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.


Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    You will never have the great rail systems in Oz that you have in Europe. Our low population densities and huge distances make modern rail systems completely uneconomic.

  • DaveW says:

    Perhaps whyisitso is right, but from Don’s description it sounds like little has been spent on rail infrastructure in recent decades. One can’t help but wonder, given the recent government’s twisted and ineffective spending priorities, if the money wouldn’t have been better invested in transportation infrastructure including rail? As I understand it, rail is generally considered more energy efficient than road for long-distance freight and given Australia’s generally low relief and relatively ice-free climate that may be especially true here.

    Fewer trucks on highways would certainly make driving more pleasant and probably reduce repair costs, assuming the mass of a vehicle is a primary component of road wear. I’m not sure that inter-city rail passenger service would actually be more efficient than air, but both are certainly safer than driving.

    I just finished the Brisbane-Gympie drive again for about the 10th time this year. Bottle-necks caused by unfinished construction occur about every 40 km and the motorway is very heavily used – it is already carrying enough traffic for 6 lanes, but has only 4-lanes (narrowing to 2 where improvement is unfinished) for most of the route. It is a dangerous and generally unpleasant drive, not made any more pleasant by the War-of-the-World-like speed cameras snaking over the roadsides.

    Gympie does have a rail connection to Brisbane, but it runs only morning and evening service, it is expensive (about the cost of petrol for the drive), and if you add in the cost of getting to-and-fro the station, about twice as expensive as driving (assuming you don’t get caught by a speed camera). If the Government thinks dispersing population to regional centres should be a long range goal, then improved inter-city transport should be a priority. I think that an aging population would be more likely to accept rail transport over driving too. Or at least I know this aging Australian would.

    • Gus says:

      Although Americans fly between major cities, cargo does move on railways, of which there are quite a few crossing the country, east to west and south to north. There are several railway companies, none bother about passenger traffic, doing very well on freight. Freight does not care much for speed or travel comfort. So, a single medium quality track does the job most of the time. It is here, not in the passenger transport, that there is still place for railways in the 21st century.

      • Mike O'Ceirin says:

        I have read that 20 trains a day would be enough to replace all road transport between Sydney and Melbourne. That is for freight not passenger traffic. Unfortunately the inefficiencies of rail as government enterprises killed them. Many years ago road transport was constricted by government decree. To challenge it those wanting to break the monopoly obtained two copies of the controlling act. One was sent by rail to Sydney from Melbourne the other put in a wheelbarrow to be pushed by someone along the road. The rail one lost the race!

  • John Morland says:

    My wife and I have been on British high speed trains, TGV, Euro Star, German IC trains and the Japanese Shinkansens (including the Nizoma -320kph Osaka – Tokyo) and the Shanghai Maglev (432 kph!). All a pleasure to ride in. We love the overseas fast trains

    We thougfht we’d try the train one way from Sydney to Canberra’ instead of using the Murrays coach both ways It was just like Don described it; the countryside was green, different and inteesting. But night soon fell and the carriages were rickity, noisy and it was so slooooow. It ran late and took 5 !/2 hours to complete the journey. Seemned an eternity. Verdict – it was an embarrasement, never again.

    We now use either Murrays coach or our car (a comfortable private import Toyota Crown V8 4-door hardtop on LPG).

  • dlb says:

    I caught the XPT from Brisbane to Sydney a few years back. I found it quite relaxing way to fill in the day as I had a good book and found the scenery quite interesting. From memory it was also quite cheap.

    Regarding a proposed fast train from Sydney to Melbourne, I have heard their may be safety issues in summer where inland temperature extremes may affect the rails.

  • Gus says:

    You need a certain population density (high) and relatively short distances between destinations for trains to be economical. Australia is not such a country. Far from it. The only trains that make sense in Australia are suburban ones and these are fine. It’s really much the same in the US and in Canada. The reason why the French have their TGV is, apart from subsidies, of course, that it’s really quite close from Paris to Lyon, 470 km only, less than 300 miles. This is just 4 hours drive, or, if you’re in a hurry, you can fly, which would get you there in perhaps 40 minutes, but then you have to put up with all the fuss of getting to and from the airport, waiting, checking your luggage, etc. By the time you’re done with all that, two hours will have passed at least. A TGV will get you from Paris to Lyon in two hours and will deliver you from downtown to downtown.
    Melbourne-Sydney would be the only similar connection in Australia. But this is 870 km by Hume Highway and 960 km by rail. And the number of passengers is unlikely to be as high as what you get between Paris and Lyon. The tax-payers pool in Australia is smaller too. Australia has 23 million people only versus 66 million for France, and the income tax in France is murder. It’s people, in the end, who pay, with their taxes, for extravagant monuments like TGV.
    Building a high, very high quality track, capable of supporting very fast trains, over huge distances is extremely expensive. Such a track must be fenced and protected, so it literally cuts the country to pieces, and it must be supervised and maintained in tip-top shape constantly. It’s a lot of fuss and a lot of money.
    Flying solves this problem well enough for connections such as Melbourne-Sydney. And you don’t have to build and maintain anything in between.

  • […] mentioned graffiti in a post the other day about trains, and it seems to me that graffiti daubers, taggers, and those who rip seats in trains or set fire […]

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