100 years of railroads in Australia

Has the train already sailed?

Only two continents do not have high-speed trains: Antarctica and Australia. For exactly 100 years now, the “Indian Pacific” has been plodding from Perth to Sydney and back. Average speed: 80 kilometers per hour. But now everything is set to change.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, the “Indian Pacific” for Adelaide and Sydney is about to depart. The “Indian Pacific” for Adelaide and Sydney is about to depart.”

At the east station of Perth , the capital of Western Australia. Getting ready for a three-day trip to Sydney on the other side of the continent. 4352 kilometers by train from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, from coast to coast. The “Indian Pacific” is like a city on wheels, 600 meters long. Container wagons full of freight, passenger cabins and a traveling hotel with a pub, restaurant and rooms with a view.

“Please sit back and relax and enjoy the service and the scenery. Do not hesitate to ask any member of the crew if you have any problems. They are willing to be of any assistance….”

The voice over the loudspeaker is train manager Dave Goodwin, half living timetable, half talking tour guide. Dave is proud that the Perth-Sydney train service is exactly 100 years old. In late 1917, the rail line across the continent was put into service. An attempt by the government to bring Australians on the west and east coasts closer together, to defy the tyranny of distance.

Wonderful peace on board: cell phones without reception
What started out as a freight train was soon also used by passengers and became more and more of a tourist attraction. Dave Goodwin enthuses that time doesn’t just fly by on a trip with the Indian Pacific.

“Passengers are surprised by the vastness and diversity of the landscape. We have mountains, the desert and the ocean at both ends. But what our guests particularly appreciate is that there are no phones ringing. They can’t be reached by anyone, and that’s why they relax.”

The barren bush, fiery red sand and shimmering heat: outside the train windows, the landscape passes by like in a wide-screen cinema. Engine driver Fergus Moffat ensures a leisurely, mostly jerk-free 80 kilometers per hour. Postcard sunrises and sunsets, clear starry skies at night or herds of wild camels: although Fergus usually drives straight ahead, boredom is a foreign word to him.

Happy train driver

“As in all professions, there are many people for whom being a train driver is just a job and who could also do something else. For me, however, it is a privilege to drive one of the few truly transcontinental trains in the world. What we transport across the country is important for our economy. I love it, I’m one of the lucky ones who can combine my hobby and my job.”

Beyond the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie, the vast land is soon as flat as mother’s pie tin, not necessarily fruitful but habitable. Still, there’s only one place within hundreds of miles, halfway across, on the edge of the Nullabor Desert.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. We are running approximately ten minutes ahead of schedule and should arrive at Cook at approximately 9.15.”

Too big to be a train station, too small to call it a village: Cook is the only stop of the “Indian Pacific”. Opportunity to change drivers, take on water and time for passengers to stretch their legs. A simple dwelling house with a parched front yard, a few corrugated iron sheds, gasoline tanks, and the “driver’s hotel,” a one-story shelter with sleeping accommodations.

Like the movie set in an outback western

Cook looks like the movie set of an outback western, a ghost town with a deserted main street. Cook has only three permanent residents. Sheepdog Skip and the Hutchinsons, Greg and Michelle.

“We’re the janitors of Cook. We take care of the power, water and driver accommodations. Every week, 50 freight trains and four passenger trains come through here. We don’t mind the isolation; we enjoy the quiet. My boss sits somewhere else, I can wear whatever I want and we don’t know any traffic jams. We have a pretty relaxed life here.”

“If you’re sick come to Cook” – “If you’re sick come to the right place” is written in peeling paint above Cook’s infirmary. The whitewashed wooden barracks has a few beds but no patients; instead of a doctor, there’s only an emergency cabinet with medicine and bandages. Instead, the tennis court-sized machine shed is full of spare parts. Whether it’s wheel bearings or entire car doors, Michelle’s inventory list is as thick as a phone book.

“Cook and the railroad were built at the same time, because Cook only exists because of the trains. The place came into being in 1917 as a base for the drivers and a material depot to maintain and repair the tracks. Cook has always been there just for the trains, and that’s not going to change.”

