The Adelaide cab-driver pointed out, as he took me to the Parkland rail terminal, that there are quicker ways to Melbourne, but travelling on The Overland, the train that leaves Adelaide at breakfast time and makes it into Melbourne 10½ hours later, was part of my intention of seeing how big Australia is.
I travelled Red Premier class, which provides comfortable seating adjacent to the buffet car and a limited, rather relaxed trolley service. Food is marginally more generous but no more ambitious than an average British rail company: there was a customer stampede in late afternoon when the remaining pies were sold off at $2 [around £1.25] each.
The most interesting part of the journey from Adelaide is the first, because threading the line through the Adelaide Hills was clearly an engineering challenge. The huge American-style rolling stock screeches round tight curves, over viaducts and through tunnels, and there are repeated views of the sea as the line climbs towards its summit at Mount Lofty. At Mount Lofty station (where, apparently, you can hire self-catering apartments and train-spot to your heart’s content – http://www.mlrs.com.au), the line visibly dips down-grade and heads off into endless plains of farmland, the breadbasket of Australia.
For the remaining nine hours of the trip the train coasts through a gentle landscape, sometimes hilly and rather like southern England, often extensive flat plains stretching to the horizon or to distant hills. There were few visual events on the journey – crossing the Murray River on a high viaduct with the original rail bridge, now used as a road, alongside, a few large towns like Ararat and Geelong.
At the start of the journey the train captain encouraged passengers to introduce themselves and talk to each other. Imagine a British train manager suggesting such a thing! That would really get the conversation going on the morning commute from East Grinstead.
There was an intermittent commentary, which I imagine was informative. The commentator was BBC World Service in comparison to The Goons on The Ghan, but he read at breakneck speed, reminding me of the apocryphal Nancy Reagan story, where she was asked if she understood poor people and replied, “Yes, if they speak slowly.”
The man in the seat opposite at one point asked if I was bored with the landscape yet. I said that I was never bored by landscape: occasionally I dozed off, but I never opened the paperback I’d brought.
At last the train crawls into Melbourne, to the Southern Cross station, a spectacular steel tent draping a curvy roof over the platforms. Stepping out on to Spencer Street gives an immediate impression of 1950s Glasgow – big, impressive buildings, a grid street plan and trams rattling across right-angled crossings. The taxi-driver declined my fare, pointing to my hotel which was within sight.