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Just over 6 hours and 360km for the full sandgroper experience.Throughout 2018, Angus Kidman is undertaking the Trainfinder challenge, visiting every city in Australia and New Zealand with a suburban rail network and travelling across the length of every line in a single day. Learn about why he's doing it and what's involved.
Perth's suburban railway has seen considerable expansion in recent decades (and further extensions are being worked on right now). Perth's city planners get huge points from me for combining much of their railway building with freeway construction. It's way cheaper to build a railway line in the middle of a road than to build one as an entirely separate activity. But just how well do the resulting trains work? Let's find out.
How much train travel are we talking here?Perth's suburban train network consists of five main lines: Mandurah to the south, Midland to the north-east, Fremantle on the coast, Butler to the north and Armadale to the south. The Armadale branch also has a single station branch to Thornlie; trains which run from Thornlie stop at every station between Cannington and the city, while those going to Armadale typically skip a few stops. Most of the time, Mandurah-Butler and Midland-Fremantle effectively operate as continuous lines, with trains passing through the city and continuing to the other branch. I'll take advantage of this at points during the day.
Perth's SmartRider smart card offers a $12.80 DayRider day pass, which would be the cheapest way of doing the challenge. However, that doesn't kick in until after 9am on weekdays, which isn't ideal for my plans (I have a late afternoon flight out of Perth). Plus every other Trainfinder challenge has started with the earliest possible train of the day. So I'll have to pay for a couple of other journeys, though in practice the fact I'm doing lots of there-and-back-again trips keeps the cost down.
Pedant note: I have almost done this challenge before. Way back in 2010, I travelled on most of Perth's branch lines to test what Telstra's then-new 4G signal was like. However, on that occasion I skipped the Thornlie branch line. To make up for that, on this day it's my very first destination.
I travelled the whole of Perth's network on Friday 7 September, a process which involved riding the rails for 6 hours and 9 minutes (station breaks not included). Here's what went down and what I learned.
I've seen traces of bad weather on my previous Trainfinder adventures, but today's the first day it's been raining as I walk to the station. Hopefully that won't result in major delays, but let's not kid ourselves: many railways collapse at the first sign of inclement weather.
Perth station is fairly quiet at 5am, no big surprise given that few lines have any service at all for the next 30 minutes. Thornlie is first cab off the rank, from platform 4, which is semi-hidden at the western end of the station. It's hardly crowded; I spot two other passengers making their way on board.
Most Perth trains feature longitudinal seating, and the design for my first service matches what I'll see throughout the day: bright yellow poles and fixtures, and the kind of maquette on the seats that would otherwise be ideal for an RSL with a minimal maintenance budget.
While Thornlie is the most obscure terminus I'll hit during the day, it's still fully gated. A couple more passengers get on board for the city-bound trip (on the same train I came in on), but we're still too early for most commuters.
Of note: a sign proudly proclaiming future plans to extend this branch to Cockburn Central. That's on the Mandurah line, and will create a first for Perth: a line interchange that doesn't run through the city centre.
Oddest station name on this line: Welshpool (do Welsh people actually bathe here?)
I'm only making a very brief trip one station back, before switching onto the outbound train for Armadale. This isn't an island platform, so I have to clamber over the stairs, but fortunately we're on time. The rain is still gently drenching me.
Armadale is also gated, though at this hour of the morning the wide gates are open so fare evasion would be fairly straightforward. Another half-dozen passengers board the service, and we head back into the city. Incidentally, we're not catching the train I came in on: that will form the next service, 15 minutes later.
Oddest station name on this line: Challis (as in "poisoned Challis")
Many train systems offer free transport for school students, but also require them to stand for fare-paying passengers. It's a sensible system, but I've never seen signage for it as prominent as on Perth services.
Back at Perth I have to interchange from Perth platform 4 to Perth Underground platform 2. While technically part of the same station complex, it's a long enough walk to justify the separate label. And it is a truly underground section, with tunnels either side and lengthy escalators (some of which are being replaced) needed to reach street level.
