Australian train journeys: Melbourne to Sydney to Adelaide by rail

Catching a train from platform one of Melbourne's Southern Cross Station is like boarding a flight from gate one of an international airport – rarely done, and all the more special for that.

With its undulating wave-like roof, Melbourne's main station is an exciting place from which to depart on a long-distance rail adventure. This is a full-on rail trek, which will take me to three state capitals through a range of terrains, and home again – without boarding a single plane.

Long-distance rail journeys in Australia usually involve a flight at one end. But not on this route: Melbourne to Sydney, to Adelaide, then back to Melbourne.

That's my goal: to travel a great rail triangle, away and home again.

MELBOURNE TO SYDNEY

I'm off to a stylish start. Before embarking on the journey my wife Narrelle and I have dinner at Higher Ground, a hip new cafe-bar in an 1894 power station building near the station.

Seating is dotted along a series of mezzanines inside the cavernous space, and the casual dining menu is a collection of innovative share plates with a hint of Asian flavours.

This excellent food seems a good omen for the trek ahead, as does the tapered blue nose of the XPT train to Sydney.

The XPT dates from the 1980s, and our sleeping compartment is showing its age. However, it's large, with a long blue couch that will fold down into a bed, and another bunk above it. There's a shared bathroom between every two compartments.

The train leaves on time at 7.50pm, past the glass and steel towers of Docklands, and the distinctive Melbourne Star Observation Wheel.

Pretty soon it's dark out there save for suburban street lighting and the occasional brightly lit servo looming out of the night, as we track north.

Steve, the train attendant, shows up to check our tickets and take orders for breakfast. After he leaves there's a lengthy safety announcement over the speakers, including a "no smoking" reminder which ends with: "Don't think I won't put you off at the next station, because I will!"

Then it's full steam ahead – so to speak – as we sample the contents of the provided NSW Trainlink snack pack (salted popcorn, biscuits, a mint, a cup of water and – oddly – crackers and relish with no cheese).

Two carriages ahead is a cafe serving hot food, its diverse choices including Thai green chicken curry, roast pork, and vegetarian lasagne, reasonably priced at $9 each.

We fold down the bunks and try for some sleep, always a challenge on a moving train; especially since the compartment is overheated.

As we reach Sydney's outskirts in the morning, an announcement reminds us to leave the train promptly at Central Station: "A few of you are still catching some sleep. But your time has now run out."

SYDNEY TO ADELAIDE

The next leg of our rail journey will be the most luxurious. But first we have a few days of Sydney fun: seeing the new production of My Fair Lady; taking a ferry to Cockatoo Island; and catching an exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider at the Powerhouse Museum (hey, we're both science geeks).

Then on a sunny Wednesday afternoon we re-enter Sydney Central Station. It's a fine place from which to catch a long-distance train. Built in 1906 with a landmark clock tower, Sydney Central was a statement of confidence in the railways.

From here the Indian Pacific is travelling 4352 kilometres to Perth, though we'll be alighting at Adelaide after a paltry 1683 kilometres.

The train we're taking today is so long (28 carriages) that it's split up over two platforms. While we wait to board, we're entertained by a guitarist and offered hors d'oeuvres by roaming staff.

There is a buzz among the waiting passengers as we mingle. This is no commute, but one of the great railway journeys of the world – taken for the love of it.

The Indian Pacific has changed in recent years. Gone are the economy class seats and beds. The only classes now are gold and platinum.

Our gold class compartment is an elegant space with a wood-panelled interior dominated by a long comfortable green couch, which converts to a bed beneath another bunk. Behind a door is a bathroom, with a shower.

The train pulls out just after 3pm and heads through the Sydney suburbs. After Penrith we finally break free of urban sprawl and enter the Blue Mountains, with a changing scenery of gum trees, small towns and glimpses of rocky bluffs.

There's that pleasant sensation peculiar to trains, of being within the landscape but not entirely of it.

We head to the bar about 6pm, where we're pleased to discover that all alcoholic drinks are included in the fare. So we order gin and tonics, eat some canapes, gaze out at the passing greenery, and chat to our fellow passengers. Someone, somewhere must be having a stressful evening, but it isn't us.

