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To Melbourne on the XPT sleeper

Excited by the prospect of reliving the experience of seeing my very first movie and hearing the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform it I bought tickets to The Empire Strikes Back in Concert in Melbourne back in February. Then I did nothing about actually getting there.

Much as I love Melbourne, due to family commitments I didn't want to spend more than the Sunday away. Flights there and back made sense, but my flight down to Melbourne in late October reiterated the fact that I usually don't enjoy descending into the city. And the concert was in December, a season of summer storms.

I really didn't feel like driving the whole route alone and in a hurry, so that left one choice. The train.

My very first trip up to Sydney from Melbourne was aboard the luxury Southern Aurora. Or it was supposed to be luxury. I wouldn't know because I spent the whole ride up very sick with the flu lying in the top bunk, unable to stay awake for my whole of night vigil.

Now only the XPT travels the route. I would love to do it on the daylight service, but I also wanted to go to karate that morning, so that meant the overnight. Down on Saturday evening to arrive Sunday morning, listen to the concert in the afternoon, and back on Sunday night.

I decided to splurge on the sleeping cabin in the hope of being at least a little rested.

Saturday comes and I am glad I have chosen the train. Days of vicious storms in both Sydney and Melbourne, no doubt causing extensive delays and cancellations at the airport, while the Hume Highway was also cut off.

I follow the rest of the family to Hurstville. We arrive under dark, spitting skies from the latest storm cell passed overhead. Leaving the others to have dinner with the in-laws, when I emerge from the shopping centre it was bright, clear skies.

I catch a train from Hurstville to Central. I give myself plenty of time because, as expected, the storms are causing delays on the network, and indeed it takes a long time to reach Central.

The grand sandstone building is decorated inside with Christmas trees and red and green lighting. Yet it feels less than salubrious, an accusation that could be levelled at many such main stations around the world.

I haven't had dinner. Though it is tempting to go beyond Central to the food delights of Chinatown or the city I am concerned about the weather. So I just buy a Central burger and chips from Grill. Surprisingly good meal, although it does not feel in the slightest bit healthy.

The XPT leaves from platform 1, but the track is occupied by suburban trains. Like a number of other passengers I decide to wait on the platform and watch the action at the station.

More action is to be seen in the skies. The clear skies are gone, replaced by darkening grey cloud as another storm cell approaches. Then the rain and the wind hits, lightning flashes and thunder echos off the bricks and concrete. A dramatic show while we wait for the delayed XPT.

The diesel train is modelled after the British HST, but not considered high speed in today's parlance (200 km/h plus). Originally only seats were available on board, but the train was later retrofitted with twin sleeper compartments.

I board the train and go to my compartment. It's surprising large and the big glass windows on both sides make it seem more airy than other sleepers I have ridden in. At the moment it is in a seated configuration, the three fixed recline seats facing forwards for us, but backwards in the next compartment for the direction of travel.

A snack pack consisting of popcorn, a Menthos peppermint, twin packs of biscuits and crackers, small tub of tomato chutney, tub of water and a wet wipe sits waiting on the seat, along with a towel and cheap amenity pack containing a shower cap, ear plugs, toothbrush and paste and bottles of body wash and combination shampoo and conditioner.

There is a combined shower and toilet between pairs of compartments and is shared by each. It's tiny, with steel fold down toilet bowls and washbasins. It's like in the old Overland sleepers I travelled in long ago without the benefit of it being for your use only.

I'm glad that I had a shower before I left because I won't be washing in this tonight.

Unfortunately I won't be travelling alone tonight. I'm joined in the compartment by Terry, an older man who uses the phrase "bloody" a lot. He hasn't been able to get any reception on his phone all day, so using my technical support skills I asked him to restart it.

Naturally that fixes the problem.

The conductor comes to check our tickets, takes our breakfast order and points out the blue button when we want to call him to deploy the beds.

Finally, only 10 minutes later than scheduled, we begin our journey south.

But rather than make up time, we are subject to multiple stoppages. The crew apologise, blaming heat, rain, storms, lightning and signal failures for the delay. I don't really care. So long as we arrive before 11am I'll be happy.

Due to trackwork on the T8 line we take the T2 west via Strathfield and Cabramatta, before rejoining the route at Glenfield. This is the way we used to go when I was a student and catching the XPT more often.

I love watching the night activity out of the window of the train. It's another world at night and I peer into buildings to see families watching television, mates having a beer outside, a basketball team playing in a sports hall.

But I'm also very tired and possibly a bit sick. At 9.30pm we call the attendant and he folds the lower seats into a bed and pulls down the top bunk with its narrow ladder. Unfortunately, that's where I'll be sleeping tonight.

I nervously climb up and immediately feel discomfort at the shaking of the train up so high. There is no barrier to stop me rolling off the bed or flying off in case of a sudden stop.

I quickly stow my daypack in the overhead area and lie down, which makes the constant shaking much more bearable. We turn the lights out, but Terry wants to leave the exterior curtains open, which is fine by me, so there is the frequent flash of signal, traffic and building lights.

We make a long stop at Moss Vale. Afterwards, the public address system again apologises for the delay and announces that a passenger was removed from the train by police. So just your typical Australian long distance train ride then.

Despite my weariness, I can't sleep. It's not the constant bumps or the noise of the train. I find them soothing. I just can't pass the final threshold into sleep itself, despite relaxing my body (as demonstrated again in the morning's karate class) and listening to soothing music.

It's not until after two in the morning that I finally find some fitful sleep.