Perth Underground-Mandurah 6:59am-7:50am
Befitting the Mandurah/Butler branch status as the newest part of the system (at least until the current extensions are completed), we get different (and slightly newer) trains. The decor is the same, but rather than nothing but long bench seats, there's a more traditional pairs-of-seats arrangement, with occasional benches to break things up.
The carriages are also connected throughout. School pupils are much in evidence, though the train isn't so crowded that they'll need to give up their seats.
Much of the line offers attractive water and bushland views as well as the occasional chance to gloat at traffic stuck on the freeway.
When we reach Mandurah, we're perhaps one minute late. That's the first delay I've noticed so far, and I'm impressed given the rain. There are no clouds in sight here, but we are 70 kilometres from Perth, so variable weather is to be expected.
Oddest station name on this line: Cockburn Central (work it out for yourselves, folks)
Mandurah-Perth Underground 7:56am-8:49am
The return journey is relatively uncrowded at first, but fills up as we get closer to Perth. That's hardly surprising; my train is due just before 9am, so it's pretty handy timing for office workers.
I could have stayed on the same train and continued all the way to Butler. But after four hours, I need a breakfast break.
Perth Underground-Butler 9:23am-10:01am
A quick McMuffin later and we're back in business, waiting for a train on a platform that's filled with evidence of escalator repair.
This line is still known as the Joondalup line, even though that's no longer the terminus. The branch was extended to Clarkson in 2004 and to Butler in 2014.
By the time we reach Butler, our previously full train has just a handful of passengers. A sign on the main concourse again boasts of a planned line extension, this time further north to Yanchep.
That said, there's not much evidence of work just yet.
Oddest station name on this line: Clarkson (as in Jeremy)
Butler-Perth Underground 10:11am-10:48am
Once again, I turn around and board the same train. Butler itself is a large station, with gates, a stairwell and an escalator. But we've passed rush hour now, so not too many passengers board.
Back in the city, I change onto the Fremantle line. This is the oldest of Perth's suburban lines, which makes sense given Fremantle's role as a key port.
We're back with longitudinal seating again. There's a clear pattern in how commuters use these seats. Almost everyone sits next to a pole, which discourages anyone from sitting right next to you. Even at this time of day, the train gets fairly full by the time we reach Fremantle, bang on schedule.
Oddest station name on this line: Swanbourne (as in "there's Swanbourne every minute")
Most Perth stations are decidedly utilitarian, but Fremantle retains a certain Victorian charm, with raised roofing and vintage brickwork. There's a kiosk too, which makes a change from the usual vending machines.
Adding to the old-fashioned air, there's even a display of timetable brochures. I wonder how long that will survive in a smartphone-centric universe?
I don't need to change trains for my final lurch of the day to Midland as the Fremantle service continues through, albeit with a five-minute break.
Our journey is interrupted by a ticket check. No-one in my carriage is busted for not having a suitable ticket, which quite frankly isn't the norm in other states.
Oddest station name on this line: Meltham (as in "What happens if you put ice cubes in boiling water? You Meltham")
We arrive at Midland right on time, which is just as well as I only have five minutes to turn around. Midland is a large gated station with a major bus terminus. You can also board the daily service to Kalgoorlie here. That's not an option for me, but I head back into the city, the day's journey done.
What I learned
Of the six cities I've covered for Trainfinder so far, Perth is the only one to have gates at every terminal station. Presumably that leads to lower levels of fare evasion. (Adelaide, by way of contrast, has just two stations in its entire network with gates.)
Despite my rain-induced fears, the trains were also punctual, clean and modern. It's really hard to come up with something to complain about, and it's pleasing to see that the network is still being extended.
After some easy runs, the next Trainfinder challenge is one of the two most complex I'll face: Sydney. While that's my hometown and I've Opal hacked much of the network in the past, I'll still be facing parts of the system I've never seen before. Wish me luck!
This article first appeared on www.finder.com.au
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