The Ghan
Alice Springs
Northern Territory
South Australia
Coober Pedy

The Ghan is an Australian passenger train service between the cities of Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin on the Adelaide–Darwin railway. Operated by Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions, it takes 54 hours to travel the 2,979 kilometres (1,851 mi) with a four-hour stopover in Alice Springs.[2]. The Ghan is considered to be one of the world's great train journeys [3]


The route of the Old Ghan
Narrow gauge Ghan carriage in Alice Springs in February 2009
The Ghan Second Class Restaurant Car

The service's name is an abbreviated version of its previous nickname, The Afghan Express. The nickname is reputed to have been bestowed in 1923 by one of its crews.[4] Some suggest the train's name honours Afghan camel drivers who arrived in Australia in the late 19th century to help the British colonisers find a way to reach the country's interior.[5]

A contrary view is that the name was a veiled insult. In 1891, the railway from Quorn reached remote Oodnadatta where an itinerant population of around 150 cameleers were based, generically called "Afghans". "The Ghan Express" name originated with train crews in the 1890s as a taunt to officialdom because, when an expensive sleeping car was put on from Quorn to Oodnadatta, "on the first return journey the only passenger was an Afghan", mocking its commercial viability.[6]

By as early as 1924, because of the notorious unreliability of this fortnightly steam train, European pastoralists commonly called it "in ribald fashion The Afghan Express".[7] By 1951, when steam engines were replaced by diesel-electric locomotives, this disparaging derivation, like the cameleers, had faded away. Modern marketing has completed the name turnabout.


The Ghan was privatised in 1997 and has since then been operated by Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions (formerly known as Great Southern Rail), initially as part of the Serco Group. Great Southern Rail was sold to Allegro Funds, a Sydney investment fund, in March 2015.[8]

The train usually runs weekly year-round. During December 2012 and January 2013 it ran only once every two weeks.[2] Until 2016, a second service operated between June and September.[2][9] The train stops at Adelaide, Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin; the stops at Alice Springs and Katherine allow time for passengers to take optional tours.[10]

Each train has 16 to 38 stainless steel carriages, built by Comeng, Granville, in the late 1960s / early 1970s for the Indian Pacific, plus a motorail wagon.[11] The average length of the train is 774 metres (2,539 ft).[12] A Pacific National NR class locomotive, plus a second locomotive if necessary, usually hauls the train, but occasionally other engines assist, such as an AN class or a DL class locomotive.


Starting in August 1929, The Ghan ran on the Central Australian Railway, originally built as a 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow-gauge railway to Alice Springs under Chief Engineer, Commonwealth Railways, N. G. Bell. In 1957, the 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge Stirling North to Marree line opened, and the Ghan was curtailed to operate only north of Marree.[citation needed]

In October 1980 the remainder of the line was replaced by a standard-gauge line built to the west of the original line. An extension north from Alice Springs to Darwin opened in January 2004.[13]

Original Ghan

Construction of what was then known as the Port Augusta to Government Gums Railway began in 1878 when Premier of South Australia William Jervois broke ground at Port Augusta.[4] The 1,070 mm (3 ft 6 in) line reached Hawker in June 1880, Beltana in July 1881, Marree in January 1884 and Oodnadatta in January 1891.[14] Work on the extension to Alice Springs began in 1926,[15] and was completed in 1929. Until then, the final leg of the train journey was still made by camel.[16]

Although there were plans from the beginning to extend the line to Darwin, by the time the extension to Alice Springs had been completed, The Ghan was losing money and the plans for further extension to Darwin were suspended indefinitely.[17] The original Ghan line followed the same track as the overland telegraph, which is believed to be the route taken by John McDouall Stuart during his 1862 crossing of Australia.[18]

The Ghan service was notorious for delays caused by washouts of the track. A flatcar immediately behind the locomotive carried spare sleepers and railway tools, so passengers and crew could repair the line. The very uncertain service via this route was tolerated because steam locomotives needed large quantities of water, and Stuart's route to Alice Springs was the only one that had sufficient available water.[citation needed]

Initially operated fortnightly, in the 1930s it was increased to weekly. From 1956 until 1975 it operated twice weekly, before reverting to a weekly service.[19]

During World War II the service had to be greatly expanded, putting great pressure on the limited water supplies. As a result, de-mineralisation towers, some of which survive to this day, were built along the track so that bore water could be used. When a new line to Alice Springs was built in the 1970s, the use of diesel locomotives meant that there was far less need for water, thus allowing the line to take the much drier route from Tarcoola to Alice Springs.

