On January 15 the first FreightLink container train for Darwin will leave Adelaide, arriving at the Northern Territory port two days later. The inaugural service on the Alice Springs - Darwin marks the completion of the 150 year dream of linking Australia's Top End with the cities in the south of the continent. Great Southern Railway's Ghan will bring passengers to Darwin for the first time on February 3.

Construction of the 1420 km line has taken little more than three years. Tracklaying began in April 2002, and the northern tracklayer arrived at the port's East Arm in September 2003 (A).

Austrak's Katherine sleeper factory (B) produced over 883000 sleepers for the line, employing 40 people. The town's passenger and freight terminals are now located nearby. Concrete sleepers were used as their weight will help withstand flooding, and concrete is easier to obtain and less susceptible to termites than timber. The Katherine and Tennant Creek sleeper plants were the largest in Australia, with capacities of 1600 and 2400 sleepers per day.

Following route clearance and initial earthworks, tracklaying started with two teams heading south from Katherine and north from Tennant Creek (C). Work between Tennant Creek and Alice Springs began in January 2003, and after the wet season the final push north from Katherine started in April 2003. The final Pandrol clip was fixed in place at a ceremony at Darwin on September 25.

The line has been built by ADrail, the design and construction arm of build-own-operate-transfer contract holder Asia Pacific Transport (RG4.02 p187). Each tracklaying shift required more than 3000 tonnes of ballast, supplied by rail from quarries at Tennant Creek and Katherine. Over 50 ballast wagons were delivered to the project (D), and the massive tracklaying trains included flat wagons and the tracklayer itself.

Except for short sections to the north of Alice Springs and Katherine the steepest gradient is 0·8%. Cutting No 5 through the hills north of Alice Springs was excavated by blasting in February 2003 (E). The line is designed for a maximum speed of 115 km/h, though the service speed of the daily 1·6 km long double-stack container trains will be around 90 km/h.

Celebrations were held to mark the completion of each stage of the project. On December 13 2002 workers from Buchanan Camp marked the final aluminothermic weld linking Tennant Creek with Katherine (F). Weekly deliveries by Australia Southern Railroad brought 27·5m lengths of rail from OneSteel's Whyalla plant in South Australia to the project's logistics centre at Roe Creek, 20 km south of Alice Springs, from where it was taken by specially-designed Sling Shot road trains to construction depots in Katherine and Tennant Creek for welding into 357·5m lengths ready for track laying.

According to ADrail, the total weight of track materials used on the line is 2·8 million tonnes, excluding the earthworks, which is equivalent to the weight of 53 Sydney Harbour Bridges.

Railway in Brief

Length 1420 km,

single track

Gauge 1435mm

Passing loops Newcastle Waters

Illoquara

Axleload 23 tonnes

Steepest grade 1·2%

Cost A$1·3bn

Construction period 3 years

BOOT contract 50 years from completion

Earthworks 15 million m3

Maximum design speed 115 km/h

Infrastructure in Brief

Sleepers 2·3 million concrete

Ballast 2·9 million m3

Bridges 90

Culverts 1500

Rail 146000 tonnes

Ballast 2·8 million tonnes

Flash-butt welds 110000

Concrete sleepers 2 million

Rail clips 8 million

Structural steel 3500 tonnes

Pre-stressed concrete 100000 m3