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 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 256km line opened in 2008; a 31km extension to Christmas Creek opened the following year.
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.
Also in 2012, Fortescue opened the 129km Solomon Railway from a junction with the Fortescue Railway main line to new mines in the Solomon area.
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. The line does not appear on the above map which was first published in 2014.
In 2021, Fortescue completed a 143km extension of its Solomon Railway to serve mines at Eliwana.
In 2022, Rio Tinto opened a 166km branch (not shown on the above map) from its existing network to newly opened mining operations at Gudai-Darri (Koodaideri).
For some years, Brockman Mining has sought to develop an iron ore project at Marillana, but opening is dependent on finding an appropriate rail solution for ore shipment. At the time of writing, this is ongoing.
Proposals for a new port at Anketell have languished in recent years, meaning that the suggested lines to the port shown on the above map are unlikely to be built.