I have had a sporadic but interesting relationship with train travel over the past 45 years. My first international adventure – when I set out to explore the job opportunities in the big bad world – included a train trip through the Rockies from Vancouver to Montreal.
It was a magical experience, as a 21-year-old, winding through the Rocky Mountains. Sitting in the bubble in the Observation Car watching the brilliant autumn colours of red and copper and gold slowly fade as we reached the winter wonderland of Banff.
Then, several days of terminal boredom through the endless prairies until we reached Quebec. But it was great sitting in a dining car, sipping a drink, eating a meal, flirting with foreign girls, as the clackety-clack of the wheels ate up the mileage and almost hypnotized you.
Fifteen years later I tried to recreate the experience by taking the train from Melbourne to Sydney. It started dramatically. After a long Friday lunch, fellow diners insisted on giving me a sendoff and turned up at Melbourne’s Spencer Street Station with whistles and streamers. Just like when the cruise ships used to depart from Sydney’s Circular Quay.
After the conductor shouted ‘all aboard’ and the non-travellers had been evicted from the bar car and back on to the platform we slowly pulled away.
Even though I’d booked a First Class cabin I was advised by an experienced train traveler to ‘give the guy in a cap ten bucks and you’ll get a better one’. I did and I did.
I decided to settle in with my cassette player and some favourite tapes and test out my new abode on wheels before heading for the bar, a civilized dinner and a slow bottle of red. This is travelling.
I settled in too well. The rocking of the train rocked me to sleep and when I awoke several hours later the bar was closed, the dining car was closed, there was no room service and the man in the cap pointed me to a vending machine for a Coke and a packet of potato chips.
That pretty much put me off train travel except a couple of decades later when I went broke and was forced to live on my farm through my ‘Grizzly Adams period’. I couldn’t afford the petrol or the CBD parking on trips to Melbourne (looking for work or soothing impatient bankers) so I took the Woodend-Melbourne train. The train trip itself, an hour reading the papers, was pretty civilized. The stations were last century.
Flash forward to 2009. Spencer Street Station -- despite its trendy, wavey, multi-million dollar roof – is still last century. The system is still almost Third World. It must frustrate the hell out of some of the people who work there. Or maybe it’s just ground out of you the minute you join the Railways Dept.
My 2009 adventure was from Melbourne to Wangaratta. I was going there to broadcast my 3AW Drive program from 3NE in a belated White Balloon Day. A protest because a judge had not only banned White Balloon Day in that town but had then fined a brave young woman, Jennifer Pietsch, $2000 for daring to carry a white balloon. A month later we did stage White Balloon Day at Wangaratta and the locals hung 4000 balloons on shop fronts and lamp posts.
I could have driven there in just under four hours. Could have flown to Albury and then backtracked by car for 45 minutes. Why not take the train? Couldn’t be too bad. Less than three hours. Read the papers. Whatever.
I looked it up on the Net. Eureka. An XPT – nonstop. Two hours and 17 minutes. Book it!
Not that easy. It may be 2009 and the age of Internet banking, and print your own Virgin boarding pass. This is the Railways Department. You have to go to a station and buy a ticket. And when you get it it looks like something out of India in the 1950s. First Class? There’s no First Class? Business Class? There’s no Business Class. Still, for $20 you get a reserved seat.
At Spencer Street Station (and why is it always cold on railway station platforms?) you line up outside your carriage. There is a First Class carriage on this train but it is dark and locked up even though this train is going all the way to Sydney.
The seats are reasonably comfortable – basic airline economy seats with small tray tables. My carriage is pretty full and I am lucky to get two seats to myself. On the unlucky side I am surrounded by a young mother and three kids one of which whined incessantly.
I quickly discovered the XPT was a misnomer. It’s hardly a bullet train but the XPT is meant to travel at 120kph. We’re are told from the outset that we’ll be late because there is track maintenance going on and so the maximum speed has been cut for the duration to 80kph until we reach the NSW border. Not just where the maintenance is going on. Not even for a few kilometers either side. For the whole journey the speed would be cut by one-third.
Annoying, but as it turned out we would have killed for a speed of 80kph. Even a speed of 20kph. Somewhere outside Seymour we came to a complete stop.
A maintenance wagon had come of the tracks. Miles on front of us but we were told to wait. And wait we did for more than half an hour. A request by the crew to advance at even 10kph until we reached the crash scene was denied. ‘Against railway policy’. We finally got under way at 40kph on the not-XPT and arrived in Wangaratta after 4 hours and 15 minutes. Two hours late.
To top it off the train overshot the station platform. That meant we had to haul suitcases back through the carriage until we reached a door that was adjacent to the platform.
One positive note: One obliging train attendant saw me trying to peck away on my laptop midst the cacophony of the dysfunctional family and asked if I’d like a table.
Where he would conjure one up from bemused me but he said ‘follow me’ and I followed. A couple of carriages further down was an empty one except for one man sitting in a bulkhead seat with a large table in front of him for his computer.
Across from him, and empty, was an identical set-up. I nabbed it. And thought: Why doesn’t the Railways Dept. feature this? I’d have paid double the fare for such a small creature comfort.
Why not have a real First Class carriage? It works in other countries. Don’t we have the traffic volume? Or is the reputation of the trains so bad that people won’t risk it any more.
When you think how much time you spend getting to major airports, getting through security, sitting through endless flight delays, plus waiting for your luggage and then the expensive cab ride into town, train travel should be more enticing.
Especially when you can go from midtown New York to midtown Washington cheaply and efficiently by train.
Here, unfortunately, it is still the travails of travel by train. I can’t see it changing anytime soon even though there are rocket trains in so many other countries.