THE PENULTIMATE piece in the Alice - Darwin jigsaw was slotted into place on October 18. Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Northern Territories Chief Minister Denis Burke and South Australian Premier John Olsen met in Adelaide to sign an agreement committing A$480m of public funds to the project to build a 1410 km line through the outback. This would appear to be the same money that was promised earlier (RG 12.99 p753), although the split has now changed, with the federal government paying A$165m.

Construction has been entrusted to Asia Pacific Transportation Consortium, via a 50-year concession to build and operate the line. APTC still has to obtain around A$750m of funds from supporting banks, but this is expected to be signed up by November 30. If it is, work could start next month, the aim being to open worksites in Tennant Creek and Katherine, with construction teams working north and south from both locations. Target date for completion is now 2004.

The project assumes that significant import-export traffic will be drawn to a new port at Darwin, but the decision to build the line has political objectives too, including the provision of employment for BHP’s steelworks at Whyalla.