“ The Indian Pacific is a passenger rail service running between Perth and Sydney, Australia. It was started in 1970 after the railway line between Sydney and Perth had all been converted to standard gauge. It covers 4352 kilometres, passes through three states and travels along the world's longest straight stretch of railway track. The journey takes 65 hours. „
* Prices may differ from that shown
Great Southern Rail (GSR) is probably the best known if possibly the least used by the Aussies of the Australian train companies, and it runs three long-distance interstate services, of which the longest is the Indian-Pacific, crossing the country (and the continent) between Sydney on the east coast and Perth on the west.
The train runs once a week (twice a week in season, which is approximately between October and April) and covers over 4,000km between Sydney and Perth in about 65 hours. We travelled from Adelaide to Sydney, leaving at 10am on Friday and arriving around 11am the same time on Saturday.
We booked the tickets over the phone two days before we left (you have to buy at least a week in advance to purchase online, for reasons that completely elude me), and we were instructed to be at the terminal at least half an hour before the train's departure.
We paid 142 AUD for the adults and 130 AUD for children. The adults tickets were purchased as so-called "backpacker" fare, available to holders of several cards, in our case Hostelling International, though to be honest nobody ever checked our cards, while the saving was substantial - a regular ticket costs over 300 AUD. These are, of course, basic fares for seats (let's call them coach although officially I think they are called red kangaroo daynighter seats). A basic sleeper cabin is around 400 AUD for children, backpackers and other concessions, and 500 AUD for adults. The full fare from Perth to Sydney is over 700 AUD (adult ticket) and around 300 AUD for all concessions. A sleeper cabin costs around 1,000 AUD for concessions and 1,400 AUD for a regular adult ticket. Considering that the membership of HI is around 40 AUD, I can't imagine anybody actually choosing to pay the regular adult fare.
In fact, I sincerely doubt anybody on our train did, but not because of backpacker discounts: arriving at the terminal was quite disconcerting, with the waiting room very full of people, and pretty much everybody there apart from three young(ish) backpackers
was well past retirement age. We are both in our forties, but apart from the aforementioned trio of backpackers everybody in the room was from our parents' generation, or older. The average age has lowered a bit when the group touring Adelaide returned, but still, the preponderance of elderly OAPs was rather surprising, especially as travelling by train in Queensland we saw people of all ages, and so we did in Canada, where pretty much every demographic was represented on their equivalent trans-continental flagship train The Canadian.
The train terminal (located about a mile outside Adelaide's CBD) did not look like a train station, it looked like a tour company office: there was a large gift shop with "Great Southern Journeys" merchandise, particularly Indian-Pacific and The Ghan, and the whole thing really did look like a tour, not a train journey. I suspect, in fact, that for a lot of people who did the trip this is exactly what it was - a railway excursion rather than (or as much as) a journey from A to B. Excursion or a normal train journey, the train was being readied and after checking in our rucksacks we were called onto the platform to board.
We were told that there is no blankets nor pillows provided in the "daynighter" seats so we board carrying our sleeping bags and daypacks with cameras, lego, MP3 player, DS, laptop and other entertainment supplies for children who find only limited joy in scenery. We find our seats in one of the carriages at the end of the train.
The seats are pretty good: wide and with reasonable leg room, and although by default they airplane-like all face the same way, you can actually swivel them and thus obtain a space for four people (2+2 facing each other). The recline is pretty good, and thanks goodness, there is no permanent arm-rest between seats. This might sound like a petty thing, but it's hard to think of a worse (and more pointless) object on a long-distance trip that a fixed arm-rest which makes it impossible to stretch across two seats even if the one next to you is unoccupied (by the way, no arm-rest at all - as it's the case on some buses - is no good either, as it means that if the seat next to you is occupied by a stranger you have no way of separating yourself). We are told, however, that the previous carriage (there were some changes between Perth and Adelaide) had such fixed arm-rests, so beware.
There is also a table that can be fixed between the seats: a simple chipboard affair, but a table nevertheless and thus a very good thing.
The window panes are large, panoramic and reasonably clean, with blinds against the lights at night and sun in the day: mercifully none of that grey mesh that Greyhound buses and some trams in Australia have on their windows which might be good for stopping the sun, but makes photos impossible and scenery watching hard.
The carriage has two lavatories, marked as male and female (I have not seen such a thing on a train before) plus a shower room, and although there is no pillows or blankets provided, there are towels. Clearly, even the rabble travelling coach is expected to be clean (though not warm: we will find the night rather cold and be grateful for our sleeping bags). There is also a drinking water fountain.
The train carries a restaurant car as well as a buffet one, but the coach passengers are not allowed in the restaurant car at all: this is rather surprising and smacks of elitist (classist, excuse the pun) attitude. On the Canadian trains, although the coach passengers did not get their food included in the price, they could purchase the meals in the restaurant car on extra payment and we did make use of that service. Here, however, the restaurant car is only for the sleeper passengers.
But all these are, really, details. We are, after all, comfortably seated and as the train pulls out of the Adelaide station, we can feel the excitement of a journey about to begin. The railway between Adelaide and Sydney doesn't, as it's often the case, run in close parallel to the highway, but significantly further north, with the only scheduled stop on the whole route being the mining town of Broken Hill. We are on our way.
