What Ever Happened to the Legendary Ghan?Comrails Logo

What ever happened to the Legendary Ghan

Imagine silvery moonlight shining down on a Central Australian landscape, the silence only being broken by the sound of an occasional rabbit scurrying off in the darkness. The ruins of an old water tank next to the shiny rail line are outlined against the star studded sky. In the distance a light appears and the rhythmic chattering of twin NJ class diesels shatters the stillness. As the light and sound grows, so does the realisation that this is the last time the narrow gauge Ghan will ever pass on its way north to Alice Springs, a legend is coming to a close. One by one the giant carriages slowly glide past with only an occasional light showing, until only the brakevan lights can be seen disappearing back into the darkness. That is how it was for many of the people who saw the last Ghan pass, now only the ghosts of the old drivers and their engines are all that remains of a magnificent colonial dream; that of a Great Northern railway stretching across Australia linking the Southern States with Darwin. When the last narrow gauge Ghan pulled out of Marree at 1:16am on 25.11.1980, an era of exciting and unpredictable travel came to a close. No more would the passengers change trains in the middle of the night crossing the Marree platform or play russian roulette with the weather, watching for storm clouds or waiting as flood waters receded.

The Southern Section of the Great Northern Railway was begun in 1877 by the South Australian Government and finally came to a halt in 1929 when the Commonwealth Government completed the section from Rumbalara to Alice Springs. The "Ghan" itself began as a limited mixed which was given the official title of "The Oodnadatta night train", until the route was extended when it became known as the "limited mixed" once more.

The legendary train that has passed into Australian folk law really only came into existence on 4 August 1929 when the first passengers arrived at Stuart (yet to be named Alice Springs). It was two and a half hours late. Whether the train was named after the Afghan camel drivers or was a private staff joke at the expense of Commonwealth Railways Commission George Gahan, probably no one will ever know, but one thing is for certain the train that was "The Ghan" will never be forgotten.

Commissioner Gahan was on that first train back in 1929 and had been personally involved, when as C.R. Chief Engineer the line extension proposals were being formalised and construction of new luxury passenger rollingstock was undertaken. From 1.1.1926 the Commonwealth Railways assumed management and maintenance of the Great Northern Railway. Tourist trains immediately became the order of the day under the new operators who had constructed at Port Augusta nine situp cars, built along similar lines to the SAR "Long Toms", one sleeping car, a special service car, a small buffet car and five relay brakevans. The sleeping, buffet and special service cars were all elaborate vehicles modelled on designs perviously used by the C.R. for the Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie standard gauge railway. These three cars were

NSS 34

the Commissioners Special carriage which entered service on 20.4.1929, comprising an observation saloon with curved glass at the trailing end, four sleeping compartments, bathroom, dining saloon, kitchen and a compartment to accommodate the two male attendants. The interior of the car was of Tasmanian oak, which brought the total cost of the car to £7,584.

ND 35

was a 50ft buffet car that had capacity for 18 diners and cost £5,830. When it entered service on 18.7.1929 a small employee compartment sleeping two was provided at one end next to the kitchen. This car was eventually converted to a workers dining car for the Darwin accident train.

NRC 36

began service on 20.7.1929 having cost £7,200. It slept 10 first class and 12 second class passengers as well as a conductor. In 1966 the second class compartments at one end were removed to make way for a kitchen and dining room. It was recoded as an "NIA" class Officers Inspection car.

All of these cars are now in possession of Pichi Richi Railway, the NSS and NIA cars being on loan from Australian National. 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 windows viewing area.

In extreme contrast to this train, the last narrow gauge Ghan train to leave Marree was made up of a mixture of narrow gauge wagons and standard gauge passenger cars transferred over the years to service on the Central Australia Railway. It seemed that no two pieces of rollingstock were the same, giving a unique appearance that added to the charm that was this train.

Today, apart from a few small isolated section of rail the Ghan track is no more. The rollingstock, whilst scattered, has fared better. That final north bound Ghan consisted of locomotives NJ3 and NJ6, hauling cars NIA 36, NHRD 79, 2 flat wagons, 2 louvred vans, passenger cars SS 44, NDC 94, NARA 72, NARG 46, NARA 71, NARC 53, NAFA 93, NDC 95, NBRF 54, NARC 33, NARG 47, NBRE 134, NBRE 135, NBRA 60, power cars NGA 81, NG 68 and brakevan NHRD 80. When the south bound Ghan pulled into Marree the following friday it had gained several more flat cars, but was basically unaltered. Cleaning took place and the train was stored in the Marree yard ready for an imaginary next run.

