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Maybe unfairly, the train has a grim reputation of being slow, uncomfortable and dull. Covid-19 means I’ll get to find out first-hand
‘Hop on a plane between Melbourne and Sydney and what you miss seeing is really this absence – the fact that there’s nothing to see, that this country is big, and mostly empty of people.’ Photograph: czardases/Getty Images/iStockI get invited to give a talk at the Opera House, which I say yes to, before wondering how the hell I’m going to get from Melbourne to Sydney during the pandemic.
In usual times the journey is a cakewalk. Just fly! There were once so many flights, with Melbourne-Sydney the second busiest airline route in the world.
How different things look now. Virgin, administration. Tiger, disappeared. Qantas, one flight a day.
The first hurdle to cross: could I even leave Victoria?
A quick check of the laws – and yes, I could leave. The borders between the states had never been closed.
But looking at flights a few weeks before the event, I had a shock. The cheapest one-way direct flight leaving on the Friday was $800. The other flights, costing in their thousands and taking 23 hours and 50 minutes to get from Melbourne to Sydney, actually went via Perth.
Could I even get into Perth with the borders closed or would I have to go into quarantine?
As an unlicensed person, I couldn’t drive to Sydney, and a quick search on the Greyhound website revealed they had suspended their Melbourne-Sydney bus services.
Pre-Covid, moving between the two capitals had been so easy that a sort of magical thinking formed that really Melbourne and Sydney were only an hour apart.
The virus – in the way that it operates on so many levels by unspooling time, taking us back to another age – meant that the trip would have to be taken an old-fashioned way. By rail.
Shudder. The train. Maybe unfairly, the Melbourne to Sydney train has a grim reputation. Slow, overly long (at 11 hours and 17 minutes, making it longer than the Melbourne-Shanghai flight), uncomfortable, dull – it’s never made the list of the world’s great rail journeys.
“Railways and ships are the two forms of travel where the journey is commensurately as exciting as the destination,” wrote the late, great travel writer AA Gill, who obviously hadn’t travelled on the line.
Even train nerds are decidedly a bit cold on it. One colleague on secondment from England had been excited to take the journey between the capitals by rail. He couldn’t understand why people kept urging him to fly instead, until he took the journey and realised it was slow and mostly boring.
PreliminariesSouthern Cross is bleak at 6am. The pandemic has emptied it of commuters, and at this hour it’s not only eerie but very cold, and there’s nothing open. The train leaves at 7am but I want to give myself time to check in – just like I would at an airport.
But when I try to find the Sydney train on the departures board, it’s not there! Have I got the day wrong? No. The time? My ticket says 7am.
I got to a Vline counter and they laugh. They literally laugh in my face – not in an unkind way, but at my expectation the Sydney train would conform to a timetable.
‘I sit in a room called “Travellers Aid”, in a socially distanced configuration. It’s like a grim, 1980s version of an airport lounge.’ Photograph: Brigid
I go to another ticket booth. They tell me the train is now scheduled to leave at 8:30am – but that may change. I start to complain and the man cuts me off. I am lucky there is a train! There was going to be a bus! And they just decided at the last minute that there’d be a train – so just be grateful, OK?!
OK. I sit in a room called “Travellers Aid”, in a socially distanced configuration. It’s like a grim, 1980s version of an airport lounge. There are heaters and showers and a television showing the ABC breakfast show – but nowhere to charge your phone and no wifi.
Then finally, a departure announcement. People on the platform, socially distanced, wearing masks, are carrying bags and bags of food.
It’s alarming. Have people starved on this train before?
The journey 9am to midday
I am sitting in first class – at a cost of $160 one way. Like everyone in the train we are socially distanced, with eight seats for every one person. That means it actually feels like I am on an empty train, except for a man who I can just glimpse ahead of me, diagonally to the right.
This also means that unlike movies such as Before Sunrise where people have romantic or chance encounters on the train, I will not be able to get near enough to anyone for this to happen.
