NSW was difficult during Federation, and as a result, section 125 of the Constitution demands that the nation’s capital be at least 100 miles away from Sydney. Today, what bridges that gap?
You can do the three-and-a-bit hour drive, of course. But that means you end up with a car in Sydney, and I’d rather have a leg plaster on the beach.
You can fly, but any flight that involves more time in the airport than in the air isn’t worth it. I love the idea of Lake Burley Griffin’s incoming seaplanes because I prefer magnificent men and their flying machines to blue-green algae, but it’s also $300 to Sydney and $300 back, and they won’t offer champagne.
This leaves the Murrays bus. Coaches leave on the hour from 6 am to 6 pm, and there’s an option to reserve the seat next to you so you don’t have to sit next to a smelly person who’ll judge your entertainment. That’s competitive.
However, a friend told me that the train is more romantic.
It takes longer, it costs more, but if it’s true that the journey is done in a vignette of smoke haze and people wearing hats, then I’m in. James Bond has often taken the train. Tellingly, he’s never been on the bus, except to destroy it.
Transport for NSW runs a Southern XPLORER train between Canberra Station and Central Station three times a day, booked via its website. First Class is $70 and Economy is $50, and my friend tells me there’s no difference beyond seat recline.
I ignored him and booked First Class, because romance is the point here and once upon a time, First Class meant blue velour and mahogany panelling.
Steel and standard public vehicle vomit-resistant fabric has long since replaced mahogany and blue velour. However, the seats are wide, plush, and recline further than a Roman emperor at dinner.
The carriage is early 90s rolling stock, so it cackles and groans like an ironing board at a musty motel, but every surface also feels like you could recycle it on an army tank. Unfortunately, its age also means there are no charging points (though by some lottery, I ended up with the carriage’s only power outlet).
At the start of the trip, a NSW TrainLink staff member wanders through the carriage and takes down your order for a hot meal, to be served later on the journey. On this afternoon, it was a choice of ‘Asian chicken’, roast chicken, roast beef, or something with zucchini. It’s not a bad deal for $10. It’s comparable with a Business meal on a short Virgin hop, except it comes in a cardboard crate and you have to go up and collect it.
The buffet also has an array of immediately available snacks and generic-looking sausage rolls, and after 12 pm, it’s good for beer and wine. Transport for NSW doesn’t want you getting too ebullient however: it’s two drinks an hour.
Also, the buffet abruptly shut for an hour in the middle of the trip. I’ve subsequently been told this is not because the NSW Trains man was striking, as first thought, but because the internet drops out for a patch and thus the Eftpos doesn’t work. NSW TrainLink suggests the buffet will continue to operate in such instances, and that you should “carry some cash to avoid disappointment”. However, that was potentially a pre-pandemic policy.
From Sydney, the train stops briefly at Campbelltown, Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale, Bundanoon, Goulburn, Tarago, Bungendore and Queanbeyan before grinding into Kingston. All in all, it takes a nudge over four hours.
However, that’s four hours of being largely treated to the sun sinking over picture-perfect Southern Highlands scenery, with a wine and a book. The book is because your laptop has died without its lifeline, but the point is it’s actually a bit romantic after all. There’d be nothing stopping you from penning the beginnings of a novel.
Of course, I have some ideas for improvement. The buffet could be there for you without fail. The NSW TrainLink people could wear ties. They could also bring the hot food on a plate, at least if you pay $20 more than people whose seats only recline 28 degrees. The other passengers could have been wearing fedoras.
But all in all – and it’s not always easy to know where objective judgement ends and the influence of rationed Shiraz begins – I loved it more than the bus.
How do you travel between Canberra and Sydney?