Carless to Canberra


Last weekend, still not having bought a car, I took the train to Canberra.

The above picture is not from that trip. It is of the light refreshment served in the Eurostar which I took from London to Brussels just after Christmas last year, from which I changed to an ICE to Stuttgart. Because it cost only 10 euros extra, I took that trip first class – hence the luxury. For the rest of my German jaunt I took trains of all sorts – ICEs on the longer inter-regional legs, and more local regional trains, as well as, of course S-Bahns, U-Bahns and (exotic for one from Sydney) trolley-buses and trams.

Before that, my last long-distance train trips were last July and August in China, on their high-speed network out of Shanghai and some rather slower and older sleepers in Yunnan province between Kunming and Lijiang.

It is a few years since I took the train to Canberra. When I moved there to be a public servant after I first graduated and in the first six months before I bought a car, I made a few weekend escapes back to civilization in Sydney.

That was the days of old-school rail travel. Sometimes there was a dining car and indeed I remember quite a civilized conversation with an English traveller as we looped around Bungendore to Goulburn at the beginning of an afternoon trip to Sydney. Even more memorable is one Easter-Tuesday trip back to Canberra, the train packed with standing passengers loaded up with Royal Easter Show souvenirs. There was no food for sale on the train which ran increasingly late. Somewhere after Goulburn the lights failed. I think I almost caused a riot in the crowded and moonlit (it was Easter) carriage, as, when the train stopped at Tarago (it is a single track: there was a procedure involving a kind of key which had to deployed here to prevent any chance of a collision) at about 1 am I opened my thermos which, before leaving Sydney, I had stocked with some hot tinned soup supplemented with a few sausages from the Central hot food bar.

In those days the trip regularly took about 5 and a half hours. Later, with the XPT, there were slightly quicker services. I caught these occasionally when, by then back in Sydney, I went to visit my father who had moved to Canberra.

Train travel in Europe is expensive. In Germany you can secure substantially cheaper tickets which are on sale up to 3 days before your date of travel and they can be even cheaper if you invest in a Bahncard (Deutsche Bahn routinely offers short term trial-offers which are worth taking up if you are a foreigner, though it is wise to inform them in time that you will not be taking the automatic conversion into an annual card). You can also travel more cheaply if you are able to or prepared to confine your travel to slower trains. Nevertheless, my poorer friends told me that the trains were too expensive and there the underclass is now relegated to long-distance buses.

In Australia, it is the other way round. A lot of that is because trains, rather than buses, offer the best concessions to welfare recipients including old age pensioners and seniors. That certainly accounted for most of my fellow travellers when I boarded the train at Central on Saturday morning, leavened by a few slightly ABC-audience types (amongst which I suppose I might count myself) and some overseas tourists who may have known no better.

After my European experience, the train was a shock. The XPT (I have now learnt) was replaced on the Canberra line in about 1990 and possibly I have even travelled in the Xplorer class train on this line before. They are a train where each carriage has a diesel engine.

Due to depart at 6.57, a few minutes later we crawled out of Central and were shortly after told this was because there was a problem with the brakes. We stopped for about 10 minutes at Eveleigh for the mechanics to attend to this. After a few slow test runs, we were on our way.

I ordered the most luxurious item on offer in the buffet car: a spinach frittata on bacon which we were told would take 40 minutes to prepare because it was cooked to order. As the meal other than the accompanying croissant arrived still wrapped in plastic, I’m still wondering why it needed so long. Alcohol was on display but any hope of a soothing ale was dashed: alcohol would not be sold until after noon. By then, hopefully, we would have arrived in Canberra.

Fortunately, the carriage was far from full, so I had two seats to make myself comfortable. Comfort was compromised by the extraordinarily noisy motor and the rough ride and carriage squeaks and shakes. I don’t know how much of this was the line and how much of it was the state of the rolling stock, but it brought me back from my European memories with a jolt. Later I was able to find a quieter spot further back in the carriage and further from the engines, but that quietness was only relative: I kept ear-plugs in.