Shortly after the train leaves Adelaide, the suburbs give way to an agricultural plain. At first, some vineyards, an overspill from Adelaide Hills, and even an olive grove, but soon a vast, grain growing plain eerily reminiscent of the prairies of central Canada which we crossed a few months earlier (it was also spring: a third one we experience this year).
The fields are beautifully green, with rolling hills in the distance. And yet, it's an unsettling landscape, hedges with those unmistakable inverted-triangles of parasol-like eucalyptus, the unrelenting redness of the soil marking it as essentially alien.
Less than two hundred years ago it was completely different: the cultivation came with the European colonists and I can't help but think that, in some way, it's against the spirit of this land that had remained inhabited but uncultivated for thousands of years before. But maybe it's simply the newness of it all, and in five hundred years the fields and pastures will appear as natural here as they do now in England, Italy or China.
Our train turns sharply east in Crystal Brook, to rejoin the Perth-Sydney line from which it diverted to stop at Adelaide. We pass Peterborough: a small country town that seems dusty even at this time of the year, and beyond that the fields of green are replaced by scrubby pasture, the gum trees more stunted; the"red dirt" becomes more apparent as we travel along low, dry, rocky Barrier Range. An hour more, and we are in the true, iconic outback: packed red earth, dry stream beds interspersed with silvery green of small bushes and sharp looking grass; old looking hills flanking the railway. There are still well windmills, what for? Surely they don't let cattle loose on this dry land? Actually, it's sheep (as well as several groups of emus) that we see occasionally scurrying about in the bush. Parched, flat expanse of scrub is occasionally cut by deep ridges, mini-gorges eroded in the soil by wind and presumably water, but there is hardly any moisture in them now.
The day is drawing to a close as we get near Broken Hill, its approach signaled by rockier and higher landscape, and later by high piles which must be slag-heaps or their local equivalent.
Broken Hill is technically in New South Wales, but as it's near to Adelaide (near being a rather loose term here, as it's over 500km from Adelaide anyway) than Sydney (a whooping 1,100km) it actually runs on South Australia time. A mining town grown literally on the back of a massive lode of silver-lead-zinc deposits, it's a bizarre place, incredibly isolated and with a strong industrial-frontier character and yet with quite a prosperous feel: a bit of an oasis (if a place surrounded by mountains of mining rubble and with buildings made of corrugated iron can be ever considered an oasis) in the surrounding almost-desert.
The Indian-Pacific offers an hour tour during its Broken Hill stop, including mining heritage and a visit to the Flying Doctor centre, but as this works out quite expensively for a family, we decide to stroll through the town and have a meal that is not a train fast food (as we are not allowed the restaurant). The streets in Broken Hill all bear chemical names, not just Argent, but also Chloride and (my personal favourite) Bromide streets catch our eye.
After what was probably the most expensive fish, chips (and roast vegetables for children) meal we ever had in our lives (but included rather wonderful cakes we take back onto the train) it's time to go back. Time for a few moody pictures of our rather magnificent eagle-emblazoned locomotive and we get ready to leave Broken Hill. The darkness has fallen and the lights in the carriage get dimmed. There is plenty of free spaces; we end up with two seats per person and after some clever seat turning and pillow-building we settle down reasonably well.
In the morning, the outback scrub is gone. We are back in hilly farmland, and just before we start descending towards the outer suburbs of Sydney, we pass through the Blue Mountains and get a decent glimpse of the landscape there. A glimpse it is, though, and only thanks to good weather and ability to move quickly from side to side of the train we get a series of fleeting views. Blue Mountains are not really mountains at all, but a sandstone plateau cut by deep gorges and to traverse it you need to be on top rather than below them: opportunities from viewing from a train are thus limited (and thick foliage next to the track doesn't help).
After the Blue Mountains, it's the outer and then inner suburbs of Sydney, and then the slow chug through town to arrive at the central station in the Harbour City.
We did less train travel in Australia that we expected to, and less than we wanted. This was for many reasons, the least of them the actual distances involved, and the main probably the pitiful frequency of the services. We did several stretches in Queensland and this one section of the Indian-Pacific, and the Indian-Pacific journey was better (mostly due to the size of the seats and carriage arrangements).
It is not a particularly scenic journey in the normal sense of the word, but it allowed us our only proper look at the outback and went some way to fulfilling our desire (rather laughable to most Aussies) to see "the red dirt" (without going the whole hog to the Red Centre).
The backpacker/child fares for coach class are reasonable value and easily compete with airfares (especially on a short notice). The seats are comfortable and unless the train is packed you are likely to be able to get some sleep, especially if you remember to take a blanket/sleeping bag, earplugs and some form of pillow.
There were some nice touches: a bit but not too much of information via the loudspeakers about what we were passing on the way, the seats that swivelled, the showers with towels provided. There were things that could have made a difference but were missing, like pillows and/or blankets, access to proper food in the restaurant car, some form of children's souvenir/information pack (like many airlines and at least some other long distance train operators provide).
