Cairns to Brisbane (Spirit of Queensland tilt train)

It was another early morning as I prepared to depart Cairns. Originally, I had thought that my train departed at 09:00, but after double checking my ticket the previous night, I found that the departure time was actually 08:05 (we arrived in Brisbane at 09:00 the next morning)! After enjoying a simple but adequate complimentary breakfast at my hotel, I walked to the train station. The walk from Hides hotel to the station should have been a quick 3 block walk along Shields St, then through Cairns Central shopping centre directly into the station. Because it was 07:35 on a Sunday morning, the shopping centre was closed, and I had to walk around the outside to access the station via the car park.

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Spirit Of Queensland standing at Cairns platform, ready to depart for Brisbane

The sleek diesel tilt train which would be running my southbound Spirit Of Queensland service was standing at Cairns platform. A streamlined diesel locomotive at each end (in push/pull configuration), with 7 cars in between. Car A is the baggage and crew car, cars B & C are Railbed cars, car D is the galley (food service) car and cars E to G are premium economy sitting cars. The train is capable of speeds of a service speed of 170 km/h, but due to a number of level crossing accidents, it is limited to 160 km/h. The train passively tilts up to 5 degrees through curves, to give a smoother ride at higher speed.

There are 2 classes: railbed and premium economy. The railbed (lie flat) seats are 19 to a car in a 2+1 configuration (1+1 in the rows at either end of the car), premium economy is 2+2. All seats have seat back AVOD (audio/video on demand), similar to the in flight entertainment on many international airlines. The AVOD screens in railbed class were much bigger than those in premium economy (I didn’t measure, but I’d estimate 51 cm vs 21 cm or 17 in vs 7 in). Main meals are included in the ticket price for railbed passengers, whilst passengers in premium economy may buy food from the galley car (passengers in railbeds may buy snacks from the galley car if required).

I entered my car (car C). In the vestibule area was ample space for oversized luggage that had not been checked in. There was also a drinking water dispenser, a shower and 2 unisex toilets. I walked through the double sliding glass doors into the saloon area of the car and found my seat, marked on the hard plastic shell at the rear of each seat in a font that was meant to be stylish, but was just difficult to read. On the seat was a small hesian bag with some premium quality toiletries and skin care. Above the seat was an airline style overhead locker, which had limited storage due to bedding items also being stored there.

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Railbed seat in day position

We were served morning tea (at 07:55) as we waited for departure. A warm muffin and cup of tea were not required so soon after my breakfast, but I gobbled up the tasty treat anyway! At 08:02, the doors were closed, and at 08:04 they were reopened for a number of passengers who had cut it very fine. We departed at 08:07 and passed smoothly through Cairns’ southern suburbs. We arrived at our first station (Gordonvale) about 4 minutes early, and sat waiting time. This set the standard for most of the day, and thanks to an easy timetable for the fast train, we were up to 15 minutes early at each station. Although the train is a fast, tilting train, it is restricted in many places by things like track condition and sugar cane tramway crossings. We seemed to be running at a similar speed to the slower Sunlander service, but with frequent short bursts of high speed. The ride was very smooth and quiet, and conversation at a normal voice level was easily possible.

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Seat back in Railbed class showing AVOD screen and remote control (in armrest)

I fiddled with my AVOD system – the remote of which was secured into the armrest of my chair. Most of the other passengers were trying out their systems too, and a number were encountering issues; one lady couldn’t get hers to switch on, another had no audio and a few others were having difficulty selecting programmes. Thankfully, mine was working without issue, and I browsed through the movies. There were about a dozen; those of note were The Croods, Life of Pi, The World’s Fastest Indian, The Butler, The Smurfs 2, Backyard Ashes and The Social Network. The others seemed to be fillers. There were also a number of TV shows on offer, but most were uninspiring travel documentaries or cooking shows. There were also a couple of episodes of random kids’ shows. The only TV show worth watching was a “4 Corners” episode called “In Google We Trust” about internet data mining and security. The functionality of the system is simple and easy to use. If you exit from a programme and come back to it later, the system remembers and asks if you want to resume or restart. The most frustrating thing about the system (actually not a system flaw) was the crappy discount shop ear buds that are supplied. They give rubbish audio and don’t sit properly in your ears. I had decent headphones , but they were Bluetooth (which the system doesn’t support). I can understand QR’s reluctance to give out decent headphones for free, but it would have been nice to have some half decent headphones for purchase in the galley car.

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The Driver takes advantage of a 20 minute stop at Tully

The railbed had decent recline and adjustable thigh support. The seats are too hard and the leather (I think it’s real – not sure though) is a little slippery. As with the AVOD, some of the seats had issues with the electronic recline and thigh support. There is a fold down footrest which comes down from the seat in front, but due to the very generous leg room, those with shorter legs (such as myself) find it difficult to reach when sitting fully back in the seat. This raises the dilemma of being slightly uncomfortable with substandard back support, or forego the footrest (as I decided to do). There is a 240v standard power outlet at each seat, as well as a 5v USB port for charging (a nice touch – although it would have been good to be able to view media over the USB on the AVOD screen). In the plastic arm rest close to the USB port, there is a rigid pocket, just the right size and depth for a mobile phone (I presume that this is what it is for) – my Galaxy Note II fitted in with no issues.