I wake around sunrise to see up passing through the northern Victorian countryside. Looking down from my high vantage point I can't see much out the window, but I do spot many puddles from the heavy rains.

Terry wakes up and we decide to put the compartment back into the seating configuration.

Breakfast is delivered. Toast (choice of white or raisin) with spreads, a bowl of cornflakes, hot beverage (chocolate in my case) and an apple juice popper. The same kind of breakfast they served almost forty years ago, but packaged instead of on a tray. It'll do.

The colours of the countryside change as we head south, from the yellow, brown and khaki of the north to greens. This land was part of my childhood and will always be a part of me.

Broadmeadows is our first stop in outer Melbourne. As we proceed past the factories and warehouses the landscape takes on the look of a giant rubbish tip, with rusting cars and abandoned sofas, barbed wire fences threaded with streamers of rags and plastic bags, walls coated with graffiti. It's depressing and not an attractive way to greet visitors to the city.

Further in I watch aircraft on descent into Tullamarine Airport and wonder if they've had a smooth flight, if maybe I should be on one.

We pull into Southern Cross Station, still Spencer Street to me, about 50 minutes late. It's still early for the city. The homeless trudge around on the streets, passed by bleary eyed visitors from elsewhere.

I head up the escalator to the Outlet Centre, which is mostly closed until 10 AM. Thankfully their bathrooms are open and I welcome the chance to use a proper toilet and have a shave.

I've now got a few hours to waste before the concert. Not enough time to really go and see any sights. Instead I walk up Bourke Street towards the Mall, appreciating the broad tree lined streets and historic architecture.

It's nine o'clock by the time I reach Myer. When I was a kid my Dad would sometimes take me to the department store to find my Christmas and birthday presents. Sadly, the smell of warm nuts has gone from the basement and the store itself is roughly a half of its previous size, but the toy area still sells Lego and Star Wars toys. Some of the figurines are in retro packaging, which makes me wonder if they are targeted at people like me, reliving our childhoods, rather than actual children.

I exit the store and wander around the nearby shops, admiring Scandinavian style design but not tempted to buy. Why would I when my next trip will be to Scandinavia itself?

There are some interesting eateries around, so I have an early lunch of Malaysian food. Then I have to race off.

I need to make it to the International Convention Centre early to get my ticket and attend a pre-concert talk. My path takes me along Swanston Street, then down along the river past the Crown Casino. The Christmas decorations along the way remind me of my favourite times in Melbourne. I find myself wishing that I was here for longer, soaking up the atmosphere of Melbourne. But I'm in a hurry and can't stop.

Fortunately, I make it with time to spare.

The concert itself is just perfect. I'm so glad I attended, it makes the feeling that I'm about to drop dead on my feet with weariness worthwhile.

It's raining now outside, but thankfully I have packed my umbrella and much of the route is sheltered. My issue is that my shoes have no grip, so I have to shuffle along the wet smooth pavers as I make my way back across the river into the city.

I'm sweaty, smelly and I really need to sleep or I'm going to get a migraine. I rock up to the Ibis Styles Kingsgate Hotel, the cheapest I could easily find, and ask if they have a room I can use.

It's so good to have a decent shower and lie on a proper bed.

When I leave the hotel there's not much time before departure, so I head straight down to the station. Unfortunately I discover that the food options are pretty dire and the outlet centre has now closed again for the day. I go to the Woolworths supermarket at the station and get some apple and cheese, plus a couple of pieces of sushi to take on the train. I'm not sure if it's enough.

Waiting for the XPT back to Sydney is a varied collection of passengers. I wonder who will be my companion tonight. Hopefully not the feral backpacker who tried to board when the train is still shunting.

It turns out to be a middle aged Indian professional on his weekly trip up to Sydney to provide SAP consultancy services to a government agency.

Unfortunately I never got to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi in Melbourne during its screenings at the cinema (I try to watch all the Star Wars movies in Melbourne) so I put on earphones and listen to the soundtrack as we head out of the city. It's perfect music to accompany the gorgeous sunset scenery outside.

Noticing how tired I look, and no doubt wanting to relax for his workday ahead, my travel companion suggests we put the beds down early.

I'm on the bottom bunk this time, which suits me just fine. Definitely the one to book if you can.

I have no trouble falling asleep this time. I quite enjoy the rocking motion of the train.

I also leave the curtains to the exterior window halfway open. Around one-thirty AM I awake to see the Moon setting and the sky full of stars. I haven't seen this many stars for ages! There's the constellation of Orion, easily spotted from Sydney, but also the fuzzy cluster of the Pleiades. I've heard that there should be a meteor shower tonight, but I don't spot any.

After a while I go back to sleep and don't awaken until 5.30 AM when breakfast is served. I've only requested a hot chocolate this time, because I'm getting off at Campbelltown, the next stop.

A single ride would once have taken me back to Padstow and a bus home, but since the timetable changes I have to catch one to Revesby first. Still, I manage to get home easily enough, mostly rested and ready for work!

The Sydney-Melbourne corridor is the world's second busiest air route, so it's interesting that there are still four trains per day plying this path. But it's not just about the end-points and alternative transport for those that fear flying. There are the towns between, many unserved by regular or affordable air transport. Others, for medical reasons, cannot fly. Sometimes its cost or family related. But there are also those who would rather a night's sleep than the inconvenience and cost of getting to and from the airport, sometimes worse than the flight itself.

With the train you can rock up with your ticket five minutes before departure and travel directly between the city centres. If only it was a proper fast train!


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