“Cook could be a city today”
826 kilometers away from the nearest city and it’s more than 100 kilometers of unpaved dust road to the nearest highway. Cook is nothing more than a tiny flyspeck on the vast Australian map, but for urban and transportation planner Phil Cleary, Cook is a wasted opportunity. “The place could be a city today,” Cleary believes, a hub for freight and passengers. One of many along the tracks, just as Americans would have done. What first united the states of the United States was the railroad. The North American continent was opened up on the back of the steel steed. Wherever the railroad was built in the U.S., settlements and towns sprang up that grew into cities and metropolises. But transportation planner Phil Cleary laments, “Not in Australia.”

“Take the city of Chicago in the United States. The country’s major rail links come together there like the spokes of a wheel. It’s cost-effective and saves long distances. But in Australia, we don’t have a comparable freight transfer center or a truly nationwide route network.”

Road trains are like a mini-earthquake

Remote mines, sparsely populated countryside or whole day’s journey between towns.Despite enormous distances, goods in Australia have always been transported by truck rather than by rail. With risks and side effects. 600 hp under the hood, four axles and five trailers behind them. Road trains are giant trucks with sheer endless appendages – often 60 meters long. Full of pipes, sheep, construction machinery, vegetables, gasoline, cattle or iron ore. They always have the right of way and they don’t stop for anyone. Road Trains are like a mini-earthquake hurtling toward you at 100 mph. It roars, the ground begins to vibrate, there is dust, stones fly – and then the spook is over. The only way to save your own car is to throw a picnic blanket over it in a hurry and leave it on the windshield or in the ditch.

Worse than crocodiles: Overtaking maneuvers in the outback

“If you meet them, you should pull over to the side of the road. Because the highway is very narrow. And just make sure you don’t collide with them. They don’t take any consideration.”

Backpacker Philip Schroth from Berlin was on his Australia trip crocodiles feed, parachute and bungee jumping. But nothing got his goose bumps more than an overtaking maneuver in the outback. Philip’s rickety VW bus against a twitching road train.

“Because it’s always one lane each way here. It’s definitely an adventure. So it’s a real adrenaline rush when you overtake a 60-meter truck like that. That’s a special experience in itself.”

A truckie with a lead foot and diesel in his blood

Equipment for mining and agriculture, mineral resources, beer for the outback pub or food for the supermarkets in the big cities. Almost two and a half billion tons of freight are crisscrossed across the continent every year by trucking companies sydney, plus nearly a billion live animals – often on lonely, pothole-strewn roads that don’t even deserve the name. Road trains are Australia’s true freight trains, and their drivers are the dust knights of the road. Because truckies like Bruce Turpie have a lead foot – and diesel in their blood.

“My dad was an interstate truck driver and from the time I was a young boy, all I ever wanted to do was drive trucks. I’ve been an interstate truck driver for 40 years….”

His classmates dreamed of becoming professional rugby players or veterinarians, but Bruce never wanted to be anything but a truck driver, just like his father. Forty years and a good two and a half million kilometers behind the wheel later, he’s still on the road – Townsville-Melbourne and back again twice a week. Mirrored sunglasses that he only takes off to sleep, faded shorts that are far too short, and a trucker’s belly on top: Bruce has hardly changed over the years, but the trucking business, he hardly recognizes.

“The biggest problem in the trucking industry is unregulated and unabated competition. Everyone is undercutting everyone else. In the process, the maintenance of our trucks and the safety of our drivers fall by the wayside. We get paid less and less but have to work longer and harder. The result can be seen regularly on the evening news.”

300 fatal truck accidents in Australia a year
“Three double trucks have collided at high speed on the Hume Highway killing a man and leaving a mess of twisted metal and broken glass. The crash causing major delays heading into the city…”

Chaos once again on the Hume Highway southwest of Sydney. Three heavy trucks have crashed into each other, one of the drivers is dead, the overturned load blocks the highway for hours. The collision is one of more than 300 fatal accidents involving trucks in Australia every year. The reasons are always the same: excessive speed, defective trucks and, above all, completely overtired drivers. Delivery deadlines are only met if the trucks drive non-stop, thousands of kilometers, often 24 hours or more at a stretch. Taking a break or getting a good night’s sleep literally falls by the wayside. “To avoid nodding off at the wheel at some point,” admits Trukker Jerry Brown, it would take more than a few cups of coffee.

