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WAY across the paddocks, when we were children, steel tracks ran, and on still nights the drawn-out howl of a train was the sound of yesterday and tomorrow: the coming from somewhere and the going to somewhere else that so infected the imagination of country kids.
Weekends, we'd venture to the tracks and place pennies on the steel, waiting for a locomotive and its load to thunder by and to flatten the coins into medallions to be hung triumphantly around the neck.
There were still a few steam trains running then. We could ride our bikes down to a country siding and stand next to the great panting creatures as they replenished their boilers from a tank and sometimes the sweating stoker would let us climb aboard and peer into the roaring fire box.
Down the track was a proper town station; nicely painted Edwardian architecture with a platform and a station master to sell tickets. You could catch a train and ride it all the way to Melbourne, hours away, or take a shorter trip to the beach. People did it all the time, and felt a bit like royalty in the doing.
The siding and its water tank are abandoned now and the paint has long peeled from the station, its Edwardian flourishes half rotted and forlorn. No one has been able to catch a train anywhere close to those country districts for decades. Tracks that criss-crossed the farming land have been torn up and weeds have sneaked into their place.
Perhaps there were good reasons for junking so many of Australia's rail tracks. Roads got better, more people drove more reliable cars, air services became cheaper, life became faster. Bigger and bigger trucks offered handier methods of transporting goods, even if they ripped up the roads. Trains, in a nation sparsely populated, were a drain on the public purse. Economists of a rational mind could no doubt add more learned explanations.
Many years after those nights when we'd wait for a stretched whistle to float across lonely paddocks I found myself living in Albury.
Unusually in the new Australia, it was a rail town still of great consequence, its shunting yards and freight lines always busy.
Best of all, two splendid passenger trains stopped there on their journeys between Melbourne and Sydney.
The Spirit of Progress had been running from Melbourne to Albury since 1937, and had been making the full run to Sydney since 1962 (though it progressively became a less desirable conveyance as its luxurious carriages aged, and were replaced, and bureaucratic fools removed its parlour).
The Southern Aurora was far grander. All its compartments were sleepers and its dining car offered silver service on white napery.
I took the Aurora several times from Albury to Sydney, boarding late at night from the apparently endless platform, settling in with a nightcap, bedding down for a comfortable sleep as the night rushed past and waking to a cup of tea brought by a porter, with time remaining for breakfast.
It seems a distant dream now, though the Aurora and the Spirit ran all the way to 1986, and their successors, the Sydney and Melbourne Expresses, complete with the same rolling stock, continued to 1993.
Essentially, the trains ran out of passengers. It became easier, quicker and more glamorous to catch planes between Sydney and Melbourne. And that made it easy for the government-owned railways to dispense with the finest trains ever to have plied the Australian rails.
Rail travellers, anyway, were offered new XPT trains which, it was said, would fly along at 100mph (160km/h). And perhaps one of them got to this speed at some point, once.
In practice, the ''modern'' train service was out of date before it began. When the steam-powered Spirit of Progress first ran from Melbourne to Albury in 1937, its timetable guaranteed a trip of three hours and 40 minutes. Seventy-four years later, the XPT service between Albury and Melbourne is officially three hours and 28 minutes. If only. The actual situation is vastly worse.
Even though plane travel has over the years become deeply unglamorous, with crowded terminals and maddening security, not to mention the disappearance of on-board luxuries such as proper meals and with knee-room long gone, you'd have to be desperate to even imagine a rail journey from Melbourne to Sydney.
Indeed, about the only way you could do it would be to imagine it, for the track has been so poorly maintained, and re-sleepering so badly handled, that trains are limited to about 50km/h on many sections north of Melbourne and passengers regularly have to disembark at Seymour and take a bus for the rest of the journey to Albury and beyond. What is advertised as less than 3½ hours from Melbourne to Albury often blows out to about six hours.
The picture on Page 3 in yesterday's Age blares despair: the engine of the Melbourne-Sydney passenger train sits alone on its tracks, having somehow become detached from its carriages. The passengers had to be loaded on a coach bound for Sydney. Their journey took more than 14 hours - longer than the Spirit of Progress in its final, failing days.
Hardly surprisingly, and despite the increasing hassles of catching planes, the air corridor between Sydney and Melbourne has become what is claimed to be the fourth busiest in the world, filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.
Dreaming recently of a trip overseas (and inspired by Tim Fischer's idiosyncratic new book Trains Unlimited in the 21st Century: A Journey Along the World's Railways, Past, Present and Future), I logged on to the world's favourite rail-travel website (seat61.com), and sank into the comforting indulgence of exploring how to get around Europe by train.
The Man in Seat 61 offered a dizzying choice - fast trains or extremely fast trains; scenic or fabulously scenic; first-class with diner, or meals in your seat; sleeper or couchette; full price or a sharp deal?
Who would take a plane in Europe these days?
Australia, of course, isn't Europe, where there is a bulging population of commuters and tourists forever setting out between big cities. But Australia once had a fine railway network for a much smaller population than that of today.
Is it really beyond our wit, in this carbon-fearing era, to perceive that the eastern seaboard cities of Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane were made to be linked by a Very Fast Train and that, fitted out for 21st-century travellers, it would be immensely popular?
Or do we accept that the drawn-out howl of a train in our nation is no more now than the sound of yesterday?
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/heading-along-the-wrong-track-20110812-1iqu8.html
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