Between 1980 and 1983 the various items of narrow gauge rollingstock remaining on the Central Australia Railway were disposed of by tender, or returned to Port Augusta for use on other Australian National systems.

The fate of each of these last Ghan cars is as follows.

SS 44

the 1920 standard gauge wooden "Special Service car No.1", know to most as the "Prince of Wales" car is still in service and was completely refurbished in 1988 and fitted with Air conditioning for use on the Opera in the Outback trains.

NARA 71 and 72

were built in 1944 by the Commonwealth Railways as Standard Gauge twinette sleeping cars of the "ARA" type. Air Conditioned and modernised in 1953, they were converted to narrow gauge in 1961 and 1965 respectively. NARA 71 was sold to Steamtown Peterborough. NARA 72 was sold to the Ghan Preservation Society Alice Springs.

NDC 94 and 95

originally were both delivered in 1952 for use as dining cars on the Trans Australian, being built by the German Wegmann company. NDC 94 was first transferred to narrow gauge in 1970, being placed on 6 wheel narrow gauge bogies for use on the Central Australia Railway. Currently it is being used on one of the Port Augusta breakdown trains. NDC 95 was first used on the Central Australia Railway in 1969. After the last Ghan, it was returned to Port Augusta on freight bogies and has since not been used in revenue service.


was built by the Commonwealth Railways in 1922 as a wooden second class sleeping car of the "BR" class. It was converted in 1956 to an Air Conditioned staggered corridor first class roomette sleeping car. Narrow gauge bogies were fitted in 1966. Sold by AN in 1983, it is now on a private property in the Marree township.


was a wooden first class sleeping car of the "AR" class built by the Commonwealth Railways, entering service 6.7.1922. Like NARG 46 it was converted to a roomette in 1956 and to narrow gauge in 1961. Steamtown Peterborough now use it for members accommodation.


entered service on 28.4.1920 as an "AR" first class sleeping car, it was Air Conditioned in 1953 and placed on SKF narrow gauge bogies for Ghan service in 1966. The Alice Springs breakdown train now uses this car.


was built as an "AR" class sleeping car, being first used on the XMAS Trans-Australian on 20.12.1930. It was Air Conditioned in 1953 and converted to narrow gauge in 1961, then sold to the Ghan Preservation Society in 1983.


was part of the Wegmann trains delivered in 1952 and was converted to narrow gauge in 1964. For a short period between 1975 and 1977 the car was returned to standard gauge before once again being placed into Ghan service. This lounge car was well know for its ornate interior wooden panels depicting German castles. Since being returned to Port Augusta, it has suffered a similar fate to NDC 95, never having been used in revenue service.


was built in 1930 as a second class sleeping car, it was Air Conditioned in 1954 when a lounge compartment was fitted to one end. First used on the Ghan in 1961, it was returned to standard gauge in 1981 when it was converted to the "EH" class mobile education car.

NBRE 134 and 135

were built by COMENG in 1964 as second class twin berth staggered corridor steel sleeping cars and converted for Ghan service in 1970. These cars are now used on Australian National's standard gauge passenger trains.


entered service in 1942 as a second class sleeping car. It was converted to narrow gauge in 1961 becoming a crew accommodation car and has since been sold to the Ghan Preservation Society.

NG 68

power van, built by COMENG in 1966 is now standard gauge power car PGB 377, generally used on refrigerated freight trains.

NGA 81

power van, built by COMENG in 1968 is now standard gauge power car PGC 395. It is used in similar service to PGB 377.

NIA 36

was the only car on the last Ghan that was on the original first train into Alice Springs and has already been mentioned above.

NHRD 79 and 80

are 75ft relay brake vans built by COMENG in 1968, they were converted in 1981 to standard gauge AVDY 361 and 362.

The two locomotives NJ3 and NJ6, both built in 1971, now run on Australian National's Eyre Peninsula system, along with the rest of the "NJ" class.

The train that was the last narrow gauge Ghan is now only a fond memory best summed up by an entry made in the log book of one of the wooden Ghan sleeping cars disposed of in 1983: So long old friend.