TOP SECRET: Cairns to Port Moresby Railway

Date: January, 1998

Location: Rail Page Australia Online Forum

Subject: Railway linking Cairns to Port Moresby

Classification: Top Secret


Special Agent Peter Berrett:

Has anyone seriously contenplated a railway line from Cairns to Port Moresby? I realise that this may look a little far fetched but let me run through a few points:

  1. We spend millions in aid (including developmental aid) each year to PNG. A rail line could significantly improve the economy of PNG by providing a direct link for tourists coming from Queensland and freight could easily pass between the two countries. 
  2. Any such line could be extended to Irian Jaya at a later stage thus assisting to develop this region as well. 
  3. The Channel Tunnel has demonstrated that long distance underseas tunnels can be built. The distance from the top of Australia to PNG is only about 100 miles or so and there are a few islands along the way (and relatively shallow water. In many areas a land bridge could be built thus helping reduce costs. 
  4. Once such a link is built it would demonstrate the feasibility of long tunnels of this type. I wonder if we might eventually see a single train London to Melbourne. Of course the Cairns line would need to be standardized but this will happen eventually anyway.

Special Agent Peter Ware:

No – for the very good reason that PNG would be the world’s worst place for railway construction. The same reason why the interior of the country was still a question mark on the maps until the 1930s. The mountain barriers were (and still largely are) impassable.

  1. Shipping and air travel would be far cheaper.
  2. Why? The Indonesians (the current owners) don’t seem interested in doing anything with the country.
  3. Just because something can be built, does not mean that it should.
  4. By then, air travel (using sub-orbital hyperplanes) would do the Sydney/Melbourne – London trip in an hour.

Special Agent Bob McKillop:

It is often a good idea to examine historical experience in order to find out what might possible work in future. With regard to railways in Papua New Guinea, my colleague Mike Pearson and myself have done this in our recently published book End of the Line: a history of railways in Papua New Guinea.

We have documented 150 different railways which have been constructed in the country over the years, together with the many hair-brained schemes to build grander railways. In the end, our key conclusion it is not that it is technically difficult to build railways in the country, but that the state of political, institutional and economic development in the country is such that it would not be possible to manage the thing in an efficient and sustainable manner. Selection of the book title “end of the line” just about sums it all up.

Special Agent Peter Ware:

That amazes me – I don’t doubt your scholarship, but I have never seen a single map of PNG that had a railway line drawn on it. The lines must have all be short (Eg. Only a few miles in length). I agree that political, institutional and economic factors would be major points against major railway construction in PNG.

Special Agent David Bromage:

A 100 mile tunnel has yet to be attempted. The next biggest after the Japan and Channel tunnels is the proposed Irish Channel Tunnel between Holyhead (North Wales) and Howth (Republic of Ireland). The distance is about 50 miles.

Special Agent Peter Berrett:

I think you will find that there are a few islands along the way, i.e. Banks Island and Prince of Wales Island. Also, according to my map the depth along the entire distance is less than 200 ft deep. It may be cheaper and easier to merely build a land bridge between Australia and Papua New Guinea and then site the rail line on top of that.

If the above scenario is true then the rail line could be built at significantly less cost than by use of a tunnel. The economic benefits for both Australia and PNG would be significant however if the line was rated for a reasonable speed. Australia could run its export produce by rail to West Irian then by boat to several south east asian countries. PNG on the other hand could run its produce directly down to several east Australian cities. Thus economic beenfits for several countries would ensue.


To legally view the file click here.

~ by Tavurvur on November 15, 2008.

4 Responses to “TOP SECRET: Cairns to Port Moresby Railway”

  1. […] Nothing like a good secret!! Tavurvur on: TOP SECRET: Cairns to Port Moresby Railway […]

  2. Yeah I don’t know seems politically too prickly, technically too expensive in terms of a Return On Investment and with airline travel getting cheaper with larger planes like the A380 I’m not so sure this cat was supposed to be let out of the bag?

  3. I doubt this Railway will ever happen. It’s got red written all over it – still quite impressive that they were talking about this 10 yrs ago. V-I-S-I-O-N.

  4. As my co-author Bob has mentioned PNG is a most difficult environment not so much physical but politically and socially.
    The is an awful lot of sea, swamp rivers and crocs and taipans between Cairns and any economic hub in PNG. Less grandos schemes may be achievable such as out of Lae into the Markham valley or linked with other mineral development sites or extensive agricultural development or even an urban tramway in port Moresby

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