Except for a small number of private railways, most of the Australian railway network infrastructure is government-owned, either at the federal or state level. Most railway operators were once state government agencies, but with privatisation in the 1990s, private companies now operate the majority of trains in Australia.
Very little thought was given in the early years of the development of the colony-based rail networks of Australia-wide interests. The most obvious issue to arise was determining a track gauge. Despite advice from London to adopt a uniform gauge, should the lines of the various colonies ever meet, gauges were adopted in different colonies, and indeed within colonies, without reference to those of other colonies. This has caused problems ever since.
Attempts to fix the gauge problem are by no means complete even in 2011. For example, the Wolseley to Mount Gambier line is isolated by gauge and of no operational value.
With the electrification of suburban networks, which began in 1919, a consistent electric rail traction standard was not adopted. Electrification began in Melbourne in 1919 using 1500 V DC. Sydney's lines were electrified from 1926 using 1500 V DC, Brisbane's from 1979 using 25 kV AC, and Perth's from 1992 using 25 kV AC. There has also been extensive non-urban electrification in Queensland using 25 kV AC, mainly during the 1980s for the coal routes. In 2008 plans were revealed to electrify Adelaide at 25 kV AC. 25 kV AC voltage has now become the international standard.
The first railways in Australia were built by private companies, based in the then colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
The first railway was privately owned and operated and commissioned by the Australian Agricultural Company in Newcastle in 1831, a cast ironfishbelly rail on an inclined plane as a gravitational railway servicing A Pit coal mine. The first steam-powered line opened in Victoria in 1854. The 4 km long Flinders Street to Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) line was opened by the Hobsons Bay Railway Company at the height of the Victorian gold rush.
In these early years there was very little thought of Australia-wide interests in developing the colony-based networks. The most obvious issue to arise was determining a uniform gauge for the continent. Despite advice from London to adopt a uniform gauge, should the lines of the various colonies ever meet, gauges were adopted in different colonies, and indeed within colonies, without reference to those of other colonies. This example has caused problems ever since at the national level.
In the 1890s, the establishment of an Australian Federation from the six colonies was debated. One of the points of discussion was the extent that railways would be a federal responsibility. A vote to make it so was lost narrowly, instead the new constitution allows "the acquisition, with the consent of a State, of any railways of the State on terms arranged between the Commonwealth and the State" (Section 51 xxxiii) and "railway construction and extension in any State with the consent of that State" (Section 51 xxxiv). However, the Australian Government is free to provide funding to the states for rail upgrading projects under Section 96 ("the Parliament may grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit").
Suburban electrification began in Melbourne in 1919 (1500 V DC). Sydney's lines were electrified from 1926 (1500 V DC), Brisbane's from 1979 (25 kV AC), and Perth's from 1992 (25 kV AC). Mainline electrification was first carried out in Victoria in 1954, closely followed by New South Wales which continued to expand their network. These networks have fallen into decline, in contrast to Queensland where 25 kV AC equipment was introduced from the 1980s for coal traffic.
While Australian Governments have provided substantial funding for the upgrading of roads, since the 1920s, they have not regularly funded investment in railways except for its own railway, the Commonwealth Railways, later the Australian National Railways Commission, which was privatised in 1997. They have considered the funding of railways owned by State Government to be a State responsibility.
Nevertheless, Australian governments have made loans to the states for gauge standardisation projects from the 1920s to the 1970s. From the 1970s to 1996, the Australian Government has provided some grant funding to the States for rail projects, particularly the Keating Government's One Nation program, announced in 1992, which was notable for standardising the Adelaide to Melbourne line in 1995. Significant government funding was also made available for the Alice Springs to Darwin Railway, opened in 2004. Substantial funding is now being made available for freight railways through the Australian Rail Track Corporation and the AusLink land transport funding program.
The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is a federal government owned corporation established in 1997 that owns, leases, maintains and controls the majority of main line standard gauge railway lines on the mainland of Australia, known as the Designated Interstate Rail Network (DIRN).
In 2003 the Australian and New South Wales Governments agreed that ARTC would lease the NSW interstate and Hunter Valley networks for 60 years. As part of this agreement, ARTC agreed to an A$872 million investment programme on the interstate rail network. The funding sources for the investment included an Australian Government equity injection into ARTC of $143 million and a funding contribution of almost $62 million by the New South Wales Government.
Under the AusLink program introduced in July 2004, the Australian Government has introduced the opportunity for rail to gain access to funds on a similar basis to that of roads. AusLink established a defined national network (superseding the former National Highway system) of important road and rail infrastructure links and their intermodal connections.
Rail funding has been announced for signalling upgrades to numerous railway lines, gauge conversion of existing broad gauge lines in Victoria to standard gauge, new rail links to intermodal freight precincts, and extensions to existing crossing loops to permit longer trains to operate.
Funding is focused on the National Network, including the following rail corridors, connecting at one or both ends to State Capital Cities:
Construction and maintenance of network infrastructure is consolidated into non-profit government bodies, in the case of the interstate network and the non-urban railways of New South Wales (the Australian Government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation) and Western Australia (WestNet Rail). This is intended to provide access to new and existing players.
