2014 Australian Trip – Brisbane, and Brisbane to Cairns (Sunlander)

After arriving in Brisbane on the XPT at an unreasonably early hour, I left my luggage in a locker at Roma St station. It was just after 05:00, and my connecting train didn’t depart until 13:25, so I headed out into Brisbane. It was too early for breakfast, so I walked along the Brisbane River as the sun rose. At about 7am, I reached the Eagle St Pier and had a hearty breakfast at one of the cafes. After breakfast, I took a CityCat ferry to Regatta Wharf in Toowong. From Regatta wharf it is a short walk to Toowong station, which is located under Toowong Village Shopping Centre. A new suburban line had recently been opened (from Darra to Springfield), so I decided to take a trip out to see what it was like.

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The Brisbane River at sunrise

For a city of its size, Brisbane has a large variety of suburban rolling stock. There are the EMUs (the original Electric Multiple Units from when the suburban system was electrified in 1979), SMU200s (Suburban Multiple Units from 1994), SMU220s (an upgrade from the SMU200, built from 1999), SMU260s (next generation SMUs, built from 2008), IMU100s (Interurban Multiple Units with toilets – built for the opening of the Gold Coast Railway in 1994), IMU120s (an upgrade from the IMU100s, built from 2001), IMU160s (next generation IMUs, built from 2004). There are also the ICE sets (Inter City Express), which were built in 1988 to run the “Spirit of Capricorn” between Brisbane and Rockhampton. When the Electric Tilt Train was introduced in 1998, the ICE sets were relegated to running Sunshine Coast services to Nambour and Gympie North. Examples of all of Queensland’s electric passenger trains are still in regular revenue service. Even more interesting is that all have been made by Walkers, in Maryborough (QLD).

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A QR EMU set at Darra

I caught an EMU from Toowong to Springfield Central. For the most part, the line ran alongside the M5 Freeway, our old train keeping pace with traffic on the freeway between Darra and Richlands. There were 3 nice new stations at Richlands, Springfield and Springfield Central, but very little else of interest. It is a modern commuter line; massive car parks and bus interchanges, stations not within walking distance of anywhere worth going. Without even bothering to leave Springfield Central, I caught the same train back into Roma St, where the Electric Tilt Train was ready to depart for Rockhampton from platform 10. The sleek multiple unit train is the fastest train in Australia, but the top speed of 170 km/h is nothing to brag about by world standards. However the fact that it does it on Cape Narrow Gauge track (1067mm) is impressive. The train makes the 639 km journey from Brisbane to Rockhampton in 7 hours, 25 minutes.

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An EMU and Electric Tilt Train at Roma St

I had some lunch in Brisbane’s CBD, before collecting my luggage from the locker and making my way to platform 10 at Roma St for the main reason I was on this holiday; a final ride on The Sunlander. The Sunlander is the longest intrastate rail journey in Australia, running 1681km from Brisbane to Cairns. It is by no means a fast train, taking about 31 hours to complete the journey, but it is full of character. The Sunlander has recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, but Queensland Rail plan to retire the train in October 2014. This will leave the Spirit Of Queensland diesel tilt train as the only passenger train serving stations between Rockhampton and Cairns.

Queensland Rail do long distance locomotive hauled trains properly, and The Sunlander is no exception. Passengers have the option of  first class twin or single sleeping compartments, economy triple sleeping berths or economy seats. The train has a club (lounge) car, where light snacks and drinks may be purchased, as well as a buffet (restaurant) car, where sit down meals are served.

The first class twin sleepers have a corridor down one side of the car, with the sleeping compartments taking up most of the car width. There are 7 compartments to each car (14 berths), with a female toilet at one end of the car and shower and male toilet at the other end. There is one external door per side, diagonally opposed. Each compartment has a bench seat (facing the direction of travel), which converts into an upper and lower bunk. A fold down sink with hot and cold water is provided, along with two small wardrobes and a cupboard above the sink with a 240v power point. There is ample storage space under the lower bunk and above the doorway. The first class single sleepers have a serpentine corridor down the centre of the car. There are single on each side of the car, with a shower and unisex toilet at one end of the car and one external door on each side of the car at the other end. The compartments have a single seat, which converts into a bed. The economy triple sleepers are almost identical to the first class twin sleepers, except there are 3 bunks, instead of two. Passengers may book individually into economy sleepers, but may be placed in a compartment with other passengers of the same gender.

