Many countries will look at the Australian network, particularly its freight network, enviously. We think of well-maintained infrastructure and long, efficient freight trains. Although that may be the case, it is not the entire story.

The Australian rail network

The Australian rail network consists of more than 41,000 kilometres of track spanning the continent. 

Australia's first railways were constructed by private companies to facilitate the transport of materials from the interior to the nearest capital city and to export such materials via the local port. For example, the first railway to commence operations in the 1850s ran between Melbourne and Port Melbourne. 

At the time, the population was sparse. Neither the entrepreneurs, nor the individual colonies which took over the development of the rail networks, considered the need for rail travel between the various colonial capitals. Each state simply chose its own gauge system. 

In the lead-up to Federation in 1901, colonial statesmen outlined a grand plan to link each of the capital cities by rail.  Western Australia and the Northern Territory had no rail links to the other states at the time. It took another 100 years for that dream to be achieved.

Rail gauges

The main impediment to linking the state capitals was the incompatibility of the then existing rail gauges and equipment. 

When railway construction began in Australia in the 1850s, the engineers favoured the gauge system they were most familiar with.  The standard gauge (1,435 mm / 4 ft 8 1⁄2 inches) from England and Europe was adopted in New South Wales. 

The broad gauge (1,590 mm / 5 ft 3 inches) from Ireland was adopted in Victoria and parts of South Australia.

A third system of a narrow gauge (1050 mm / 3 ft 6 inches) was chosen for Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. The narrow gauge system was also used in other states for industries such as timber cutting and mining.  It was favoured when working in the mountains as less earth had to be cut out to build the lines.

At one stage there were 16 rail gauges in private and public use around Australia.

When the rail networks were expanded to connect different states, the lines, equipment and operating practices were incompatible. Passengers and freight would have to be transferred from one train to another at state borders and at other rail junctions. In 1917, a person wanting to travel from Perth to Brisbane had to change trains no fewer than six times. 

At present, the most common railway gauges in Australia are the standard, narrow and broad gauges:

  • Standard gauge – 17,678 km – mainly New South Wales and the interstate rail network
  • Narrow gauge – 15,160 km – mainly Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania as well as part of South Australia
  • Broad gauge – 4,017 km – mainly Victoria including Victorian branch lines which extend into southern New South Wales, as well as part of South Australia

Standardisation of the interstate track

In the 1930s, the first steps were taken to convert Australia’s interstate network to a standard gauge track. 

The linking of capital cities was only completed in January 2004 when the AUD 1.3 billion rail line was constructed between Alice Springs and Darwin by private operator, FreightLink (now owned by Genesee and Wyoming).

One solution to gauge conversion was to duplicate certain rail lines to accommodate two different gauges of rolling stock on the most heavily trafficked sections of rail in various states. For example, the Fremantle (Perth) railway line in Western Australia has three rails to accommodate both narrow and standard gauge trains.

Australian Rail Track Corporation

The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is a federal government owned corporation that owns, leases, maintains and controls the majority of 8,500 kilometres of the main line standard gauge railway on the mainland of Australia, known as the Designated Interstate Rail Network (DIRN), which links all of the state and territorial capital cities. 

Despite the standardisation of the interstate network, the disparity in rail gauges in Australia continues to present logistical and economic difficulties some 150 years after the freight rail networks were first constructed. 

From a national perspective, the freight networks and passenger networks are individually operated and regulated on a state by state basis. This means that there is no single map which shows all of the different freight gauges or networks in Australia. 

An exception has been made in the arena of rail safety law and regulation, which is in the process of being standardised across Australia.

Other rail owners

Other owners of the freight rail network in Australia include:

  • Aurizon (formerly QR National), which owns the freight network in Queensland
  • Queensland Rail (QR), a government entity which owns the passenger network in Queensland
  • Rail Corporation New South Wales (RailCorp), a government entity which owns the NSW passenger network
  • VicTrack, a government entity which owns the Victorian network
  • TasRail, a government entity, which owns the rail network in Tasmania
  • Genesee & Wyoming Australia, which owns nearly 5,000 kilometres of track in South Australia and the Northern Territory
  • Brookfield Rail, which manages and operates Western Australia's 5,100 km open access, multi-user rail freight network in the southern half of the State under a long-term lease with the WA State Government

Passenger trains and great rail journeys in Australia

From a tourism perspective, there are at least three iconic long distance passenger train journeys in Australia. The Great Southern Railway, owned by Serco Asia Pacific, operates:

  • The Indian Pacific (Sydney–Adelaide–Perth): 2 round trips per week
  • The Ghan (Adelaide–Alice Springs–Darwin): 2 round trips per week
  • The Overland (Melbourne–Adelaide): 3 round trips per week

The Indian Pacific is one of the few truly transcontinental trains in the world. The train first ran in February 1970 after the completion of gauge conversion projects in South Australia and Western Australia.

The route includes the world's longest straight stretch of railway track, a 478 kilometre (297 mile) stretch from the goldfields around Kalgoorlie, across the vast desert of the Nullarbor Plain. 

The trip from Sydney to Perth or vice versa will take three nights and four days via Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook and Kalgoorlie. The distance one way is 4,352 kilometres.


Some Australian capital cities have limited underground networks. Several sections of both the Sydney and Melbourne rail networks are underground. In Perth, work is underway to sink the railway lines within the central business district.

Light rail

Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia have established light rail networks.

Australia's most famous light rail network comprises the iconic trams of Melbourne that have been in operation since 1906.

Queensland will introduce a light rail network in 2014. The West Australian government introduced plans to implement a light rail network; however the project has now been deferred for three years and will not be completed until 2022.

The Australian Capital Territory is also working through its proposal for a light rail network in Canberra. Tasmania has previously proposed a light rail network but it is yet to receive funding.

Freight operations

Given the weighting of the Australia economy towards mining, resources and primary industry, public and private freight operations are of greater economic importance than passenger services in Australia. 

The major freight operators on the rail networks (excluding private mining railways) are:

  • Pacific National – nationally
  • Genesee & Wyoming Australia – South Australia and the Northern Territory
  • Aurizon and its subsidiaries – in Queensland and Western Australia

Pit to port – The largest and heaviest Australian trains

Mining companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange have constructed and operate extensive private railways. Particularly in the iron-rich Pilbara region in Western Australia, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) transfer millions of tonnes of ore from their mine sites to the ports of Port Hedland and Dampier for shipping. Rio Tinto is the owner of the longest private rail network, the Hamersley and Robe River railway spanning 1300km. Approximately 630,000 tonnes of iron ore is railed to port via that track each day.

These mining railways carry some of the longest and heaviest trains in the world. 

Australia's largest train on record was a BHP Billiton's special trial run of a train featuring 682 ore cars and weighing close to 100,000 tonnes. The average BHP Billiton train consists of 330 ore cars.

FMG's track can support the heaviest axle weight at 40 tonnes per axle.

Driverless trains

The introduction of driverless trains to the Pilbara region in Western Australia is the latest move by some of the major players in the mining industry. Following the introduction of driverless haul trucks at its mine sites, Rio Tinto is planning to deploy driverless trains in 2014. The trains will be operated remotely from a large operations centre based at the Perth International Airport, more than 1,300 kilometers away.

The aim of driverless trains is to create more efficient operations by eliminating the need for crew stoppages or crew changes and also reducing CO2 emissions.

Members of our Perth projects and construction team have been involved in a number of the largest private and government rail infrastructure developments in Western Australia. They have also been involved in every aspect of below-rail ownership, rail access above-rail operations, freight and haulage and rolling stock procurement, construction and leasing.