Riding The Indian Pacific Railway
The Indian Pacific, which travels from the west coast to east coast on a 3-day, 4,352 km trek across Australia, is billed as one of the world's great train journeys. The three day trip (if you do it all in one go) takes you through just about every kind of terrain you're likely to find on the Australian continent, giving travellers a true indication of how vast Australia really is.
When Australians were first given the opportunity to travel from one side of the continent to the other by train in 1917, it was the only way to get from one side of the country to the other if you didn't want to make 7 day voyage by sea around the coast. There was no Eyre Highway linking east and west and no air services.
Back then the Trans Australian, as it was called, only ran from Kalgoorlie in the WA Goldfields to Port Pirie in South Australia. Travel to or from Perth required a change of trains at Kalgoorlie and a further day trip on the narrow gauge Prospector train to Perth. The other end required passengers to change trains for travel to Adelaide on the West East Express to Adelaide. In Adelaide, they changed train again, this time boarding The Overland which completed the journey to Melbourne (Melbourne and not Sydney, was the terminus at that time).
Trains were originally hauled by steam locomotives, but these began to be replaced by diesels in 1951. The present Indian Pacific service, operating on a continuous standard gauge track between Sydney and Perth, was inaugurated in February 1970.
The time allowed for the journey from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie has been fixed at 37 hours 20 minutes (actual), which gives an average speed of 45.3 km per hour throughout, inclusive of stoppages. Exclusive of stoppages, which aggregate slightly under three hours, the average is about 49 km per hour. In the opposite direction the gross time is 37 hours 30 minutes (actual), which gives an average speed of 45.1 km per hour. Exclusive of stoppages, which aggregate about 3 hours 10 minutes, the average is 80 km per hour. The greatest elevation of the line above sea level is at a point 162 km east of Kalgoorlie, where it is 404 metres. This is a rise of 26 metres above Kalgoorlie. Port Augusta is only 6.4 metres above sea level. With the exception of a short distance of 1 in 80, the ruling grade is 1 in 100.
The Service Today
The Indian Pacific has two scheduled passenger services each week in each direction from September to March and one each week from April and August. Trains leave from Central Station Sydney and East Perth Railway Terminal will stops at Adelaide, Broken Hill, Kalgoorlie and Cook. A motorail service is available, allowing passengers to take a private motor vehicle with them. Offloading and onloading facilities are located at Sydney, Adelaide and Perth only.
Three levels of service are available to passengers:
Platinum Service offers a heightened level of comfort to elevate your onboard experience to a truly global standard of luxurious travel. Spacious private lounge style cabins; Premium ensuite cabin with twin or double bed; Panoramic views to each side; Personalised cabin steward service.
Complimentary toiletries and bath towels are provided in all Gold Sleeper Cabins. All meals are included in the Gold Service fare, wines and dining takes place in a Restaurant Car. Gold Service includes use of a lounge.
Full-on luxury travel with choice of single or twin sleeper cabins. Complimentary toiletries and bath towels are provided in all Gold Sleeper Cabins. All meals are included in the Gold Service fare, wines and dining takes place in a Restaurant Car. Gold Service includes use of a lounge.
Rudget travel with the choice of daynight seats or, for a higher price, a sleeper cabin. Snacks, drinks and meals are available for purchase in a buffet car.
One of the world's great railway journeys?
Numerous Internet travel blogs question the claim by its operators that the Indian Pacific is "one of the world's longest and greatest train journeys". They claim its prices are high, the standard of service is average, the carriages are old and the scenery is ... well, boring. The Indian Pacific is without doubt one of the longest train journeys in the world, however I must agree that the formica tables and vinyl covered bench seats in the Red Service Buffet Car are a little dated when I stop and think about it.
As to whether or not it's one of the greatest train journeys, that depends on how you determine greatness. In terms of scenery, more than 50% of the ground covered by the Indian Pacific is desert, and not your average desert, it's called the Nullarbor, a name which means "no trees". So it is unreasonable to expect to see anything but a flat, distant horizon and no trees for a sizeable chunk of the journey.
The Australian outback is what it is - desert - it's not Europe, so don't expect to see the kind of scenery you'd see from a train travelling through Europe. Instead, be awed by the magnitude of Australia's wide open spaces, because in terms of that kind of greatness, the Australian outback is in a league of its own.
I believe the Indian Pacific is great, but what's great about it has nothing to do with it being the longest journey, or the best in comparison to others. It's about the way it recaptures something we've all but lost in our modern, high-speed world - the chance not just to slow down but to stop completely, to read a book, to get up and walk around if we feel like it, to chat to complete strangers as if they were old friends, or to just relax and watch the world sail by, then wake up next morning on the other side of the continent in a whole new world. That's what's great about the Indian Pacific, and you'll never experience it on a four hour flight to Perth.
