Thursday 9 July 2009

On Platform 2: The 8.05 to Adelaide!

In 2007 I underwent a journey of discovery regarding interstate train travel in Australia. In March I took the overnight sleeper from Melbourne to Sydney; and in September I headed to Adelaide on Australia's oldest interstate (once intercolonial) train journey, the 828 kilometre Overland route, established in 1887. This is what it was like:

The early morning scene at Melbourne’s Southern Cross station is suitably atmospheric; there’s a chill in the air, and passengers are beginning to gather on platform 2 for the train.

The location is majestic, the great curves of the station roof undulating way above our heads. On the other platforms, scuffed V/Line trains are pulling in at regular intervals, disgorging tree-changers commuting to work from their country homes.

I feel that every great rail journey should begin early in the morning, just a little before you’d comfortably like to be up and about. Because train stations are open to the elements, there’s none of the antiseptic claustrophobia of airports. The chill in the air, the bustle of commuters, the grandeur of the setting and the proximity to the city means the journey takes on a certain importance... even if it were just a holiday jaunt.

If you’re overimaginative like me, you can hear a mental echo of the great days of rail, of Agatha Christie novels and Sherlock Holmes stories, of exiled Russian princesses and shady American magnates with obscure motives.

The Overland, a survivor of the 19th century, has two sit-up classes of travel nowadays; in May 2007, the old sleepers were swept away in favour of daytime-only travel, either in standard seating (Red Service) or the more roomy Red Premium carriages.

There’s also a dash of dagginess - or alternatively, homeliness - as part of the mix. As we travel, a recorded commentary pipes up from time to time, with service announcements and information on the destination we’re passing through. The commentator’s smooth tones dance the line between cheery and cheesy, with gags like “GSR has some of the finest train staff in the world... unfortunately they’re not on board today”. Sophisticated it ain’t, but the older audience likes it and it raises smiles.

Heading west

The first part of the journey, to Geelong, is a familiar trek, with Melbourne’s western suburbs giving way to flat, scrubby countryside punctuated by the odd little town. I always find this landscape faintly melancholy for some reason, imagining it as a wasteland between the two cities.

At North Shore we pull over for a while, opposite a maze of equipment in the industrial complex opposite. I can see from the schedule that we’ll be biding our time in a number of sidings today as the single track on most of the route gives priority to freight trains. It’s not really a problem, as the passengers on this ten hour journey are clearly vacationers out to enjoy the company and the passing scenery.

The clearest contrast to the more businesslike Melbourne-Sydney train is the Overland’s very pleasant cafe carriage, a notable omission from the Sydney train. It has comfortable table seating, and I sit here for a while with a coffee, talking to an older couple who are on holiday (On the way back, I share a table around sunset with a Muslim student from India, who breaks his Ramadan fast as the towers of Melbourne’s CBD appear on the horizon).

West of Geelong, industry gives way again to picturesque grassy, gently rolling fields lined by gum trees, though livestock seems thin on the ground. The light rain creates a mist across the horizon, softening the view and giving the suggestion of an Impressionist work. Around 11.30am we pass some fields dotted with rocky outcrops that look like worn remnants of ancient stone circles, happily ignored by lambs prancing about their mothers.

The commentary continues to flick on and off occasionally, giving info on passing towns and remarkable features, in the announcer’s best commercial radio tones. The attempts at folksiness also continue... a segment on SA’s wines mentions “great-tasting plonk” and concludes with the sound of clinking wine glasses.

Border crossing

Lunch arrives and is good - a tasty and crisp chicken caesar salad and excellent apricot cheesecake, served in bowls with a bubbly pinot noir chardonnay on the side. All for $24, which seems reasonable for long-haul transport in both price and quality. As the remains are cleared away we pass the red-brick Dimboola station building, a classic country station of the old school with its all-caps sign.

The crossing of the South Australian border is an anti-climax, announced by the driver after it’s happened. And, unsurprisingly, eastern South Australia looks much the same as western Victoria - green fields alternating with bright yellow fields of canola, interrupted by the occasional farmhouse.

At 2.15pm we pass through the aptly named Bordertown, the first town on the SA side of the border. Sadly, the charming old stone and timber train station, painted white, is boarded up. It seems an unnecessary derelict given the town’s role as the gateway to South Australia... perhaps it could become a visitor centre, or a museum?

South Australia’s passenger rail system has clearly declined since its glory days (there are, in fact, no passenger services outside Adelaide except the tourist-orientated interstate trains), and we pass more abandoned stations along the way. There may be nothing more depressing than a mouldering old platform with a pair of bare metal poles which once supported a destination sign. At least Tailem Bend station, reached about 4pm, is evidently still in use; I find out later it’s being restored as a visitor information centre.

Hills and vines

Ten minutes later, the landscape suddenly becomes dramatic. The consistently flat farming country gives way to hills, and the train begins to climb. Below, as we rise, I can see floodplains and grazing cows. Along the way we pass a peacock in someone’s backyard and a bathtub washed up somehow in the middle of the plain, then cross the Murray River on a spectacular 1924 bridge which carries us high above the plains and crops directly into Murray Bridge station on the opposite bank.

From this point the terrain becomes ever more hilly, as we head toward Mount Lofty and the Adelaide Hills, with rocky outcrops of silvery gum trees growing out of reddish soil. We soon have brilliant views over fields far below us, undulating distant hills, and a highway with cars driving past farmhouses, sheds and dried-out sporting grounds.

At 5pm we get our first glimpses of vineyards, lots of them, forming geometric patterns up and down the slopes. We’re also starting to see winery signs, neat stone houses from colonial times, and other types of farms hugging the hillsides.

Just after 5.30pm, nearing the end of the journey, an amazing view opens up from the heights above the city, looking down onto the vast flat plain with a cluster of tall buildings within the central business district. It feels like we’re truly in Adelaide’s orbit now. We slide down into the city and reach the interstate rail terminal, in the fairly unattractive industrial surrounds of Keswick, close to 6pm.

My verdict? The Overland takes time, but if you want to give air travel a miss in favour of a more relaxed approach involving non-stop scenery, canola fields, vineyards, evocative old stations and drinks in the bar with fellow passengers, it’s a great way to go intercolonial in the 21st century.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Great Southern Railway. The Overland travels between Melbourne and Adelaide three times a week in both directions. For more info, visit GSR's website.

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