We’re waiting at the railway crossing at Silkwood. Standing in the middle of the tracks, Con is listening for an old, familiar rumble. It’s 2014, and the Sunlander is coming through, heading south on its final trip.
“Did you know,” Con said, “I saw the Sunlander on its first trip. I was eleven. I ran down Goondi Hill and watched it go over the level crossing.
“Before that it was the Sunshine Express. It had no air-con, just fans, and the carriages were gritty with soot. You’d put your head out the window and get cinders in your eye. My mum would twist up the corner of her hanky and spit on it, and she’d make me roll my eye back so she could get the cinders out.”
“I read that the old Sunshine Express steam engine is still operating. They use it to pull excursion trains out of Brisbane. It looks beautiful – bright paint, shiny brass.”
“Tell that to any North Queenslander my age, and they’ll just remember forty-hour train trips and soot!”
It’s hot in the sun. I move to the shade of a tree, but the grass there is alive with green ants. I do the North Queensland green ant dance, brushing them off as I skip back into the sunlight. Con is still standing in the middle of the track.
“You be careful”, I tell him.
“What? You think I’ll get run over? It’s the Sunlander, not the Sapsan.”
We travelled on the Sapsan a few years ago – the glamorous red train that covers seven hundred kilometres in four hours, between Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
A headlight appears in the distance, and soon we hear that diesel engine rumble. Con steps off the track, the crossing lights flash, and as the train comes through the driver sounds the horn. There is a sign on the front, Farewell the Sunlander. Brisbane – Cairns, 1953-2014. The train is crowded, and the passengers seem to be having a good time; but they are only on this trip out of nostalgia. Normally they would drive or fly.
In 2010, Con and I went by Amtrak train down the west coast of the United States and across the country to New York. Along the way, we had the time and the opportunity to speak to locals: a journalist returning from a stressful west coast assignment, taking the long train trip home across the Rockies and the prairies to clear his mind; young brothers setting off on a grand railway tour of their country; older people travelling with nostalgia for past journeys.
One elderly man sat down for breakfast and asked for eggs “over easy”.
The waiter told him, apologetically, “We don’t cook eggs to order anymore, sir.”
Things weren’t like this in the old days, when rail travel was king in the USA. Now, people fly, and freight is what pays.
Queensland has long distances and a small population, and it’s not like a small, crowded country in Europe or Asia where roads are congested and the trains are always full. Here, the railway was vital when the roads were bad, and extra trains were often scheduled to cope with the numbers of passengers; but now many railway embankments are over-grown with weeds, tracks have been pulled up, station buildings turned into local museums.
In 2016, Con and I went north on the Spirit of Queensland, which replaced the Sunlander. It’s a beautiful, comfortable train. Not a cinder in sight. But compromises have been made, now that passenger numbers are few.
There are no sleeping cabins. Because we were going all the way to Far North Queensland, we wanted beds, and the rail beds, seats that convert into beds, are only available in First Class. At night, our carriage became a dormitory.
Those making shorter trips, getting on and off at places like Bundaberg, Bowen or Townsville, sat up all the way, just as they would on a plane.
I was comfortable in my rail bed, although it was a little hard.
Not Con, though. “It’s like sleeping in a coffin! The Sunlander had proper cabins and bunks! I’ll never do this again!”
There is no dining car – just a club car selling light refreshments. In First Class, proper meals and drinks were delivered to us in our seats.
For us, the Spirit of Queensland was an extravagance. It cost far more than flying or driving, but it had advantages. At twenty-four hours Brisbane to Cairns, it was faster than going by car and saved the cost of meals and a motel. We got off at Innisfail – more convenient than flying into Cairns, ninety kilometres to the north, and then having to take a bus or hire a car.
European trains go so fast you can’t see the scenery. Not a problem on the Sunlander – or the Spirit of Queensland.
From Ingham to Innisfail, we crawled along. The problem? The rails were hot.
Really? December in Far North Queensland, and the rails were hot?
Images: The Sunshine Express loco today; the SAPSAN in St Petersburg; the final trip of the Sunlander; the Spirit of Queensland at Roma Street Station