The last narrow gauge service departed Alice Springs on 26 November 1980.[20]

New line

In October 1980, a new standard gauge line from Tarcoola on the Trans-Australian Railway to Alice Springs opened, and the train took the form it has today. The new line is approximately 160 kilometres (99 mi) west of the former line in order to avoid floodplains where the original line was often washed away during heavy rain.[16] It was also hoped that the construction of the new line would improve the train's timekeeping.[17]

The first Ghan on the new line departed Adelaide on 11 December 1980.[21] It initially operated as a broad gauge service to Port Pirie. Following the conversion of the Adelaide to Crystal Brook to standard gauge in 1982, it operated as a standard gauge train throughout. Operating weekly, a second service was operated between May and October.[22][23]

In November 1998, one service per week was extended from Adelaide to Melbourne while from April 1999, the other was diverted to operate to Sydney via Broken Hill.[24][25][26][27] The extensions were withdrawn in November 2002 and March 2003 respectively.[28][29]

Connection to Darwin

Construction of Alice Springs–Darwin line was believed to be the second-largest civil engineering project in Australia, and the largest since the creation of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.[30][31] Line construction began in July 2001, with the first passenger train reaching Darwin on 3 February 2004, after 126 years of planning and waiting[32][33] and at a cost of $1.3 billion.[34]

The Ghan's arrival in Darwin signified a new era of tourism in the Northern Territory,[35] making travel to the region easier and more convenient as well as providing better access to and for Aboriginal communities in the region.[36] The rail link will allow for more freight to travel through the region, leading to a hope that Darwin will serve as another trade link with Asia.[37]

In preparation for the connection to Darwin, one of the locomotives was named after Steve Irwin in a hope that the internationally recognised face of Australia would help promote the new service and tourism to the region.[38]

Media depictions

The original Ghan was featured in an episode of BBC Television's series Great Railway Journeys of the World in 1980, presented by Michael Frayn.

The modern Ghan featured in an episode of Channel 5 series Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railways, and the Mighty Trains series.[39]

In 2018 it was also the subject of SBS slow television documentary The Ghan: Australia's Greatest Train Journey. The entire journey from Adelaide to Darwin was condensed into a three hour show with no voiceover, much of it featuring footage directly from the front of the train.[40] An extended 17-hour version of the show aired on SBS's secondary channel, SBS Viceland.[41]

In October 2019 the train featured in BBC Two's episode one of Michael Portillo's Great Australian Railway Journeys.[42]


  • On 24 October 2002, The Ghan collided with a school bus in Salisbury, South Australia. Four people on the bus were killed, but there were no significant injuries to the Ghan passengers.[43]
  • On 12 December 2006, The Ghan collided with a truck at a level crossing and derailed 35 kilometres (22 mi) south of Adelaide River in the Northern Territory. Seven of the 11 carriages came off the tracks. One woman was critically injured, other passengers received only minor injuries. The truck driver involved was arrested, according to the NT police,[44] charged and found guilty[45] of a number of charges related to the accident.
  • On 4 March 2007, rain washed out a portion of the track between Darwin and Adelaide River. During the period of repairs, trains terminated at Katherine.[46]
  • On 6 August 2007, The Ghan collided with a truck at a level crossing 50 km (31 mi) north of Adelaide in South Australia. Three passengers suffered from shock and minor injuries. The truck driver was temporarily trapped in his vehicle.[47]
  • On 6 June 2009, a nineteen-year-old American tourist clung to the outside of The Ghan for two hours and 200 kilometres (120 mi) when he was locked out of the train following a stop in Port Augusta. A technician, Marty Wells, heard his screams and stopped the train.[48]



