Indian Pacific Railway: The Australian Railway that is the World’s Second Longest

Everyone knows the name of the world’s longest railway: it is of course the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway, which crosses Russia from one end to the other, covering 9,289 kilometres between the capital Moscow and Vladivostok. The world’s second longest railroad is also well-known, without being quite as famous as the first. Second place on the podium goes to the Indian Pacific Railway, a 4,352-kilometre-long railroad that traverses Australia from Perth, on the Indian Ocean coast, to Sydney, on the Pacific coast. This article explores this very long Australian railway, which opened in February 1970 to become one of the continent’s most famous attractions.

The Indian Pacific Railway Route

At 4,353 kilometres in length, the Indian Pacific Railway takes about three days to cover the entire route: to be specific, sixty-five hours. The railroad begins at East Perth Station, initially running on track shared with the Midland suburban railway. From there, the Trans-Australian Railway leads to Port Augusta, at the northern end of Spencer Gulf. The route continues south-east towards Port Pirie, eventually arriving in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Before resuming its eastward journey, the train doubles back to Crystal Book, from where it switches onto the Broken Hill line, crossing through the Blue Mountains in New South Wales towards Parkes, before ending its journey at Sydney Central Station. This very long trip has but a few select stops: East Perth, Kalgoorlie, Rawlinna, Cook, Adelaide, Broken Hill, Mount Victoria, and Sydney, as the train passes through the states of Western Australia, South Australia, and New South Wales.


Before the Indian Pacific Railway

As we have seen, the Indian Pacific Railway first opened in 1970. However, that does not mean it was impossible to cross Australia from east to west (and vice versa) by train before then. What was lacking was a single route: passengers had to make multiple changes, making the crossing something of an odyssey. As early as 1917, with completion of the Trans-Australian Railway between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie, it was actually possible to travel from one side of the continent to the other solely by train.

Construction of the 1,692-kilometre-long section between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie took five years, much of the work being carried out in the midst of World War I. The route passed through remote and arid areas, connecting up much of southern Australia. Albeit with numerous changes, it was possible to travel via Melbourne, Adelaide, Quorn, Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie. Broken Hill was linked to Port Pirie by railroad as early as 1888, however, it was another thirty-eight years before there was a working rail link between Broken Hill and Sydney, making it possible to take the train between Perth and Sydney without having to go via Melbourne. Progress was anything but rapid: gauge differences on the different railroads made it impossible to take a single train across the continent. Over the years, the entire route was upgraded to the national standard, in a scheme completed between Port Augusta and Port Pirie in 1937, greatly shortening travel time between these two stations and dispensing with the need to go via Terowie and Quorn.


The Run-up to Australia’s Great Railway

Differences in gauge – the distance between the two rails – posed an even greater problem during WWII, when troops and equipment had to be moved at speed across state lines, rendering the problems associated with the absence of a national standard evident. A special committee was set up after the war – the Government Members Rail Standardization Committee – to standardize the gauge across the whole Australian railway system. Three major line-building projects were given the green light in 1956: Wodonga to Melbourne, Broken Hill to Adelaide via Port Pirie, and Kalgoorlie to Perth/Fremantle. Completed in 1962, the first of these established a direct link between Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s two largest cities. In 1968, standardization of the section between Kalgoorlie and Perth was completed, leading to the section between Perth and Port Pirie opening in 1969. A few weeks later, in November 1969, standardization work was completed at Broken Hill, making it possible to set up a trans-Australian rail service. The very first train left Sydney for Perth on a single, change-free journey on 12 January 1970.


The Indian Pacific Railway Today

Over the decades, the Indian Pacific Railway has evolved to become a landmark for Australian and international tourism. To counter competition from domestic airlines, since the 1990s it has raised its quality of service, culminating in 2016 with elimination of “cattle class” to offer all passengers a luxury experience. Each year, 22,000 passengers use the line, of whom 80 percent are Australian citizens.

Nowadays, the rail line is far more than a link from Point A and Point B. The end-destination is less important than the travel experience on this new “old” way to travel. And the Indian Pacific Railway is quite an attraction: tickets sell out on average six months in advance.