The interstate rail network excludes the line from Perth to Kalgoorlie and between Brisbane and the New South Wales border. Nevertheless, the ARTC has rights to sell access between Kalgoorlie and Kwinana to interstate rail operators under a wholesale access agreement with the Western Australian track owner and operator, WestNet Rail. It also "has a working relationship with Queensland Rail about the use of the 127 kilometres of standard gauge line between the Queensland border and Fisherman Island. ARTC intends to start discussions with Queensland about leasing this track once the NSW arrangements are bedded down". The ARTC also maintains the NSW rural branch lines under contract.
Other railways continue to be integrated, although access to their infrastructure is generally required under National Competition Policy principles agreed by the Federal, State and Territory governments:
New South Wales government-controlled NSW TrainLink operates ten long-distance routes. All routes originate from Sydney:
Grafton XPT: daily
Casino XPT: daily
Brisbane XPT: daily
Canberra XPlorer: 2 round trips per day
Melbourne XPT: 2 round trips per day
Griffith XPlorer: 1 round trip per week
Dubbo XPT: daily
Broken Hill XPlorer: 1 round trip per week
Armidale XPlorer: daily
Moree XPlorer: daily
V/Line, a nonprofit organization marginally under the control of the Victoria government, operates both regional and long distance services along the Victorian regional network. Eight services in the long distance category, all of which operate from Melbourne, are available:
Transwa Prospector, currently Australia's only HSR-capable rollingstock
V/Line VLocity railcar
Australian passenger services are generally quite slow (for example, the approximately 960 km journey from Sydney to Melbourne takes about 11.5 hours, an average of about 83 km/h). However, several medium-speed rail services operate on existing track that has been upgraded to accommodate faster services and/or tilting technology.
In Western Australia Westrail began using high-speed diesel railcars in 1971 on the Prospector service from Perth to Kalgoolie, and set a new Australian speed record. Now operated by Transwa, the railcars were replaced in 2004 with new units capable of 200 km/h (124 mph), although track condition currently limits this to 160 km/h (99 mph). The same type of cars are used on the AvonLink service.
New South Wales commenced operations with XPT in 1982. Based on the British InterCity 125 train, it has a service speed of 160 km/h (99 mph) and set an Australian speed record of 193 km/h (120 mph) on a test run in 1992. The train is not often used to its full potential, operating along winding steam-era alignments, and at times has had the top speed limited due to track condition and level crossing incidents.
New South Wales trialled the Swedish X 2000 tilt train in 1995. Propelled by two specially modified XPT power cars, the train carried passengers between Sydney and Canberra in an eight-week trial.
Queensland Rail's Tilt Trains operate Brisbane to Rockhampton with an electric train, Brisbane to Cairns with diesel. These routes were partially upgraded in the 1990s at a cost of A$590 million, with the construction of 160 km (99 mi) of deviations to straighten curves. Both with a service speed of 160 km/h (99 mph), the electric train set an Australian rail speed record of 210 km/h (130 mph) in 1999.
In Victoria the State Government upgraded railway lines as part of the Regional Fast Rail project, with V/Line operating VLocity diesel railcars at a maximum speed of 160 km/h (99 mph) over the lines. In the early stages of the project the Victorian Government incorrectly referred to it as the 'Fast Train' or 'Very Fast Train', and this practice continues among some politicians and members of the public.
V/Line, a non-profit organisation marginally under the control of the Victoria government, operates the Victorian regional network. In addition to long distance services, commuter bus and rail is available to connect Melbourne with exurban and regional cities along five lines.
The Skitube Alpine Railway is a private railway in the New South Wales snowfields. Owned by the Perisher Ski Resort, it connects the main entrance of this tourist destination with ski areas that are inaccessible via road. The line mainly operates underground.
Tramways with 610 mm (2 ft) gauge for the transport of sugarcane have always been operated as private concerns associated with the relevant sugar cane mill. These tramways are quite advanced technically, with hand-me-down rails cascaded from the normal rails, remote-controlled brake vans, concrete sleepers in places, and tamping machines in miniature. The twenty or so separate tramways cooperate in research and development.
Tramways were often associated with the transport of timber to sawmills. Various gauges were used, including the 610 mm (2 ft) gauge which was also commonly used for cane haulage.
Wider gauges were sometimes used as well; Queensland had a number of 991 mm (3.25 ft) systems, some on wooden rails. In some areas 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) was used, a considerable investment of resources. In the early 21st century, the disused QR line to Esk 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) in the Brisbane Valley was used for timber haulage.
Four isolated heavy duty railways for the cartage of iron ore in the Pilbara region of Western Australia have always been private concerns operated as part of the production line between mine and port. These lines have pushed the limit of the wheel to rail interface which has led to much useful research of value to railways worldwide. In 2008, a fifth open access line built by Fortescue Metals Group opened. A sixth dual gauge open access iron ore network is proposed to the port of Oakajee.
^IEC 60850:2000 – "Railway Applications. Supply voltages of traction systems"