Construction of the railway line began at Port Augusta in 1877. Until the 1950s the line was narrow gauge, following a steep and winding route through the Pichi Richi Pass into the Flinders Ranges.
Although the railway reached Oodnadatta in 1891, Alice Springs had to wait to be connected until 1929. It was during the 1920s that the train became known as ‘The Ghan’.
History of the Old Ghan railway line
The railway line has a complex history. In the beginning it was narrow gauge from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. The route passed through the Pichi Richi Pass where steep grades and windy terrain forced the narrow gauge choice.
Then due to a massive increase in traffic on the line, standard gauge and a new straightforward route between Port Augusta and Marree was constructed. Marree then became a break of gauge town, where passengers changed to a narrow gauge service to travel to Alice Springs.
But the railway line was plagued with problems caused by flooding, sand drifts and washaways. A new line was constructed to avoid these difficulties, west of the Stuart Highway. The Ghan line was closed in 1980.
The Pichi Richi Railway Preservation Society has conserved the first portion of the line, from Port Augusta through the Pichi Richi Pass to Quorn. The Society runs regular services using historical steam locomotives and carriages. The full adventure is featured in our DVD A Day in the Life of the Afghan Express.
The Old Ghan Heritage Trail
Today, there are no trains, but there is still much to interest the traveller along the route. There are the ruins of old fettlers cottages, bridges – some still standing – bridge abutments and reminders of the Old Telegraph line.
In Beltana, a living ghost town, there are many historic buildings, some of them privately owned.
Farina, once an important supply town and transport hub, is now in ruins. The Farina Restoration Group is busy yearly during June and July to preserve the ruins that remain here.
A few scattered townships remain for supplies of fuel, food and accommodation. Try Marree at the intersection of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks; William Creek mainly consisting of pub, camping ground and airstrip; or Oodnadatta, home of the famous Pink Roadhouse.
Natural features provide many surprises, from Lake Eyre South, to splendid water holes, to the mound springs at Wabma Kadarbu Conservation Park and Coward Springs. The Old Ghan Heritage Trail is a fascinating alternative to the Stuart Highway.
Our new video Old Ghan Heritage Trail includes all the history, as well as the many highlights to be found along the way. Just like our Long Road to the Alice video, The Old Ghan Heritage Track features another alternate route from Port Augusta to Alice Springs instead of using the Stuart Highway.