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Riding the Rail to Canberra


I travelled by train to Canberra last week to meet our latest family member. Mostly I did it because flying direct to Canberra is ridiculously expensive. Instead, I took a cheap flight to Sydney on which they sometimes have discount fares – aside from the fact that you pay extra for luggage, meals, using a credit card and using the discount website, and then took a train from there. If you own up to being a senior and don’t mind booking ahead, you can get quite generous discounts on that too, though not so much on the underground rail trip between the airport and Central. All up though, it was still about half the cost of a one way ticket to our nation's capital.

The approach to Central Station in Sydney reminds me of those grand station buildings in Russia
Trains have often played a bit part in my life, starting with that all night journey through the Gotthard Tunnel on the way to Australia, to more recent adventures on the Trans Siberian Rail. In between, there were the "red rattlers" or sometimes blue or silver trains of our school days, the eagerly awaited weekly Tea and Sugar Train that serviced outback South Australia and the daily goods train which, dwarfed by the Great Western Tiers looked like a toy in God's model railway. In 1978 I was on the last run of the Tasman Limited  -Tasmania's last passenger train, and how could I ever forget "Wee Georgie Wood's" hiss of steam and cheery whistle on the odd Sunday morning in Tullah, reminding everyone of how important he was in the days, not so long before, before the road was made.

From the moment I booked I was entranced with the idea of travelling this way. Images from glossy brochures for the luxuriously appointed Ghan and the Orient Express came to mind – my train did promise to have a dining car, which I imagined would be full of mysterious and elegant strangers with Fedoras and cigars. Snatches of Arlo Guthrie’s "City of New Orleans" echoed in my brain along with Troy Cassar-Daley’s "Something about Trains."  As Paul Simon observed:
  "There's something about the sound of a train that's very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful."

The station doesn’t disappoint. Its scale and architecture remind me of those grand stations in Russia minus the artwork, but the train turns out to be a modest three carriage affair, with a yawning gap between the platform and the carriage. I should have taken a photo. The seats offer a bit more legroom and the aisles are a bit wider than those on the plane, but my joy at being able to move around is quickly dashed by the announcement that says "Please stay in your seats throughout the journey." There's no smoking allowed either, not even at the stations. Apart from having no seat belt and being able to see more out of the window, you might as well be on a plane.
Interior of the Xplorer is not very different to being on a plane
The train is full. Most passengers are elderly and possibly time rich and cash poor like me. Both coming and going I have grandmothers on my other side who are also on their way to visit their offspring. The buffet car is a little disappointing. Mostly it serves sandwiches, coffee, drinks and snacks from a little counter. There are no exotic strangers propping up the bar or sipping cocktails at low tables and there is a noticeable absence of the “… visiting card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues named like Russian short stories,” mentioned by Paul Theroux, but they do serve a hot meal at lunch time – three choices, including a vegetarian one for under $10. It comes to your tray table in a plastic container with plastic cutlery. So much for that fantasy.
What hasn’t changed is Agatha Christie’s sense of wonder. To be sure air travel may be the quickest way of getting around this vast and largely barren land, but you also miss all the good bits. At last I could see what this part of the world was like on the ground. Gorges flash by, flat agricultural land, thinly treed forests, interspersed with a few towns or a bit of industrial activity. It’s wonderful to see the old stations all a-bustle and hear the rhythmic chugging of the train. It should definitely be set to music, and indeed, often has. The trip took four and a half hours – flying takes about an hour and 15 minutes and though I’d brought a book and a magazine, I never felt like reading. It was a time for looking around, musing about trains and thinking of people and places from my other lives. A much more relaxing way to travel and minus the jetlag.

Watching the countryside flash by
I am wondering now, am I looking at the past or the future? Spanish Company, Talgo, claims its high speed trains could cut travelling time between Sydney and Canberra to two hours, but even that might not be enough to lure people out of their cars. It does seems ridiculous that we don’t even have a train to connect our major cities. Even more so, the tortuous route from Melbourne which takes 16.5 hours, requires you to get off somewhere in the middle and catch a bus between two stations.  Still, we can’t continue driving and flying and polluting at the present rate either, so we should definitely give it some thought.

Older trains do have a future, especially if they return to some of the more romantic traditions of rail travel. Some of us like it s-l-o-w. While smartly uniformed waiters and conductors would be nice, we wouldn't want it to get too expensive. How about some posters or some appropriate music like they have on the Machu Picchu  train? This would distinguish train travel from other kinds of transport – the frenzied car trip dodging trucks, or the brief impersonal flight. I am already thinking about a train trip to the Blue Mountains. Perhaps I'll dress as a visiting card sharp.

Ouch! The train didn't sound as squeaky as this!


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