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The train was standing at platform 10; 2 locomotives (Aurizon liveried 2300 class leading a 2470 class) and 16 cars. There were 4 double (twinette) sleepers, 1 single (roomette) sleeper, 2 triple (economy) sleepers, a buffet car, a club car and 3 sitting cars. In addition to this, there was a baggage car, 2 staff cars and a power car. I found my car about a third of the way along the train; car 1497, an MAS type sleeping car. The car is over 50 years old and looking very scruffy on the outside. I entered the car, and found it immaculate on the inside; clean red carpet, neat tidy compartments, all doors and cupboards closing tightly with no rattling. It was an interesting contrast with the XAM sleepers on the XPT; the XAMs are shiny and clean on the outside, but scruffy and worn on the inside, the MASs are the exact opposite. It goes to show; one company is focused on external image, the other is focused on giving real customer service.

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MAS car 1497 looks a bit scruffy on the outside, neat as a pin on the inside

With all of the ceremony of a real long distance train journey, non-passengers were asked to leave the train and final boarding calls were made. Our long train pulled smoothly out of Roma St right on time, and into the tunnel which leads to Central and beyond. We passed through the sub-city tunnels, running slowly through Central and Fortitude Valley, then out into the open at Bowen Hills. We made quick progress, and were soon at our first station of Caboolture. Caboolture is the last station on the suburban network, and we picked up a few passengers here, before heading on to Nambour, Cooroy and Gympie North. Gympie North is the last station on the interurban network, with 2 return interurban services per day.

Although Gympie North is the edge of the interurban network, the overhead wire extends to Rockhampton, some 639 km north of Roma St station. The vast majority of trains running between Brisbane and Rockhampton were once electric hauled, with many trains (including the Sunlander) changing locomotives at Rockhampton. The electric locomotives which were once used on this line have now been reallocated to coal traffic at various locations, and all locomotive hauled trains are now operated by diesel locomotives. The overhead wire on the 467 km of line between Gympie North and Rockhampton is now an impressive but hugely underutilized piece of infrastructure; the only electric train regularly using this section of line now is the Electric Tilt Train to Rockhampton and Bundaberg, running 2 return trips most days.

We slowly made our way through the hinterland; fields of sugarcane and pineapple ran alongside the track – the narrow tracks of the 2ft gauge cane tramways criss-crossed the cane fields, occasionally crossing the main line. My little cabin was very comfortable, and the ride was much more quiet and smooth than that of the XPT. At around 6pm, I made my way down to the buffet car where I enjoyed a roast dinner prepared by the on board chef. The meal was served with freshly made gravy, steamed veggies and a generous portion of rich, smooth mashed potato.

I made my way back to my cabin and enjoyed a long, hot shower in the generously sized cubicle at the end of my carriage. Having been up since 04:30, I made an early night of it, and the gentle rocking motion of the train had me asleep almost immediately. During the night, I slept through stations such as Gladstone, Bundaberg, Rockhampton and other smaller towns, and woke up in Proserpine at around 07:30. My sleep had been deep and uninterrupted, and I felt refreshed as I headed down to the buffet car for a hearty breakfast.

We stopped at many smaller locations throughout the morning, our long train requiring 2 or even 3 stops at some platforms. The sugarcane was a constant beside the line, but the  pineapples had given way to banana trees. Just before midday, we arrived at Townsville, where we had a 20 minute stop and passengers were able to step out onto the platform to stretch our legs. After departing Townsville, I visited the dining car for the final time and had a delicious hamburger, freshly made by the on board chef.

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The Sunlander stands at Townsville

During the afternoon, we stopped at more smaller towns, again making several stops at most platforms. Afternoon flowed into evening, and darkness fell, it had also started to drizzle rain. As we departed Gordonvale, the conductor announced that we were running on time, and would be arriving in Cairns in about 20 minutes. As we approached Cairns, the rain started falling harder, and by the time we arrived it was pouring.

Cairns station is located next to the Cairns Central shopping centre, with the platform sheltered by the rooftop car park. The shopping centre is located between the station and the city centre. Normally, it’s possible to take a short walk through the shopping centre to Shields St and on towards the centre of town. In a big design flaw, when the shopping centre is closed (as it was at 19:15 on ANZAC day), pedestrians must walk around the outside of the shopping centre.

Despite the rain, it was warm and humid as I walked through the shopping centre car park towards Spence St. I reluctantly exited from under the roof and became instantly drenched in the downpour. Had it not been for the suitcases I was carrying, it would have been quite pleasant, as the rain was warm and refreshing after the long train journey. I walked the 4 blocks from the station to my hotel and be the time I arrived, the rain had stopped. The damage was already done and I was completely soaked. I checked into Hides Hotel in the centre of the city and headed off to my room. The room was a log way along a corridor on the second floor; simple but comfortable and clean (and cheap). As I went to bed that night, it felt strange to be sleeping in a bed that wasn’t moving.

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