Last Tuesday, we needed to go to the city (actually St Kilda, but never mind) and instead of driving we caught the train to celebrate our becoming eligible for Seniors’ travel cards.
In a lot of places, a 500 km round trip in a day on a train would not be remarkable, and certainly we’ve travelled longer on more ambitious journeys in Europe, or indeed even on the night train from Bangkok to the Lao border, but trust me, longer train journeys is just not an Australian thing. With the exception of our single trip on the Sunlander, our use of trains has been confined to suburban services in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Even all the years we lived in Canberra, we never once took the train to Sydney. It was simply easier, quicker and cheaper to drive or fly.
However, our wrinklycards made the train an option, avoided the pleasure of paying to sit in a traffic jam on the Melbourne tollway, not to mention donating several body parts to park anywhere sensible.
However the train is not a totally straightforward option. First of all there’s only three each way in a day, and secondly it takes three hours to cover the 250km at a fairly bucolic 85km/h.
However it does work – the 0730 train gets you to Southern Cross for 1030, giving us time to hop on a tram to Pelligrini’s for an excellent coffee and strudel before making our way St Kilda to do what we needed to do, and leaving time for a little bit of shopping on the way back to catch the 6pm train home. A long day, especially as you need to add on the drive to Wangaratta train station and back, but eminently doable.
The train was reasonably comfortable, even if the coaches were a bit old and battered and had clearly seen better days, and the on board cafe could produce a reasonable coffee and sported a range of reasonable looking sandwiches at a reasonable price. As it was we only tried the coffee, we took breakfast bars and bananas for the journey down and bought a couple of upmarket focaccias in the station for the journey back.
There’s no wifi on the trains, but the seats all had fold down tables meaning that you could work if you wanted. However not that many of our fellow passengers seemed to, though those that did seemed to either be reading documents on tablets, or else working offline.
(Interestingly there wasn’t a Mac to be seen the day we did it, it was small Dell ultrabooks all the way)
So, comfortable enough, but the first question to ask is why so slow? (The Melbourne/Sydney train, which is operated by the NSW train operator, does the same journey in two and a half hours, using one of their superannuated XPT trains, which are based on the British Rail Intercity 125).
Well, despite V/Line having invested in some pretty spiffy high speed trains, they are broad gauge (1600mm) only and the line from Melbourne to the border with NSW is now standard gauge (1485 mm) meaning we have to make do with some converted carriages and a freight locomotive, and V/Line simply don’t have the capacity to provide more trains or indeed have the trains to run a faster service, even though you could have thought they could have sourced some reasonable refurbished trains from Europe.
We’re also not alone in still having the rattly old country trains, some of the less busy longer broad gauge country services still have locomotive hauled services.
It’s galling though that in 1897 Mark Twain commented on the lunacy of Australia’s disastrous rail gauge muddle, and nearly 120 years later we’re still living with the consequences …
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