During the cool months of 1923 the South Australian Railways decided to shorten the time taken by trains for passengers and perishable freight between Adelaide and Oodnadatta. A sleeping car was provided and the train rescheduled to continue without stabling overnight at stations en route. Through passengers could leave Adelaide a day later, on Thursday mornings, and return a day earlier.

On 30 August 1923 the inaugural through passenger train, which included the Alberga sleeping car, ran from Terowie to Oodnadatta. It was on this trip that the name Ghan has its origin. A large crowd of local people had gathered at the Quorn station to witness the arrival of the new train with its sleeping car.

When the train pulled into Quorn yard it was almost dusk. An Afghan passenger wasted no time in getting off the train and sprinting to a quiet corner of the yard where he could kneel to face Mecca and recite his ritual evening prayers. A railwayman made the joking remark that if he was the only passenger on the train it should be called the Afghan Express.

An Afghan camel driver with a camel train loaded with chaff, ca. 1911. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia. SLSA: B 14808

Apparently the name proved popular and was adopted immediately, later being shortened to the 'Ghan Express, and then to the Ghan by which it was known to local railwaymen for a couple of years prior to the takeover by the Commonwealth Railways in 1926.

There are, of course, many other versions of how the Ghan received its name, but there is nevertheless a concensus of opinion confirming that the name was acquired in 1923 when the first sleeping car train worked on the Great Northern Railway.  The “official” versions of the story have been more generic – that the name derived from an observation that the service, when extended to Alice Springs, had superseded the Afghans and their strings of camels.  However this, and a commemorative plaque unveiled at the Alice Springs railway station in October 1980 ignores what should be by now a well known fact - the now famous Ghan train derived its name from the sleeping car service introduced between Quorn and Oodnadatta six years before a train steamed into Alice Springs.

Nevertheless it is fitting that the Ghan should serve to perpetuate the memory of that hardy band of tough but gentle men who provisioned the outback with their camel teams in early years.

The Ghan approaching Oodnadatta, c. 1910. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia. SLSA: B 53762

Article text adapted from: Babbage, J & Barrington, R: "The History of Pichi Richi Railway"