My first serious rail journey as an emerging adult saw the Northern Tablelands Express take me from Armidale NSW to Sydney, probably in 1954 or 1955. The Express was quite new, contained a buffet car which felt rather grand, and rocketed along at an average of 70 kph. Its dowdy evening sidekick was the Glen Innes Mail, which was slow, and distinctly uncomfortable, especially in winter. The Mail was the Army’s preferred vehicle for those of us who travelled to Sydney or Singleton to undertake our National Service.
Once I owned a car (1959), that was largely the end of my train journeys. But more recently I have experienced the bullet train in Japan, the TGV in France, the excellent German system and the much less excellent British Rail. Over the last two weeks my wife and I, for a mix of reasons — nostalgia, birthdays and family visits — opted to leave the car at home and use trains to go to Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and back to Canberra. And we enjoyed it, in part, anyway.
I’m familiar with all the main highways in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, and to a degree the highways follow railways, for much the same reason: they connect population centres. But the view from the train is higher and better. In hilly areas the tracks are different, so you see new terrain. The weather was excellent, and we enjoyed the long days inspecting our part of Australia in its current lush green. It was so green in some parts that I was reminded of Ireland.
All that was good, but I’m not sure we’ll be doing a repeat journey of the same kind any time soon. If railway travel is going to be the new way to go, then we need the VFT. And if that’s not possible, we need a real and sustained renovation of the present infrastructure. The track was uneven, bumpy and wavy virtually everywhere, and eating and drinking were always a little precarious. So were trips to the buffet and the toilet. Sleeping on the Indian-Pacific to Adelaide was interrupted again and again by a jolt here or a sway there.
And when the track is improved, the next few billion need to be put into new machines. All the carriages have a dowdy, run-down look and feel. Dining on the long inter-capital trips is pretty ordinary. There is no dining car, just a canteen, and the food is below par. You would be much better bringing some decent food yourself, and some we saw did exactly that. I envied them.
The staff on all the trains we were on were pleasant and helpful, but the official style on the XPT from Melbourne to Sydney was authoritarian: passengers must do these things. On two trains the PA system told us that someone had been smoking in the toilet, and fairly crackled with indignation. If that passenger was caught he or she would be put off at the next station! And would-be smokers were told not to get off at the stations to have a quick fag, because the train wouldn’t be there long enough. Central station in Sydney is a non-smoking area; I don’t know about the country stations.
Once we were away from the cities the scenery was excellent, but inside them you couldn’t escape the graffiti on buildings close to the line, on fences and on railway wagons. The paint companies must have made a lot of money out of the grafitto people. It is hard to experience the result as anything other than ugly. Every now and then you can see that someone has paid for a street artist to develop a mural on the wall, and if it is well done it is left alone. That strategy has been employed by local government bodies in a few places and has some success, but the sheer scale of the ugliness on and around suburban railway stations, on railway wagons and on fences is staggering. Does anyone care? I noticed the same ugliness in Sweden twenty years ago, and no one had an answer there either.
You do a lot more walking when you travel by train. We stayed mostly at hotels near the railway station, but they are not that close, and since we had only roll-on small bags we walked to and from. Like the planes, the trains like you to be there well ahead of time, so there’s a lot of sitting around, too. All in all, I’m glad we did it, but it will be the car next time, or the plane, if we have to be there quickly.
The railways opened up Australia in the 19th century, and their real compass has shrunk a great deal since then. Maps show the lines as they were eighty years ago, but to get to most of the towns you will need a mixture of train and bus, The buses are run by the railway systems. I don’t know whether we will ever have a Very Fast Train, but what we have now, at least on the lines on which we travelled, is not good at all.