Sydney to Canberra by Train


Xplorer train at Sydney Central Station

In 2005 I wrote about a trip from Sydney to Canberra on a Swedish X2000 high speed Tilt Train, being tried. While very comfortable, the tilt trains were not that fast, due to the poor track and were not purchased. The regular run from Sydney to Canberra is carried out by Countrylink's XPLORER trains. The scheduled time for the journey is 4 hours and 26 minutes, making it much longer than air travel and even by car or bus.

Having some time on my hands, after a Sydney workshop on energy saving, I thought I would try the service.


Cherry picke machines seen by the track from Xplorer train

The hardest part of the trip was booking a ticket. Like some European railways, Countrylink still do not have a full web based booking system. It is necessary to first use their confusing web system to request and pay for a ticket and then collect it by email. It took me several attempts to work out how to find a trip and book it. The ticket did not arrive immediately, which is an unnecessary worry for the traveller. I did not have a ticket until the morning I was due to travel.

The instructions were to print the ticket and bring it along. I printed out the first page of the e-mail, which seemed to have the necessary information, the rest seeming to be a lot of legal terms and conditions. But when I arrived I found that my seat number was on the part of the ticket I did not print. Countrylink need to design a better electronic ticket.

The Train

The train is an Explorer diesel rail motor with four cars (carriages).There is first class seating in the front unit, along with a buffet, then economy seating and baggage at the back. First class was fully booked, so I travelled economy. Even so the economy seats are larger than economy ones on an aircraft, with good leg room and only two seats on each side of the isle. There is a flip down table and a foot rest (shorter people will need the foot rest). There is a reading light for each pair of seats.

The view from the large windows is excellent. The windows appear to be only single pane and much easier to photograph through than those of the Brisbane to Sydney XPT.

There are toilets at one end, with a wheelchair compatible one. The doors between carriages are power operated, by press buttons.

The buffet offers hot meals for lunch, with red or white Australian wine (and cheese). There are also hot pies and drinks. Unlike the Eurostar there appears to be no real coffee, just instant.

The buffet seems to require two or three staff and must be a large expense for Countrylink, for such a limited service for the customer. It might be better if just a couple of vending machines were provided. The space freed up could be used for extra seats and the staffing could be reduced.

The Journey

The train left one minute late at 12:01pm. We glided gracefully out of Sydney Central Station, past Sydney buildings and the gothic style mortuary station. The train picked up speed through Redfern, past the historic Eveleigh railway workshops. There are now mostly given over to a high tech research center and theatres, but there is still some storage of carriages and works (I wrote about the research in a book and later helped with their web site and organise events. Past Redfern are rows of town houses, and on the northern skyline, the spire of the Hunter Baillie Church .

While not new, the Explorer trains are very quiet and comfortable. There is a constant low rumble from the under floor diesel engine and a creaking from some of the fittings as the train glides over bumps. But the trains are due for a needed refurbishment. With some new fittings they should be good for another few decades.

After eleven minutes the train went past an EDS building just before Strathfield railway station. The train was reflected in the mirror windows of the building. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera out to take a photo. One thing about being on a train is that you hardly ever see the whole of it.

At Strathfield we took on more passengers and the seats started to fill up.

Just past Sefton at 12:25pm a community garden on land next to the line.

At Flemington station the Sydney Markets are alongside, then the Sydney 2000 Olympic Park visible to the north.

At Casula the houses and offices are suddenly replaced by woodlands, golf courses, with the occasional development. Just before Campbeltown (the last stop in Sydney), houses and light industry reappear.

Campbeltown is at the limit of the Sydney city rail network and at this point the train speeds up. In the city limits the train has to travel slowly to accommodate commuter trains. Even on Sunday, with few commuters, the train travels slowly to maintain the same timetable.

The city is soon left behind and there are rolling hills and fields, which now look lush and green after few weeks rain, with previous yeas of drought. The view is a little spoilt at 1:27 pm, with a very large new concrete grain silo, which looks like a Hamburg bunker.

At 1:42pm the train stopped at Mittagong and then at 1:47 at Bowral, a pleasant country town (where I once gave a talk on ICT to help national development). Bowral also has a brickworks.

Moss Vale 1:53pm. Bundanoon2:08pm. Weir with water overflowing at 2:23pm. At 2:31pm the train stopped just after Marulan and started again two minutes later.

At 2:39pm we crossed a river, with the pylons of an old railway bridge to the right. 2:49 pm passed Goulburn Prison, with its own graveyard out front. Leaving Goulburn, I noticed an old railway roundhouse, which appears to be the location for a railway museum, but I could not find any details of it.

The track got very noticeably rougher at this point. Walking along the train now became difficult, as did typing on a keyboard. I adopted a style I have also used on warships, which is to press my palms to the area under the keyboard to anchor them in place. Also having a touch pad in these conditions is much better than a mouse, which tends to take off by itself.

Tarago 3:19pm. Just past Tarago (3:25pm) was a siding apparently designed for the transfer of containers. This consisted of a large concreted area and two purpose designed sheds with forklift trucks fitted for container handling. Unlike most of the track side equipment this looked new. This appears to be the intermodal transfer station for Woodlawn Mine at Crisps Creek.

At 3:30pm the track became even rougher, making walking very difficult.


(3:44pm) is undergoing a building boom, with new housing for people working in Canberra. The Bungadore station is equipped with a "Trainspotters Gallery" and pottery store.

At 3:57pm there is a very new razor wire topped fence with a concrete base. This is the second fence for the new Australian Defence Force "Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC) " . The building in the distance looks like a shed for a factory, rather than a hi-tech military facility. From the images provided by defence, it is well appointed inside.

Queanbeyan 4:13pm. The train arrived on time at Canberra Railway Station at 4:26pm.

How to make the Sydney to Canberra Train Viable

While an okay trip for rail enthusiasts and tourists with time on their hands, the Sydney to Canberra train is not really viable as a public transport service. At 4 hours and 26 minutes, it is much longer than air travel, car or even bus (3 hours 30 minutes by coach).

According to a report in the Canberra Times newspaper, 13 February 2008, the Canberra Business Council has called on the Australian Government's new Infrastructure Australia, to look again at a high speed train from Sydney to Melbourne, via Canberra. This has been looked at several times, but the multi billion dollar cost was considered prohibitive. However, the proposals were for earlier European style very fast passenger services and it is difficult to make these viable with Australia's small population. But there are possible alternatives which would combine fast freight services, which are commercially viable and passenger services.

Very fast train proposals for Canberra to Sydney envisage a journey of 80 minutes for the 300 km (less distacne with some proposals for a straighter route). Very high speed was considered necessary to compete with air travel. But this required a train which can travel at up to 300 kph, plus a new electrified track and one segregated from slower freight trains. New proposals suggest using a slower train and track which can be shared between freight and passengers.

To make a passenger train viable, it does not need to be as fast as air travel, but at least as fast as a car or bus. This only requires the train to be one hour faster than it is now. Reducing the time by a further 30 minutes, to under three hours would make the service more marketable. This can be done using trains travelling at under 200 kph and making some track upgrades. Passenger trains could be routed via Sydney airport to collect air passengers, freeing up landing slots at the airport and then use the new freight line to avoid surburban suburban trains.

In addition to track and signal improvements, improvements to the e-commerce system of the trains would increase their viability. An efficient e-booking and e-ticket system, using the web would greatly improve the efficiency and the convenience of the service, at a small cost.

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