The Null Device


I just caught the overnight sleeper train from Sydney to Brisbane. The Sydney to Brisbane passenger railway service is operated by Countrylink, an arm of the New South Wales government, as a subsidised public utility, essentially targeted at rural and regional areas; these services include two trains a day, in each direction, between Sydney and Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane.

In general, I was quite pleased with the service. They don't do economy-class sleeper carriages on Countrylink, so my choice was one of booking a first-class seat and a sleeper bunk or spending 14 hours in an upright seat. (I once did this going from Sydney to Melbourne; it wasn't enjoyable.) Anyway, I shelled out for a sleeper; it didn't cost much, about A$216, or less than £100. When I arrived, the train attendant (a friendly young woman named Shannon) informed me that, while I had been going to share a (2-bunk) cabin with someone else, they had been moved to a separate compartment, giving me one to myself; I'm guessing that they didn't have enough passengers to fill up the entire sleeper carriage. This was a pleasant surprise; the compartment, consisting of three seats and transforming into two bunks, seemed quite luxurious, in an unostentatious way. (There were none of the standard signifiers of luxury— no leadlighting or wood panelling, for example—it was all utilitarian melamine and carpeting.) The sense of modest luxury was rounded off with a complimentary package containing Arnott's crackers, Bega cheese, a tomato-and-curry dip, mineral water and a Tim-Tam biscuit. The compartment had a power point, though it was explicitly for shavers only. (This is another difference from trains in Britain, where one is encourage to plug in one's laptop or charge one's phone.) The power point turned out to be suitable for charging a laptop, though didn't yield enough power to actually run one; when I tried to run my MacBook from it, it thought it was running off mains power, though actually depleted its battery until it shut down. Needless to say, onboard wireless internet access was absent and is unlikely to be coming any time soon; the fact that most of the passengers ranged from their 50s to advanced old age, with a backpacker contingent in economy class, is probably further disincentive to spending money on such new-fangled fripperies.

Countrylink, unlike most railway services these days, is state-run, and not entirely at the mercies of market realities. Because it is considered a vital piece of infrastructure, it receives hefty subsidies, and consequently, their prices are quite low. (Economy class from Melbourne to Sydney can be as low as A$70, if you take advantage of a special offer.) Unlike in Britain or Europe, their fares don't change; rather than selling a handful of ridiculously cheap tickets and gouging those without the foresight to book months in advance, they charge the same fare whenever you book. The food is cheap and not very exciting; $8 or $9 gets you what's essentially a microwaved meal, and the complimentary breakfast consisted of a bowl of cereal, two slices of toast and a cup of warm water and a teabag. It is, however, forbidden to drink any alcohol one hasn't bought on the train (an offense punishable by a $400 fine, and enforced by roving transit officers in uniform; I imagine one could get away with it in a private compartment, though I didn't try it), and the only beer sold onboard was a rather ordinary light lager named Hahn.

All in all, the sleeper train is a pleasant way of getting from Sydney to Brisbane; the first-class compartment was quite comfortable, and the daytime portion of the journey was, in places, quite scenic. The one major flaw, though, was the timing. I suspect that Countrylink, much like Amtrak in the US (a similar state-subsidised passenger rail service), is near the bottom of the pecking order for access to tracks, and basically gets what the freight operators don't want. Which would be the only explanation for why the sleeper train to Brisbane leaves Sydney at 16:20 and arrives in Brisbane at 5:20 (Brisbane time; 6:20 Sydney summer time), with passengers being woken at 4am for breakfast. Also, unlike other services (the Caledonian Sleeper, for one), there is no possibility of staying onboard and sleeping until a reasonable hour; the same train is used as the daytime service, and goes back to Sydney within an hour of arrival. Which is undoubtedly convenient for the operators, though less so for their passengers.

australia countrylink railway travel 2