I’m going to do a series of slightly different posts. Normally, I blog about journeys I have taken in the past; this will be a “live” blog of my current holiday from Melbourne to Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns (all by rail of course).
The journey starts at my home in Melbourne, Victoria. The day was an ordinary day, but I was booked to catch the overnight XPT train to Sydney, departing from Melbourne’s Southern Cross station at 19:50. I had nothing else to do during the day, and spent the day cleaning, packing, clock watching and waiting for it to be time to go. Time dragged, but eventually it was time to go to catch the train. If all of my connections worked out, I would be at Southern Cross about 45 minutes before the XPT was due to depart.
Normally I walk to my local railway station on Melbourne’s Frankston line, but because I had all of my luggage, I decided to catch the bus. Although trains on the Frankston line are every 10 minutes, I had to time it carefully as the local bus only runs every 30 minutes. I was at the bus stop 5 minutes before the bus was due – 2 minutes after it was due, it rumbled into sight… and kept rumbling right past without stopping! I waved at the Driver as he plodded past the stop, but I was in a dimly lit street after dark, and he must have completely missed me. With no time to wait for the next bus, I lugged my bags down to the station. It wasn’t a long walk, and I would only be one train behind the one I had intended to catch.
When I arrived at the station, I should have only had 3 minutes to wait. Unfortunately, the train was canceled, so I waited for the next one; I was now 2 trains (20 minutes) later than I had intended. The train after the canceled train was running 4 minutes late, and instead of running through Flinders St station to Southern Cross (like most trains from Frankston do), it terminated at Flinders St – 1 stop short of my destination. I now had to find the next train to Southern Cross and take my suitcases to another platform. I struggled across to another train which was already running late, and boarded, I now had 15 minutes until the XPT departed.
The train waited, and waited and finally a long distance V/Line train passed us. 10 minutes before the XPT departed Southern Cross, we departed Flinders St. Thankfully, the journey across only took the timetabled 3 minutes, and we arrived on platform 12, 7 minutes before the XPT departed platform 1. I took the lift up to the footbridge, and quickly walked across to the lift to platform 1, only to find that it was out of service! The single escalator was going in an up direction, so I negotiated the stairs with my bags, and made it onto platform 1 with 4 minutes to spare! I’ve never cut it so close for a long distance train in my life! I was still getting settled in my sleeping compartment as the train slid out of Southern Cross station, right on time.
The XPTs are based on the British HSTs, with a streamlined XP class locomotive at each end of the train in a push/pull configuration. The trains were introduced in the 1980s and are showing their age. Although they have had several cosmetic makeovers, there are dents in stainless steel fittings, chips in plastic and internal doors and cabinets doors don’t close as tightly as they used to. Seating accommodation is all 2×2, the difference between first class and economy being the seat pitch (distance between the back of the seat of one seat and the front of the seat cushion on the next seat).
There is only 1 sleeping (XAM) car on an overnight XPT set (usually 6 or 7 cars long), with 1 1/2 first class sitting cars 1/2 a car for catering and the rest is economy seating. During the day, the XAM car is used as a sitting car, with 3 people sitting in each compartment. The sleeping berths are all twin berths with a bench seat, which converts into an upper and lower bunk. Solitary travelers may be placed with another solitary member of the same sex, or a single occupancy surcharge may be paid. Sometimes you just get lucky and there is no one booked with you. 2 compartments share a toilet and shower. There is ample storage space in each compartment, both overhead and under the lower bunk. The showers range from a good hot flow to a tepid trickle. Overall, the compartments are clean and well maintained.
Unfortunately, however, the suspension on XAM cars is not up to a standard you would expect; it is noisy, squeaking and groaning over each bump in the track (of which they are many, thanks to ARTC’s track maintenance “standards”). The air suspension also groans softly when the train is stopped, as the car rocks gently from side to side, trying to find equilibrium. The cars also often have minor wheel flats, thanks to overenthusiastic braking to maintain tight timetables. Having said all of this, the beds are comfortable and clean, and if you are able to overcome the noise, it can be a reasonably pleasant night’s sleep.
Aside from the minor maintenance issues, NSW Trainlink (the operator of the XPT fleet) do seem to try to look after the passengers. As long as you are courteous to them, they are pleasant and accommodating (although they don’t take any nonsense from anyone). In the sleeping compartments is a welcome pack, with some complimentary snacks and a toiletry kit. Fresh towels are provided, as are 2 pillows and a warm duvet per bunk. There is an attendant call button, and the sleeping car attendant is usually prompt to attend to any requests. A light breakfast is delivered to each sleeping car passenger in the morning.
As we were creeping through the railyards of inner Melbourne, a passenger attendant come through checking tickets and handing out meal reservations for dinner. There is no dining car on the train, but food and drink is available for purchase from the cafe car for consumption at your seat. The hot meals are as you would expect; filling and reasonably healthy, but usually too dry, too moist or tasteless. As I had encountered these meals before, I declined the meal reservation, but purchased a slightly less disapointing sandwich from the cafe car instead.
We made our way out through Melbourne’s inner western suburbs of Footscray and Sunshine and then turned north along the Albion – Jacana line, before making our first stop at the outer suburban station of Broadmeadows. Most trains in Victoria are Broad Gauge (1600mm), but the interstate lines to Adelaide and Sydney are Standard Gauge (1435mm). The Standard Gauge line to Sydney parallels the broad gauge line to Shepparton and Tocumwal between Broadmeadows and Seymour. There was little to see, as it was already dark outside, so I went to bed and was dozing before we reached Seymour (our second stop). Although the suspension was squeaking, I had fallen asleep by the time the train reached the next stop at Benalla.
We crossed the Victoria/NSW border at Albury and sped on towards Sydney. Between Albury and Goulburn, the XPT reaches speeds of up to 160 km/h; low by world standards, but high by Australian standards. I woke as we stopped in an unknown location, and looked out of the window to discover it was
Gunning Harden, just past the half way point. I fell asleep again straight away, and didn’t wake until the conductor brought me my complimentary breakfast about an hour south of Sydney.
After entering the Sydney suburban area at Macarthur, we stopped briefly to let passengers off at outer suburban Campbeltown. From Campbeltown, we ran non-stop via East Hills and Sydenham into Sydney Terminal (Central Station), arriving three minutes ahead of schedule at 06:52. My connecting train wasn’t until 14:41, so I left my suitcases at the privately run luggage office (highway robbery at $10 per piece for 8 hours) and headed off into Sydney.