conditioned cars. A trip that once took anything from two days to two months now takes 22 hours, and the re-born Ghan is considered one of the great railway journeys of Australia, if not the world.

When the first Ghan steamed into Alice Springs on 6 August 1929, hauled by locomotive NM35 with its cow-catcher at the front, and cheered by welcoming locals, the scene was like something from Australia's version of the Wild West. Alice Springs, in Australia's "dead heart", was still as cut off from the rest of the country as it had been in 1872 when it was founded as the site for a telegraph station. For more than 50 years, camels and their Afghan drivers, first imported in the 1860s, had been central Australia's primary transportation link with the outside world.

The Ghan was named in their honour. The line's completion from Adelaide to Alice was part of a grand vision for a 3,000km north-south transcontinental railway linking southern Australia with Darwin, and thence the lucrative markets of Asia. The vision remains just that, and the line still stops at Alice.

Elsewhere, though, railways played a pivotal part in expanding Australia's frontiers. By the 1940s, at the height of rail's fortunes, the country's total track network, if laid end-to-end, would have stretched from London to Sydney and back. The trouble was that each of the six states had managed to build six different systems with different gauges.

With the arrival of the car and air travel it is easy to see why government planners decided it was simpler to let railways fade away than to turn them into a truly national system. Shamefully, that almost happened.

Now governments have realised belatedly that it is more efficient to move freight by rail than road. In 1992, the federal government sank millions of dollars towards finally ironing out the colonial mess of a multi-gauge system. It also set up a new corporation with the aim of taking inter-city freight off roads and on to rail.

Last year it became possible for the first time for trains to run the 4,000km between the east and west coast capitals on the same international standard gauge rail. Passenger train revival is moving at a slower pace. But the Ghan and another long-distance passenger train, the Indian Pacific, running between Sydney and Perth, are the inheritors of Australia's great railway era.

As darkness fell, and the Ghan ploughed on between the Simpson and Great Victoria deserts, I reflected on that era with a passenger at my table in the dining car, a young engineer from Northern Ireland. He told me that he was taking a month to see Australia by train with a rail pass that allowed him five separate trips.

It was good value. He had travelled from Sydney to Adelaide on the Indian Pacific, to Alice Springs and back on the Ghan, and was planning to travel to Cairns, in tropical north Queensland, on another restored passenger train, the Queenslander: a total of 13,000km for pounds 600. The trains were giving him a true sense of Australia's immense distances and physical contrasts. "This is a nostalgia trip for me," he said. "There's nothing like this train left in Britain."

We repaired for drinks to the non-smoking lounge car (there is a separate car for smokers). The carriage, decorated in Aboriginal motifs, filled up with what appeared to be retirees enjoying, as my Irish friend put it, "the fruits of their life's hard work". A woman played the piano and the others sang songs such as "Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do".

The train had been travelling for seven hours, almost in a straight line, without stopping. Although most of my fellow passengers appeared to be young or middle-aged tourists, the revived Ghan still performs the original train's function and stops, by request, at sidings in the middle of the night to take outback dwellers to town.

Urban Australians still remain wedded to cars and aircraft. But, in the frazzled Nineties, there is a yearning for a return to more leisurely, civilised forms of travel. And, if the Ghan's performance is anything to go by, it should add strength to that process. When we pulled into Adelaide station next morning at 11.10, we were half an hour early. Original Ghan hands, eat your hearts out.