THE FASTER THE WORLD MOVES, THE SLOWER WE NEED TO TRAVEL
Information filters through to the lounge. There will be no night tour of Kalgoorlie, no breakfast trackside at Australia’s largest sheep station, Rawlinna.
Finally, at 10pm, one of the world’s great luxury trains leaves Perth as we begin our 65-hour, 4352km marathon, half a day behind schedule.
ALTHOUGH THE HISTORY of the Indian Pacif ic dates back only to 1970, the story of rail travel in Australia is much longer, f illed with the drama and deprivations of a large continent with a population centred on isolated pockets of civilisation. For the f irst 60 or 70 years of European settlement, travel between the colonies was by sail, steamship, or horse-drawn coach.
The first steam railway was opened between Melbourne and Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) in 1854, just months after the first telegraph communication opened between Melbourne and Williamstown. The following year a railway between Sydney and Parramatta opened. Small steps, but after isolation for so long, Melbourne’s The Argus welcomed the beginnings of “a new era in the history of Australia: the iron horse has started on its mission to tether the mighty bush to the world”.
But it was to be a long time coming. By Federation, in 1901, all Australian states except Western Australia were linked by more than 20,000km of railway tracks (although there was a 2000km gap between Kalgoorlie, WA, and Port Augusta, South Australia).
However, as the rail networks developed through the colonies, petty jealousies and pig-headedness resulted in national plans for a common gauge network being ignored.
This meant that (after 1917, when the Kalgoorlie–Port Augusta gap was closed) it was possible to travel from Perth to Sydney and on to Brisbane, but you would need to change trains six times. In the 1930s, the transcontinental trip took more than five days, with changes at Albury, Melbourne, Adelaide, Port Pirie and Kalgoorlie.
World War II brought home to state and federal governments the folly of the incompatible systems, when moving troops and goods quickly became very diff icult. In the post-war era, as steam gave way to diesel and electric locomotives, the states were able to work together and create a standard gauge line linking Sydney with Perth and the port of Fremantle, which opened in November 1969.
The rolling stock was raring to go, and the f irst freight service began operating in January 1970, followed a month later by the first Indian Pacific. A crowd of more than 10,000 greeted the train when it completed its inaugural journey at East Perth, 62 hours and 20 minutes after departing Sydney.
But the days of rail as an eff icient means of transcontinental passenger transport were over almost before they had begun. By the end of the 1960s, Australia’s two-airline policy had created a boom time for the government-owned TAA and private Ansett Airlines, which had established an extensive domestic passenger network.
The age of cheap airline travel was still in the future, but for people who had to travel, this was a valid alternative to long
days spent gazing out of a train window. During subsequent decades, even as standard gauge connections were extended – The Ghan from Alice Springs to Darwin, The Overland from Adelaide to Melbourne – Australia’s long-distance passenger rail services struggled while freight thrived. In an attempt to introduce economies of scale, the Australian National Railways Commission (AN) was established in 1978, and took over the operation of all Commonwealth and non-urban South Australian lines, plus the railways of Tasmania. But within 20 years, the AN was dismantled or privatised, which resulted in Great Southern Railways (GSR) taking charge of The Indian Pacific, The Ghan and The Overland in November 1998.
GSR looked to the great luxury train routes of the world – The Orient Express, The Trans-Siberian and The Rocky Mountaineer – for inspiration, ushering in the Australian era of luxury train travel. The Indian Pacific and The Ghan were successfully marketed as “iconic train journeys” (often rated in the top-10 lists of travel websites and magazines), but The Overland continues to exist only through government subsidies.
While many train experts look to the high-speed and hightech models of Japan and Europe to lead train travel into a bold new world, GSR takes the opposite view – that the faster the world moves, the slower we need to travel.
IWAKE IN THE early morning in my bunk and doze to the rhythm of the train as the landscape f lashes by. Then suddenly we are stopped at what appears to be a mining depot. My phone tells me this is Parkeston, and that this is as much as I will see of Kalgoorlie. No Super Pit being stripped for gold 24 hours a day, no late-night brothel tour.
Breakfast heals all wounds, although it’s not the trackside outback barbecue we’d been promised at Rawlinna, Australia’s largest sheep station, which still lies hundreds of kilometres ahead of us. That’s another experience we’ll miss, because the Indian Pacif ic must arrive on time.
Over excellent coffee and poached eggs on sourdough, I ask my fellow passengers how they feel about missing out on the tour, trackside fry-up and who knows what else? Big John and Little John are philosophical; their wives nod in agreement. “Swings and roundabouts,” says Big John. “The railways are full of surprises.”
David and Janet Sumner are recent retirees from Somerset, UK, he a former GP, she a librarian. Before settling into the quiet life, they are seeing the world in style. But apart from an overnighter between Moscow and St Petersburg, this is their f irst experience of luxury train travel. “I’m very disappointed that we’re not getting off the train at the scheduled places,” Janet says. “That was one of the attractions of travelling this way.”
As they’ll depart the Indian Pacif ic at Adelaide, the Sumners are running out of off-train options. They are pinning much on Dean’s ability to hurry us along to the Nullarbor ghost town of Cook before dark, so they can document the remoteness.
But David, who retains his dry bedside manner, is stoic: “Apart from the fact that we can’t get off and do anything, I think it represents reasonably good value. The alternative for us would have been to f ly and we’ve done a lot of that in the
past few months. This train – the Gold Service carriages in particular – has a bit of soul.”
Working on a jigsaw puzzle in the lounge, Gail Chell, from the Gold Coast, and Kathryn Sargent, from Adelaide, are a little less sanguine. “Our cars were in the carriage that derailed,” Gail explains. “That’s going to mean cooling our heels in Adelaide for four days before we can resume our holiday.” GSR offers a Motorail service to bring passengers’ cars along on both the Indian Pacific and the Ghan, between Adelaide and Perth and Adelaide and Darwin.
