Three times I’ve travelled by train from Melbourne to Sydney – never, as it happens, in the opposite direction.
I wrote up the first journey in a blog article about my introduction to travel in Australia in 2010-11, when I was completely oblivious of the border between the states of Victoria and New South Wales.
The second time, the border was very obvious, because I took the train only as far as Albury, where until 1962 you had to change trains because the two states’ rail systems were built to different gauges.
By my third trip, early in 2017, I felt I was beginning to find my way around. I’m used to the fact that the daytime train from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station doesn’t always leave on time. Indeed, it often doesn’t arrive until after it’s due to depart.
There’s a good reason for this.
The New South Wales’ Railways XPT trains that operate the inter-state TrainLink service are based on the British High Speed Train. The sound of the power cars’ Paxman engines is immediately recognisable to British ears.
These Australian workhorses have been in use since 1982, whereas the British version began operating in 1976, and with overhauls and modifications both continue to give sterling service.
The Australian-built version was adapted at the outset for the different conditions down under: the engines are down-rated and the suspension enhanced to cope with inferior track and longer distances; the Australian power cars have headlights at roof level to cope with the darkness of the empty rural areas at night. The trailer cars are completely different from the British Mark III carriages, designed instead under licence from the American Budd company by the Australian builder Comeng.
The astonishing thing about these 35-year-old veterans is the intensity of their schedules.
While one unit runs seven days a week between Sydney and Dubbo and back (287 miles each way), the others run an intensive seven-day carousel between Sydney and Melbourne (637 miles each way, Grafton (in the north of New South Wales, 432 miles each way), Melbourne again, Casino (north of Grafton, 500 miles from Sydney) and Brisbane (over the border in Queensland, 614 miles each way).
During this weekly routine each unit is serviced at Sydney only three times.
There isn’t a great deal of leeway, which explains why departures from Southern Cross are often delayed.
Until they are replaced sometime in the next few years, these tough trains earn their keep and represent outstanding value for money.