The Ghan

"Ghan" redirects here. For the Muslim camel drivers, see Afghan (Australia).
The Ghan

The Ghan at Alice Springs in July 2015
Service type Transcontinental passenger rail
Status Operating
Locale Australia
First service 1929
Current operator(s) Great Southern Rail
Former operator(s) Commonwealth Railways
Australian National
Start Adelaide
End Darwin
Distance travelled 2,979 km (1,851 mi)
Service frequency 1 per week
2 per week (May–Aug)
Line used Adelaide–Darwin railway
On-board services
Seating arrangements Yes
Sleeping arrangements Yes
Rolling stock Commonwealth Railways stainless steel carriage stock
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Route map
The Ghan
Tennant Creek
Alice Springs
Northern Territory
South Australia
Coober Pedy (Manguri)
Indian Pacific from Perth
Indian Pacific to Perth
Port Augusta
Indian Pacific to Sydney
Coonamia near Port Pirie

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.[1]


The route of the Old Ghan
Narrow gauge Ghan carriage in Alice Springs in February 2009
Pacific National NR74 in The Ghan livery
The Ghan Second Class Restaurant Car

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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'.[5] 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 was privatised in 1997 and is operated by Great Southern Rail, initially as part of the Serco Group. GSR was sold to Allegro Funds, a Sydney investment fund, in March 2015.[6]

The Ghan normally runs weekly year-round. During December 2012 and January 2013 it ran only once every two weeks.[1] Until 2016, a second service operated between June and September.[1][7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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 12 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.[10]

Original Ghan

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.[2] 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.[11] It was not until 1926 that the extension of the line to Alice Springs began,[12] and that section was completed in 1929. Until then, the final leg of the train journey was still made by camel.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

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 was featured in an episode of BBC Television's series Great Railway Journeys of the World in 1980, presented by Michael Frayn.

New line

The original Ghan ran for the last time in 1980[13] 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.[16] 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.[13] It was also hoped that the construction of the new line would improve the train's timekeeping.[14]

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.[17][18]

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).[19][20] Line construction began in July 2001, with the first passenger train reaching Darwin on 3 February 2004, after 126 years of planning and waiting[21][22] and at a cost of A$1.3 billion.[23]

The Ghan's arrival in Darwin signified a new era of tourism in the Northern Territory,[24] making travel to the region easier and more convenient as well as providing better access to and for Aboriginal communities in the region.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27]



  1. 1 2 3 Timetables Great Southern Rail
  2. 1 2 Barrington R, Babbage J (1980). History of the Pichi Railway. Pichi Richi Railway Preservation Society. ISBN 0-959850-96-1.
  3. "Australia: Going, going, Ghan". CNN. 3 March 2004. Archived from the original on 11 September 2007. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  4. News newspaper, 10 July 1937, p. 4.
  5. Register newspaper, 20 October 1924, p. 9.
  6. South Australia’s iconic train experience The Ghan bought by Sydney investment fund The Advertiser, 30 March 2015. Accessed 31 March 2015.
  7. Great Southern Rail to halve services on The Ghan, Indian Pacific after Federal Government cuts ABC News 6 August 2015
  8. Want to see more of Australia along the way? Just whistle! Great Southern Rail
  9. History Great Southern Rail
  10. A distant dream becomes reality The Age 10 January 2004
  11. "Interpreting Beltana's History, interpretative signs around the town". Heritage South Australia, Government of South Australia. 2006. Retrieved 10 September 2006.
  12. Mitchell, Barry (26 May 2006). "The Ghan". Australia Wide. ABC 2. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  13. 1 2 3 Tregaskis, Moana (16 September 1990). "On the 2 pm from Adelaide to Alice". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  14. 1 2 Pfeiff, Margo (5 September 2004). "Slicing Through Australia's Center". The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  15. Burton, Rosamund (9 December 2006). "Into the Red". The Australian. Retrieved 28 January 2008.
  16. "Alice Springs". The Age. Melbourne. 8 February 2004. Retrieved 28 January 2008.
  17. "GSR Announce Changes to Ghan & Overland" Railway Digest August 1998 page 10
  18. "Ghan Sydney Bound in April" Railway Digest February 1999 page 12
  19. Ian Hammond (1 August 2000). "Work Starts This Month on Alice-Darwin Line". International Railway Journal. Retrieved 16 March 2008.
  20. "Tunnels, Dams & Power Stations". Heritage Office News. Heritage Council of NSW. 1998. Archived from the original on 4 March 2012. Retrieved 16 March 2008.
  21. "First Train". AustralAsia Railway Corporation. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  22. "About the Ghan". Automobile Association of the Northern Territory. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  23. "Croc Hunter Launches Another Beast". The Age. Melbourne. 25 September 2003. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  24. Barker, Anne (3 February 2004). "International Journalists Cover the Ghan's Journey". The World Today Archive. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  25. "Train Track Opens Awesome Outback". CNN. 1 February 2004. Archived from the original on 19 March 2007. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  26. Squires, Nick (15 January 2004). "Mile-long Train Blazes New Trail Through Parched Heart of Outback". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  27. "Ghan's New 'Steve Irwin' Loco to Bring Tourists to Top End". ABC News. 26 September 2003. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  28. Debelle, Penelope (25 October 2002). "Four Die After Ghan Collides with Packed School Bus". The Age. Melbourne. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  29. "Ghan derailment victim critical". Sydney Morning Herald. AAP. 13 December 2006. Retrieved 13 December 2006.
  30. "Court finds Ghan crash driver guilty". National Nine News. 1 December 2007. Retrieved 19 December 2012.
  31. "Rains Wash Section of Ghan Rail Link". The Age. Melbourne. 4 March 2007. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  32. "Ghan train smashes into truck". The Age. Melbourne: AAP. 6 August 2007. Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  33. Nankervis, David (7 June 2009). "Tourist Chad Vance clung to Ghan train for two hours". Retrieved 12 November 2012.

Further reading

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