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A study looking at the viability of transporting cattle on rail to Darwin and South Australia is being conducted by the NT Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade.
Currently, all Northern Territory cattle are moved to markets on road trains, but a desktop review has found pastoralists could save by putting cattle on rail for a portion of their journey.
"If you compare the cost of freight travelling south … 98 per cent of the herd in the NT can travel down to South Australia, for example, at $120 per head less if you travel on the train," said James Christian, manager of the department's agribusiness development.
The proposal revolves around cattle trucks and trains working in tandem.
Mr Christian said stations would truck cattle to rail heads in centres such as Alice Springs or Tennant Creek where they would be loaded onto trains and taken to their prospective markets.
Station routes via truck to train. (Supplied: James Christian
)"There's already a rail yard built at Kulgera … there's the yard here in Alice. Both need a bit of a makeover, they need a touch up, and the rail line would need to be inspected to make sure its okay.
"It's obviously not quite that simple, there are many other things to consider … but the backbone is there."
Mr Christian is referring to the railway infrastructure that already travels from Alice Springs to the end of the East Arm Wharf.
"In the absence of anything important like quarantine, the cattle could get off the train at the very end of East Arnhem Wharf and walk across the wharf and straight up into the live export boats," he said.
Can it be done again? The last time cattle travelled by rail in the NT was in 1998 from Alice Springs to Gepps Cross in Adelaide.
Herbie Neville, a cattle industry veteran and branch manager of Elders Alice Springs, used to organise cattle trains for markets in South Australia.
The trains were as frequent as three loads a week and travelled no faster than 30kph.
"When I worked at the Smith Street yards [we loaded cattle] Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday morning … which sometimes was hard work," Mr Neville said.
NT cattle getting unloaded at Darwin Wharf in 1925.(Supplied: Library and Archives NT
)They could carry up to 3,000 head of Territory cattle across the arid landscape of the Central Australian desert and into either Darwin ports or the bustling stockyards of Adelaide.
Transporting cattle via rail was at its height in the mid to late 1980s, however in the late 1990s the trains made their final stop as roads monopolised livestock transport.
Mr Neville said he struggles to see a potential return of rail transport to his industry.
"There's no spur line down in the south and there's so many different markets, and the feed-lotters have got their own trucks, their own spelling yards. I can't see it coming back."
Life on the railThe humble role of the train drover, who used to live on the carts to ensure safety of the cattle on board, is now a fading memory.
A train cattle train heading south to Adelaide.(Supplied: Library and Archives NT
)Andy Summers, who was 16 when he worked as a train drover, said life on the rail was characterised by long days, vast country, and periodic stock checks.
"I was on the old Ghan, we used to go from Alice to Marree. It was a pretty slow trip," he said.
"When the train stopped you had about 20 minutes to run down the line and check all your cattle."
Gary Prior, another player in the NT's cattle rail game, used to run the Roe Creek Cattle Yards in Alice Springs during the 1980s and recalled the time fondly.
"I did really enjoy it, it was a good job and a good era to be in," he said.
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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