The Long Running Saga of the Adelaide-Darwin Railway

For many years before Federation, the South Australian Government — having administrative responsibility the Northern Territory at that time — devoted considerable effort to planning the construction of a transcontinental railway from Adelaide to Darwin.

They found that they could not raise the capital to build it, and so they made it a condition of their joining the Commonwealth in 1901 that the legal documents of Federation must specify that the new Commonwealth Government would build and finance the railway to Darwin. Indeed, had it been omitted from the documents, it is doubtful that South Australia would have voted to join the Federation.

As politicians are always likely to do, the Commonwealth ratted on the deal. Eventually, the railway got to Alice Springs, and a track was built for a hundred miles south of Darwin, but there it stopped — and some years later was pulled up, with the steel being cut-up and sold as door stops around Australia. There was declared to be insufficient population and freight to justify completing the task.

Finally, a century after the railway was irrevocably promised by the Commonwealth, a group of business leaders in Adelaide took up the project aggressively and convinced the South Australian and Northern Territory Governments that its time had come. Both governments subscribed some capital, as did the private sector, but the bankers of the world refused to back them unless the Commonwealth became involved.

John Howard was unconvinced of its viability and stalled for a while, but the Olsen and Burke conservative governments convinced him that they would be beaten in their pending elections unless he brought finance to the table. He subscribed the minimum amount that he could get away with politically, and so the banks finally came good, but the debt burden on the new track was enormous, thereby setting the seeds of its failure.

The irony is that both Olsen and Burke lost their elections anyway, but at least the railway from Alice to Darwin was underway. From day one, it was clearly short on its minimum funding requirements, so every possible short cut was taken with its construction, such as sleepers being placed further apart, minimum ballast laid, bridges being built to lightweight standards, and so on. The result is that the completed railway cannot carry heavy freight and, with an intolerable burden of interest payable to its bankers, it went into liquidation. It is sad to note that, despite all of its problems, and because of excellent management, it was operating at a profit on its daily operations, but it had no hope of paying the banks.

It has now been taken over by the American railroad company, Genesee and Wyoming, who are currently making a very considerable effort to turn it into a viable track. But, it needs a large injection of new government equity, not loans, to upgrade the tracks, not just the new track north from the Alice, but the old Commonwealth track south to Adelaide, which is in poor shape as the result of decades of neglect.

It also needs a connecting track to Mount Isa from Tennant Creek, to gain a share of the export minerals of north-western Queensland and also pick up the phosphate that abounds along the Barkly Tableland.

This project will need equity from both government and private sources — as will a new railway from Tennant Creek across to the Kimberley. It is an enormous disgrace that the Kimberley is not connected by rail in any direction, thus isolating it from the Australian marketplace.

All of this means that, if we could get rid of State Governments and have a  Commonwealth system of railroads built as public private partnerships, we could open up all of Australia to enormous economic development and get people from our over-crowded capital cities out to where the action will be.

I can tell you that, after 15 years of considerable effort to get the Commonwealth to take-up the vision of a railway from Melbourne to Darwin via New South Wales and Queensland, no one in Canberra, either government or opposition, has got a clue about national development.

For generations, they have been totally consumed with winning the next election. We have got two sections of the proposed railway that are steadily moving towards Financial Close — ie, the Surat Basin and Border Railways —and we have done it all with no financial help from any government.

I must report that, after more than half a century of visiting the Parliaments of Australia, I have come to the unsurprising conclusion that the majority of MPs are seat warmers. This situation won’t change until we pay them a decent executive salary to cover the abnormal hours and personal abuse that they put up with. Why would anyone of ability go into Parliament when you can earn more money in the private sector and be able to keep your family out of the media?

Nevertheless, I take my hat off to John McDowell Stuart, Burke and Wills, Charles Sturt and Major Mitchell, who gave their lives proving the potential of the Australian continent to become the most prosperous nation on earth. And to John Flynn, Essington Lewis and Hudson Fysh who carried the dream forward, only to find that politicians could destroy it through negligence.

There has to be a new leader of vision out there somewhere who will take us to a century of achievement.