Dinner is served at the booth seating of the adjacent Queen Adelaide dining car. I'm impressed with the food in both its quality and presentation. Cleverly, each meal includes ingredients associated with the area the train is passing through: on this first night, for example, there's Riverina beef from Murrumbidgee on the menu.

When we return to our compartment, the bunks are made up. Sleep doesn't come easily, as it's a bumpy journey overnight.

But we wake to a land transformed. Gone are the tall trees, replaced by low scrubby vegetation in red soil. There is also a lot of grass, thanks to recent heavy rain. That same rain has forced the train to reduce speed, which, unfortunately, means the cancellation of early-morning tours at Broken Hill.

I make the best of it by taking a brisk stroll through Broken Hill's city centre. The train's restaurant manager Damien points out the Palace Hotel, famous from its drag show turn in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and I dash off in its direction, then past the quirky civic buildings along Argent Street.

Rolling again, the train crosses the South Australian border for the haul down to Adelaide. Many of the passengers will be leaving the train before we reach the city, to join a wine tasting and dinner excursion in the Barossa Valley. Others will sample the cheese and chocolate of Hahndorf, along with a German-style meal.

For my part, I take some reflective time alone in our compartment, looking out the window. The only sound I can hear is the creaking as the train sways along the tracks, and the low rumble of its wheels.

ADELAIDE TO MELBOURNE

Narrelle is catching a flight back to Melbourne, so I have a few days alone in Adelaide. The highlight is the Feast on Foot walking tour, which takes in food and street art.

Then I'm up early, to catch the Overland.

Though less famous than the Indian Pacific, the Overland train has a historic claim to fame. In 1887 it became the first intercolonial (later interstate) train service in Australia.

Nowadays it's a daytime train with two classes: red, which is standard four-across economy seating; and red premium where I'm seated, with three slightly wider seats in a 2-1 configuration. It's a cut above your usual carriage, with a decor of soft pink and green, and big picture windows.

Within 20 minutes of departure we emerge from a tunnel into the lofty greenery of the Adelaide Hills. It must have been hell building the line here in the 19th century, as it twists and turns through a spectacular terrain of dense foliage.

Every so often the train passes a disused station built of stone and timber, and the occasional village. Further on we enter farming country, with cattle and vineyards, as the crew serve red premium passengers breakfast at their seats.

Before long we traverse a mighty bridge over the Murray River, and about midday we cross the border into Victoria and pass the imposing railway station at Serviceton, which was a customs house for the two colonies before Federation.

For lunch I select the fish 'n' chips. For safety, the fish is baked, not fried – and very good it is too, for a mere $12.50.

We pass through Wimmera farming towns – Nhill, Dimboola, Horsham – then off to the right the high craggy profile of Grampians National Park offers some relief from flat agricultural landscapes.

In the late afternoon the train pauses at one of Geelong's northern stations, as if gathering strength for the final leg. Then, an hour later, we're passing through the industrial structures and timber cottages of Melbourne's west.

Back within the postmodernist curves of Southern Cross Station, I take a moment to reflect on my epic rail journey. Three states, three great cities, and a lot of memorable scenery in between.

But now it's time to step out into the streets of Melbourne. Anyone know where I can get a coffee? I've heard it's good here.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au

nswtrainlink.info

greatsouthernrail.com.au

TRAIN

The XPT runs twice daily between Melbourne and Sydney with a sleeper berth $216 (see nswtrainlink.info). The Indian Pacific runs Sydney-Adelaide weekly, gold class sleeper from $619 (see greatsouthernrail.com.au). The Overland operates Adelaide-Melbourne twice-weekly, red premium fare $189 (see greatsouthernrail.com.au).

STAY

Adina Sydney Central is in a grand former post office at Sydney Central Station, rooms from $150 a night (see tfehotels.com).

Mercure and Ibis Styles Grosvenor are two Adelaide hotels within a historic building, rooms from $100 a night (see ibis.com, mercure.com).

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Destination NSW and Great Southern Rail.

The story Australian train journeys: Melbourne to Sydney to Adelaide by rail first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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