Taking advice from the invaluable The Man in Seat 61 website [http://www.seat61.com/Australia.htm], I’d booked an ordinary economy ticket for the train from Melbourne to Sydney. The Man in Seat 61 points out, and illustrates, that the seating is identical in both economy and first. My fare, for a twelve-hour journey, was A$110.70 [approximately £70].
Although the incoming train arrived and departed an hour late and lost a further half-hour getting out of the Melbourne suburbs, the on-board service compensated for the genuinely unavoidable delays. The female train captain made meticulous announcements after every stop about the continuing delay, sometimes as little as seventy-odd minutes but usually ninety. Each time she apologised, citing a signal failure on the incoming journey and track maintenance “which is necessary for your safety and comfort”: I assume also that our train had lost its path, as railwaymen say, and was fighting against other traffic running to time. We arrived at Sydney Central at 9.30 pm, exactly twelve hours after our departure from Melbourne.
The buffet car was a dream, with efficient staff and meticulous PA announcements. The idea of a “Devonshire cream tea” (the complete tea, jam, scones and cream version) as a mid-morning refreshment took a little time to sink in. Otherwise, decent airline-style cooked meals, interesting orange and poppy-seed cake, reasonable tea and excellent coffee filled the intervals of the day.
This was the most visually interesting journey of my odyssey across Australia. The landscape was verdant heading east out of the state of Victoria. We passed Australian backyards, small towns fronting on to the railway tracks and farmyards. It was noticeable that the sheep stations loaded their stock on to road vehicles, not the railway line as they do in the more remote areas of Western and Southern Australia.
Some stops stood out as landmarks on the journey: Seymour, clearly a historic railway town with a large steam museum, a town which I thought by the PA announcement was called Manila or Vanilla but turned out to be Benalla, a place with the strange, delightful name Uranquinty and the major settlement, Wagga Wagga, which the locals call “Wogga”. Some railway stations have original or authentic signage at Junee and Moss Vale – “Ladies’ Room” and “Telegraph Office”.
After Junee the entire character of the journey changes. The line becomes double track, and crosses the mountains by wiggling up and down hills continuously: there is hardly a straight stretch for many miles, and often the line ahead is visible at right angles to the direction of travel. At one point the two tracks diverge wildly, crossing and recrossing at the Bethungra Spiral [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethungra_Spiral].
This is working rail travel. Passengers got on and off at each stop, unlike the set-piece Great Southern luxury trains. The largest and loudest man in Australia helped fellow passengers with their puzzle books, in between phoning his relatives ahead with repetitive news of the delay. I chatted to a young man from Surrey who was working his way round the world driving combine harvesters in preparation for managing his father’s farm on his return to the UK. Outside the window, train-spotting kangaroos sat by the track, with that odd limp-wristed stance as if they’ve just finished washing the dishes.
The arrival into Sydney Central, cathedral of the age of steam, is an apt overture to a great city – an engaging contrast with the airy, modern steel and glass of Melbourne Southern Cross.
A nice taxi driver took me on a brief tour of Sydney before depositing me at my hotel, which I discovered the following day is three minutes’ walk away. At that time of night, after twelve hours on a train, I’m more than happy for someone to hump my luggage and drive me around for five minutes for A$8 [about £5].
There’s a well-edited 2018 film of the northbound daylight XPT journey at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMztI752wWI.