“I used to take every stimulant stimulant I could get my hands on. Today, truckers are turning to heroin, cocaine and marijuana more and more – it’s concerning. Truckers in Australia have to do everything they can not to lose their jobs and to be able to feed their families. We use drugs, we drive too fast and we falsify our logbooks. There’s always a way around regulations and laws.”

Freight trains are more environmentally friendly than trucks

At the loading dock of the Woolworths store in Menai on the outskirts of Sydney. What is sold inside arrives, stowed in boxes on pallets outside. 95% of all goods for supermarkets, department stores and stores on Australia’s east coast are transported by truck. “It’s convenient,” admits transport planner Phil Cleary, “but it’s not economical. “Freight trains pollute the environment with half as much pollution as trucks, they don’t cause congestion or traffic fatalities, and they’re three times less expensive. In the transportation business, Cleary says, the money is not on the roads but on the rails.

“Our cost of living has gone up because we haven’t invested in expanding the train route network. Retailers have no way to have their goods transported more cheaply because there is no political will. Australia’s productivity would soar if we could move most of our consumer goods by rail. But we’re not doing that – we’re doing the opposite.”

The 1900 km route from Melbourne to Sydney is one of Australia’s most important freight routes, used by 3500 trucks a day – and a whole three freight trains. Elsewhere, there are even fewer. Regional train connections are neglected all over the country, tracks are falling into disrepair, and towns further out are not served at all. The completion of the last section of the rail link from Adelaide, in the far south, to Darwin, high in the north, in 2004 was the exception. As a rule, the expansion of the rail network has been understood only as a station for decades. The train in Australia seemed to have left the station. Now, however, everything is supposed to happen very quickly all of a sudden. Really fast.

The government is planning an express train

“Connecting the cities on Australia’s east coast with High Speed Rail will radically change the way we travel and live. Traverse our vast country at 350 km/h in complete comfort and safety…..”

Only two continents don’t have super high-speed trains: The deserted Antarctica – and Australia. More than 150 billion euros are to change that.

The government is thinking aloud about a high-speed rail line along the east coast – from Melbourne via Canberra, Sydney and Newcastle to Brisbane. More than 75% of all Australians live in these cities and along the planned route. Population researcher David George also advises the government on transportation issues. “Infrastructure,” he says, has to grow along with an increasing population, and if you want to travel quickly, you’d better take the train in the future. An express train.

“The Sydney-Melbourne route alone is one of the four busiest routes in the world. Every day, 78 planes travel just between these two cities. A high-speed train would attract at least half of those passengers to rail. The environmental relief would be enormous.”

Only an hour and a half on a high-speed train from Sydney to Melbourne instead of ten hours by car, thousands of heavy trucks would be replaced by super-fast freight trains, and Australian airlines could focus more on more lucrative long-haul flights. Other than the loss of jobs in the transport and haulage industry, David George sees no downside by any stretch of the imagination.

“Our country would be radically changed”
“A high-speed train would be a national infrastructure project that would radically change our country. Many Australians would travel even more often and more cheaply, the transportation of goods would be revolutionized, and our roads would be much less traveled. The time of fast trains will come in Australia too, I just hope the politicians take the initiative and really get serious about it.”

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Can you kindly make your way to the Queen Adelaide Restaurant where your breakfast service is about to commence. Thank you.”

Back at the “Indian Pacific.” After almost three days of strolling across the Australian continent, the train is approaching its destination, Sydney. There is no sign of high speed. Just as the passengers want it.

“It’s such a smooth and beautiful ride, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You see parts of Australia you can only see when traveling by train. Landscapes like they’ve been for hundreds of thousands of years – untouched and pristine.”

100 years after the opening of the transcontinental railroad across the Australian continent, rail travel throughout the country somewhat resembles the “Indian Pacific.” It’s ponderous, not for everyone and yesterday’s news. It’s high time to get Australia’s railroads off the siding and modernize them. But now it’s the politicians’ turn.