Australia initiates transcontinental rail service

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ADELAIDE, Australia -- Australia reached a major milestone in travel recently with the start of regular passenger service on an extended rail line connecting Adelaide in South Australia to Darwin at the top of the Northern Territory.

Previously, rail service from Adelaide ended at Alice Springs in central Australia.

The transcontinental service began Feb 8 when the newly refurbished train, the Ghan, left on its 47-hour, 1,860-mile journey.

Advance bookings for the service to Darwin are already very strong, said Stephen Bradford, CEO of the Great Southern Railway.

"I am confident the extended journey is going to be a great success," he said. Already more than $12.6 million in advance bookings have been made, he said.

The transcontinental service began Feb. 8 when the refurbished Ghan left Adelaide for Darwin, a journey of 1,860 miles. The spin-off for tourism at towns along the route and in the Northern Territory as a whole is expected to be enormous.

The train will also carry freight, considered the underpinning of its hoped-for financial success.

Many people had reservations about the likelihood that the extended line from Alice Springs to Darwin would ever be completed.

Federal Tourism Minister Joe Hockey was among the doubters; four years ago he said he would run naked around Parliament House in Canberra if the railway became a reality. He reneged on the pledge and offered an apology instead.

For more than 70 years, the Ghan has been synonymous with outback rail travel.

On Aug. 4, 1929, the original Ghan (once called the Afghan Express after the pioneering Afghan cameleers who blazed a permanent trail into the Red Center of Australia more than 150 years ago) left Adelaide for the remote town of Stuart, now Alice Springs.

The original line followed the route of explorer John Stuart in his explorations north from Adelaide, but the service ran into a number of hazards, including problems with the narrow-gauge track. The service became increasingly irregular over the years.

In 1982, a new standard-gauge line was built farther west, and the new route became a popular way for tourists to experience the outback.

The extension of the railway line from Alice Springs north to Darwin in September 2003 has been called one of the great engineering and construction feats in Australia in modern times.

At the same time, a newly painted Ghan locomotive was christened in Sydney in readiness for the extension to Darwin. The locomotive was named the Steve Irwin after the Crocodile Hunter whose feats have been enthralling TV viewers for years.

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