Worth watching out for.
 — John Cleare

Australia by Rail

Australia by Rail

Major routes & services

Contents list | Introduction | Sample itinerary | Major routes & services | Tour and itinerary options


Australia's vastness and diversity cannot be covered in just a few days. Be prepared for long distances from one major city to another – in fact from almost anywhere to anywhere else. From Brisbane northwards up the Queensland coast to Cairns is as far as from Paris to Naples; from Melbourne to Perth is further than from London to Moscow, while a rail journey from Brisbane to Perth is further and takes longer than one from New York to Los Angeles.

To explore the whole rail network of Australia – or rather those parts of it served by regular passenger trains – would take a minimum of 50 days' almost non-stop travel. Even then you would not cover the privately-operated preserved and narrow-gauge lines either on the mainland or in Tasmania, or the Normanton railway in the Crocodile Dundee gulf country of the far north.

The main routes join the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin. As far as passenger trains are concerned there is only one route between Brisbane and Sydney, two between Sydney and Adelaide, one of which is via Melbourne, and one between Adelaide and Perth or Darwin.

The only other line which can reasonably be classified as a main route is the North Coast line from Brisbane up to Cairns. On only two of these complete routes is there a train service every day of the week, those between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The major services comprise the following:

  • The Brisbane XPT between Brisbane and Sydney
  • The Olympic Spirit and Southern Cross XPTs between Sydney and Melbourne
  • The Indian Pacific between Sydney, Adelaide and Perth
  • The Ghan between Adelaide, Alice Springs and Darwin
  • The Overland between Melbourne and Adelaide
  • The Sunlander and Tilt Train between Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns
  • The Spirit of the Outback between Brisbane and Longreach

These trains, along with others are described on pp35-59.
In Part 5 the various routes are described as the traveller might see them.


In Thomas Cook's European Timetable a list is given of the most scenic rail journeys in Europe, based largely on research by the late John Price, former managing editor of Cook's Timetables. Scenic appreciation is partly an individual matter but not entirely so; there is a consensus about what is attractive, as evidenced by calendars, picture postcards, colour slide sales and the facts of where people go, where they stay and what they gasp about and take photographs of. My own list (pp34-5) of the most scenically-interesting or unusual routes served by regular or occasional (eg special excursion) passenger trains may help tourists plan an itinerary if scenery is what they most seek.

Timetable changes and bus substitutions in recent years in nearly all states have deprived rail travellers of much potentially attractive or dramatic scenery or confined it to periods of travelling in darkness, but sometimes because of late running, diversions or special excursions, there is a chance to discover and enjoy otherwise hidden panoramas.

The Thomas Cook European scenic rail list includes information on the type of scenery found on each route, ie coastal, forest, gorge, lake, mountain or river, or a combination of any or all of these. This has not been attempted for Australia because the scenery is in many ways so different. The sheer overwhelming nothingness of the Nullarbor, for example, does not fall into any of the foregoing categories, yet it cannot by any criterion be omitted. It has its own unique attraction.

Coastal scenery is rare on the railways of Australia. In terms of conventional scenic values, it might be said that the routes through the Great Dividing Range, combining mountain, forest, gorge and sometimes river scenery are the most attractive but how do you classify the wonderful sedgeland around Cromarty in Queensland with its teeming flocks of Burdekin ducks, brolgas and other birdlife?

The eye of the beholder will determine what appeals. The suggested list can only offer ideas. Some scenic areas are hard to access, involving long journeys away from population centres, but others are virtually on the doorstep of a city. It should be noted that the scenic sections in suburban Sydney – North Sydney to Wynyard, the Illawarra route south of Waterfall, and the Blue Mountains (Penrith-Lithgow) – are readily accessible and can easily be included in almost any itinerary focused on or including the Greater Sydney area.

An asterisk (*) indicates a route on which no scheduled services operate but for which special excursions might be advertised. For further details of routes with no page reference contact ARHS, see p254.

Scenic sections / Rail route / Page

New South Wales
Penrith-Lithgow / Blue Mountains / p170
Lithgow-Mudgee / Mudgee line* / p171
Manildra-Parkes / Main Western / p173
Bungendore-Queanbeyan / Canberra branch / p216
Queanbeyan-Cooma / Michelago tourist railway* / p259
Sutherland-Cronulla / Illawarra line / p128
Waterfall-Wollongong / CityRail south coast line / p128
Unanderra-Bomaderry / CityRail south coast line / p128
Unanderra-Robertson / Cockatoo Run (3801 Ltd) / p255
Wynyard-North Sydney / NSW North Shore / p125
Cowan-Gosford / Central Coast / p218
Muswellbrook-Willow Tree / Main North line / p220
Tamworth-Armidale / Main North line / p221
Gloucester-Taree / North Coast line / p223
Nambucca Heads-Glenreagh North / Coast line / p224
Glenreagh-Dorrigo / Preserved railway* / p256
Lismore-Murwillumbah / Murwillumbah branch* / p225
Kyogle-Tamrookum (Qld) / North Coast line / p226

Ballan-Bacchus Marsh / Western line (Ballarat) / p200
Gisborne-Malmsbury / Bendigo line / p203
Ringwood-Belgrave / Connex (Met) / p140
Belgrave-Gembrook / Emerald Railway / p140

South Australia
Coonamia-Port Augusta / Main east�west line / p179
Woolshed Flat-Quorn / Pichi Richi railway / p271
Adelaide-Bridgewater / Belair and Overland line / p196
Mt Barker Jctn-Victor Harbor / SteamRanger line / p271

West and Central Australia
Kulgera-Alice Springs / Central Australia Railway / p181
Nullarbor Plain / TransAustralia Railway / p188
Northam-Perth / Kalgoorlie-Perth / p194

Rosewood-Laidley / Western line / p238
Helidon'toowoomba / Western line / p238
Warwick-Stanthorpe / Southwestern line* / p238
Caboolture-Gympie North / North Coast line / p227
Kilkivan-Murgon / Kingaroy branch* / –
Gladstone-Monto / Monto branch* / –
Gladstone-Mt Rainbow / Moura Short Line* / –
Gladstone-Mount Larcom / North Coast line / p229
Sarina-Bloomsbury / North Coast line / p231
Anakie-Alpha / Midland line / p244
Home Hill-Townsville / North Coast line / p232
Stuart-Charters Towers / Northern Railway (Mt Isa) / p247
Cloncurry-Mount Isa / Northern Railway (Mt Isa) / p249
Ingham-Tully / North Coast line / p234
Innisfail-Cairns / North Coast line / p235
Cairns-Kuranda / Kuranda Scenic Railway / p256
Atherton-Ravenshoe / Atherton Railway* / p267
Dimbulah-Lappa / Forsayth branch / p252
Almaden-Forsayth / Forsayth branch / p252

Australia by Rail


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