Chicken schnitzel with vegetable gravy for $9, lasagne for $9, beef teriyaki for $9 or a chickpea curry for $8. This evening’s hot meal will take approximately an hour to prepare. An attendant will pass through the train handing out meal tickets. If you would like a hot evening meal, please take a ticket and wait for the announcement when the meals are ready.
So is the announcement over the intercom as we pull out of the station. Yet without fail, after the evening meals have been collected, we hear, ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We have two (… fill in blank) meals remaining. If you have not collected your evening meal, please do so’. Due pause and then: ‘If anyone would like to purchase an unclaimed meal, please proceed to the buffet car’.
I know this announcement intimately, word for word. Why? It is the standard announcement soon after departure of the train I know best: the log-haul run between Sydney and Melbourne. It is a journey of the ages. I have travelled this run to see grandparents as a child, with a harried mother and four siblings squabbling, running about, awaiting the end of what seemed like an interminable trip. I have journeyed for conferences, for book launches, for work in Melbourne, to see children in Sydney after a heart-rending divorce, to find a new home north of Sydney, for concerts (Jethro Tull of course), on my way to further afield (Adelaide for instance), for romantic weekends.
Variously called the XPT, Inter-Capital Daylight, Southern Aurora, it runs two trains in each direction, one during daylight, one at night. Unlike the sleek fast trains of Asia and Europe, its pace can only be called ‘leisurely’. I guess the claim to be an ‘express’ derives from the occasional stretches along which we ‘speed’ at about 100 kmh. Unlike the endlessly articulated towns in motion that one finds elsewhere in the world, this one is at best a hamlet, with half a dozen carriages for the long run of almost 1,000 kilometres. And unlike the sleek and slender attendants on aeroplanes, here they stump around with sagging guts, bald pates, and heavy jowls of that remind one of well-aged vintage wines. Without bleached teeth and fake smiles, they are spare with their words and direct with instructions.
The train follows the old route of Hamilton Hume and William Hovell in their expedition of 1824. Given their class differences (Hume was a ‘currency lad’ and Hovell of the gentry) they squabbled the whole way and remained bitter enemies until their deaths. In the end, Hume did all the hard work and he is the one remembered for the journey. The route cuts its way from Sydney through the Southern Highlands with their conservative gentry and into the western plains and their expansive sheep and cattle farmers. Yass, Cootamundra, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Wangaratta – from these ancient and proud stations buses run to take people further west. At these stations the XPT is the only train that passes through, two in each direction per day and night. Some stations are so small – such as The Rock – that one needs to warn an attendant so the train will actually stop to let you off. Eventually the train skids and bumps along the plains and foothills of Victoria, with Melbourne appearing slowly, a subtle announcement of buildings and lights (if at the end of a long day) over the long plain.
Unbelievably, the whole line was completed only in 1962, with a standard gauge line. In the infinite wisdom of the colonies, three gauges had been used (and still are in parts), ranging over narrow, wide and standard. And that meant one had to disembark at a state border and re-embark on another gauge train for state in question. The variation in gauges has been the topic of commissions, reports and projects, all with a view to enabling seamless freight and passenger services from one state to the other. The task is ongoing.
Passing the Time
But what do you do on a journey of eleven hours or so?
One ritual is traversing the train. Usually early in the journey, I like to walk from one end to the other. In some places such as China that is quite a feat, for I pass through endless carriages, slip by soft sleepers, dodge those trying to imagine their hard seats really are comfortable, and clamber over those who have bought no-seat tickets. On this run, it takes but a few minutes, for there is one sleeping car, one first class, the buffet car and then a couple of economy cars. A spare car always tags along, for the inevitable late rush of tickets. But often it is empty enough for a relocation on the night run. If lucky, I can find four seats facing each other and stretch out for a reasonable sleep.
Smoking (which I have done on occasion in the past) is a challenge. Smokers are warned that the train does not stop long enough to imbibe, but that does not stop the addicts from leaping off the train for a quick drag or two before the whistle blows. At Albury they manage a whole smoke, for here the crews change over and the pause is longer. Should you attempt a quick puff in the toilets, or perhaps in the vestibule – as you are able to do on older, civilised trains in Eastern Europe or Asia – then an attendant soon descends upon you. The next station is suddenly your surprise destination, often in the middle of the night.
