Outback rail link 'to turn sleepy territory into powerhouse'
Nick Squires in Sydney
It has taken a century of delays and false starts, but work has finally started on the construction of a railway that will stretch across the searing scrub of central Australia and provide greater access to trade with Asia.
Construction workers have laid the first sleepers and track of the A$1.3 billion (HK$5.3 billion) project that will link the Outback town of Alice Springs with Darwin, 1,420km to the north.
It will connect with an existing railway line between Alice Springs and Adelaide, for the first time traversing the entire continent from north to south.
The biggest railway project in the world, it will involve the building of 100 bridges over uninhabited desert, sand dunes and swamp and has been billed as one of the last great feats of frontier development.
Construction workers will lay two million concrete sleepers and build 1,500 culverts, living for weeks at a time in the bush, far from the nearest town.
The project's backers say the track will transform the Northern Territory, which is twice the size of Texas but has a population of 195,000, from a backwater into an economic powerhouse.
It will create 7,000 jobs and involves contracts worth A$610 million.
Darwin, which has a new deep-water port, is closer to Singapore and Jakarta than to Sydney or Melbourne, and the railway line will cut freight costs.
The journey between Adelaide and Darwin will take 48 hours, compared to a week by sea.
The AustralAsia Railway Corporation, which is managing the project, claims the railway will transport about three million tonnes of freight a year, much of it to and from Asian countries.
Critics point out nobody has yet said what exactly will be carried along the track.
'Australians still have a perception of the Northern Territory as being a dusty outpost where nothing happens and you only get running water if you're lucky,' a government official in Darwin said.
'But we have one of the fastest growing economies in the Asia-Pacific region and this will be one of the 10 greatest infrastructure projects in the world.'
The idea of a trans-continental railway was first suggested as far back as 1858.
In the 1890s, a senior Customs officer, Alfred Searcy, predicted the line was 'bound to be carried out' and would turn Darwin into a second Singapore.
But squabbling between states, doubts about its usefulness and the federal Government's reluctance to back the scheme resulted in decades of procrastination.
Early attempts to build a short railway south from Darwin were plagued by problems: floods swept away the track, causing derailments, and the wooden sleepers were eaten by termites.
At a ceremony yesterday near the town of Katherine, 300km south of Darwin, Senator Ron Boswell unveiled a plaque and paid tribute to those who had 'kept the faith' with the project despite the many setbacks.
With a mechanised track-layer now laying the line at a rate of 1.6km a day, the link is expected to be completed by March 2004.
There are also good strategic reasons for building the railway. The 1999 crisis in East Timor, in which Australian troops intervened, highlighted the difficulties of transporting men and supplies to Darwin by road.
The new line will also be of interest to train buffs. The famous Ghan Railway - named after the Afghan and Baluchi camel-drivers who provided transport in the earliest days of exploration - runs from Adelaide to Alice Springs.
By 2004, passengers will be able to continue to Darwin, a trip likely to rank as one of the world's great train journeys.