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AustralAsia link making rapid progress

01 Apr 2002

Tracklaying begins this month on the A$1·3bn Alice Springs - Darwin line. Opening in 2004, the Darwin extension of the existing line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs will realise a plan first put forward in 1858 and which has been a federal commitment since 1911

BYLINE: Franco Moretti

Chief Executive Officer,Asia Pacific Transport Pty Ltd and Freightlink Pty Ltd

DARWIN'S deepwater port is growing in importance as a gateway for trade with Asia, and the rail link to Alice Springs aims to create a 'landbridge' from Australia's southern states. To handle the expected traffic an A$30m intermodal terminal is being built at Darwin's East Arm port, and the new line will stimulate growth in the Northern Territory's oil, mining and gas industries.

The private sector is providing most of the funding, and the public sector is committed to the project through the Commonwealth, South Australian and Northern Territory governments. In 1998 the two state governments created AustralAsia Railway Corp to administer the project. As many as 30 companies entered the first stage of bidding for a build-own-operate-transfer contract, and three were shortlisted to prepare detailed submissions.

Asia Pacific Transport Consortium was selected as preferred bidder in June 1999, and became a company as Asia Pacific Transport Pty Ltd. APT is an alliance of Halliburton KBR, Australian Railroad Group (a joint venture of Genesee & Wyoming and Wesfarmers), Barclay Mowlem Construction, John Holland Group, Macmahon Holdings, and SANT Holding Pty Ltd. National Asset Management Ltd, Colonial First State and the Northern and Central Land Councils are equity investors.

Under the BOOT contract signed on April 20 2001 APT will build the Alice Springs - Darwin line, and contribute to a major expansion of the Darwin port freight terminal. APT will also lease the existing 820 km line from Tarcoola to Alice Springs. The railway will be transferred to the Commonwealth government after 50 years of operation.


Financial negotiations stretched over nearly two years, and involved 25 different entities, including the six Asia Pacific Transport Consortium members, several banks and other financiers, third-party investors and the federal, Northern Territory and South Australian governments. Financial close took three weeks and involved 112 different signatories checking and signing 333 documents.

APT has arranged debt and equity of A$780m. Macquarie Bank arranged the finance and advised on the project. ANZ Investment Bank, RBS Australia, Société Générale Australia and ABN AMRO provided the senior debt as joint underwriters. Macquarie Bank and RBS Australia underwrote the primary mezzanine tranche of debt funding.

The Commonwealth allocated A$100m from the Federation Fund, set up to finance projects to celebrate the centenary of federation. South Australia and the Northern Territory each promised A$100m, but this proved insufficient to attract financiers. APT's business plan was sound, so the federal and Northern Territory governments increased their shares to A$165m, and South Australia to A$150m.

The A$1·1bn contract for design and construction was awarded to ADrail, a separate joint venture formed to construct the railway. This comprises Halliburton KBR, John Holland, Barclay Mowlem, and Macmahon. Based in Darwin, ADrail has a design office in Adelaide. Halliburton KBR is project leader.


To establish potential usage for the new line, extensive studies of traffic between Darwin and major Australian cities were carried out. Currently, about 30000 containers a year are moved from Adelaide to Alice Springs, where they are transferred to lorries for the remaining 1400 km.

The railway's success ultimately depends on exporters and importers choosing to ship goods through Darwin rather than the southern cities. Australian Railroad Group and SANT Holding will provide expertise in logistics, rail and port operations to FreightLink, APT's operating company. The business plan is based on both domestic and landbridge traffic, with total traffic put at 3 million tonnes/year ultimately.

FreightLink's principal railway operating partner is Australia Railroad Group, which includes Australia Western and Australia Southern. There will be a daily service in each direction, to serve ship departures from Darwin. Trains will be 1600m long, running at 90 km/h with three 4000hp locomotives. Adelaide - Darwin transit time will be 48h.

FreightLink expects that the main users of the line will be Victorian and South Australian businesses. The Port of Darwin is the key to accessing the import-export markets. Forecasts suggest that 10 000 containers/year will be carried across the port initially, rising to 50000 in 2008.

Compared to sea transport the line will offer a reduction of approximately 50% in journey times from the south eastern cities, increasing reliability and reducing costs, and creating new markets for perishable and time-sensitive goods.

By marketing and packaging complete road, rail terminal, port and shipping operations, FreightLink will have the flexibility to meet market demands and seasonal peaks. It will be a one-stop, one-invoice shop for transport. Computerised tracking will allow customers to pinpoint their consignment at every stage.

Great Southern Railway plans to extend The Ghan cruise train beyond Alice Springs with two services a week at peak times. GSR Chief Executive Officer Stephen Bradford expects a further 35000 passengers/year when The Ghan runs to Darwin. Provisional schedules include a 6h stop in Alice Springs, with further stops at Tennant Creek and Katherine.


Track maintenance has been subcontracted to BJB, a joint venture of John Holland, Barclay Mowlem and Halliburton KBR. In April 2001 BJB took over maintenance of the existing 820 km railway between Tarcoola and Alice Springs, completed by Australian National in 1980. BJB will maintain the full 2250 km to Darwin from 2004.

BJB's responsibilities include signals and level crossings, managing temporary speed restrictions following heavy rain or derailments, tamping, weed control, general corridor, access track and air strip maintenance, managing rail defect inspection and removal, and capital upgrade works.

