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As a flight attendant for decades, Andrea King crossed the Nullarbor countless times but never saw it. This week she and husband Gary, a pilot, joined the growing ranks of Australians happy to pay a premium to see the nation’s vast interior on one of the world’s great train journeys.
“It’s a dream come true to be able to share this with my husband,” she said.
On Wednesday at Central station in Sydney, the Kings boarded the Indian Pacific for four days in its exclusive platinum club carriages.
At more than 10 times the price of most economy flights from Sydney to Perth, and more than $2000 more than the price of a shared gold-class cabin on the same train, platinum club was considered risky when the service was launched in April last year.
But the federal government’s decision to pull subsidies for “red class” — the sit-up carriages that for decades packed penny-wise travellers into reclining seats with a licensed canteen and shared bathrooms — raised serious questions about the future of the Indian Pacific.
The owner, Great Southern Rail, decided luxury was the answer. The company looked to the sharp rise in demand worldwide for five-star train travel, literally ripping out the cheap seats to refurbish the carriages in opulence.
[img]http://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/5df45d281e65717409dd4819e07a66e1[/img]Great Southern Rail, decided luxury was the answer.
Now platinum club, which starts at $3698 a person for a three-night journey across the continent, is booked out eight months ahead. Great Southern Rail’s other epic journey, The Ghan Expedition from Darwin to Adelaide starts at $3149 for platinum club and is booked out for 10 months.
The success of the gamble is no surprise to Simon Pielow of Europe’s Luxury Train Club, who began his bookings business for 30 of the world’s most expensive train journeys in 2013 and has almost 17,000 members, largely from the US, Canada, Britain and Ireland. Travellers from the rest of Europe, Russia and China make up 20 per cent of his customers, and about 10 per cent who book through his club are from Australia and New Zealand.
[img]http://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/1116138348177cee11b6babfd8e3cae7[/img]Platinum club starts at $3698 a person.
Mr Pielow said most countries with a developed passenger rail service now had luxury trains.
Current favourites include the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, an art deco icon; the Teen Crucero in Ecuador; Peru’s Belmond Andean Explorer; and Maharajah’s Express in India.
The most expensive rooms aboard a train will never match a hotel suite for size but Mr Pielow said luxury travellers were prepared to pay a lot for a high level of personal service, a cabin that was elegant if not large, and fine dining and an excellent wine list.
He said his members report enjoying the interesting day trips off the train — something that does not happen as often on a cruise — and they like being close to the communities and terrain they travel through. “No one waves at a plane,” he said.
There was nothing luxurious about the Indian Pacific for fashion designer Peter Lang when he took red class from Sydney to the West Australian goldfields town of Kalgoorlie in 1974.
“I was broke,” he said with a laugh. “The seats were like concrete.”
After one night, he talked his way into an empty sleeper cabin.
[img]http://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/1444900600afa60a3b74b3e21e44234a[/img]There are interesting day trips off the train — something that does not happen as often on a cruise. Picture: Gary King
Eleven years earlier, when travellers had to change trains at state borders because tracks were not standardised, newlyweds Marg and John Gadenne took the train east from Perth for a new life in rural Victoria.
“There was a big glass viewing lounge at the back of our carriage with leather lounges — it was gorgeous,” Ms Gadenne said. “We had not seen much of Australia and we just loved every minute.”
In 1966, Ms Gadenne did the trip in reverse with a newborn and a one-year-old. “I was taking the kids to see my parents, washing nappies in a bucket and hanging them between carriages to dry. I’m sure it’s all a bit posher than that now but that’s just what we did,” she said.
For Ms King, this week’s trip reminds her of her childhood in India where her father drove diesel trains. Later, when they moved to Sydney, he was a railway guard.
“I have the happiest memories of railways and I can’t believe I get to do this,” she said.
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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