I have caught the train between Sydney and Melbourne many times before, even back to the Southern Aurora as a seven year old, but never have I ridden the day service between Australia's largest cities. Today I changed that.
My celebrations of composer John Williams' 90th birthday continue with another concert by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Only the Sydney Symphony appears to be without a dedicated John Williams concert this year and that means that I have to travel. I already drove to Melbourne for one concert in February, missing out on Adelaide's, and up to Brisbane. I also drove to Adelaide and Melbourne on the school holidays.
That's enough driving. So here I am in the train.
I'm not used to getting out of bed before 7 AM now. Neither have I had to pack light for a while. With a car you can just toss everything in the boot, but I want to travel only with cabin baggage. For the train it is only supposed to be 5 kilograms in weight, but I know they won't check. Not so if I fly back.
B and Alex drive me to Padstow, where I catch a train one stop to Revesby, then another to Campbelltown where I will meet the XPT. It's very chilly outside, a sudden cold front is striking the eastern states with the lowest temperatures they might experience all year. It is not even winter yet. That's tomorrow.
I rarely catch the train out this way. Now it recalls our drive to Glenfield to get Alex his covid vaccinations at the NSW Health clinic setup just for that purpose. It is interesting to see the land from another perspective.
I was concerned where to stand on the platform at Campbelltown for my carriage, but frequent announcements are made over the PA. I see the nose of the XPT approaching. It is adorned with a big "40", for its fortieth anniversary of service in April last year. Next year its replacements are due to begin entering service. Sadly, they are unlikely to go any faster, not without serious track realignment. Today's journey will take longer than if I had driven.
I am in car B, ostensibly in First Class. The seats are thick and covered with blue patterned fabric. They are comfortable enough. The cabin is clean and fresh, not looking at all like it is 41 years old. This stop, like all of them, is brief, and we are soon rolling out. The interior is surprisingly quiet.
When driving back into Sydney along the Hume I love to watch the trains along the stretch between Campbelltown and Menangle, where the train leaves or returns into metropolitan Sydney. The something about those dry grassy hills, the embankment higher than the road. Now I am admiring it the other way around.
Then we enter the scenery of the Southern Highlands, the reds and golds of deciduous trees that are only now discovering that autumn is almost over. Quaint buildings and posh farmhouses, green fields and winding willow-lined creeks.
The route is familiar to me until south of Goulburn, where the line to Canberra diverges. Then comes countryside I have only seen at night or from the window of a car or bus. Bare fields and granite boulders forming natural sculptures on the hills. I love this countryside, though I have driven through it so often. It is more intimate from the train.
It is very windy outside and I am glad that I didn't fly, for this would be awful weather. At this altitude on the inland plateau we seem so close to the huge puffy clouds that scoot past. Sometimes showers strike, other times the sun pokes through.
I takeout a small paperback novel, Flashforward, that was previously unread in my collection. It was small and light enough to justify fitting it in my bag. I laugh inwardly when, at a point where the characters' consciousness is suddenly sent 20 years into the future and the music on my headphones is randomly playing Zimmer's "Afraid of Time" from Interstellar.
Many freight trains pass us heading north. A brown and yellow heritage DEB set railcar surprises me in a cutting past us, probably a special rail tour also heading in the opposite direction to us.
I see disused spurs and grain silos, the produce now inefficiently carried by truck. It saddens me. Once the railway served many stops and industries. Now it is all containerised or carried in hoppers, making watching freight trains a lot less interesting, business that once backed directly on to the lines or sidings, now mostly shipping by truck to bulk logistics centres if they use the railway at all.
We pass Yass Junction, where once I warmed myself by a gas fire after walking on a cold night from the town in order to meet B on a night XPT to Sydney.
When I studied in Canberra, there was a year when I would visit her in Albury. Most times I caught the morning bus to the southern city, but sometimes it was the night coach through Yass and Harden to Cootamundra, from where I would transfer to the XPT. Now I caught the train through those historic towns. The latter, along with Junee, show their railway heritage, the big pubs across from the station hinting at the days when they were major transport hubs.
