24 November 2023

Is it more romantic to take the Canberra to Sydney train?

| John Coleman
Join the conversation
NSW TrainLink Southern XPLORER train at Canberra Station at night

Not exactly art deco, but it’s handsome, isn’t it? Photo: John Coleman.

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.

READ ALSO The $100 question: Would you get the cheapest EV in Australia over the second cheapest?

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?

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

1970s British technology. The HST is long gone in Britain. Journey is very pleasant but slow by modern standards. Part of the problem is some drunk drew a line on a map for the route.

But there are no power points, USB or WiFi. Even Queensland has that and their Tilt train is at least a decade in advance with UK APT train, but that is still 1980s and again long gone in Britain.

I have to travel up to Sydney regularly for work and love taking the train, however I now almost always take the bus (CO2 emissions and inconvenience/same door-to-door time is why I refuse to fly).

The space, views and buffet car make the train an amazing trip. But the longer travel time, lack of mobile reception let alone wifi and infrequent services/frequent breakdowns are what keep me away. We don’t need a high speed train, we just need a better track and slightly more modern trains that can travel a bit faster so that it’s comparable with the bus or car.

Capital Retro4:28 pm 24 Nov 23

The existing Xplorer DMU that is used between Canberra and Sydney was made in Australia 30 years ago and has a top speed of 160kmh. It’s ideal – as you said, the track needs upgrading and that will cost a bomb.

John Coleman4:01 pm 27 Nov 23

The trains are being updated soon –


Also yes, going from Murrays’ flexibility to 3 services a day does force you to change your travel thinking.

Capital Retro4:43 pm 27 Nov 23

The trains may be updated but the speed stays the same:

“The new fleet will be capable of speeds of up to 160km/h. Actual speeds depend on other factors, including infrastructure, network speeds and other services using the rail corridor.

While some time savings may be possible through timetable changes, increasing train speed would require significant upgrades to train tracks, stations, and platforms. These upgrades are not part of the Regional Rail Project.”

Ross of Canberra12:27 am 24 Nov 23

Well-done, John C., for a delightful article. You’ve written so well, just like my friend Phil.

John Coleman4:02 pm 27 Nov 23

Why thank you Ross. Phil sounds like a good guy to have a beer with.

Joy Shepherd12:20 am 24 Nov 23

I am elderly and travel alone. Not sure about the romantic. I did have a great return trip last year to a family event. Loved the scenic route by train, the old fashioned courtesy of the staff, the good food. Took a book but did not get to read it – too much to see. Waiting to do it again. Last couple of times I have attempted it has been booked out when I wanted to go.

Linda Seaniger9:10 pm 23 Nov 23

During recent school holidays, I couldn’t get a seat on a bus or the train for two days and Qantas was charging $885 to fly one way to Sydney. For the last five years I’ve travelled to the Central coast every month to look after elderly parents. Prior to Covid I regularly took public transport, which would take about 6 1/2 hours. During Covid public transport was just a too risky option. I have friends who regularly travel to Newcastle for the same reason we all wish we had fast trains. Since Covid, the traffic on the M7& M1 has increased drastically and as a senior, it sometimes downright terrifying to drive these roads but what option do we have flying is way to expensive we drastically need a third airline operator would be great or better.

John Coleman4:06 pm 27 Nov 23

The train from Sydney to Newcastle is dire. I feel for your friends.

I often take the train to Sydney. I enjoy the trip, and the ability to walk around a bit. The toilets are much more accessible than on the bus (where you have to negotiate some steps). I read, have lunch, check my mail and relax.

John Coleman4:11 pm 27 Nov 23

I also feel like a portaloo dangling off a crane on a windy day would be more helpful to its occupant than the bus loo in early Sydney traffic

Robert Woodrow3:48 pm 22 Nov 23

I always travel between Queanbeyan and Sydney by train
It is casual relaxing and cheaper than driving or flying
On one recent occasion I was in Sydney about to embark on a Cruise ship when I realised that my passport was still in Queanbeyan. I caught the train from Central to Queanbeyan and collected the passport and returned to Sydney on the same day…. l love the train.

thoughtsonthesubject10:13 am 21 Nov 23

Imagine if the difference in cost of a bus rapid transit system and the tram had been spent on an improvement of the rail between Canberra and Sydney. The reduction of pollution alone would have made it worthwhile. Moreover, by 2013 Chinese electric buses were considered so efficient that they were produced in the US. Would be interesting to calculate the reduction of pollution if transport in Canberra had been by electric buses since then and if the road and air traffic between Canberra and Sydney had been considerably reduced by a faster train. Isn’t the hope for the reduction of greenhouse gases the reason why many elect the Greens? The sad fact is that thanks to the demand for the expensive and slow imported tram of their leader in exchange for Greens’ voting support of Labor we have to put up with unnecessary pollution.

A few years back, I was dating a woman who lived in Sydney. The one and only time that she decided to come down after work via train from Central (convenient as she worked nearby) there was a “slight” delay and the trip took five and a half hours.

No thanks.

Capital Retro11:15 am 21 Nov 23

Not what you call “speed dating” Bob.

Bob, “only time” are the relevant words. I have taken that trip multiple times to Sydney and back and never had a delay. One time though I also took about five hours on a bus from Sydney. That comment is as relevantly irrelevant as your train comment. “only time”. It happens occasionally.