After breakfast I f ind Dean Duka in his tiny off ice compartment a few cars up the line. Despite the stress he’s endured, he looks refreshed and focused after handing over to his duty manager and stealing seven hours’ sleep. (Management staff have their own compartments; the rest share. Of the staff under Dean’s command, about half are casuals who get called in to f ill gaps in schedules, but most generally do a return trip on both the Indian Pacific and the Ghan each month.)
“I don’t mind the pressure,” Dean says between issuing instructions to the drivers via the radio-phone. “It makes it interesting. Probably the most exciting part of my job is coming to work not knowing what kind of curve ball I’m going to be thrown.” Dean, who started his working life cleaning silverware in restaurants before completing a chef ’s apprenticeship, has spent more than 20 years on GSR’s luxury trains – first as a chef, and for the past decade as a manager. “On journeys like this one, I reckon I’d probably rather be in the galley than managing the train,” he says with a laugh. “But that’s okay. I’m always up for a challenge.”
I TA K E T H E
C A M E L C U R RY
O P T I O N F O R LU N C H .
The transition from galley to management is unusual, but it’s given him a top-to-bottom perspective on the pressures of a workplace that rattles across the continent at 100km/h. Speaking of which, his pressures are by no means over. The delayed start means Dean has to reorganise scheduled stops, negotiate compensation packages, and keep the lines of communication open with all of us.
He’s a busy man and he has to run – literally – but f irst he offers this assessment of the derailment: “Yesterday was a testing day, for sure. Those are the worst kind of days for me, where you’re not in control of the situation and you have to be governed by decisions made by others… All I could do was glean as much from them as I could and pass that information on to our guests, then figure out what sort of a timetable we had to work with.”
The train manager excuses himself and disappears down the swaying corridors, light-footed, almost graceful, as he picks up speed. I take the camel curry option for lunch. GSR food philosophy is to ref lect the regions you are passing through, and as we speed across the Nullarbor, it seems appropriate, if a little weird, to be eating the Afghan beast of burden. It also
happens to be delicious, so I make a point of dropping by the galley to offer my compliments to chef Ben Hughes. A surfer who has run kitchens from Byron Bay to Adelaide, Ben tells me cooking on a train presents its own difficulties, mostly to do with precision timing, ensuring that the Queen Adelaide’s full complement receives each course at the perfect temperature. I assure him that my camel arrived in perfect order.
AS WE THUNDER ALONG the world’s longest straight-line railway – some 477km without the hint of a bend – I adjourn to my cabin to read Bill Bryson’s account of his journey on the Indian Pacif ic, in his book Down Under.
Mindful that the ghost town of Cook is my new friends David and Janet’s only opportunity to press their toes into the outback dust, my eyes seize upon Bryson’s description:
“We had two hours to kill in Cook – goodness knows why so long – and everyone was allowed to get off and look around. It was agreeable to move about without having to steady yourself against a swaying wall every couple of paces, but the thrill of Cook swiftly palls. There was nothing much to it.”
When we arrive, there is even less to Cook than Bryson had seen – a rusting shell of a place that exists only to service longdistance trains – but in the golden light of a desert sunset it is eerily beautiful, its dilapidated buildings the perfect counterpoint to the near endless nothingness beyond.
Unlike Br yson, we have little time to kill in Cook, so photographer Andrew Gregory and I power-walk the length of the train and climb up into the locomotive with drivers Peter Brodie and Renier Meiring. They are f inishing their shift, as pleased as punch to have made the journey from Kalgoorlie in record time, with only one casualty – a baby camel that strayed onto the track. Now they’ll spend 15 hours camped in Cook’s last functioning building, before starting their next shift.
Poking along the trackside ruins on my way back to our carriage, I f ind a rough handwritten sign against a crumbling brick wall: “Any arsehole that steals from this camp will be gut shot and left for the eagles to feed on.” Any thoughts of making it a souvenir desert me as I climb back on the train.
The Indian Pacif ic makes it into Adelaide just six hours behind schedule, and we learn that because of the necessity for a fast turnaround in Sydney, there will be no stops along the way. Despite the fact that we can now add Broken Hill to the list of places that remain on the bucket list, there is a sense of shared accomplishment. Ridiculously, we all feel we’ve played a part in this. Big John, who had a career on the railways, says rather ceremoniously that it’s been a f ine effort by everyone. Dean’s shift ends in Adelaide, so I seek him out to say goodbye. As we shake hands, he says: “Well, it didn’t go quite as planned, but the return journey out of Sydney will be on schedule. And everyone on board this train will be compensated for what they’ve missed out on, or offered a big discount on another journey, which I hope they’ll take.
“You need to do The Indian Pacific more than once.”
One of the less bizarre signs you’ll find at the trackside ghost town of Cook on the Nullarbor.
Indian Pacific drivers John Laundy (at left) and Barry Flynn take a break at Cook.
Chef Ben Hughes puts the final touches on plates before service.
Melanie Brewin makes up a bed in a Gold Service twin cabin. Lounges are converted to beds while passengers are in the dining cabin.
UK retirees Janet and David Sumner are served dinner in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant.
Cabin operations are idiot-proof, but on the Indian Pacific everything is done for you anyway.
On the second day of the journey east, passengers wake to the outback. In the gloaming light of dawn the Indian Pacific passes the salt expanse of Lake Hart, near Woomera, SA.
The Indian Pacific begins its climb out of the Tarana Valley on the way to Lithgow. Two locomotives are needed to power the train over the Blue Mountains.