The farmland has changed from the grasslands and granite to irrigated farms. Rivers are high and mud is everywhere, hinting at a lot of rain. The sky is dramatic, thick grey clouds threatening more than just rain, and the cabin crew warn that it is freezing outside. Since leaving Sydney there have been frequent rainbows in the hazy skies to our left
Hot meals are available to order: Roast pork, beef hickory (whatever that is), vegetarian lasagne or spaghetti bolognese, all for $10.50. The crew come through the cabin taking orders, it is heated up, and then you collect it from the buffet car. I have no intention of ordering it, knowing them to be the kind of meals you find in the freezer section of your supermarket. I brought my own lunch, a chicken caesar wrap from Seven Eleven.
I'm hesitant to take my mask off to eat. Many are without in the cabin, despite them being compulsory, and some are coughing. I don't want to get sick while travelling. It's happened to a few people I know.
I am trying to work on the train, but the phone reception and hence internet is terrible. At the town of Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) I am supposed to dial in for a team meeting. There is enough time to wonder at my masked face before the connection drops out again. I wish they would fix this.
We reach the Albury on the southern border of New South Wales. Here there is a change in cabin crew, but it is one of my shortest recent stays in the city. Then we cross the Murray River border into Victoria.
The sky to the east looks completely and ominously dark grey, whereas patches of blue can be seen between the clouds to the west. But when I look at the ground I see white. Has it been snowing? I suspect hail.
In the golden sunlight of the late afternoon I can see the tail of one huge cloud mass, wispy streamers and bulging, pendulous mammatus structures hinting at the level of convection and drama within. No, I am very glad I am not flying.
We pass more historic towns, served by local Victorian trains, and I wish that I could stop to explore some more. I am tired and a bit headachy. Glad that I am not driving, but wishing too that I could get off the train. At least I can pull over in a car.
I wonder why the sign at the end of the carriage points to the buffet when it is at the other end. The reason is revealed when the cabin crew make the announcement that we are actually all seated in a "misplaced' economy car and therefore due refunds.
Most passengers think it's no big deal. The seating is pretty comfortable regardless, just with a bit less legroom and recline. It's more the passengers themselves that are the reason to travel in first class. Most XPTs that I have caught tend to get boarded by police at one point or another to remove a passenger. Not today.
Another meal service is announced and it is exactly the same dishes.
I briefly fall asleep a couple of times.
The light outside fades as we close in on Melbourne. Passenger trains and railcars pass us. Then city lights and we are within the suburban network of electric trains.
The approach into Melbourne city is always impressive, despite the dark. Unlike Sydney, we pass through huge railyards, giving a sense that you are at the end of an epic train journey.
We slowly pull into the terminus at Southern Cross Station, a busy hub of regional and suburban trains, surrounded by the colourfully lit buildings of Docklands.
Most of the eateries are closed, so I hurry over to the suburban section to catch a train on stop to Flinders Street Station. It is spitting rain and the wind is freezing.
The train that arrives is an "old" Comeng. It's strange to think of it as around the same age as the XPT. I remember doing a school assignment on the Comeng "Super train" when I was in Year 3. Victorian Railways sent me an information pack with stickers and a cardboard model of it.
Though it is only a stop away, that elevated curve between Southern Cross and Flinders Street evokes memories of childhood train rides in the night. I get out at Flinders Street and hurry across the Princes Bridge over the Yarra to Southbank, where my hotel apartment awaits.
After dropping off my stuff and giving a quick call to the family I head out again. I am hungry, but I don't want to go far. Fortunately, a hundred metres down there's a tiny Japanese cafe next to a noodle bar hidden away beside a small supermarket. I eat a bowl of katsu curry and I feel like I might be in Asia, though where exactly I'm uncertain with the owners speaking Cantonese rather than Japanese!
So here I am back in the apartment. I'm glad I didn't fly and I'm mostly glad I didn't drive. Mostly, because sitting in a car by yourself you don't need to wear a mask in the hope of not catching covid and you can decide when and where you will stop and what you want to eat. But you don't have to worry about getting tired in a train, nor do you have to navigate your way into the centre of the city.