Exploring the Pilbara via Rail Access Roads


One of the best things about choosing a different track is the opportunity to discover new sites that interest you. It could simply be a change in the way you always travel home to see what’s happening around your very own neighbourhood.

However, for the inquisitive adventurer, it’s more about exploring a new route, a less travelled track or unearthing a long-forgotten treasure within the region you have researched. One such opportunity is the rail access roads of the Pilbara in the northwest of WA.

A road runs alongside a train track, with a train about to pass by

Explore the less travelled route. 

Driving the line

Privately owned by Rio Tinto Iron Ore, these roads run parallel to the rail network throughout the Pilbara and connect the iron ore mines to the shipping ports. Running between Cape Lambert to Pannawonica and Dampier to Tom Price, this public access is a true bonus for the 4X4 driver who is looking for a new experience.

These company roads provide maintenance teams with essential access to the railway line network, which carries some of the longest trains on the planet and is the largest privately-owned railway in the world.

A ship being loaded with ore at a port

Ore loading in the Pilbara. 

Permission granted

Both are unsealed and subject to seasonal conditions. Travelling on them is only authorised for those who have obtained a driver’s permit to do so.

The free 30-day public permit is available online or from the:

  • Tom Price Visitor Centre
  • Karratha Visitor Centre
  • Pannawonica Library

Online or on-site, the session will involve completing a series of short videos and achieving 100% on a set of 10 straightforward questions.

Expansive view of train tracks going into the distance with mountains behind

The railway lines rail access route. 

The permit is issued to each driver and not the vehicle, so ensure each driver completes the training. Without the permit, you will be uninsured and trespassing so you could be subject to a hefty fine.

You may be on holidays, but as you are travelling through a working mine there are many things you must consider and observe before you enter the site. Responsible driving is a priority that makes up one of the nine lifesaving commitments explained in the training module.

Others include instructions on how to drive through different types of railway crossings and maintaining a minimum distance of three metres from the train line.

An oversize truck driving along a road

Ore trucks travelling on the road. 

Avoid disappointment with a phone call

The access road between the Millstream Chichester turnoff from Tom Price can be rough. It is always advisable to check the road conditions whenever you are venturing off of the bitumen and it’s good practise to make this research an important part of your trip preparation.

For the Rail Access Roads, Rio Tinto has their own convenient Rio Tinto Road Condition Report – a recorded message line (08) 9143 6464 that is also listed on your permit and provides details on current road conditions. The local shires and the Main Roads Western Australia travel map also have up-to-date information on the other roads in the area.

Conditions can change very quickly in the Pilbara and these authorities have the latest advice on access, which can be restricted between set hours on any day to the entire day, and sometimes even consecutive days.

A sign that reads FLOODWAY along a red dirt road, with hills in the distance

Check the road conditions before you set off. 

Planning pays off

Make sure you’re travelling with good quality maps and the latest information as well as enough fuel for the journey.

As with most outback adventures, it is advised that you notify someone not travelling with you when you expect to arrive at your destination, and which route to you intend to take. The benefit of someone knowing your approximate location and your ETA cannot be overstressed in these situations.

There is a module within the permit application which covers driving in the dusty conditions of the Rio Tinto roads. Following a slow road train while eating their dust is a test of patience, but it is virtually impossible to see oncoming traffic or how long the road train is, so just set yourself behind the dust cloud and take your time. Overtaking is not recommended in these circumstances.

The colourful Pilbara landscape

The colourful landscape of the Pilbara. 

The road train drivers and other vehicles will appreciate your patience and are known for pulling over when it’s safe to allow you to pass by. Likewise, if you are holding people up as on any road, find a safe spot to pull over and allow to faster traffic to pass.

The standard advice recommended is to travel with a quality spare tyre, plus a second if you can, as well as the right tools to fix and replace a damaged tyre. Ensure that you bring enough drinking water plus a first aid kit and travel with your headlights on for safety.

A yellow sign by the side of a dirt road reads DRIVE SAFE HEADLIGHTS ON

Drive safely with your headlights on. 

With all outback roads, there is a host of livestock and native animals to look out for while you’re driving and a CB radio is always a handy addition to your vehicle set up. The correct channel to listen to is identified on the access road signage and training.

Mobile phone coverage is intermittent, so bear this in mind if you need to communicate with friends or family back home, and perhaps consider carrying a satellite phone or a satellite messenger device.

A dirt road lined with purple flowers

The rail access road to Tom Price.

Road works ahead

The State government is sealing a section of Roebourne-Wittenoom Road, known locally as Karratha Tom Price Road.

Traffic is currently being detoured to the Rio Tinto Iron rail access road due to extensive roadworks. The Millstream Road is being maintained but still open during construction with speed restrictions in place.

This means that during 2020-23, increased vehicle numbers will be using some of the rail access roads. A permit is still necessary, even if you are diverted by road crews, so ensure you have one for each driver with you.

On completion of roadworks, the access road will return to the isolated and potentially lonely stretch that makes it so popular.

A sign on a dirt road T-junction reads NANUTARRA - MUNJINA ROAD

The end of the road. 

A toot and a wave

For me, one of the greatest thrills of the rail access routes are the regularly passing trains – some can be up to 2.5km long! It is worth pulling over, well off to the left of the track, just to marvel the sight and snap a few photos.

An important tip to note, however, is not to wear any red clothing that could be confused for a stop signal or flag. If you do find yourself in a red top, quickly cover up with a jacket or change your clothes.

A long line of train cars pass by

Pull over, and count how many cars go by. 

Start counting the rail cars as soon as you see the first one to avoid the “Wow, I wonder how many cars there are on this one?” comments from your travelling companions.

Some trains have up to 200 at a time and may have several engines pulling them along. It is quite a spectacle. These trains travel around 80kph and can take up to 2km to stop so don’t get in their way, keep clear and go through any rail crossings without delay.

An ore train drives past

Watching the trains go by is quite a spectacle.

As surprising as the landscape you’ll pass through, is that any train you see is completely automated. Described by some as the world’s largest robot, these huge haulers are unmanned and operated from a Perth Operations Centre.

Autohaul locomotives are fitted with on-board cameras that are constantly monitored, so just in case they can see you, give them a wave as the locomotive goes by.


What’s the best new route that you’ve discovered? 

About the writer...

Joined back in September, 2018

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