The biggest problem with the Indian-Pacific service is probably its ridiculously low frequency, especially out of the high season (but even then it only runs twice a week). The initial geriatric impression improved later on, but at first impression felt rather off-putting too.
The service was indistinct. Some people were friendly (probably because they were friendly anyway), some were a bit officious and this conflict between more old-fashioned train-conductor-as-a-public-functionary and an artificial mateyness of a tour guide was noticeable in the whole operation. I don't really want to keep making comparisons with the journey on The Canadian, but I can't help thinking that the Canadian ViaRail staff had pride in the service they provided (despite the fact that it was only a skeleton one in comparison to the frequency of trains and number of routes of the bygone days) which the GSR staff did not. This is perhaps understandable as Australia, after all, was not colonised by railways the way that the North America was. The Indian-Pacific route was only completed in 1970, while the other GSR flagship train, The Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide, was only finalised in 2005.
In the final account, I am very glad we did that stretch of Indian-Pacific, and I am glad we did it in coach rather than being confined to incredibly poky-looking standard sleepers in the company of people with the average age of about 85. I somehow can't imagine that GSR can provide the levels of service that justify the price premium. I would probably take the train was I ever to travel from the eastern to the western Australia and I would seriously consider using The Ghan if I was ever travelling to the Red Centre.
I have a problem rating this item. I liked the journey, and it worked out well for us, but I can easily imagine hating it (for example if our carriage was full or if we didn't manage to eat at Broken Hill). I would recommend it, but only if you can really afford it in sleepers (go for Gold then) or in economy seats (with a backpacker discount). And finally, enjoy the ride but don't expect more than adequate service.
Following on from my recent review of Perth and surroundings the next part of our trip was a train journey from Perth to Sydney via the historic Indian Pacific railway. One point to note here is that the train goes from East Perth Terminal and not Perth Train Station as we had been advised. However, our taxi driver knew the correct one and got us there in good time.
So called named because it links the two great oceans from the West to the East coast of Australia via the vast openness of the centre. The trip is 4352 kms and takes 65 hours and runs twice weekly in both directions (now departs Sydney Sat & Weds & Perth Weds & Sun which has changed since our trip).
Only since 1982 has The Indian Pacific been able to run and also go via Adelaide. Prior to that time there were numerous railway companies involved, operating different guage tracks and so passengers had to regularly change trains to continue their journeys. Today it is difficult to see how the operation actually makes any money given it is far cheaper (and quicker) to fly and appears to be more of a tourist thing rather than anything the majority of the population would utilize.
The symbol of The Indian Pacific is the wedged tailed eagle, the largest flying bird in Australia. It's wingspan signifies the length of the journey.
***Booking & Cost***
We booked online via the railways own site http://www.gsr.com.au/our-trains/indian-pacific/the-journey.php. This was very easy to understand and navigate around.
There is a choice of fares:
Gold Kangaroo Service (First Class) $1790 adults/$1293 kids
Red Kangaroo Service Sleeper Cabin (Second Class) $1320 adults/$859 kids
Red Kangaroo Service Day/Nighter Seat (Economy) $680 adults/$322 kids
Prices are not cheap when compared to air travel (approx half price) but then again you are paying for the experience.
We ended up with a sleeper cabin as first class was full.
The principal difference between the various classes is first class is your own cabin and own shower/toilet, second class is own cabin with communal shower toilet and economy is like a normal train journey but with wider and comfier seats (which you will need if you are going to spend three days in them).
At the station you check in like you would for a flight but only more relaxed and we didnt see any specific security measures. It was just like getting on a normal train but handing your luggage to someone else first.
The train arrived and to be blunt it was a bit disappointing. I think I was expecting something really grand a la the Orient Express but it was just a very long train with an engine on the front, but with around 21 carriages!!
We then went to our carriage which was clearly signposted and were met at the door by the conductor for our carriage who was really friendly and helpful and who showed us to our cabin. This is when we became aware of a problem. What no one had told us is that the bags we checked in would not be seen until we arrived in Sydney and they had everything in it. This was not made clear on the tickets and coupled with the fact our tickets said the wrong train station on was not a good start. However, our conductor was obviously used to this and later on took me to the storage carriage to get our stuff without any hint of frustration or anything so it must happen a lot!
The cabin itself was something of a shock also. Not a bad shock by the way as its a train and theres only so much space and I wasnt expecting too much but I had no idea it was that small!!. However, it did become clear that the designers had used a very efficient use of a cramped space. There were two airline type chairs next to the window facing each other with plenty of width and leg room and the lower bunk folds out of the two chairs. The top bunk folds out from the ceiling and whilst it is a tight fit I found the beds very comfortable and had no problem sleeping. In fact I didnt want to go to sleep as I had the top bunk which looked out of the window and all you could see were very bright stars and hear the clickety clack of the track which was very therapeutic and lulled me into a coma like state! However, my need for this view meant the blind was open which is not an issue when its pitch black but tends to make the wife get out of the wrong side of bed in the morning when the sun is up.
