Ghan Preservation Society Museum

One of the most popular museums in Alice Springs, the Ghan Preservation Society Museum depicts the history of the original legendary Ghan railway, which ran between Adelaide and Alice Springs on 3' 6" track from 1929 to 1980. The siding at MacDonnell is beautifully and affectionately reinstated and is home to the museum. The station and rolling stock are on display at all times. The 'Old Ghan' runs 30 km down the track to Ewaninga each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Location: Norris Bell Avenue, Alice Springs. Ph (08) 8955 5047. Entry fees apply.

The Story of the Old Ghan

The idea of a railway from Adelaide into the far north was suggested in the 1860s when railway building in Australia was at its peak. Up until that time, Australia's outback telegraph and pastoral stations relied on camel trains to bring their supplies, no matter how isolated or far away they were. These camel trains worked the Queensland road, which later became known as the Birdsville Track, as well as the Oodnadatta and Strzelecki Tracks. Afghan camel drivers went as far as Wyndham and Newcastle Waters to cart supplies to stations which had no other means of fast and efficient transport. Their camels plodded down the many tracks, bringing supplies on their outward journey and returning with wool or any other product. It was the Afghan cameleers who did so much to open up Central Australia. The camels brought everything -pianos, motors, furniture and supplies. The arrival of these beasts of burden was a time of high excitement. Mail, newspapers and long-awaited clothes and cosmetics orders also came this way.

The new railway commenced at Port Augusta by the South Australian Government and headed north-east via the Pichi Richi Pass via Quorn, Hawker and Parachilna. By 1881 it had reached Beltana. Within two years it passed through Copley and reached Farina. As the line to Farina was completed, work was beginning on a southern line from Palmerston (Darwin) that was intended to join up with the southern line when they both reached Alice Springs.

By 1888, Pine Creek was reached, but no further work was carried out on the extension of this line until 1926. By 1884 Hergott Springs (Marree) had become the railhead of the southern line. After some years the line was pushed further north past Callanna, Alberrie Creek, Curdimurka, Coward Springs, Strangways Springs, William Creek, Anna Creek, Box Creek, Edwards Creek, Warrina, Algebuckina and Mount Dutton until it finally reached Oodnadatta in 1891. Oodnadatta remained the railhead for the next forty years.

In an effort to advance the line and get construction going once again, in 1895 activists began singing the praises of outback Australia, stating that the interior was not all desert, but had extensive areas of good land fit for cultivation and a variety of tropical products. Despite regular attempts to speed up its progress, the laying of the line through some of Australia's most desolate and flood prone country was painfully slow.

The first promise to complete the line came in the Acceptance Act of 1910, though no date given and the promise was not followed through. In 1926, the line was acquired by Commonwealth Railways, which began immediate extension of the line south from Darwin. Katherine was reached in 1926, Birdum was reached in 1929 but the line was never extended beyond a terminus at Larrimah.

Construction finally came to a halt in 1929 when the Commonwealth Government completed the section from Rumbalara to Alice Springs, but the line would never be extended to link up with the northern line. By that time, the camel and its driver had lost it economic value and became a nuisance and a pest. In 1925 the South Australian Government passed the Camel Destruction Act, giving police the right to shoot any camel found trespassing or without a registration disk. On many occasions they were just shot as vermin. In 1935 the Marree police shot 153 camels in one day.

The rail service began as a limited mixed train which was given the official title of "The Oodnadatta night train". When the route was extended beyond Oodnadatta, it became known as the "limited mixed" once more.

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The sleeping, buffet and special service cars were all elaborately decorated vehicles modelled on designs perviously used by Commonwealth Railways for their Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie standard gauge railway service. Many of these cars are now in possession of Pichi Richi Railway. Each car has the unusual feature of having horizontally slatted outside louvres based on "Sudan Government Railway" practice which kept the hot summer sun off the window glass, but managed to obscure most of the view from the windows.

It was expected that the railway would assist the development of the pastoral and mining potential of the inland, but the Central Australian Railway never lived up to the many promises made, or the financial success which had been envisaged. Unfortunately, the flash floods and the extreme climate of the outback made the line anything but reliable. It was not uncommon for passengers to be marooned for several days waiting for flood waters to recede or for trackside workers to arrive to repair a section of track that had been washed away. Legend has it that the driver would then have to shoot wild animals to keep the passengers fed. In the 1970's the train was not sighted for three months and essential supplies like milk were flown in daily until it meandered through the gap one day to a community reception and breakfast in Alice Springs which astounded the passengers.

The last narrow gauge Ghan pulled out of Marree at 1:16 am on 25th November, 1980 upon completion of the new standard gauge line to Tarcoola, marking the end of an era and a significant chapter in South Australia's and the Northern Territory's railway history.

The legendary train we now know as The Ghan actually came into existence on 4th August 1929 when the first passengers arrived at Stuart (yet to be named Alice Springs). It was two and a half hours late. According to legend, The Ghan name is believed to have originated in Quorn in 1923 when the Great Northern Express was dubbed The Afghan Express by railwaymen. Whether the train was named after the Afghan camel drivers or was a private staff joke at the expense of Commonwealth Railways Commissioner George Gahan, as has also been suggested, probably no one will ever know. Commissioner Gahan was on the first train to Alice Springs in early August 1929.

From 1926 the Commonwealth Railways had assumed management and maintenance of the Great Northern Railway and without its input, the line would probably have never reached Alice Springs. From the outset, the service was equally as popular with tourists as it was with outback residents travelling to and from the big city. A new set of carriages were built in Port Augusta that included nine sit-up cars, one sleeping car, a special service car, a small buffet car and five relay brake vans.

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