This blog is rapidly turning into a personal ledger of planes, trains, and automobiles. So be it.
Train travel is a relaxing, meditative way to see the Australian outback, and gives you a real appreciation of the breadth and depth of this amazing country.
But rail travel in Australia is not for the impatient or time-poor. Nothing happens in a hurry, despite the best efforts of politicians, lobby groups and civil engineers over many years. High speed rail has never been a reality in Australia, and for better or worse, the ‘Overland’ service between Melbourne and Adelaide is no exception.
If you draw a straight line on a map between Melbourne and Adelaide, and expect the train line to follow a similar path between the two capital cities, you’ll be disappointed. Today the passenger train takes a circuitous route south through Geelong North Shore, then north-west through Ararat, Stawell, Murtoa, and south-west into Horsham. The line then follows the highway to Dimboola, Nhill, Bordertwon, Tailem Bend and Murray Bridge. Finally the line cuts south just as it approaches Adelaide city, and winds its way down through the foothills at an average speed of about 40 km/h for nearly two hours. It’s slow going, but magnificent scenery through the outskirts of Adelaide and Belair National Park.
To use a well-worn cliché, the line is just a shadow of its former past. It’s predominantly single track now, with passing loops at a number of locations to allow for faster passenger trains to get in front of longer, slower-moving freight trains, as well as to allow trains travelling in opposite directions to pass.
Sadly there’s an enormous amount of infrastructure simply wasting away on the rail line between Melbourne and Adelaide.
At one time or another, stations like Horsham, Dimboola, Nhill and Bordertown must have been thriving industrial and agricultural centres, all part of a complex network of livestock, grain and passenger transit. Someone, somewhere must have once decided it was a good idea to build 6 parallel stretches of track at Murtoa, as well as goods sheds, a loco depot, a turntable, a signalbox, cattle yards and grain silos.
Maybe, quite possibly, the wasting infrastructure we see today was built as a conservative compromise, and a planned railyard twice this size was ‘rationalised’ to the six tracks we see today, of which only one is now in permanent use.
Imagine these rail yards 100 years ago. Steam engines would have been hard at work at all hours of the day and night, shunting freight, livestock and passenger consists destined for sale yards and bustling cities. Dozens of men and women would have been employed at each station as mechanics, fitters, welders, booking clerks, signalmen, kiosk operators and of course Station Masters. Not one would have been wearing a reflective vest, and the network (for the most part) would have run like the well-oiled machine it was. Now these stations are largely unmanned, occupied only by wildlife and tumbleweeds. There are many at which trains don’t even slow down, especially in the Adelaide foothills where station buildings are boarded up and signal boxes permanently switched out.
Telegraph lines shadow the train for long distances. Each pair of cables used to carry one telephone circuit, or were used for block signalling between sections. Most of these aerial lines have now been abandoned in favour of more resilient radio links, optic fibre and complex computer systems.
Redundant sidings are overgrown with weeds, rust-stained grain silos are weather-worn and unserviceable, while dilapidated water tanks at a number of stations stand testament to the steam era of the Victorian and South Australian Railways.
You can’t help but wonder when passing through stations with old grain hoppers rusted to the sidings in which they’re stabled: who owns all this stuff? Does anyone know it’s here? How long has it been lying derelict in this abandoned station? What does the future hold in store for this rolling stock: revamp by a new freight operator? A preservation society? Or maybe the inevitable scrapyard?
Nowadays The Overland is a comfortable, albeit slow, journey. The passenger service is run by Great Southern Rail, which contracts Pacific National – Intermodal to haul its trains with NR-class diesel locomotives. The track and “transport corridors” are still government-owned, managed by the state-owned VicTrack, and parts of the line are maintained by a Federal organisation called ARTC. The track is in various states of repair, from smooth running at 110km/h down to just walking pace through some sections. On the return journey from Adelaide, debilitating speed restrictions mean trains that depart Ararat 20 minutes early can arrive at Geelong North Shore some 45 minutes behind schedule.
Travelling in Red Service seats is comfortable and certainly roomier than an aeroplane. The station buildings, train carriages and onboard bathrooms are wheelchair accessible and there’s plenty of space overhead and under seats for luggage, with four seats across separated by a centre aisle.
The Red Premium seats have even more legroom and personal space, with these carriages configured “2 + 1″ across separated by a centre aisle.
A snack bar operates for most of the trip selling hot and cold drinks, snacks, booze if you’re over 18, as well as souvenirs.
The journey between Melbourne and Adelaide takes about 10 – 11 hours depending on track work and unscheduled passes with other trains. Three services run in each direction every week.
Unfortunately there’s no longer a “sleeper” service which used to run overnight, which would have made the journey a lot more palatable for some. Private cabins with bunk beds used to make the train a compelling alternative for frequent travellers, who could sleep through the night and awake refreshed at the other end.
The Overland also connects with The Ghan (to Alice Springs / Darwin) and The Indian Pacific (to Sydney / Perth) at Adelaide’s Parklands rail terminal.
For about the same price as an economy airfare, or two or three tanks of fuel, The Overland is a comfortable travel alternative. In addition to seeing a large part of south-east Australian outback, you’ll also get an insight into the vast Victorian and South Australian rail networks of yesteryear.
Some links and references:
All images taken by me. You’re welcome to copy them for non-commercial use.