The first railway in the Pilbara region opened in 1911 between Port Hedland and Marble Bar, a distance of 184km. It was built to a gauge of 3ft 6in (1067mm), already in use in other parts of Australia.
Marble Bar had been established in the 1890s following the discovery of gold in the area but by the time the railway opened was already past the peak of its prosperity. As early as 1922, the ongoing economic viability of the railway was questioned, but it lingered in service until 1951.
In the 1960s permission was granted for the development of the extensive iron ore fields in the area. A number of standard (1435mm) gauge heavy haul railways were constructed. The first of these, the Hamersley Railway, opened between mines at Mount Tom Price and a new port facility at Dampier in 1966. The line was subsequently extended and several branches were contructed to other mines.
The next line to open was the Mount Newman Railway, in 1969. This connected mines near Newman with Port Hedland. It, too, had later branches added.
The Robe River Railway opened in 1972, connecting mines in the Pannawonica area with processing and port facilities at Cape Lambert.
The Goldsworthy Railway opened in 1993 between Yarrie and Port Hedland. It, and the Mount Newman Railway, are part of the BHP Billiton group.
In 2001, the operations of the Hamersley and Robe River Railways were merged as Pilbara Rail, subsequently becoming part of Pilbara Iron, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto.
In 2004, Fortescue Metals applied for right of access to parts of the existing railways for transport of ore from its own mines. Legal proceedings became enmired and as a result the company decided to construct a separate new railway, the Fortescue Railway, between its mines at Cloud Break and port facilities at Port Hedland. The line opened in 2008.
In 2012, Pilbara Rail introduced driverless trains on some of its services on the Hamersley Railway. Over the course of the next few years, all main line operations on this and the Robe River Railway were converted to driverless.
In 2015, Roy Hill, a joint venture between Hancock Prospecting and a consortium of various international steel and general manufacturing companies, opened a new iron ore mine in the Roy Hill area, with a standard gauge railway connecting the mine to Port Hedland.
Brockman Iron is seeking an agreement with Fortescue for transport of ore from Brockman’s Marillana Project to Port Hedland via the Fortescue Railway. However, Brockman is also collaborating with Atlas Iron and the rail operator Aurizon on a study for a new independent railway connecting mines in east and southeast Pilbara with Port Hedland. An opening date of 2015 was envisaged but the project.