Lunch orders were taken mid morning. The menu for railbed class is different from the normal galley car menu available to the passengers in premium economy. The meals in railbed class sounds more like it has come from a fancy restaurant – over complicated for a train (I would have preferred the simplistic items from the Galley). For lunch I ordered Moroccan Lamb with mint yogurt and vegetable couscous. This was served in a rectangular ceramic dish with a cloth napkin and metal cutlery. For desert I chose a passionfruit cheesecake, which was strangely served in a small glass. Despite being more elaborate to what I am normally accustomed to, the meal was delicious!

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Lunch!

We traveled on smoothly throughout the day, and I passed the time watching movies the passing sugar cane. Dinner was served at about 18:30. I had the chilli Szechwan prawns with egg fried rice (again delicious) with raspberry panacotta for desert (again served in a small glass). As the evening turned into night time, the car attendants came through turning the seats into beds. This was a simple operation, but required the car attendant to plug a control device into the armrest of the seat. The seat back folded forwards and then out to form the bed. The sheets were ready made, and 2 pillows with a duvet for each passenger were pulled out of the overhead storage cabinets. The process took about 90 seconds to complete. Before bed, I had a shower. The bathroom was large enough; a change area and shower. The water was hot and strong. A towel was provided.

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Dinner!

The bed was firm but comfortable. It felt to be slightly narrower than those on the Sunlander, but this may have been due to the hard plastic shell surrounding the top of the bed down to about waist level. This shell made the bed feel slightly claustrophobic, and did little to increase the level of privacy (which was very low). The aisle seat of the side by side beds was about 20 cm shorter than the window side, to allow for the person on the window side to access the aisle without climbing over the person on the aisle side. This is a clever design feature, but means that taller people may be hanging over the end of the bed. Full AVOD functions were still available with the bed lowered, but there was still easy access to the USB charging port.

The main lights were turned out at 21:30, but individual reading lights are available¬†in the shell of each seat. The shiny plastic wall and ceiling panels reflected and amplified the low level lighting and reading lights, which made the night time lighting level in the carriage a little too high for comfort. The ceiling panels were so shiny, that I was able to clearly watch the TV from the seat in front of me! During the night, I found the bed to be a little cramped. I was also woken up twice; once at Rockhampton by the automated “STAND CLEAR – DOORS CLOSING” announcement, the other at Bundaberg (about 04:00) where I could clearly hear the platform announcements inside the car. Around 06:30, people started waking up inside the carriage. due to the open plan of the carriage, it was unavoidable to wake others up.

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Railbed lowered - note the lack of privacy (yes, I did have permission to take and use this photo)

Breakfast was served around 07:30; a bacon and egg fritatta in pastry. We ran ran along the Sunshine Coast hinterland, stopping at Cooroy, Nambour and Caboolture, before an express run to Roma St via the Exhibition Loop. We had been delayed around Northgate, and had hit the tail end of the Monday morning peak, arriving into Roma St 2 minutes late at 09:02.

Many people have asked which is better; the old or the new, the Sunlander Sleeper or the Spirit of Queensland Railbed. I can only comment on what I have seen and will be biased towards my preferences, but I’ll do my best:
– External presentation: The Sunlander is still using 50 year old M stock, mixed with slightly newer L stock, whilst the Spirit uses very modern stock. Winner – Spirit
– Internal presentation: Both trains are very clean and well presented. Winner – Tie
– Ride quality: Wheels and bogies on the old M cars could use a bit of work, Spirit tilts into the corners. Winner – Spirit
– Entertainment: Spirit has seat back AVOD system, Sunland has 2 movies shown on small screens in the club car. Winner – Spirit
– Power: Sunlander has single power point in each compartment. Spirit has power point and USB plug for each passenger. Winner – Spirit
– Food: Sunlander has very good simple meals for purchase in the buffet car. Spirit has free gourmet meals for Railbed passengers. Winner – Spirit
– Comfort: Sunlander has soft, cushioned bench seat which folds down into comfortable beds. Spirit has hard, slippery seat which converts into claustrophobic lie flat seat. Winner – Sunlander
– Privacy: Sunlander has private rooms, which are completely private. Spirit has open plan car. Winner – Sunlander
– Security: Sunlander has lockable rooms, where the passenger holds the key. Spirit has open plan car. Winner – Sunlander
– Speed: Sunlander = 35 hours. Spirit = 25 hours. Winner – Spirit (but if you’re in a hurry, you wouldn’t be catching the train anyway)
– Autonomy: Sunlander has private room where you may cut yourself off from the world if required. Spirit is an open plan car where you can hear everything anyone else does. Winner – Sunlander
– Socialisation: Sunlander has club car and buffet car. Spirit has meals served at seats with galley car for light snacks. Winner – Sunlander

By this quick comparison, it appears that the Spirit Of Queensland tilt train comes out slightly in front. The one thing that can’t be quantitatively measured is the “feel” of the train. The Sunlander feels like a real old fashioned long distance train; a real adventure. It’s in the same vein as the Indian Pacific or the Spirit of Progress. The Spirit Of Queensland is just a train; a way of getting from A to B. A train is all that is required, but an adventure is what makes it fun; the old M cars rattling and clunking just make the journey special. To be able to lock yourself away in your own compartment is a great luxury, makes you feel like you own a little piece of the train. Sitting in an open plan carriage with meals being brought on a trolley just feels like transport; very nice transport, but it’s just not as magical as that long string of cars behind 2 powerful locomotives.

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