I really liked the cabins because whilst cramped I felt they were cosy and comfortable. I also liked it that when we first entered the cabin there were a few tidbits to help with the journey which were a map, a detailed sheet with every place we passed and the distance travelled so you could keep up with exactly where you were (although most places detailed did not have anything there so you didnt know if you had gone through it anyway). There was also a booklet providing a history of the journey as well as a potted history of each place we went to. There was also an itinery of trips available at the places we would stop off and leave the train for a period.
You use the cabin largely for sleeping in but can stay in it throughout the day if needs be. You tend to get up around 6 oclock as the train comes to life and then go to the dining car for breakfast which is basic but fine. You have a choice of cereals, fry up, croissants etc but none of it is included in the price and so they keep a tab for you that you pay when you arrive. Lunch & dinner is also available and there is a cheap, basic menu that will not win any awards but is more than adequate.
They also had an area where you could sit and chat at a table or relax on a sofa as well as a separate compartment for smoking (although this may be gone now) and at night there was a bar.
There is not actually a great deal to do but personally, I just loved sitting at a window watching the view go by. When you take this kind of journey for the first time then anything counts as entertainment even if for the first hour it is looking at peoples back yards. When you finally see the mesmerising red desert then thats when you feel it is all worthwhile even if it the same sight for hours on end.
You see all sorts of animals including lots of emus and kangaroos and there are enough stops along the way to make it interesting (called whistle stop tours and the cost is modest) where you can get off the train and do a tour (which you pay for separately). I just found it fascinating doing nothing but watch the landscape go by and view the glorious sunsets!
There was great excitement on the train at one point with it slowing down so everyone could have a peak. We were in the middle of nowhere (cant remember where exactly) but we had seen nothing but red desert for hours on end and suddenly there was a bloke just sat next to the track with a fluorescent jacket on. He looked totally at ease but out of place and didnt appear to be with anyone and there was not a building in site. However, entertainment is at a premium at times so it was like a major event. Hence the title of this review. It just goes to show how remote the line is in places when seeing a human outside the train is a momentous occasion!!
The first stop is Kalgoorlie which is 9 hours and 655 km from Perth and it is at the juncture you really get the scale of things as you have hardly moved on the map and are still in Western Australia. Kalgoorlie is famous for its gold mining and has a population of 30,000 and is based on the Western fringes of the Nullarbor Plain. We went on a coach tour but it was dark but visited the Super Pit which is a huge, open cast mine. It is 5km long, 2.5km wide and 500 metres deep and produces 28 tonnes of gold pa. They also took us past the famous legalised brothels and seem very proud of them! I suppose 20,000 miners need something to do at weekend.
I found the staff very friendly and helpful and also very knowledgeable about the history of the journey. In fact, I saw very few staff at all with the conductor for our area seemingly the chief cook & bottle washer also as he took orders for food and served the drinks behind the bar and seemingly got little sleep (although they had a staff change in Adelaide). It was a very relaxed, laid back trip.
During the first night we entered the Nullarbor plain which is a vast, flat, treeless area that the UK would fit into comfortably and in the morning enter Cook in South Australia. The Nullarbor is the longest straight line railway in the world. 478 miles without a single deviation in direction. We are now 22 ½ hours/1657 km from Perth & 1002 km from Adelaide making this one of the remotest places on the planet. Cook is simply a stopping off point for trains passing through the continent and is a virtual ghost town. Trains can refuel and pick up provisions and there is also a crossing loop so trains can overtake/pass by (as it is mainly a one line railway). The population is around 10 and it has a church, school, houses and has a very unusual feature: a golf course without a single blade of grass on it. We had about an hours stop here and I loved it simply because it feels that you are in the middle of nowhere and its a strange feeling to disembark a train having arrived at nowhere.
You could walk up to the engine and have a chat with the driver as he was stretching his legs having a coffee and everyone is really friendly and approachable.
Its a bit of a momentous occasion when you reach the first bend at the end of the Nullarbor as the train slows down so everyone can see it! In fact, if there is anything interesting at the side of the track the driver will slow down so you can see it. For example, not long after Cook at a place called Barton (1742 km from Perth) there is a place called Ziggies place and the train slow here. A man named Ziggy lives here and he is in his 70s and worked the railways for 40 years and when he retired decided to build his own place in the middle of nowhere out of recycled products with no electricity or running water. The drivers therefore keep an eye on him when they pass by going at a crawl to check he is OK.
The next morning we arrive in Adelaide at 6am and go on another tour. We are now 2659 km from Perth and 1691km from Sydney. The tour is a very strange on because of the early hour but travelling this way you just have to accept it. It was a bus tour that just took us around the city and luckily for me took us to the Adelaide Oval cricket ground which I always wanted to see. There is not really I can add about Adelaide other than theres lots of churches, the roads are wide and it has a German influence. One thing I can say it that the driver took us out of his way to show us a row of terraced houses which he was waxing lyrical about and was obviously very proud of. He obviously thought these were unique to Australia and so he must have never been to the UK!!
The staff changed over at Adelaide and a few passengers departed/arrived so it was a change of scene but the new staff were equally friendly and helpful.