  1. ^ Tomlin, Sam (8 March 2016). "Railway for high rollers as Indian Pacific cuts economy class". ABC News. Retrieved 15 February 2020.
  2. ^ a b c Timetables Great Southern Rail
  3. ^ "TrainReview's guide to The Ghan"..
  4. ^ a b Barrington R, Babbage J (1980). History of the Pichi Railway. Pichi Richi Railway Preservation Society. ISBN 0-959850-96-1.
  5. ^ "Australia: Going, going, Ghan". CNN. 3 March 2004. Archived from the original on 11 September 2007. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  6. ^ News newspaper, 10 July 1937, p. 4.
  7. ^ Register newspaper, 20 October 1924, p. 9.
  8. ^ South Australia’s iconic train experience The Ghan bought by Sydney investment fund The Advertiser, 30 March 2015. Accessed 31 March 2015.
  9. ^ Great Southern Rail to halve services on The Ghan, Indian Pacific after Federal Government cuts ABC News, 6 August 2015.
  10. ^ "Want to see more of Australia along the way? Just whistle!", Great Southern Rail website.
  11. ^ "History" Archived 2 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Great Southern Rail website.
  12. ^ "The Ghan stats". Great Southern Rail. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
  13. ^ A distant dream becomes reality The Age 10 January 2004
  14. ^ "Interpreting Beltana's History, interpretative signs around the town". Heritage South Australia, Government of South Australia. 2006. Archived from the original on 19 September 2006. Retrieved 10 September 2006.
  15. ^ Mitchell, Barry (26 May 2006). "The Ghan". Australia Wide. ABC 2. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  16. ^ a b Tregaskis, Moana (16 September 1990). "On the 2 pm from Adelaide to Alice". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  17. ^ a b Pfeiff, Margo (5 September 2004). "Slicing Through Australia's Center". The San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  18. ^ Burton, Rosamund (9 December 2006). "Into the Red". The Australian. Retrieved 28 January 2008.
  19. ^ Here & There Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin issue 506 December 1979 page 6
  20. ^ Here & There Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin issue 521 March 1981 page 24
  21. ^ The Window Seat Network September 1980 page 27
  22. ^ The New Ghan The Railway Magazine issue 967 November 1981 page 522
  23. ^ Intelligence Railway Gazette International June 1982 page 420
  24. ^ "GSR Announce Changes to Ghan & Overland" Railway Digest August 1998 page 10
  25. ^ GSR's Ghan Commences Melbourne Runs Catch Point issue 129 January 1999 page 5
  26. ^ "Ghan Sydney Bound in April" Railway Digest February 1999 page 12
  27. ^ First Run of Ghan to Sydney Catch Point issue 131 May 1999 page 5
  28. ^ Here & There Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin issue 786 April 2003 page 152
  29. ^ Last Ghan into Sydney pulls up short Railway Digest May 2003 page 8
  30. ^ Ian Hammond (1 August 2000). "Work Starts This Month on Alice-Darwin Line". International Railway Journal. Archived from the original on 9 February 2016. Retrieved 16 March 2008.
  31. ^ "Tunnels, Dams & Power Stations". Heritage Office News. Heritage Council of NSW. 1998. Archived from the original on 4 March 2012. Retrieved 16 March 2008.
  32. ^ "First Train". AustralAsia Railway Corporation. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  33. ^ "About the Ghan". Automobile Association of the Northern Territory. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  34. ^ "Croc Hunter Launches Another Beast". The Age. Melbourne. 25 September 2003. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  35. ^ Barker, Anne (3 February 2004). "International Journalists Cover the Ghan's Journey". The World Today Archive. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  36. ^ "Train Track Opens Awesome Outback". CNN. 1 February 2004. Archived from the original on 19 March 2007. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  37. ^ Squires, Nick (15 January 2004). "Mile-long Train Blazes New Trail Through Parched Heart of Outback". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  38. ^ "Ghan's New 'Steve Irwin' Loco to Bring Tourists to Top End". ABC News. 26 September 2003. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  39. ^ "Watch video online | Discovery". Retrieved 27 August 2017.
  40. ^ "This should be the most boring show on TV but people love it". 10 January 2018. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
  41. ^ SBS to air 17-hour episode of 'slow TV' hit The Ghan The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 January 2018. Retrieved 18 January 2019.
  42. ^ "BBC Two - Great Australian Railway Journeys, Series 1, Port Augusta to Darwin: The Ghan". BBC. 2019. Retrieved 29 October 2019.
  43. ^ Debelle, Penelope (25 October 2002). "Four Die After Ghan Collides with Packed School Bus". The Age. Melbourne. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  44. ^ "Ghan derailment victim critical". Sydney Morning Herald. AAP. 13 December 2006. Retrieved 13 December 2006.
  45. ^ "Court finds Ghan crash driver guilty". National Nine News. 1 December 2007. Retrieved 19 December 2012.
  46. ^ "Rains Wash Section of Ghan Rail Link". The Age. Melbourne. 4 March 2007. Retrieved 27 January 2008.
  47. ^ "Ghan train smashes into truck". The Age. Melbourne: AAP. 6 August 2007. Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  48. ^ Nankervis, David (7 June 2009). "Tourist Chad Vance clung to Ghan train for two hours". Retrieved 12 November 2012.

Further reading

External links