The train split in two at Goulburn: the back half (also with its own buffet – talk about a loss-leader) headed off to the Riverina. By then the train had filled up a bit more with the Canberra-bound from country stations not served by the Canberra-Sydney buses.

We arrived about 20-minutes late. I boldly went out to catch a local bus in the general direction of Belconnen – that’s where it said it was going and my father’s, where I was headed, is at Belconnen’s western edge.

What a mistake. First of all, the bus stop at the railway station is utterly unprepared for any tourist visitors. No information is displayed; the driver spent about 10 minutes explaining to the woman at the head of the queue what bus she should take. Then he had to explain to a few others how they might get to the National Gallery. The options he suggested involved either about a 2km walk from his closest stop, or a trip into Civic and a bus back.

We finally set off on a route which took in practically every possible intervening suburb: a loop through Russell and Campbell, then through Civic, Braddon, Lyneham and over the ridge to Bruce, the National Hockey Stadium, Canberra University – you name it, we went there before I finally got off about 1.5 hours later at a stop with the glorious name “opposite Westfield.”

Public transport in Canberra on the weekend is dire. There are few services, and each service except for the main services between the various hubs (Belconnen-Civic-Woden, for example) is put on a circuitous route through every imaginable suburb to provide the maximum coverage. Unable to face the second leg of this, and mindful that I had only limited time to see my father before the evening routine would require I depart, I took a taxi for the last leg.

Door to door time = about 7.5 hours – it would have well been over 8 if I had waited for the bus.

Overnight I borrowed my father’s car to go to and from my motel.

On Sunday, I walked out of my father’s house (this felt odd), took the Canberra local bus to Civic (two buses took about an hour) and then a bus back to Sydney. I couldn’t face the train again and if you don’t have a car, Kingston, where the train goes from, is a decidedly out of the way place to get to. Door-to-door – about 6 hours.

3 Responses to “Carless to Canberra”

  1. Andrew Says:

    It is a very sad tale about country rail transport in Australia. It is for the poor, the elderly and ABC types who believe in public transport for the greater good. I can foresee that good public transport things will happen in our big cities, but not on country railway lines. The only hope is for a high speed train from Brisbane to Sydney then via Canberra to Melbourne. It may happen, but I doubt we will live to see it.

  2. David Kai Wang Says:

    What is your experience of your train travels in china in comparison to Europe.

    • marcellous Says:

      David, that’s a pretty open-ended question.

      The main difference I can think of is the way that Chinese railway stations are almost like airports in terms of the security to get into them and the management of the waiting rooms before you go onto the platforms. China in comparison to Europe has slightly cumbersome restrictions on when you can book tickets, though these seem to have freed up in recent years.

      As you probably know, Chinese trains cover a vast range of transport options. There are slow trains, there are old fast trains which are really still quite slow; there are the high-speed trains which are in absolute terms almost as expensive as the European ones, which means they are much more expensive than Chinese cheap trains than, say, German ICEs are than German local and slow trains. And China has some phenomenally long routes.

      Outside of the Hi-speed trains, the Chinese rolling stock is also older – the sleepers look just like old German sleepers and perhaps they really are.

      And especially on the cheaper Chinese trains, people often travel with a LOT more luggage than in Germany.

      Chinese more often travel with their own food supplies for the journey and more often as groups: probably because in Europe a group of people will be more likely to have a car amongst them.

      German trains are now entirely non-smoking: older Chinese trains still have a smoking area on longer routes (though not the high speed ones).

      In Germany trains also serve (and not just the S-Bahns) as local regional transport. I don’t think that is the case in China so much – that is, there don’t seem to be railway lines for passengers in rural areas with little stations which are just a short distance apart.

      I have never travelled in Europe in an equivalent to the Chinese hard-sleeper class – which I think is reasonably comfortable but requires a surrender to the common life which is probably too much for westerners.

      There are other differences I can think of but they are mostly differences which simply match differences between the societies at large. Eg: the toilets; and (in China) often ubiquitous piped music.

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