THE FASTER THE WORLD MOVES, THE SLOWER WE NEED TO TRAVEL

Australian Geographic - - Your Society -

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.

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