Our next stop was Broken Hill after an uneventful day and we arrived there at 3:45 pm. Well we should have done but there was an unexplained delay in arriving which meant we only had an hour there instead of 2 ¼ which put paid to the organised tour of which I was absolutely gutted about. The tour took in the HQ for the flying doctors and was where the successful TV series of the same name was filmed and I wanted to see it but was prevented from doing so for a reason that never became clear. In fact, typical Australian in that if things are going smoothly then no problem but as soon as things go wrong then its still no problem (for them) and the last thing they think about is providing an explanation! They dont seem to comprehend that there are deadlines to meet or onward journeys to take its just a case of shrugging the shoulders and hoping for the best and to be blunt this is one of the things I actually love about the place, despite its frustrations. Fortunately for us, we were just going home to Manly so it didnt really matter if we were late or not.
By the time you get to Broken Hill you have finally arrived in New South Wales but if you think you are nearing the end of the journey then think again. There is still 19 hours and 1125 km from Sydney and have another night and morning to enjoy the rest of the trip.
The next morning we wake up as we are going through Katoomba and are now a mere 112 km from Sydney. Katoomba is where the Blue Mountains are West of Sydney but if I said the views were magnificent I would be lying. In fact, I dont think there was a mountain or much of a hill for that matter in sight. The train seemingly passes through a valley which obscures the view or is hidden behind trees.
There is then a build up of residences as we approach Sydney until finally the train slows to a crawl as it goes through the City and gives you the first sight of the graffiti at the side of the track. We then inch in to Sydney Central station and pick up our bags which are unceremoniously dumped on the platform.
Its a weird feeling arriving in Sydney as it is like an old pair of slippers for me it feels like home and I was glad to be back (even though we had only been there three months!).
The Indian Pacific was everything and more of what I expected and I would love to do it in reverse. I can forgive the Australians their shortfalls in having such a couldnt care less approach just when its the most important thing in the world to you. In fact, you could argue its a strength and is something that if you live there you need to get used to very quickly.
I have heard mixed reviews of this trip, usually surrounding the accommodation not being up to expectations, boring, monotonous etc. I cannot disagree with any of these but this is a trip that you get out what you put in. For me, it exceeded my expectations simply because they were low to begin with.
The attraction of this trip is its uniqueness and that didnt disappoint. I felt very privileged to be able to do the journey (very few Australians take this trip) as I am unlikely ever to get the opportunity again. If you are looking for entertainment, have a low boredom threshold or need more space & comfort then this is not for you. If you want to do something different and see places you didnt even know existed, can put up with the cramped conditions and have the time/patience to spend three days of your trip sat on a train then you will love it for what it is. In reality, if you like this sort of thing then you will not think of it as three days wasted sat on a train and consider those three days to be actually part of your holiday and enjoy it.
Its not the cheapest way of crossing Australia and it is unlikely you will use it as a form of transport but for an alternative, quick view of the outback it takes some beating. Some of the sights are breathtaking and some of the places we went to are places that we would never have heard of never mind made a point of going there. For that alone the trip is totally worthwhile.
Clickety clack Id love to go back .
My wife and I rather liked Sydney Central Station. Monumentally Victorian, it exudes something of the grandeur that all big city termini ought to possess. The cafeteria in particular, with its tables spilling out onto the concourse, and its murals of scenes from Australia's past (their style a cross between aboriginal art and industrial realism), was a pleasant place to wait. This was just as well, because we were to wait at the station rather longer than expected.
We had arrived early to check in our luggage, something on which Great Southern Railway, the company that operates the Indian Pacific, insists. They say 45 min before the scheduled time of departure; to be on the safe side we made it an hour. I have noted elsewhere my belief that by insisting on this kind of rigmarole railway companies are throwing away such competitive advantage as they still enjoy over airlines. Without it, we could have arrived with much less waiting time ahead of us. Also, since we had booked our own compartment, our taking our luggage on board with us would have inconvenienced no one but ourselves. In the event, we found there would have been quite enough room for it.
The check-in process was handled politely and efficiently enough, though no one mentioned a possible delay in the running of the train. If we needed any information, we were told, there would be an information stand on the platform.
After wandering round the station and taking a coffee at the cafeteria, we went and found the train. It looked impressive, its long line of stainless-steel-clad carriages - each ornamented with the Indian Pacific's emblem of a soaring eagle - occupying the tracks on both sides of a double platform, to be joined on departure. Only the two locos, massive but crusted with dust and rust, let its appearance down.
No passengers were being allowed on board, though cleaning staff did seem to be busy within. There was indeed an information stand on the platform, with no one manning it. We fell into conversation with fellow would-be passengers waiting on the platform. No one knew for certain, but the consensus was that the train must be delayed.
The departure time, 2.55 p.m., came and went. The main board on the concourse was still showing the scheduled time, now past, and no announcements were made over the public address system. The passengers stood or shuffled on the platform. The information stand remained unmanned. At about 3.30, my wife spotted a man in uniform at the end of the platform, accosted him and asked what was going on.
"We were four hours late coming in," he said, without apology,as if that explained everything.