Instead we have the conductor’s voice for company. She is very, very, very sorry for the late arrival of the train into Melbourne, sounding personally distraught, to the point of devastation.
She says over the loudspeaker: “I am a good listener and I will listen to you if you are angry or anxious about late departure. I will be coming through the carriage now to listen to you.”
I wish I could read the carriage as to whether people are angry or anxious or want to talk – but we are all seated too far apart to tell.
All throughout the journey, the conductor keeps us updated about this lost time. We’re hitting 120 km/h on the tracks, we’re going to make up for lost time. Oh no, we have to stop outside Benalla to allow a V/Line train to pass – and we’ve lost 10 minutes. It’s like Snakes and Ladders: just when we’re ahead, we fall behind (ultimately, despite the delays, we arrive four minutes early into Sydney.)
Out the window, straight up the guts of central Victoria, the countryside is green and lush.
More farms. Some dry stone walls. Green hills.
There’s an announcement from the buffet cart. A hot lunch will be served.
The menu sounds sophisticated: roast chicken with vegetables, Thai green curry, vegetarian curry. A man comes along the carriage to take my order. This feels all very exciting and pre-Covid. It’s like a restaurant!
Midday to 3pm
We cross the New South Wales border. A bit anticlimactic but still, on the train it is more of an occasion than a border crossing by plane - which is almost never acknowledged concurrently to the crossing and therefore has some subtle effect of nullifying even the existence of a border.
Lunch is ready. A highlight, surely. We socially distance as we line up to collect the meals from the buffet cart.
Back in my seat, the meal has been heated to volcanic temperatures. It is covered in layers of protective gear. Underneath the plastic and foil, the meal resembles aeroplane food – but I wonder if even the most sadistic airline caterer would be audacious enough to put chunks of pineapple on a Thai chicken curry. Eat the curry. Leave the pineapple.
Coffee time. The thermos lid is on too tight but no one on the train can get it off for me because of Covid.
Sleep for two hours. Wake up with sore neck.
The train creaks and rocks like it’s speaking a secret language. Turning some corners seems harder than others, and when that happens you can almost hear the train complain. Arghhhh, eeak. But it keeps going. In these groans I get a sense of the miles done, and the age, and the service.
3pm to 6pm
Countryside is unchanging – just more and more and more brilliant green. Mostly it strikes me how empty Australia really is. We’ve boundless plains to share.
The winter sun is bright and remains so all day, giving all the green a bright, emerald sheen. The land around here has mostly been cleared. Some old gum trees have been spared. Every now and then there’s a thicket of forest, a creek, a billabong – but not once on the journey do I see a person out there.
Hop on a plane between Melbourne and Sydney and what you miss seeing is really this absence – the fact that there’s nothing to see, that this country is big, and mostly empty of people.
Closer to Melbourne, Meriton rules and the unikit homes march up the hills where the emerald grass has been churned into dirt. But out here – Riverina country, I’m guessing – are remnants of old Australia: a large racetrack on the outskirts of town, lacework on the iron of the stations (and the station master’s whistle and the lurching starts of the train – the eternals of rail travel), weatherboard houses along the tracks with rusted roofs.
After Harden, it appears: a big full moon low on the horizon, looking ridiculous, majestic and large above the golden sun-drenched fields.
A freight train passes beside us. Maybe time has warped for me now, but it seems to never end, like some sort of mystical snake, as long as NSW itself.
The man ahead of me is drinking small bottles of red wine, eating a packet of Allen’s lollies and listening to country music through his leaky headphones. Now and then he sings a few bars. He’s getting drunk, I suppose, but in a soft, country music way.
6pm to 9pm
The dark outside is complete. I finish my snacks. My devices have run out of battery.
I get a thrill as we pass Campbelltown. We’re almost here.
How can there be a city at the end of this emptiness and time and space?
But there is. Hello Sydney.
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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