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.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

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


Leave a comment

9 thoughts on “Sydney-Melbourne rail after 50 years, a fragile necessity

  1. Fueldrum

    As I write this the fare for a sleeper ticket from Sydney to Melbourne tomorrow night is $257. For this price you get taken to Albury in a cabin that’s too loud for sleeping, then you have to get out of the train and onto a bus for the trip to Melbourne!!!!

    Doesn’t really compare with the progress made by aviation since 1938, does it?

  2. michael r james

    Is the bus journey/trackwork to do with the notoriously unsafe section of newly-replaced track that causes trains to sway and jerk side-to-side? Something to do with using the “wrong kind” of rock fill on the trackbed?

    A pity they didn’t use the Russian system to cope with the gauge change on the trans-Siberian. Somewhere on the Mongolian-Chinese border if I remember, the carriages of the entire train are lifted off the bogies which are then replaced with the other-gauge ones. All the while, passengers are on the train, in fact locked in. So you can stay in bed if you wish (though perhaps that is incorrect as I seem to recall the train babushkas force everyone out of their bunks at the beginning of each day.) I suspect the whole thing is probably less a technological fix rather than a paranoid-security thing from the soviet era. (Perfect for the NSW-Vic border!)

    But it would be a great novelty and would probably generate more traffic than anything else today!

    (Ben, you noticed I got thru this whole post without mentioning the thing that deserves to be mentioned. Wasn’t there supposed to be a report on you-know-what released before the end of this year?)

  3. Ben Sandilands

    There is. Waiting….waiting.

    Apparently the main line work north of Albury is nearly complete, if not finished, and the train south and the train north from Albury were punctual to the minute, which is miraculous given the speed restrictions and other delays caused by the sleeper fiasco.

    I noticed that the train had two unsold seats at any time, and at every stop those getting off were replaced by new customers.

    At Junee where there is only one track we went through the station, and waited for the south bound XPT to pass and then clear the station, and reversed back to the platform while half the population, or around 12 people got off and on. It was a great if costly antidote to flying.

  4. fractious

    Ben, great story, especially the ‘flashback’ at Albury. While I am merely an immigrant and therefore may not be fully apprised of all the whys and wherefores, it still baffles me how long distance rail travel in this country is quite such a shambles – presumably chronic (years, decades) underfunding is partly to blame, along with the fetish for diverting funding and political will into building roads and leaving rail transport to moulder (Sydney urban rail partly excepted).

    What with expensive fares, delays due to almost incessant works, arbitrarily slow speeds and uncomfortable and inconvenient accommodation, it’s almost as if the whole organisation is doing its utmost to put fare-paying passengers off the idea altogether. Which is something of a shame since – as someone who travelled many miles on InterCity 125s and in carriages pulled by 37s and Westerns in my yoof – I think long distance rail travel can and should be a comfortable, convenient and unique experience. If you’re doing the SYD-MEL shuttle and have the time, the train beats driving hands down; and if you don’t like flying and can’t or won’t drive or want a more leisurely look at parts of the country, the train is the answer.

    What your tale also points to is the fantasy that is the CBR-SYD high speed train as a viable alternative to a second Sydney airport. If rail travel between the country’s two biggest and oldest cities is this expensive and uncomfortable and inconvenient after all these years, what chance the HST will ever make good on the promises that some make for it?

  5. Bob the builder

    Lovely story, Ben – sadly “atrociously bad” is a spot-on description of all food on NSW services. You’ve captured the general shambles of NSW public transport, as well as the beauty of the journey.
    Queensland rail were once better, though I’ve heard privatisation has led to a drastic reduction in services – I remember about ten years ago going from Brissie to Cairns in economy class with huge seats, each carriage with clean toilets in one end, roomy showers in the other, a nice lounge car, a dining car, a moderately priced bar and decent food. What a difference to NSW and it’s cardboard croissants eaten from cardboard plates in your seat!
    The constant trackwork is a reminder of the last-minute patching mentality given to our rails, the very low priority rail travel is given. Last year I was on a push bike camping trip between Brissie and Sydney and vividly remember riding along the multi-lane Pacific highway for a few unpleasant kms, then coming across a huge cutting where they were in yet another upgrade – shortly afterwards I turned off and crossed the Main North Line. A single track, barely changed from its construction well over 50 years ago! That is what is deemed sufficient to join Sydney and Brisbane and cater for goods and passengers.

  6. AJH

    I travel the Newcastle-Sydney return route frequently. I get on at Maitland station and travel to Central.

    It’s very much reminiscent of your description above. The facilities are appalling, trackwork seems to be when the route is busiest, and the travel time is ludicrous.

    All-up the trip from Maitland to Sydney takes approximately three-and-a-half hours, although it can be 30 minutes extra if I end up missing the change of trains at Hamilton in Newcastle.

    The return trip, of an evening, always takes about four hours, due to the timing of the change at Hamilton.

    If I drive, and have a good run, I can do the trip in about two hours. So the first point against the train is that it takes literally twice as long as driving.

    The second issue is the squalid nature of the trains. They are covered in graffiti, often full of violent passengers, and smell of urine and disinfectant. They are an embarrassment. I never let visitors from overseas catch the train. When family is visiting, I insist on driving. The poor standard of the facilities is a national disgrace.

    The third issue is the lack of security. In the past year alone, I have been attacked by a drunken rugby league fan, had racist insults hurled at me, been covered in blood due to a fight between a husband and wife in the seat across the aisles, had a passenger attempt to grab my iPad while I was reading, and have been punched in the face by a teenage girl after asking her to observe the “quiet carriages” rule.

    I’m a fan of rail travel, and have kept going back to it, despite the issues. However, the problems have been worse than ever during the last year, so I’ve decided that I’ll drive from now on.

  7. lee atkinson

    great arrticle on the spirit of progress.. my wife and I used to work on it in the catering carriage.. good memories

  8. Malcolm Street

    Six months ago we were in Europe. 300 km/hr in Germany from Nuremburg to Munich, 320 km/hr in France by TGV from Luxembourg to Paris, the Eurostar to London. 160km/hr on the train from Budapest to Vienna FFS! What a sick joke Australian long-distance train travel is – even Britain’s is much better (if more expensive).

    Michael R James – actually I think bogie exchange was pioneered in Australia for freight traffic, although I don’t think it was ever adapted to passenger traffic.

  9. Brett Coster

    Really nice story, thanks.

    I grew up in South Gippsland and in the 60s and 70s when we had a passenger train, rather than railmotor, go up the line, the carriages were those from the 1930s Spirit of Progress. All leather and plush wood, very nice.

    Quite a few years back I travelled between Melbourne and Sydney a few times on the night XPT.

    On one of my trips up to Sydney I had a vacant seat beside me until Goulburn, at about 1:30 or 2 am. Young bloke sat down, we said our hellos and chatted very briefly and both soon after snoozed off. A couple of hours later we were both awake at dawn, hitting the outskirts of Sydney.

    “That’s the first sunrise I’ve seen on the outside in eight years,” said the young bloke. I hope he had many, many more.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details