"I see," said my wife. "But none of the passengers knows that, and we're all wondering when we're going to be allowed on board."
"Well," he repeated. "We were four hours late getting in."
"So does that mean we'll be four hours late leaving?"
"I hope not. I hope we'll be quicker than that."
"Meanwhile, no one knows what to expect. Wouldn't it be a good idea to make an announcement?"
"I suppose we could," he said, dubiously, as if humouring her.
"And will we be late in Adelaide? We've got friends meeting us off the train."
In fairness to him, he let my wife use his mobile phone to ring Adelaide and warn our friends we might be late. That was a generous gesture. But he never did put out an announcement, or give a clear indication of when we might expect to leave, which would at least have allowed us to spend some of the waiting time having another coffee, rather than hanging around the platform so as to be ready for a sudden departure. We later discovered that he was the Train Manager, so if anyone could have done something to help alleviate the situation for the waiting passengers presumably he could.
At length, whatever preparations had been going on inside our carriage were complete, and the door was opened. A blue-and-gold plastic flag was hoist beside it, a blue-and-gold mat laid on the platform outside it and we were allowed aboard. The two halves of the train were shuffled and shunted into position and at last, over two hours late, our journey on the Indian Pacific Railway began.
The Indian Pacific takes its name from the fact that it connects the two sides of Australia that face the eponymous oceans: the Pacific to the east and the Indian to the west. From Sydney to Perth it spans a total distance of 4352 km, about 2700 miles. This makes it (after the Trans-Siberian) the second longest continuous train journey in the world.
Completed in 1917, although then in several different sections each with its own gauge, the line was originally built for political reasons - to tie the remote outpost of Western Australia into the emerging federation of the more populous states in the south-east of the continent. It is questionable whether it ever made much commercial sense, and in these days of air travel it survives mainly on tourist traffic rather than as an everyday mode of transport for the locals.
The service now only runs twice a week. The full journey takes 65 hours, but my wife and I were travelling only as far as Adelaide, at 1691 km not much over a third of the total distance, to be completed, if the train ran to time, in just ten minutes over 24 hours. We were, however, doing it in style, having opted for the top-class Gold Kangaroo Service, thereby securing our own compartment with en-suite shower-room and loo, together with - according to the prospectus - all sorts of other goodies and trimmings.
The compartment was comfortable, clean, and attractively finished in light-coloured wood panelling. With the top bunk stowed neatly away, and the lower one converted to seating for daytime use, there was ample room for us to sprawl at leisure. Bill Bryson, who also took this journey (see "Down Under") makes much of how cramped he found his compartment. Perhaps. Compared, for example, with the sumptuous first-class accommodation on the Moscow-St Petersburg express, they're small; compared with the T2s on French Motorail, they're spacious. The shower-room/loos are indeed constricted, but not unmanageably so.
Initially, the service too seemed more than adequate. Our carriage attendant (sorry, "Hospitality Attendant"), dropped by to introduce herself and brief us on the journey. She was pleasant and friendly. In case we failed to take the briefing in, the compartment was supplied with a brochure, a route map, a detailed timetable, and a daily 'newsletter' entitled On Track. Tea and coffee making facilities, it told me, were to be found at the end of each carriage.
As the train trundled through Sydney's sprawling suburbs, I went to fetch some tea. Although the train had only been going for a quarter of an hour, our carriage was already out of milk. In itself this was no big deal - I soon rustled some up from another carriage - but it was to prove symptomatic of the journey as a whole.
Even sprawling suburbs are interesting when one is seeing a country for the first time, and we sat back to watch the Australia unfold. This was easily done to the north, which happened to be the way our compartment faced. Even with the compartment door to the corridor open, however, the view the other way could not be clearly seen, because of the spacing of the windows in relation to the door. This was not just a matter of our being unlucky in the position of our compartment. Checking along the carriage, I found that all were the same. Whoever designed the carriages didn't think much about the outlook for the passengers. Indeed, they didn't think about it at all. The windows stretch upwards from about thigh to chest height, so standing in the corridor provides no comfortable way to see the view on that side of the train.
This became even more of an irritant as the train ascended into the Blue Mountains, since the best views are to the south of the track. In all honesty, though, the train does not in any case provide a good vantage point from which to see Blue Mountain scenery. The track ducks in and out of cuttings that occlude the view, while along the elevated stretches it is often lined with bush. Some of the vegetation is attractive, with verbascum and wild lilies, but you can't see far. Tantalising glimpses of deep valleys and slopes cloaked in eucalyptus flicker between the trunks of the trackside trees.
I still wanted to see it, though, and in the hope of a better view we made our way along to the lounge. It was in any case now past six o'clock, and our On Track schedule told us that there would be a reception in the lounge at 6.30, for those like us on the later sitting for dinner.
The lounge was comfortable and well-appointed, though it didn't actually much improve the outlook since all the seats are angled to face inwards across the carriage. Still, I'm always ready to sit in a bar and chat to people, which is what we did as 6.30 came and went.
