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Train track opens awesome Outback

"Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin launches the Ghan bound for Darwin.

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ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) -- One of the world's great train journeys just got a whole lot greater -- 1,420 kilometers (882 miles) to be precise.

The first passenger train to travel all the way from the southern Australian city of Adelaide to the northern port of Darwin set off Sunday, marking a new era in travel through the vast Outback.

"This famous train will now strengthen its reputation as providing one of the great railway journeys of the world," Prime Minister John Howard said in a videotaped message played at a ceremony to mark the train's departure.

The train -- named "The Ghan" in honor of Afghan camel drivers who helped build the first stretches of the line in the 19th century -- features 43 carriages hauled by two locomotives, making it Australia's longest ever passenger train at 1,069 meters (1,169 yards) .

The Ghan has for decades traveled between Adelaide and the central Outback city of Alice Springs, but thanks to a A$1.3 billion ($988 million) extension covering 1,420 kilometers (882 miles) from Alice Springs to the northern port of Darwin, passengers can now ride the rails from coast to coast.

The extension, completed late last year, was billed as one of Australia's biggest ever civil engineering projects and completed the 2,979 kilometer (1,851 mile) north-south line.

Daytime temperatures were sometimes so hot in the Outback that construction staff worked under lights through the cool nights and slept through the days.

They also had to contend with the prospect of floods and consulted local Aboriginal tribes to ensure the tracks did not pass through any of their sacred sites.

Thousands of people lined the tracks Sunday as the train rumbled out of Adelaide's Keswick station just after noon.

Thousands more were expected to watch it roll through towns along the route and in Darwin, where it was due to arrive Tuesday afternoon.

A transcontinental railway was first proposed in 1858, but the project stalled in 1929, when tracks had stretched from the southern city of Adelaide to Alice Springs in Australia's Red Center -- named for the color of its earth.

While an east-west link between Sydney on Australia's east coast and Perth on the West Australian coast has existed for years, this is the first time north and south have been connected.

The Indian Pacific train journey from Sydney to Perth covers a distance of 4,353kms (2,700 miles).

"This is 90 years too late, but better late than never," said Tim Fischer, a former deputy prime minister and train buff. "I'm just looking forward to the spectacular scenery."

For The Ghan's first trip, the 400-strong passenger list was made up mainly of invited guests and media, but there were regular passengers too.

Stan Bishop told the local Adelaide Advertiser newspaper he shelled out A$5,000 ($3,800) for himself and wife Sylvia because he first made the journey in less comfortable surroundings during World War II, when he had to travel part of the route from Alice Springs to Darwin in the back of an army truck and part in a cattle train.

Aboriginal culture

"I just wanted to make the trip to Darwin again in a bit of comfort," he said.

Once the train starts regular services, tickets for adults will start at A$440 ($334).

The inaugural passenger service follows the arrival in Darwin of the first freight train to use the new Adelaide-Darwin line on January 17.

Rosemary Tipiloura, an Aboriginal school worker from northern Australia, said she hoped the new train services would help impoverished indigenous communities.

I try to encourage our young people to finish their education so they can get jobs," she said. "This railway will provide jobs not just on the trains but also in tourism and promoting Aboriginal culture."

Tipiloura, 49, said it wasn't until she saw the first freight train arrive in Darwin that she knew she wanted to take the trip on The Ghan.

"I wanted to see the freight train to make sure it didn't derail," she said. "I was nervous but now I'm just excited."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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