Yep, Romance is about it. There is nothing else to think about after 3 hours and your only at Bowral. (from Canberra)
I love the train, but it looks like you could actually get out and walk faster at times.
The bouncing, creaking ride, had me and a few others dubbing it the scenic train or “the long cut!” You certainly get a close up look at all the scenery.
This is a no brainer to fix this service/realign some tracks and speed it up.

Slow, noisy, tardy, uncomfortable, limited menu choices. And then you arrive at Central. Rail travel has so many possibilities but they’ll never be realised under current ownship.

Capital Retro5:07 pm 20 Nov 23

Nothing to stop you putting a business plan together and doing what you see as needed.

Good luck with that.

John Coleman4:13 pm 27 Nov 23

I mean there was no goose foie gras but three (real) choices of hot meal is alright

The train is easily the best way to get up to Sydney, relaxing, affordable and enjoyable. Only problem is travel time is too long.

John Coleman12:14 pm 20 Nov 23

long enough to finish a book though

Did a return trip to Sydney on the train just over a month ago and loved it (partner not so much). The space to stretch out, the view, the availability of toilets – all much better than a Murrays bus. Sure, it could do with better internet coverage and some charging points but I prefer it over the bus any day of the week.

Love the train, always first preference. Definitely the most relaxing way to travel to Sydney.

The train is very convenient – though you need to be patient. The average time to travel between Canberra and Sydney is around four hours, but last Friday the journey home took over five hours! I wouldn’t describe the seats as ‘plush’, they are tired and don’t provide much support. However, the Explorer trains are due to be replaced at some stage (see https://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/projects/current-projects/regional-rail) and hopefully the new rolling stock will reinvigorate the service.

John Coleman12:18 pm 20 Nov 23

Damn, what was the delay? The new seats in the render look good, but I found the current ones significantly more comfortable than the bus seats (maybe that’s not the definition of plush though)

Australia’s passenger rail system is a national disgrace. China owns the largest High Speed Rail (HSR) system in the world, with a total operating HSR network of 40,000 kilometers in 2021. This stands over three times the HSR distance of the European Union’s. Australia is going backwards while China thrives.

Capital Retro5:15 pm 20 Nov 23

I went from Kingston to Goulburn a few months ago and the train was about 75% full. About 2/3 of the travelers were Chinese tourists and they seemed to enjoy the experience a lot. They had suitcases full of food which they must have brought with them. They didn’t buy anything that the hot meal service was offering (mostly Halal, by the way). My Aussie toastie was very tasty.

Australia doesn’t need a HSR.

We don’t necessarily need true high speed rail. But we could benefit from a genuine approach to incrementally improving current connections and services – get the CBR/Syd service down to 2 to 2.5 hours and it would make a huge difference. Same on other routes – it is barely quicker Sydney/Newcastle with electric traction than it was 70 years ago under Steam. There are clear challenges with improving that route, but incremental change to remove bottlenecks, remove speed restrictions and improve capacity would have a wide range of benefits.

The likelihood of true high speed rail in this country is minimal, as there isn’t the vision or guts on the political side, and there likely isn’t going to be a favourable enough business case for the pollies to make sure their buddies get into the pie. But that shouldn’t be seen as an excuse for not improving what we have.

bluestocking8:50 am 25 Nov 23

I don’t know about the China thriving part, and I’d rather have our human rights issues than those of China (acknowledging we have a lot), and being free is a large part of “thriving”, but the train issue is correct. We’re still a horse and cart country in so many ways and when I return from overseas and am trapped yet again with no decent transport systems, I’m depressed. I love trains too. We keep wanting to open up regional areas and have folk move to them, but offer absolutely no ability or incentive. We do have plenty of money to what other countries do – enable movement – but we waste it or spend it on ridiculous things. The amount of money that is wasted on ill-thought out C’th govt projects that blow out etc and govt waste in general could have bought this country into the 18th century at least. Not holding my breath for reaching 21st. This is the real reason Aussies prefer to go overseas than struggle to get from A to B here.

If I am going to central Sydney I take the train. I drive when visiting western Sydney.

Adam Sturgeon8:55 pm 18 Nov 23

Honestly,it’s my favourite kind of travel, for me personally, it is actually cheaper in comparison to a Murray’s bus or greyhound bus, the croquet monsieur sandwich is honestly to die for on the train, it’s also one of the reasons why I take it over a bus or plane, plus the scenery out the window is honestly really nice to look at

Capital Retro8:47 am 19 Nov 23

The blot on the landscape is north of Bungendore with bird-blenders everywhere.

John Coleman12:29 pm 20 Nov 23

I find the gently spinning Mercedes logos to be quite beautiful

Capital Retro7:07 am 21 Nov 23

When they are “gently spinning” it means they are being powered by coal generated electricity from the grid.

Still think that’s beautiful?

Really? I thought they only need ‘grid power’ to start (yaw turbine into the wind and pitch blades as required) not to gently spin.

Still the most sophisticated form of travel. I just get the six monthly Discovery Pass, makes it very economical and environmentally friendly.

The train is my favourite way to travel. Four hours watching the scenery and listening to music without interruptions. No phone coverage for much of the journey. Perfect!

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.