At about 7.00 the Train Manager, appeared. Apparently, perhaps because of the late running of the train, the reception time had been put back, but no one had got round to informing us. We should perhaps have realised by then that, despite all the printed material, communication with passengers about what's currently happening on the Indian Pacific is conducted largely by rumour. Incidentally, while I am quite happy to call myself a passenger, members of the staff are always careful to say "guest". One suspects that this is the result of some training course that focuses on words rather than meanings, on going through the motions of hospitality rather than thinking about the actuality. Perhaps it would be better if we were thought of as "customers", which would at least be a reminder of who was paying for it all.
Beyond the windows glowed a magnificent sunset, a printers' sunset in every tint of magenta and cyan. The cyan in the sky was matched by the colour of the complimentary cocktail with which we were plied. I have never been known to refuse a free drink, and I ended up drinking my wife's as well as my own. Blue-flavoured cocktails are not to everyone's taste, and I wondered why an option of fruit juice or even just water wasn't offered. To interrupt the Train Manager's presentation by standing up and going to buy a drink at the bar seemed discourteous.
To be fair to him he was quite entertaining. Some of the sexist jokes probably would have raised eyebrows in a more 'politically correct' environment, but I've never been bothered by that kind of thing. We were told a great deal about the train, its running, and the company that runs it. We were also told that, because of the late running, the usual optional extra of a brief outing round Broken Hill would not be available. We were told, but there was no apology for this, any more than there was for the tardiness of the train. "Qui s'excuse, s'accuse" (he who excuses himself accuses himself) would seem to be the motto of some Australians as well as of the French. Asked how late we were likely to arrive in Adelaide, his answer was revealing: "well, we've got to be in time to make the connection with the Ghan, or I'll be in trouble." The fact that failure to make the connection might also inconvenience passengers did not seem to be at the forefront of his consciousness.
Dinner was taken in a lavishly-ornamented dining-car, its decor in a style that Bryson memorably describes as "fin de siècle brothelkeeper" - I'm not even going to attempt to improve on that.
Our expectations of the food had not been raised by being told that it's prepared in advance and only re-heated on board, but in fact it was perfectly palatable and even tasty, and accompanied by some good Australian wine (my wife disputes this, but she's an old world wine snob, whereas I am open-minded and prepared to give any wine a chance). We were seated with two amusing Americans - a Texan lady now living in Sydney, and her son over on vacation from New York.
The meal passed very pleasantly, only slightly marred by the serving staff suddenly deciding without warning that dinnertime was at an end and clearing everything, including an unfinished bottle of water, from our table. We asked for more water and were told we would have to pay for it. Fortunately, my wife is unbeatable in this sort of situation and, after she had explained to them the error of their ways, water was made available free from the bar without further argument.
Reading this in draft, she has taken exception to the wording. Apparently, she merely helped them understand that (1) we were going to be given more water, and (2) there was no question of payment. Who am I to argue with her?
Returning to our compartment we found that the bunks had been folded down and the bedding was neatly in place. Like many people, I always find it difficult to sleep on the move, but I can't fault the Indian Pacific for nocturnal comfort.
In the morning we released the blind from our window to discover a landscape looking as if it had been ironed flat, smoothed out to the horizon as far as the eye could see. The baked red dust and low silvery-olive scrub of the outback is the stuff of cinematic cliché, but it is still startling, and mesmerising, to see it for the first time as it rolls past in its seeming endless sameness.
We also awoke to discover that a new issue of the On Track newsletter had arrived. And, lo and behold, this spoke alluringly of Coffee, Pastries and Fruit being available in the Lounge Car at 6.30 a.m., of an arrival time of 7.10 at Broken Hill, as per the timetable, and of the optional tour to be had there. Perhaps everything was back on schedule.
Having awoken early, my wife and I quickly dressed and made our way to the Lounge. Coffee was indeed available, from the machine as usual, but no pastries or fruit. Eventually we found a member of staff and enquired about this. Oh no, it was explained: these refreshments were laid on as a prelude to the outing at Broken Hill, and since that day there was going to be no outing, there would be no refreshments.
They couldn't explain the discrepancy with On Track, but I didn't think an explanation was hard to find. My guess is that the thing is printed in advance, and cannot therefore be adapted to changing circumstances. In which case, why publish it at all, in addition to all the other explanatory bumf, when it is only likely to confuse people when plans are altered?
And as for the pastries and fruit, why withdraw them just because the outing is cancelled? People who have risen early in the expectation of an outing are going to be no less hungry when it does not take place, while a snack might take the edge off their disappointment. As it was, breakfast, like the train, was going to run late; something to eat while waiting would have made a lot of difference to customer satisfaction, especially when its cost is included in the price that passengers pay for the journey. I know from the conversations that were taking place around us that my wife and I were not the only people to feel cheated by this particular piece of pettiness.
Time went by. Outback went by. Over the inbuilt entertainment system, we listened to Slim Dusty sing his ballad about the Indian Pacific, which is quite catchy in an Australian Country kind of way, and to lengthy pieces of sometimes repetitious commentary. Apparently during the night we had passed through the city of Orange, birthplace of the Australian poet A B 'Banjo' Patterson, author of Waltzing Matilda.
