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Dec 28, 2012

Sydney-Melbourne rail after 50 years, a fragile necessity

Why taking the train from Sydney to Melbourne is worth it a few times in a life time, and especially if bearing fragile gifts.

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Albury, the all change colonnade, where memories came unbidden: Ben Sandilands

The last time I used rail to get to Melbourne from anywhere in NSW was in 1962, the year the standard gauge line allowed the Southern Aurora to inaugurate same train services rather than a two train shuffle at Albury to change between the standard tracks north of the border to the broad gauge line.

The service is not an improvement on what it was then, but it remains a trip that is highly recommended as an occasional experience.  The only other time I did the trip was when very young, changing from a C 38 class steam train from Sydney to the ‘futuristic’ faired monster volcanic locomotive that drew the Spirit of Progress at what seemed like rocket ship speed to a small boy the rest of the way to Spencer Street station, more recently redeveloped into Southern Cross. That trip was possibly in 1949, and definitely before 1952.

The excuse this time was fragility, not of the passenger, but the presents he took south, to another very special small boy and grandson.  Melbourne is too far to drive, even from the southern highlands, and the risks of breakage while flying from Canberra or Sydney airports too high.

Inside Car C on the Sydney XPT: Ben Sandilands

There was no way the train will save time however, even counting the transit times from either airport, nor will it likely save anyone any money on the fares, since flying is usually cheaper.

I semi regularly use this train just to get between Moss Vale and Sydney, as well as the similar but smaller Canberra trains, which will stop at a station closer to where I live. But this time it was all the way south, in a sleeper, and back on the day train.

The sleepers, arranged as a stack of two bunks, occupy about as much space as a first class sleeper on an Emirates jet, with less headroom, and less everything else too.  There are sharp edges, a lumpy duvet type blanket, badly designed places to put glasses, tablets (electronic and prescription) and shoes and so forth.

Between each set of bunks there is a narrow metal upright tube, very early space age in its utility, which is a shower tube. One pull down panel makes a basin and mirror for shaving, a lower one becomes a toilet pan.  It’s  an inferior arrangement to one using the same design elements but on a less squalid scale inside the Southern Aurora. Tip: Avoid using. There are facilities elsewhere on the train.

But sleep was possible. An atrociously bad breakfast was delivered an hour out of Melbourne, and was taken in another bunk cabin which had been left in its day configuration, which is three wide comfortable seats, like an inferior copy of the incredibly plush leather seating remembered from the Spirit of Progress.

On the way back it had been decided that for the busiest six days of the holiday season the Victorian section to Albury would be closed for trackwork, and buses provided instead.  This master stroke of planning by the Victorian rail authorities ruined the morning for what was a fully booked train load of passengers, but was a chance to reacquaint with the superbly preserved gauge change platform at Albury with its long colonnade of metal arches and a beautifully restored main station building.

Then for a moment it is so long ago yet now. There is a bitterly cold pre-dawn emptying of the Sydney train into the waiting Melbourne train, grown people in pyjamas and gowns hauling suitcases a few metres from one side to the other. The impatient slow deep chanting sound of a steam engine, all fired up, and ready to go, my father at my side, suddenly, all there for a few seconds in a bright, beautiful summer day in the same place, as backpackers and family travellers all uncrease themselves from the bus-athon and find their places on the waiting XPT. There are ghosts in places, that assemble unbidden, when unexpected events push open the doors of memories without notice.

The trip north is worth it. This is making Melbourne to Sydney, or in this case, to Moss Vale, a journey, rather than a short tight fit fliration with claustrophobia in an aluminium tube.  The sky is scored with contrails, but the panoramas are full of blue hills of varying distance, water holes close up, and scenes of rural splendor, and in places, rural decline, all viewed at leisurely speeds that are mostly way below the capabilities of the now aged diesel locos at either end of a train set that shudders graciously as the slight speed differences between each carriage nudge and jostle back and forth through the couplings.

The XPT glides slowly through scenes that Streeton, Glover and Heysen would have turned into masterpieces in the lowering afternoon sunlight.  Just past Cootamundra the speed drops even lower briefly, as sheep on the track scramble to safety up a low cutting.

Whatever the criticisms of the hardware inside the carriages, and the lack of planning when it comes to springing track work on a peak travel time, the Countrylink cabin crew are courteous, efficient, and friendly. You would like to see any of them aboard your next flight.

Spirit of Progress in motion c1938: Wikipedia Commons

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