The sky is purple as I walk up and down platform one at Sydney Central Station on Thursday evening. It’s 8:15 p.m. and I have about 20 minutes to do some last-minute shopping before my 11 a.m. train to Melbourne. I’ve been on the trip before and I know how to stretch ahead of time. But tonight, the scene outside the XPT is different.
There are a lot more people than normal and the type of passengers boarding is different. There are young professionals, many in suits, and trendy guys dressed in fashion. There’s even a group of college students who look like they just stepped out of a high-end vape shop. They’re all “newbies”, as the train staff call them, and they look like they’re about to board the Hogwarts Express.
Related: Time warps and Thai curry: Taking the 11-hour train from Melbourne to Sydney | Brigitte Delaney
They approach XPT with a sense of excitement that they will soon lose when they learn that the service is full (meaning it will be crowded). It will turn to disappointment when they find out there are no charging sockets or wifi – then to anger when they find out there is no mobile reception on board.
Let me explain how we got here.
Australian air transport is in chaos. Airlines are still reeling from Covid inactivity, fuel prices are high and demand from travelers is soaring meaning Australians face record prices to fly this Christmas.
The consumer watchdog is wary of carriers that deliberately offer fewer services in order to keep airfares high.
I wrote at the end of November that Australians were opting for cheaper overnight trains and coaches to travel between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Ridership on these lines has more than doubled in recent months and the services are selling out. Then I realized that I was about to be part of this trend.
I celebrated a friend’s 30th birthday in Melbourne in a few days and hadn’t booked any flights yet. Faced with a $500 fare, I turned to the only sensible option – the train. There are two services a day between Sydney and Melbourne and I opted for overnight accommodation and an economy seat (not a sleeper) for $78.
As we entered the car and took our seats on Thursday evening, an announcer warned passengers for the first time to sit in their assigned seats. While some may feel empty in Sydney, passengers will board at each of the 15 stops, in towns like Goulburn, Wagga Wagga and Albury.
Train attendants, wearing embroidered Transport for NSW shirts, patrol the carriages all night with small torches, flashing them in the faces of passengers who need to be woken up before their regional stops. So swapping seats is a big no-no.
The warning is repeated three times before our first stop – a measure the staff have taken to deal with the surge of newcomers taking XPT in recent months due to unaffordable domestic airfares.
Cars have rows of two seats on either side of a central aisle in economy class and first class – the latter has seats that recline more with a bit more legroom. There are a limited number of sleeper cabins, which sold out on our trip.
After warning against swapping seats for the fourth time, the announcer ends his welcome: “We’ll all be friends and we’ll get you where you’re going.” I turn to the man sitting next to me and smile. He growls and turns to the window.
Initially, the experience is pleasant, especially compared to the flight. I’m tall – I stopped counting once I got past 188cm – and like someone who thinks about surgically shortening their legs every time a reclining airplane seat cracks my kneecaps, the The XPT’s legroom is luxurious.
The aisle is also spacious – passengers can pass through the cars without sweeping those from the aisle seats.
And where are they walking? In addition to the two bathrooms per car – which are about 50% larger than an economy toilet on an airplane – the buffet car is a big plus.
The hot meal menu is read at the start of the trip and, on the advice of my former colleague Brigid Delaney, who took the XPT, I dodge the mango chicken curry option. Instead, I opt for the roast turkey with vegetables. Main meals cost between $9.50 and $12.50.
When the meals are ready for collection around 10 p.m., I walk to the buffet car to collect mine. Pies, sausage rolls, chocolates and salads are also on sale, as are glasses of red and white wine – the train is a licensed venue and those smuggling their own grog will be warned. However, there is a bottleneck at the checkout, as the Eftpos machine processes slowly.
Why? Because it relies on a spotty internet connection and, as the clerk serving me explains, the metallic tinted windows block mobile reception. The effect is the equivalent of wearing a tinfoil hat to block mind-controlling waves.
My iPhone on Telstra goes between “SOS only” and a bar of 3G all the way, but can rarely load a simple web page except when the doors open at stops. “These trains weren’t built for Apple Pay,” the mule buffet employee says, handing me my food from a box.
To be fair, when I get my roast back to my seat, it’s hot, flavorful, and satisfying. However, many passengers did not know about the buffet car or could not wait for it to open. As soon as we left Central, the passengers around me pulled out dinners they had brought with them. The smell of a supermarket roast passed me and clashed with the steam rising from a large tupperware container of garlic prawns being eaten to my right.
In front, a 20-year-old is questioned for at least 10 minutes by the pensioner sitting next to him on the difference between Porto and Ogalo, after unpacking his hamburger from the first.
This enthusiasm in the cabin fades fairly quickly, and when the car lights go out at 11 p.m., most passengers fall asleep.
Within 20 minutes, about three men in my circle are snoring violently. In a way, it’s a testament to how comfortable XPT service is, even in economy class, and I’m happy for them. But in another way, around 1am, I feel like getting violent with them. I try to think that they are all good Samaritans, having opted for a mode of transport with a responsible carbon footprint. But I still hate them.
At some point I go to the bathroom and come back to see the loudest snorer sitting awake. I immediately try to make him run so that he falls asleep first, but I lost in a minute.
By the time we arrive at Southern Cross station at around 7:40 a.m., I’ve managed to sleep about seven hours. Unfortunately these arrived in seven one hour blocks as I was woken up by bright lights at most stops.
All in all, these problems can be solved with an eye mask and earplugs. And a pillow will help soften your armrest. Once you embrace the cost savings, lower carbon footprint, and trade-off on longer journeys, the XPT delivers nice service. It would be great if the tracks were improved so the trains could run faster – sometimes it feels extremely slow. Telephone reception would also be a plus, although it is nice to have to switch off. You’ll also save on airport transfers at both ends.
And Mother Earth will smile at you, even if you’re ready to punch your fellow travelers in the face.