Gloriously, the journey has no internet, no power outlets, and intermittent phone coverage – a removal from the assumed connectedness of everyday life. So I read, snooze, write in a notebook and – when stiff from sitting a little too long – stand in a quiet corner in the vestibule and read some more. Often I ponder the universe while looking out of the window. Each part of the journey has its own memory tracks, whether of a childhood in country NSW, of old friends, of the felt experiences of another life, of myriad moods – from elation to melancholy – that wash over me as we wind our way through parts I know well. On a night run I try to sleep in the economy seat. Fine if the seat to me is empty, or if I can find four for myself. But not so fine if the train is packed (during holidays or for festivals), for now the seat itself is my bed.
And who travels by train?
The bionic bitch is one, or at least she inhabits railway stations with her unique intonation that is all primitive-computer-generated-cut-and-paste. Old fogeys are standard, given the cheap pensioner fares and the accustomed modes of travel from a long life. Those new-fangled planes are a bit too much. Meeting them, I find myself longing for old age. Not so much for the walking sticks and frames, but for the feeling that one has all the time in world. A paradox really, since the time left is actually quite short. No rush.
On a rare occasion the train is full of students, heading north from Melbourne for ‘Schoolies’ – the debauched rampage at the end of high school during which most of the nation’s newly released students descend upon the Gold Coast. Full of shouting, pranks, posing, laughter on their way there; comatose and completely silent on their way home a week later. I can only wonder at what memories they bring home. Probably none, given the effects of alcohol on the brain.
On a night run, I wonder who will be my sleeping partner. We will sleep closer to one another than you usually do in a double bed. It may the paranoid cook from Sydney, his cloth bag festooned with padlocks to stop would-be thieves. I refrain from observing that the bag could easily be slashed. Or it may be the 50-something with a ponytail and a liking for a little bit of tea with his milk and sugar. Having made it clear that he doesn’t sleep on night runs, I groan inwardly. I drift off to sleep as he regales me with a glorious life that has really been one long joint. For he pursues the weed, joining friends in all parts of Australia to sample yet another exotic species. Good to have a purpose in life, I guess, a passion to which one devotes all one’s energy.
It may be the foul-mouthed former stripper. She had spent her youth gyrating around poles in Japanese bars and assiduously acquired a great love of the bottle. By stringing together the occasional word in between the swearing, I am able to make out that she had struggled deeply to toss the bottle, that her brother is in prison, that she has a dodgy history with other people’s credit cards, and that she is moving from bustling Warrnambool to settle in Sydney. The problem of course is how she is to deal with her Siamese cats in their new abode. As soon as she drops off, she leans upon me, head on my shoulder. Pondering my dilemma, I drift into sleep, hand on my wallet. Upon waking, she offers me her phone number, which I take with a smile and quietly discard at the first opportunity.
The last half hour is one of regret and anticipation – regret at the journey’s imminent end, anticipation of what is to come. But I ponder the politics of rail. Every now and then a brand new, express train may be purchased with much fanfare and chest-beating by the state government, all the while failing to note that one also needs to provide state-of-the-art, quality rails to enable the sleek new train to do its thing.
Given this state of affairs and given the tendency of politicians and planners to chatter much and do little, the train operators have wisely given the timetable plenty of cushion. It used to be the case that the timetable reflected an optimum performance by the train. Inevitably there were sections of track-work, speed restrictions, unforeseen developments (birds sucked into engine, air-conditioning collapse on a 45 degree day, distracted engine driver, epileptic monkey trying to crap in the toilet). Inevitably we would be ‘late’. People would grumble about the railway’s dreadful performance and general slackness. But then the timetable found another hour of time. We would roll into our destination in a leisurely fashion, the announcer proudly stating that we were at 20, 30, 35 minutes ahead of schedule. Passengers would be impressed, speaking highly of the efficient service, smiling at attendants and promising to be back soon.
As for me, I’ll be back in any case.