Inter-city train travel in Australia isn’t fast. It takes more than four hours to travel the 286km from Canberra to Sydney, but what the journey lacks in speed, it more than makes up for with its in-flight entertainment, otherwise known as the scenery.
Whatever the merits of living in Canberra, it’s fair to say that Australia’s capital doesn’t represent most people’s view of a classic Australian landscape – at least, not until you head out into the countryside. But board one of the three daily trains that leave Canberra’s only station and the ‘real Australia’ quickly reveals itself.
My train to Sydney pulled out at a little before 7.00am. It pretty much crawled along at first, suggesting this was more of a tourist’s sightseeing service than a serious inter-city link, but the carriages were actually half-full of families, business people and day trippers.
After a first stop at neighbouring Queanbeyan, the vista opened up into wide carpets of wispy grassland and the occasional swooping valley, many populated by grazing horses. Kangaroos bounced alongside the train, as if on their own early morning commute. It was like a real-life, constantly changing tourist brochure for rural New South Wales.
Federation era stations came and went, each like something from the film set of a period drama, and I began to think that four hours wasn’t quite enough to take it all in.
I confess to liking train travel. Time-permitting, I’d always favour the city centre to city centre option of the railway to the 45 minute turbo-prop hop of the plane.
But Australia seems to have an uneasy relationship with public transport and, while its east coast cities seem prime candidates for a 21st century high-speed rail link – such a link would reduce the Canberra to Sydney trip to just over an hour, and the Sydney to Melbourne journey from ten and half hours to just three – there seems little political will to pursue the idea.
On this trip, I was able to wonder at the determination of those nation-building, early railway pioneers, and to reflect on what back-breaking work it must have been to carve out this spectacular journey. But I also wondered whether it wasn’t time to emulate their audacity with similar foresight that could redefine inter-city travel for the next 100 years.
An hour before arrival, Sydney began to announce itself, with assembled masses of parked cars marking out the remaining intermediate stations as commuter towns. From here, the scenery resembled that which you might see on any train journey into London, Paris, New York or Berlin – tracks multiplying, houses and flats huddled against the track edges, smaller stations that we didn’t pause for, and concrete walls daubed with graffiti.
I arrived in Sydney in time to meet a friend for lunch – more on that particular city in another post – but I’ll just say this: for all of Sydney’s charms and all of Canberra’s appeal, I’d rate the journey between the two as more spectacular than either. Only by travelling through a country can you truly appreciate its wonder, and this train offers the best views that money can buy.
You can find out more about the Canberra to Sydney rail link on the NSW TrainLink website.