John Kirk was in Adelaide to watch the departure of the first train to Darwin

AS THE brightly-coloured FreightLink train eased out of Adelaide at 11.15 on January 15 to begin its 3000 km journey north to Darwin, it carried more than containers of general freight. With it went the wishes and hopes of thousands of people who had gathered to give the train a rousing send-off. Also on board were politicians and executives from the private-sector investors.

South Australia's Premier Mike Rann described the link as 'the product of vision and persistence, a bridge between our past and our future and it celebrates the conquering of Australia's last frontier in an historic act of nation-building'.

In 1999 the federal government agreed to back the A$1·2bn project (RG 1.04 p20). The AustralAsia consortium comprising Halliburton KBR, Barclay Mowlem, John Holland Group, McMahon Holdings, and Australian Railroad Group contributed A$850m, the Commonwealth and Northern Territory A$165m each, and South Australia A$150m.

The first train arrived at Darwin's East Arm Port at 13.30 on January 17 to an enthusiastic welcome. Prime Minister John Howard said the inauguration of the Alice Springs - Darwin line 'represents a momentous achievement'.

The signing of a five-year deal with Scott Transport to switch 120000 tonnes of freight from road to rail, followed by an agreement with freight forwarder FCL to send 50000 tonnes per year on the new service, may silence those who doubted the value of the project. FCL will operate FreightLink's terminals at Tennant Creek and Katherine, and Swires shipping is introducing a weekly service between Darwin and Singapore. The line will initially be used by five trains each way per week, each taking 43h for the 3000 km trip.

According to FreightLink, with these contracts in place, it is now 'well on the way' to securing its initial target of 350000 tonnes of domestic freight within the first 12 months of operation. FCL Managing Director Bill Gibbins stated that there was 'huge potential' for transporting produce and refrigerated goods out of Northern Territory.

Summing up the occasion, Rann said 'the State, Territory and federal governments have worked together in an historic act of nation building; it's now up to the private sector to use it - they have been asking for it for so long. This railway has conquered Australia's last frontier - with vision and persistence, we can all make it a success.'

  • CAPTION: Darwin artist Gullawan Lee painted locomotive FQ01 Kurru Kurraka with its crocodile symbolism, and Ruth Dawson contributed the design for FQ02 Purna, based on a tribal story about two people gathering water at a rock hole. FQ01 is © Gullawan Lee and FQ02 is © Artistic Work & Design, Ruth Dawson and Julalikari Council Aboriginal Corp
  • CAPTION: En route to Darwin, the inaugural train is escorted into Port Augusta by Pichi Richi Railway's preserved 1067mm gauge NM class steam locomotive, built for the Central Australian Railway, and an NSU class diesel that once worked the North Australian Railway between Darwin and Larrimah All photos: John Kirk