The end of the line appears a long way off for the Indian Pacific, Australia’s transcontinental train, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its maiden voyage this week.
- The inaugural Indian Pacific left Sydney on February 23, 1970, linking Australia’s east and west coasts and replacing up to five train changes
- The train completes the 4,352-kilometre transcontinental journey from Sydney to Perth and return once every week
- The journey across the remote Nullarbor Plain includes the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track at 478 kilometres
When the passenger service was launched in 1970, the Indian Pacific was about getting from point A to B.
But the destination now seems less important, with rail travel enjoying a “renaissance” in Australia as travellers embrace fine dining and a so-called digital detox along remote sections of the track.
Airline price wars in the early 1990s nearly killed the service, which prompted a significant rebrand.
Carriages full of seats, red class or “cattle class” as it became known anecdotally, were removed in 2016 because they clashed with the theme of luxury.
The change has not affected the train’s popularity, according to owners Journey Beyond, which claim tickets regularly sell out six months in advance.
Journey Beyond chief operating officer Luke Walker says around 22,000 passengers travel on the Indian Pacific each year, with 375,000 tickets sold since 2004.
Most ticket sales — about 80 per cent of passengers — are sold to Australians, although there are plans for further promotion overseas.
“It’s one of the few transcontinental rail journeys globally,” Mr Walker said.
“It’s more about the food and the wine now than the travel … it’s a great way to take in our countryside from the Blue Mountains to the Nullarbor.
“We’re finding that train travel is as popular as ever … it’s enjoying a real renaissance.”
Number of carriages to increase
The train, which takes its name from the Indian Ocean on the west coast and the Pacific Ocean on the east coast, averages 85 kilometres per hour and reaches a maximum speed of up to 115 kph.
It means the journey from Sydney to Perth takes about 65 hours, with even slight delays causing logistical nightmares as the train shares the track with locomotives hauling freight.
From September, the number of carriages on the Indian Pacific will be increased from 29 to 36 as part of a $12 million refurbishment.
The additional carriages will extend the length of the train from 750 metres to around 880 metres, boosting the capacity to 260 passengers and crew.
Early work has also begun to extend the Indian Pacific journey into Fremantle, instead of the East Perth terminal where an estimated 10,000 people welcomed the inaugural train.
“We have begun preliminary work, started talking to stakeholders about possibly extending that trip into Fremantle into the future,” WA’s Transport Minister Rita Saffioti said.
“As you know, Fremantle is already a fantastic tourism precinct with cruise ships.
“Our discussions have begun and that would be another part of the journey ending at the Indian Ocean.”
Life on the rail line
One of the most popular crew members on the Indian Pacific is Jos Engelaar, who is set to retire this year after 21 years of crisscrossing the continent.
He is originally from the Netherlands and while some passengers struggle to pronounce his name, they never forget his face with his signature moustache.
Mr Engelaar estimates he has travelled more than 3.5 million kilometres on the train during his hospitality career.
“We were wondering that ourselves and did a bit of a calculation of how many kilometres that would have involved,” he said.
“When we added it up, it came to around 3.5 million kilometres, give or take a few kilometres.
“I still love it, but I guess you can’t work forever.
“The highlight has definitely been all the people I’ve met over those years, people keep coming up to me and still recognise me.”
There are three kitchens on board, including one that has just received a $2 million refurbishment.
Chef de partie Jade Rogers says a team of seven chefs prepare about 500 meals a day, working from 5:00am to 10:00pm to keep passengers and crew fed.
“We have very limited space, so it can be quite challenging in some situations and obviously time is of the essence, but we’ve got some really good chefs on board,” she said.
Chance meeting sparks long romance
The romantic notion of rail travel is not lost on Adelaide couple Derek and Jeanne Kell, who met on the Indian Pacific in 1973 and were married a year later.
Mr Kell described the 50th anniversary crossing as a second honeymoon for the couple who are now grandparents.
“We both boarded the train, unknown to each other, and we gradually got talking and just felt we liked each other,” he said.
“By the time we got to Perth, I asked Jeanne out and the rest is history.
“The way I see it is we met on the train and now on the 50th anniversary of the train, it’s now like we’ve come full circle where we started from.
Ms Kell said her husband took his time before finally talking to her at Rawlinna.
“On a journey like this you get to meet people and everyone’s so friendly, you just naturally talk to people and get to know them a little bit better and strike up a conversation,” she said.
“On a plane you might sit there and would not converse with the person next to you, where this is so much different and this is the joy of travelling this way.”
Train delivers groceries, mail
While it remains a popular bucket list item for many tourists, the train is also a lifeline for residents on the Nullarbor.
At Rawlinna — home to Australia’s biggest sheep station with up to 50,000 shorn every year — residents rely on the train for grocery and mail deliveries.
“Our town of three people grows to 230 every Friday night and Monday morning,” Rawlinna pastoralist Nicole Gray said.
“We rely on the train a fair bit because the isolation and the hardship out here is a bit of a downer, but it’s a beautiful place to live.
“Kalgoorlie’s our closest town and it takes about six hours, or 12 hours in a truck, so it’s not convenient.”
‘Never a dull day’ in Cook
Just over the South Australian border, there is a sign in the ghost town of Cook that describes it as “the middle of nowhere”.
The population was once about 400, but now just four people are employed as caretakers, while train drivers use Cook as a rest stop.
A mural painted on a water tank pays tribute to the town’s longest-serving railway worker Murray Sims, saying he spent 28 years on the railway and that he died at Cook.
For Allan Sunman and his wife, Cook has been home for the past five years.
“I just love the outback,” he said.
“We get lots of tourists driving here, which I expected but quite often you get heaps of them.
“We’ve had planes land here, we’ve had Russians walk out here … that was the one I was spun out about.
“We’ve had Dick Smith land his helicopter out here.
“There’s never a dull day in Cook, really.”
Will the Indian Pacific last another 50 years?
Col Gilbertson, from the Australian Railway Historical Society, was working on the railway when the Indian Pacific left Sydney for the first time in 1970.
The retired air force officer has written books as a rail historian and his expertise earned him an invitation on board for the train’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
He said the Indian Pacific deserves to be rated among the world’s great train journeys.
“It’s significant because it bridges the continent of Australia from east to west, 4,352 kilometres or 2,461 miles in imperial,” he said.
“I suppose it compares with the Blue Train in South Africa, the Orient Express and the trains that go across from the west to the east coast of the United States.”
Before the Indian Pacific’s arrival in 1970, travellers would have to change trains up to five times to complete the same journey from Sydney to Perth.
When asked if the Indian Pacific will survive another 50 years, Mr Gilbertson says the carriages will require ongoing maintenance and that will not be cheap.
“That’s a very good question — I think the rolling stock won’t last another 50 years,” he said.
“I’m very pleased to see it has lasted because other comparative trains have all gone in 30, maybe 40 years.
“They’ve been extensively refurbished, but these are the original cars that were built by Commonwealth engineering in the 1960s.”