This weekend I made my first long-distanced train journey in Australia. It always surprised me that despite a train network laid out by the British, I never heard anyone in Australia mention the train routes. So, I decided to gain a first hand experience, and now know the reason for its relative obscurity.
To begin, I was traveling from Melbourne to Sydney, which is a distance of 875 km. Something like 9 hours for a road trip. You would assume that on a train you could make the journey in say 8 hours. Well – no, the countrylink, the Australian railway service, says 11 hours is their standard time for the journey. Please note the word Standard.
I reached the Southern Cross station in time, expecting the general punctuality that I have come to expect from any service provider who does not follow the standard time of desh. I was trying not to get annoyed when the train reached even later than the scheduled departure, and then went through a process of quick cleaning – may be it was cleaning, but it sure as hell was not quick. The train had only about 8 coaches – too few , I think, especially since it is one out of the only two trains in a day which connect two of Australia’s most prominent cities.
After almost an hour, we were allowed to enter the esteemed coach. Being from India, I was expecting something like a sleeper. In a worse case, I assumed the arrangement would be similar to those French trains where so many seats are empty that you can easily stretch your legs and doze off. I was wrong on both counts. May be I just have wrong standards.
What presented itself was, instead, a set of reclining seats aka Shatabdi. Imagine an overnight Shatabdi, where you pay much more, do not get food, and have a restricted incline. (Do Shatabdi‘s recline? I seem to have forgotten). The chair barely reclined and the footrest did not stay where you wanted it to (you had to keep it pressed with your feet – like an endless struggle for assertion). In short, all ingredients for a restless night. To top it all, the train did not move to a fast lulling motion. It was shaky, alright – just not in a comfortable way. For the first time, I missed the comfort of Indian Railways and Lalu’s efficiency. (I wouldn’t even go so far as to compare this service with the European network, that would be blasphemous!).
There were a few positives, sure. The ease of booking and finding reservation – well no one travels the route, so that is explicable. Reservation was easily done online in a couple of minutes. On the train, there was an overnight buffet providing meals and drinks, which ran through most of the journey, even at late night. And on the few stations that it did stop, the train did so quietly. 10 minutes before the stop was due, attendants came stealthily with a small light and woke up the passengers who had to alight. I found the system polite and thoughtful.
The small stations themselves: I was amazed that anyone got down there. I always think of Australia as a bunch of few big cities interspersed with vast empty spaces. To realize that there were small towns in these spaces, even accessible by train was educational. I could hardly see any settlement around those stations (but that could be just the darkness).
The train arrived Sydney almost 2 hours late – on the return the delay was even more. They sighted re-routing due to track work as the reason, but I think the services are plain inefficient. That explains why most people avoid them, even when the alternative (flight) is expensive. I do not think I am going to try them again – not unless they are thinking of upgrading, to the French TGV for instance? Countrylink , are you linking? I mean listening?