The new mine is expected to produce up to 13 million tonnes of thermal and coking coal every year over a 30-year lifespan, with production commencing in the first quarter of 2015. The railway will carry up to 12.4 million tonnes of this coal to the Port of Newcastle annually, which is located 360km south east of the mine.

"This is a very important milestone for Whitehaven's Maules Creek project," says Whitehaven managing director and CEO Mr Paul Flynn. "Once the mine begins production in the first quarter of 2015, it will strengthen the company's position as a major low-cost coal producer in Australia."

Australia's former environment minister Mr Tony Burke approved construction of the mine in July. However, it has courted controversy ever since.

Environmental groups claim that the project will destroy forests as well as local wildlife, and contaminate water supplies. They have subsequently sought to delay the project and ultimately overturn the decision to allow construction to proceed ever since it was approved.

The Northern Inland Council for the Environment filed an application in the Australian Federal Court last month to overturn approval of the project claiming that the decision had been made on the basis of potentially false or misleading information. A decision in the case is expected next month, although attempts to halt progress on the project before this announcement have seemingly been dismissed with the award of the railway contract, which Whitehaven described as the "longest lead item for the project."