The Ghan is an Australian passenger train service between Adelaide, Alice Springs, and Darwin on the Adelaide–Darwin railway. Operated by Great Southern Rail, it takes 54 hours to travel the 2,979 kilometres (1,851 mi) with a four-hour stopover in Alice Springs.
The service's name is an abbreviated version of its previous nickname The Afghan Express. This nickname is reputed to have been bestowed in 1923 by one of its crews. The train's name honours Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century to help find a way to reach the country's unexplored interior.
A contrary view is that the name was a veiled insult. In 1891, the railway from Quorn reached remote Oodnadatta where an itinerant population of around 150 cameleers were based, generically called 'Afghans'. 'The Ghan Express' name originated with train crews in the 1890s as a taunt to officialdom because, when an expensive sleeping car was put on from Quorn to Oodnadatta, 'on the first return journey the only passenger was an Afghan', mocking its commercial viability. By as early as 1924, because of the notorious unreliability of this fortnightly steam train, European pastoralists commonly called it 'in ribald fashion The Afghan Express'. By 1951, when steam engines were replaced by diesel-electric locomotives, this disparaging derivation, like the cameleers, had faded away. Modern marketing has completed the name turnabout.
The Ghan normally runs weekly year-round. During December 2012 and January 2013 it ran only once every two weeks. Until 2016, a second service operated between June and September. In addition to Adelaide, Alice Springs, and Darwin, the train also makes a stop at Katherine. The stops at Katherine and Alice Springs allow time for optional tours.
Each train consists of between 16 and 26 stainless steel carriages, built by Comeng, Granville in the late 1960s / early 1970s for the Indian Pacific, plus a motorail wagon. Haulage is provided by a Pacific National NR class locomotive. Occasionally, other locomotives may be seen hauling The Ghan with the NR, such as an AN class or a DL class.
Starting in August 1929, The Ghan first ran on the Central Australian Railway originally built as a 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow-gauge railway that ran as far north as Alice Springs. In 1957, the 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) standard gauge Stirling North to Marree line opened between and the Ghan was curtailed to operate only north of Marree. In October 1980 the remainder of the line was replaced by a new standard gauge line, built to the west of the original line. This was extended northwards from Alice Springs to Darwin, opening in January 2004.
Construction of what was then known as the Port Augusta to Government Gums Railway began in 1878 when Premier of South Australia William Jervois broke ground at Port Augusta. The 1,070 mm (3 ft 6 in) line reached Hawker in June 1880, Beltana in July 1881, Marree in January 1884 and Oodnadatta in January 1891. It was not until 1926 that the extension of the line to Alice Springs began, and that section was completed in 1929. Until then, the final leg of the train journey was still made by camel.
While there were plans from the beginning to extend the line through to Darwin, by the time the Alice Springs connection was complete, The Ghan was running at a financial loss, and plans for connection to Darwin were put on indefinite hold. The original Ghan line followed the same track as the overland telegraph, which is believed to be the route taken by John McDouall Stuart during his 1862 crossing of Australia.
The Ghan service was notorious for washouts of the track and other delays, and a flatcar immediately behind the locomotive carried spare sleepers and railway tools, so that if a washout was encountered the passengers and crew could work as a railway gang to repair the line and permit the train to continue. This very uncertain service was tolerated because steam locomotives needed large quantities of water, and Stuart's route to Alice Springs was the only one that had sufficient available water.
During World War II the service had to be greatly expanded, putting great pressure on the limited water supplies. As a result, de-mineralisation towers, some of which survive to this day, were built along the track so that bore water could be used. When a new line to Alice Springs was built in the 1970s, the use of diesel locomotives meant that there was far less need for water, thus allowing the line to take the much drier route from Tarcoola to Alice Springs.
The original Ghan ran for the last time in 1980 and now its preservation is in the hands of The Ghan Preservation Society, which repairs sections of the old narrow gauge track and some notable sidings. It was not until October 1980 that a new standard gauge line from Tarcoola on the Trans-Australian Railway to Alice Springs was opened, and the train took the form it has today. The new line is located approximately 160 kilometres (99 mi) west of the former line, in an effort to avoid the floodplains where the original line was often damaged by floods. It was also hoped that the construction of the new line would improve the train's timekeeping.
The modern Ghan has featured in an episode of Channel 5's series Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railways. In November 1998, one service per week was extended from Adelaide to Melbourne while from April 1999, the other was diverted to operate to Sydney.
Connection to Darwin
Construction of Alice Springs–Darwin line was believed to be the second-largest civil engineering project in Australia, and the largest since the creation of the Snowy Mountains Scheme (built 1949–1974). Line construction began in July 2001, with the first passenger train reaching Darwin on 3 February 2004, after 126 years of planning and waiting and at a cost of A$1.3 billion.
The Ghan's arrival in Darwin signified a new era of tourism in the Northern Territory, making travel to the region easier and more convenient as well as providing better access to and for Aboriginal communities in the region. The rail link will allow for more freight to travel through the region, leading to a hope that Darwin will serve as another trade link with Asia.
In preparation for the connection to Darwin, one of the locomotives was named after Steve Irwin in a hope that the internationally recognised face of Australia would help promote the new service and tourism to the region.
- On 24 October 2002, The Ghan collided with a school bus in Salisbury, South Australia. Four people on the bus were killed, but there were no significant injuries to the Ghan passengers.
- On 12 December 2006, The Ghan collided with a truck at a level crossing and derailed 35 km south of Adelaide River in the Northern Territory. Seven of the 11 carriages came off the tracks. One woman was critically injured, other passengers received only minor injuries. The truck driver involved was arrested, according to the NT police, charged and found guilty of a number of charges related to the accident.
- On 4 March 2007, rains washed out a portion of the track between Darwin and Adelaide River. During the time that it took to repair the track, all trains terminated in Katherine.
- On 6 August 2007, The Ghan collided with a truck at a level crossing 50 km (31 mi) north of Adelaide in South Australia. Three passengers were reported with minor injuries, suffering from shock. The truck driver was temporarily trapped in his vehicle.
- On 6 June 2009, a nineteen-year-old American tourist clung to the outside of The Ghan for two hours and 200 km when, after returning to the train after a stop in Port Augusta, he found himself locked out with his passport and luggage inside the train. He was only rescued when technician Marty Wells heard his screams and stopped the train.
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- Media related to The Ghan at Wikimedia Commons
- The Ghan web page
- The Ghan ephemera digitised and held by the National Library of Australia