At length, heaps of mining spoil, corrugated iron buildings and even the occasional tree announced our impending arrival at Broken Hill. To call somewhere the cultural capital of the outback may sound like a contradiction in terms, but Broken Hill has some claim to the accolade. Its traditional industry of metal-mining has declined, but films are made here and artists have been drawn here by the clear warm light.
We had actually been quite keen to do the tour, and although that was off the agenda, my wife and I did manage a quick walk around a few blocks close to the station while the train took on water and supplies. The sunshine was already hot, but a dry heat, and not unpleasant for a walk.
The Sunday morning streets were almost deserted, giving a ghost town feel to the place, like a film-set for a western. Near the station there are several attractive buildings with metal verandas or balconies in Australian colonial style. We would have liked to explore further, but we were worried about the four-day wait in store for us if we missed the train, and hurried back all too soon.
In the event, it stopped a full hour at Broken Hill, making us doubly annoyed at having been denied the hour-long tour.
Time went by. Outback went by. It becomes a bit more animated after Broken Hill. A road parallels the track, and I found myself spotting the odd vehicle. For want of anything better to do I noted some on my pad, with the intervals between, and can now read: car - two minutes - cyclist (a masochist?) - five minutes - truck - three minutes - car - two minutes - road-train - six minutes - and so on.
Dull though the landscape is, there is an imagination-stirring quality to its vastness, especially in the knowledge that we were crossing just one small corner of Australia's huge, empty interior. And any unexpected feature arouses a disproportionate interest. My wife spotted an emu, much to her delight, and white cockatiels, with pink bellies, perhaps reflecting or dusted by the red soil. Wedge-tailed eagles, the symbol of the Indian Pacific, were often visible high in the sky. Disappointingly, though, we saw no kangaroos.
Like dinner the night before, and indeed the breakfast, lunch was an appetising enough meal eaten in amiable company. While we ate, we watched the townships and the trees increase in frequency. Quite suddenly we found we had crossed what I understand is known as Goyders Line, the point after which there is sufficient rainfall for wheat to grow. From here on the scenery changes from flat semi-desert to rolling arable, dotted with farmsteads. It is not unattractive country, but neither is it startling. One would not make the trip for this alone.
And so, at length, still running late, the train crawled through the suburbs of Adelaide to the depot. Those passengers continuing to Perth or changing onto the Ghan, which runs north to Darwin, were brusquely informed that there would no time for the tour of Adelaide that is promised on their itinerary. Once again, sorry seemed to be the hardest word. My wife and I were not sorry to be missing the further experience of endless arid scenery and further Great Southern Railway hospitality that either of these routes would have afforded us.
It only remained for us to be presented with a Certificate of having travelled the Indian Pacific and a souvenir lapel-pin decorated with the soaring eagle emblem. By now you may have detected that I'm a grumpy old curmudgeon, or perhaps a whinging pom, but these merely irritated me. It was as if GSR thought that having tacky little mementos of the experience would be more important to passengers than the quality of the experience itself.
I'm not a snob about travel. I don't mind travelling rough at times, and if I'm roughing it I accept the concomitant delays and discomforts with reasonable equanimity. But on the Indian Pacific we had paid a hefty premium to travel smooth and the rough edges of the experience were all the more abrasive in consequence.
The fare, Gold Kangaroo Class, from Sydney to Adelaide is AU$620, about £248. Red Kangaroo, with less plushy facilities, costs AU$470 (£188). If you decide you can do without your own cabin, a "daynighter seat" can be had for just AU$245 (£98). There are reductions for pensioners, children and students. These go all the way down to AU$110 (£44), at which point it begins to look like good value, which full fare Gold Kangaroo definitely was not.
I find myself, inevitably, comparing our experience on the Indian Pacific with that on the Trans-Siberian. With both, we encountered inefficiency and poor customer service. The differences were (i) the Trans-Sib was dramatically less expensive per mile and (ii) that no one on the Trans-Sib pretended to be other than what they were, which made it far easier to accept. What was so annoying on the Indian Pacific was not so much the that the staff were doing the wrong thing (though often they were) as that they were so obviously under the illusion that they were doing the right thing, and even preening themselves in the process. Such an attitude grated all the more because it was so unusual for Australia, where service is generally efficient and unpretentious.
On a personal level most of the staff on the train were friendly enough, even likeable. The Train Manager, for example. I don't think he was a bad man, or a lazy one. I think he was trying to do a good job. The trouble was that he had no idea of what his doing a good job would entail from the customers' viewpoint.
On a route of this distance, trains cannot compete with planes as an efficient mode of transport. They can only attract custom by becoming part of the holiday rather than merely a means of reaching it. As a result, customer service matters much more on a train than on a plane. We can all put up with the disagreeable when it is a means to an end, but not when it is an integral part of the end itself.
Our friends in Adelaide rang the station, before setting out to meet us, to check on the delay. They were assured that the train was now expected on time, and were therefore less than amused when they had to wait the best part of two hours for it to turn up. They had been mystified from the outset by our decision to come by train rather than by the much cheaper and quicker air alternative. Having experienced the Indian Pacific, I'm a bit mystified myself.
© First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 24th May 2005.