Darwin on track to be a gateway to Asia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 January, 2004, 12:00am

A 3,000-km rail link spurs hopes of the city becoming a second Singapore

Australia's new transcontinental rail service from Adelaide to Darwin swung into action yesterday, the first freight train carrying with it a dream that the line will transform the country's most northerly city into a second Singapore.

The 1.2km-long train, decorated with Aboriginal artwork, pulled out of Adelaide's Keswick station carrying 1,300 tonnes of cargo, including cars, steel, cement and electrical goods.

Onlookers lined the tracks, waving the train off as it headed north into Australia's arid interior. The project's backers hope that the 3,000-km rail link will enable Darwin to become a trading gateway to Asia, handling billions of dollars of goods shipped to and from Southeast Asia, China, Hong Kong and Japan.

'The creation of the new trade route to Asia, which was conceived more than a century ago, will provide a fast, efficient and cheap transport system linking Australia with Asia,' Finance Minister Nick Minchin said.

For years the Northern Territory was known for its huge crocodiles, dramatic monsoon weather, Aboriginal culture and frontier characters.

The rest of Australia saw it as remote, swelteringly hot and populated by a motley assortment of eccentrics and renegades. An Australian novelist writing in the 1930s, Xavier Herbert, described the territory as a 'land of ratbags'.

Even Bob Collins, a former head of the Office of Territory Development, said Darwin was 'straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel' 30 years ago, inhabited by 'genteel alcoholics'.

Now there are plans to seize the opportunities presented by the new railway to transform the city and its hinterland from a sleepy backwater to one of the country's most dynamic regions. The city, which lies closer to Jakarta than to Sydney or Brisbane, wants to increase its population from 72,000 to 250,000 in the next couple of decades.

A vast container port has been constructed and a A$1.6 billion (HK$9.6 billion) liquid natural gas plant is being built to bring gas onshore from the Bayu Undan field in the Timor Sea to the city's north. The city's waterfront, which consists of a scrappy patchwork of waste ground, warehouses and storage tanks, will be transformed into a world-class convention centre.

The A$2 billion railway project, which began in April 2001, links Australia's southern and northern coasts by filling in the gap between Alice Springs, in the centre of the continent, and Darwin. It is known as 'the Ghan', after the Afghan camel handlers who helped explore and develop Australia's deserts in the 19th century.

The Australian military is also increasing its presence, relocating the 1st Aviation Regiment to Darwin and enlarging a Royal Australian Air Force base outside the town of Katherine, south of Darwin.

As The Australian newspaper commented: 'The potential exists for the city to emerge as the focus of a new, tropical Australian region ... it turns the whole country sharply towards Asia.'

But sceptics doubt whether the railway will be any cheaper, or more convenient, than current shipping services, which efficiently transport goods by sea from Australia to Asia. Chris Corrigan, the head of a stevedoring and shipping business, last year described the financial returns on the project as being 'smaller than a tick's testicles'.