BJB will monitor the condition of several hundred culverts and dozens of bridges, including the Finke River bridge with 15 spans of 30m and the Hugh River bridge with nine 30m spans. Weekly patrols inspect rails, sleepers and fastenings, points and crossings, ballast, track geometry and lateral stability. BJB Joint Venture is also responsible for responding to derailments and co-ordinating rapid track reinstatement.

Construction challenges

The line is being built through an extremely harsh environment. Daytime temperatures in the Central Australian desert can reach 40íC, and rain, when it comes, arrives as a deluge, creating torrents within minutes. In contrast, the coastal region is tropical, with temperatures of 30íC to 35íC and high humidity. There are areas of mangrove swamp, creating construction and environmental challenges. Engineering work is scheduled to coincide with the area's wet and dry seasons.

Over A$600m of contracts and supply orders have been let to date. The consortium was required to offer economic benefits to communities along the railway, and APT pledged to spend 75% of the total project cost in Northern Territory and South Australia. A$500m in direct contracts will be awarded here, and A$200m indirectly. Around 2000 people will be employed in construction work, and 120 will be required to run the railway and port. Aboriginal communities are being provided with employment, training and contracting opportunities, and employees receive cross-cultural awareness training.

Prime Minister John Howard turned the first sod of the project in Alice Springs on July 17 last year. A substantial amount of pre-construction work had been carried out before financial close, allowing major works to start immediately. There are six mobile construction camps, holding between 30 and 250 workers, operating from 16 locations. Permanent camps are located at Katherine and Tennant Creek.

Rail and welding depots and sleeper plants were completed at Katherine and Tennant Creek at the end of last year. The Tennant Creek factory was commissioned on January 25, and is now producing 2400 sleepers/day. The Katherine sleeper factory began work in February, and is producing 1600 sleepers/day.

Work on the Alice Springs - Dixon Creek section began in January, and work on the East Arm of the Port of Darwin is now underway.

Earthworks now extend 95 km from Katherine, and 300 km of earthworks and bridges have been completed in total. Eight refurbished Class 22 diesel locos will be used on the construction trains. The first to head north was delivered to Katherine on March 14 following a 1 200 km road journey from Roe Creek near Alice Springs. This has been named Katherine, and the second will be Tennant Creek.

Tracklaying is expected to proceed south from Katherine at an average of 1·6 km/day. This initial section of line will be used to access areas where ballast can be mined for use on the project. When the wet season begins the main thrust of construction will move south to Tennant Creek, where the earthworks have already been completed for 35 km to the north and 87 km to the south.

All major earthworks are expected to be completed by mid-2003, and track should be laid between Katherine and Tennant Creek by December 2003. Rolling stock contracts were to be awarded in March 2002, and the completed line is on course to open in early 2004.

Statistics in brief

Length 1420 km, single track

Gauge 1435mm

Passing loops Newcastle Waters


Axleload 23 tonnes

Steepest grade 1·2%

Design speed 115 km/h

Infrastructure 100 bridges

1500 culverts

Earthworks 15millionm3

Construction period 3 years

Cost A$1·3bn

Rail 145000 tonnes

50 kg/m AS 1085.1

Sleepers 2·3 million concrete

Rail fastenings 8 million

Ballast 2·9 million m3

Major Construction Contracts

Locos 8 Class 422 (2 000hp)

Loco and rail wagon refurbishment EDI Rail

Tracklaying machine Harsco Track Technologies

Loco workshops at Katherine and Tennant Creek Allbuilt Constructions Pty

Rail OneSteel

Rail and ballast transport Australia Southern Railroad

Rail fastenings (Fastclip) Pandrol Australia

Turnouts Pacific Rail Engineering

Track design and construction ADrail JV

CAPTION: Great race to the north. Rival modes of transport from Alice to Darwin were on parade when work on the 1 420 km project was launched last year

CAPTION: One of two concrete sleeper factories has been built in Katherine

CAPTION: By mid-March 95 km of earthworks had been completed from the northern construction base at Katherine

Australia - Asia link making rapid progress

Track laying begins this month on the A$1·3bn Alice Springs - Darwin line. The project aims to create a freight landbridge between Asia and Australia's southern states. Asia Pacific Transport has a build own operate transfer contract for the 1420 km line, and construction is now proceeding from bases at Katherine and Tennant Creek.

Les rapides progrès de la liaison Australie - Asie

La pose des voies commence ce mois-ci sur la ligne Alice Springs - Darwin, estimée à 1·3 milliards de dollars australiens. Le but du projet est de créer une liaison fret terrestre entre l'Asie et les états du sud de l'Australie. Asia Pacific Transport a un contrat de construction, de propriété et d'exploitation pour cette ligne de 1420 km dont la construction est en cours à partir de bases situées à Katherine et Tennant Creek

Australien - Asien-Verbindung macht schnelle Fortschritte

Die Gleisverlegearbeiten beginnen diesen Monat auf der 1·3 Milliarden Australische Dollar kostenden Strecke zwischen Alice Springs und Darwin. Das Projekt zielt darauf ab, eine Güter-Landbrücke zwischen Asien und den südlichen Bundesstaaten in Australien zu schafen. Asia Pacific Transport besitzt einen Vertrag zum Bau, Besitz, Betrieb und Übergabe für die 1420 km lange Strecke, und der Bau schreitet nun voran von Basen in Katherine und Tennant Creek