In November 1996, the federal government announced a major rail reform package that included the sale of government-owned train operators Australian National and National Rail, and the establishment of the Australian Rail Track Corporation to manage the sections of the interstate rail network which had been controlled by the two former organisations.
The ARTC was incorporated in February 1998, with operations starting in July 1998 when the lines managed by Australian National's Track Australia were transferred to it. These were the lines from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta, Tarcoola to Alice Springs, Port Augusta to Whyalla, Adelaide to Broken Hill and Adelaide to Serviceton, and the Outer Harbor line in Adelaide.
In 2000, the Tarcoola to Alice Springs line was leased to the Asia Pacific Transport Consortium as part of the project to extend the line to Darwin.
In 1999, ARTC signed a five-year deal with VicTrack, the rail manager for the Victorian government, to lease the standard gauge track which runs from Albury to Serviceton via Melbourne. This was later extended for another 10 years, and in May 2008 for another 45 years.
As part of the lease extension, the run-down and underutilised broad-gauge line from Seymour to Albury, that paralleled the Melbourne to Sydney line, was leased to ARTC and converted to standard gauge. Included was construction of the five-kilometre Wodonga Rail Bypass which eliminated 11 level crossings in that city.
In July 2008 it was announced the standard gauge track from Maroona to Portland would be leased to ARTC for 50 years, with $15 million to be invested in the line. The line was handed over in March 2009.
In 2001, ARTC was granted rights for 15 years to sell access between Kalgoorlie and Kwinana, Perth, to interstate rail operators under a wholesale access agreement with the West Australian track-owner Brookfield Rail.
In September 2004, the Government of New South Wales-owned Rail Infrastructure Corporation leased its interstate and Hunter Valley lines to ARTC for 60 years. The lines covered by the lease are:Main South line between Macarthur and Albury
North Coast line between Broadmeadow and Border Loop
Main North line between Maitland and Werris Creek
Broken Hill line between Parkes and Broken Hill
Unanderra to Moss Vale line
Sandy Hollow to Gulgong line
Cootamundra to Parkes line
Parkes to Narromine line
Troy Junction to Merrygoen line
As part of this agreement ARTC agreed to the following investment programmes:$192 million to build the Southern Sydney Freight Line, a new dedicated southern access route for freight trains through the south-western Sydney metropolitan area from Sefton to Macarthur. Opened in January 2013.
$152 million to upgrade the Hunter Valley network, including track strengthening and $67 million to eliminate bottlenecks, increasing the capacity of the network from 85 million to over 100 million tonnes per year.
$186 million to upgrade the Main South line from Macarthur to Albury. The investment will improve signalling, extend the length of crossing loops and replace the Murrumbidgee Bridge at Wagga Wagga. It will assist in reducing the transit times for freight trains between Sydney and Melbourne by three hours.
$119 million for the North Coast line from Maitland to Border Loop including replacement of the 1920s signalling system between Casino and Border Loop. The investment will assist in reducing the travel time for freight trains between Sydney and Brisbane by up to 3.5 hours.
$21 million for the Broken Hill line between Parkes and Broken Hill, including funds to raise height clearances allowing the passage of double-stacked container trains.
The then NSW Rail Infrastructure Corporation also contracted operational responsibility of the remainder of its country branch lines to ARTC from September 2004. From January 2012 this was transferred to the John Holland Group.
In July 2011, responsibility for the Werris Creek to North Star line was transferred from the Country Rail Infrastructure Authority.
In August 2012, the Government of New South Wales owned RailCorp leased its Sydney Metropolitan Freight Network line from Port Botany to Sefton to ARTC for 50 years.
In January 2010, the Government of Queensland leased its standard gauge line from Border Loop on the New South Wales border to Acacia Ridge, Brisbane to ARTC for 60 years.
In February 2014, the Australian Government and Queensland Government agreed to investigate further incorporating Queensland into the national rail network. This ultimately did not proceed.
ARTC does not operate any trains, but provides and maintains the infrastructure for train operators to run on. The tracks controlled by ARTC are located in five states, and were previously run by six separate state railways in an uncoordinated fashion that gave an advantage to road transport. By combining the infrastructure under one corporation it was expected that a more integrated and coordinated one-stop-shop would be created. It provides its own reporting numbers to trains that operate on its network.
ARTC does not control any of the narrow gauge track in Queensland or South Australia, nor broad gauge track in Victoria. However it does control the Albion to Jacana freight line which has been partially converted to dual gauge for use as a passing lane, but is considered a main line on the broad gauge network.Adelaide to Serviceton (Melbourne–Adelaide)
Adelaide to Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie (Adelaide-Port Augusta & Trans-Australian Railway)
Port Augusta to Whyalla
Crystal Brook to Broken Hill (Crystal Brook-Broken Hill line)
Tarcoola to Alice Springs and Darwin, leased to Asia Pacific Transport Consortium
Sefton to Macarthur (Southern Sydney Freight Line)
Melbourne to Albury (North East line)
Melbourne to Serviceton (Western line)
Maroona to Portland (Portland railway line is a branch line off the Western line)
Port Botany to Sefton
Macarthur to Albury (Main South line)
Unanderra to Moss Vale
Cootamundra to Parkes
Parkes to Broken Hill (Broken Hil line)
Parkes to Narromine
Troy Junction to Merrygoen
Broadmeadow to Brisbane (North Coast line)
Maitland to North Star (Main North line)
Muswellbrook to Gulgong