Travelling Budget Class
Compared to coach and economy air travel, Red Class on the Indian Pacific is considerably dearer, but neither road coach or economy flight offer the leg space of the Indian Pacific's daynight seats, nor the opportunity to walk around or sit at a table in a buffet section to eat your meal, play cards around or chat with fellow passengers over a glass of wine.
For me the best thing about travelling Red Class is the opportunity to spend quality time with other travellers. I've met some really interesting people on the Indian Pacific, many of them pensioners with fascinating life stories to tell. Backpackers are also great travelling companions; they are eager to learn about your country - where you recommend they should go at their next destination, what to see, what to not bother going to see - and are happy for you to tag along for a walk around town and a bite to eat at one of the stops on the journey.
Travelling from west to east, the Indian Pacific leaves the East Perth terminal at 11.55am and makes its way slowly through Perth's eastern suburbs before winding its way up and across the Darling Range. The first stop is at Kalgoorlie, some 10 hours after leaving Perth. Arrival in Kalgoorlie is late at night and passengers have the choice of remaining on board during the 3 hours 40 minute stopover, taking an organised tour around the town, or being let loose to wander the streets and discover the town for themselves.
By morning the train is well on its way, stopping at the occasional siding if there is a pre-arranged mail or passenger drop-off or pick-up to be made. Mid morning, before crossing the WA/SA border, the train pulls into a siding and stops to allow passage of trains going in the other direction (it's a single line track between Kalgoorlie and Tarcoola). In this case it is an Indian Pacific train heading west, through often it stops for one of the many goods trains with which the Indian Pacific shares the line.
Around 11,20 am, the train pulls into the small settlement of Cook, a tiny man-made oasis in the middle of the flat, treeless plain. It stops to take on water and passengers alight to stretch their legs on terra firma, wander around the settlement, buy a souvenir at Cook's general store or have a chat with the locomotive driver.
An hour or so later, watches are adjusted as we are now running on South Australian time, and the train is on its way again. Around sunset, we reach old mining ghost town of Tarcoola, where The Ghan line branches off and heads north, before heading south-west through the night towards Adelaide. The train stops in the middle of the night for a few hours in Port Augusta so our arrival in Adelaide is in daylight.
A two and a half hour stopover in Adelaide allows passengers terminating their journey in Adelaide to alight, and passengers joining the train to board and get settled. Passenger who don't leave the train are offered a Whistle Stop tour of the city. Most who board the train in Adelaide are only going as far as Broken Hill. They are residents there who use the Indian Pacific as their mode of transport between the two cities.
The train leaves Adelaide at 10 am and doubles back on the line it came in on as far as Crystal Brook, where it branches off in a westerly direction through SA's wheatbelt. The trip to Broken Hill takes 8 1/2 hours. A two hour stopover at Broken Hill allows for another Whistle Stop tour at the mining town, or dinner in one of the town's cafes, before the Indian Pacific begins the last leg of her journey at 7 pm local time.
As dawn of the fourth day of travel breaks, the Indian Pacific begins to climb the picturesque foothills of the Blue Mountains. The train passes through Katoomba at 8.15 am and pulls into Central Station Sydney at 10.15 am. Passengers who availed themselves of the Motorail service head to a side platform to recover their vehicles after they have been unloaded.
The westward journey follows a similar timetable, but in reverse. The Indian Pacific departs Sydney's Central Station at 2.55 pm. Broken Hill is reached in time for an early morning breakfast the next day; the train crawls into the Keswick Passenger Terminal in suburban Adelaide early afternoon. It departs Adelaide at 6.40 pm, arriving at Cook just before 10am on the third day of travel. Kalgoorlie is reached around 7 pm that night. After a stopover of just under 4 hours, the train leaves Kalgoorlie to travel through the night to Perth, arriving at East Perth Rail Terminal at around 9 am.
The Train and Drive Option
The idea of driving across the Nullarbor in one direction and travelling in the other direction on the Indian Pacific train and take your car with you is worthy of merit if time permits. This affords 2 or 3 days of lounging around on the train before or after a big drive. The train travels further inland than the Eyre Highway, so the scenery is quite different.
Which direction you drive and which you take by train is a matter of personal choice. An advantage in driving west to east is you are not driving into the sun during the hottest part of the day, which occurs when you drive the other way. But you do lose some driving time on the Nullarbor when you change time zones at the SA/WA border. Going the other way you wind your clock forward 1 1/2 hours (2 1/2 hours during daylight savings), giving you more driving hours on the longest driving sector, which is when you most need it.
Another advantage in doing the west to east leg by train is the cost saving on the rail journey. From Perth to Adelaide the cost of an accompanying car is around 30 percent cheaper for the same journey in the opposite direction. Fares per person are the same in both directions.