Issue No. 2 - September/October 2001
Railway to Darwin and Beyond
by Professor Richard Blandy
In 1864, on his third attempt, John McDouall Stuart successfully completed the South—North crossing of Australia from Adelaide to the Arafura Sea. This heroic achievement resulted in the grant to the colony of South Australia of its own Northern Territory.
Two great projects dominated colonial South Australia’s thinking about the Territory: an Overland Telegraph and a Transcontinental Railway, both of which would link Adelaide (or at least Port Augusta) and the rest of Australia to Darwin and, through Darwin, to the rest of the world.
In 1872, the first of these great South Australian projects was completed when the overland telegraph from Adelaide was connected in Darwin to the undersea cable from Java. It was to take 140 years to achieve the second.
It has been said that the great 19th Century British novelist, Anthony Trollope, once described the Australian Transcontinental Railway project as one that “was to go through the desert to nowhere” — a view still current in some circles in Australia.
A counter view — that today seems prophetic — was put in 1909 by Alfred Searcy, the South Australian Sub—Collector of Customs in Darwin in the 1890s:
Port Darwin is one of the finest harbours in Australia…So, sure as tomorrow follows today, this magnificent harbour will be the Singapore of Australia, provided, of course, certain works are undertaken and restrictions removed.
The work I refer principally to is the transcontinental line, an undertaking which is bound to be carried out in time, and which will connect the two splendid ports of Augusta and Darwin.
In 1878, construction of the narrow gauge Southern line began from Port Augusta. It reached Oodnadatta in 1889, which remained the terminus until the line was extended to Alice Springs in 1929. In 1980, the line through Oodnadatta was replaced by an 830 km standard gauge line from Tarcoola to Alice. As well as linking Alice Springs into...