The Inlander to Mount Isa is not running: service is suspended because of the coronavirus. It’s the same for The Spirit of the Outback, the Westlander, Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Gulflander.
Reduced services on the Spirit of Queensland to Cairns, and Tilt Trains to Rockhampton and Bundaberg.
As I have no current train stories available, I’ve asked Con for an old one. He tells me it’s all true.
Con’s Inlander story
When I was eighteen, Mum and I caught the Inlander from Townsville to Mount Isa: a 24 hour trip.
We booked sleepers, but Queensland Railways decreed that a man could not share a sleeping compartment with a woman unless they were married; not even mother and son. Each second-class compartment consisted of three single berths, so Mum would share a compartment with two other women at one end of our carriage, and I was to share with two men at the other.
At the fine old Townsville Railway Station, we boarded our train early and I sat alone in my compartment, wondering what my travelling companions would be like. Just as I was resigning myself to a solitary journey, I saw a stocky male figure walking along the platform, lugging a suitcase.
“It must be heavy,” I thought. “He’s staggering under its weight. No, he’s drunk. Oh Lord – he’s coming into this carriage.”
Like a homing pigeon he wobbled into my compartment. He frowned at me with eyes like boiled lollies. “I’m Frank,” he slurred. Accent not Australian – something European. I later found out it was Hungarian.
We exchanged hellos, while his beery breath and his sweat fought hard to dominate the air-conditioning. He told me he worked as a miner in The Isa. In those days, lots of new arrivals went to Mount Isa for work.
A commotion in the doorway heralded the arrival of two more blokes, dressed like stockmen or drovers – broad-brimmed hats, checked shirts, boots – lugging battered leather carry-alls. Steve and Steve, they told us. They’d been at Magnetic Island and were on their way back to their droving base the other side of Dajarra.
There were three sleeping berths and four of us. The taller Steve told us when they went to buy tickets, only one berth was available. They bought it, plus a ticket for a second-class sitter.
“One of us will sleep on the floor here, if you blokes don’t mind.”
I didn’t mind. Frank grunted, and the Steves took this for agreement. Steve and Steve had also had a few beers before boarding the train, and this had made them noisy and cheerful, in contrast to Frank whose drinking had made him surly and argumentative.
The train pulled out of Townsville and before we got to Stuart, only a few miles out of town, there was an argument. Steve and Steve wanted everyone to be happy. Frank seemed to enjoy being gloomy, and when the Steves produced bottles of warm beer to share around, Frank said he wanted to go to sleep. He climbed up on the top bunk and lay there, staring unsmilingly at the roof.
In those days, sing-a-longs were more common than they are now; and so we started to sing to pass the time. The Steves sang along enthusiastically, banging on their swags to keep the beat.
We sang Waltzing Matilda, Click Go the Shears, Red River Valley, and Santa Lucia. Frank recognized this last one and climbed down from his bunk to join in. He drank some warm beer, and during a break in the music he told us of songs his mob would play and sing out in the bush in Hungary, and how beautiful the stars were out there, away from the smoke and lights of the city.
“It must be like the skies at night out in the West,” said a Steve. Frank told us that the skies in Hungary were the same as Australian skies, but upside down, like all the skies north of the Equator. The younger Steve couldn’t get hold of this concept. Frank patiently explained it, but Young Steve furrowed his brow and thought hard, still confused.
Big Steve suggested that on their next cattle drive, young Steve might stand on his head and look up at the sky full of stars that way, to give him an idea of how the sky in Hungary might appear.
Steve the Elder and I went along to try to buy some beer from the dining car. The lady in charge told us that she would not sell us any alcohol because a) consumption of alcohol was permissible only in the dining car, and it was now closed; and b) we had obviously been drinking already and were not sober enough to purchase more. Steve became agitated, questioning the lady’s parentage and her morals. I apologised and took him back to our home on the range.
“What about another song, Con?”
After the song, Frank gave out cigarettes and lit them for us. Steve the Elder squinted through the smoke at him and said with sincerity, “You might be a wog, mate, but as far as Steve and I are concerned, you’re fair dinkum.”
Frank clasped his hand in a fierce grip. “We are now true friends,” he proclaimed.
“That is so beautiful,” sobbed young Steve, “I think I’m going to cry.”
All four of us were singing “We’ll Meet Again”, holding each other’s hands and with tears in our eyes, when the conductor hammered on the door. He was accompanied by the lady from the dining car. “That’s them!” she snapped, “and that one (indicating Steve) has a foul mouth.”
The conductor told us that we weren’t allowed to drink in our compartment and to watch our language.
When the train stopped at Charters Towers, Frank got off and went to the Railway Refreshment Room, returning with a large paper bag containing half a dozen bottles of Abbott’s Lager. He’d also bought more cigarettes in case we ran short.
Taking the precaution of closing the door and pulling down the window blind, we continued our journey with songs, smokes, and warm Abbott’s beer.
Just after midnight, when I was standing up with a bottle of beer in one hand and a smoke in the other, belting out Stand Up and Fight with passion, we were interrupted by a knock at the door. Fearing the worst, we attempted to hide the empty bottles, spilling beer over the floor.
I opened the door, and there was Mum.
“Connie, you haven’t got your ‘jamas on yet.”
She looked at the three drunks sprawled around the tiny sleeper compartment and commented that we looked to be having a good time but shouldn’t stay up too late or we’d be tired in the morning. She gave me a good night kiss and left.
Frank insisted that young Steve take his sleeping berth while he himself camped on the floor. Young Steve became emotional again, declaring us to be mates for life as he scrambled up to the top berth.
At 8 a.m. we pulled into Hughenden. Frank bounced up from the floor, charged out of the compartment, and walked briskly along the platform to the small Refreshment Room.
“If he comes back with more beer I’ll faint,” moaned Steve the Elder. He didn’t. He came back with more smokes. We couldn’t face them either.
I went off to have breakfast with Mum. She asked if I’d slept well, and I told her the rhythm of the train had lulled me to sleep as soon as I lay down.
Back in our compartment, we were all subdued, even Frank. The long day wore on, as we talked vaguely and slept. Arriving at The Isa in the late afternoon, we shook hands and wished one another good luck.
I never saw the Steves again, but I caught a glimpse of Frank in the street a few days later. He gave a friendly wave but didn’t stop.
Perhaps it was just as well. But for one night, despite an awkward beginning, we four – the drovers, the miner and the young schoolteacher – had a train trip to remember.
Drunks on a train – it still happens, and not just in Queensland. On an AMTRAK train in the USA a few years ago, we heard an announcement over the public address system, warning everyone that drunks would be put off the train. “Remember: Bud does not make you weiser!”
Queensland trains are more sophisticated now, and seat-back screens provide entertainment for those long, long journeys. There are no sleeping compartments or dining cars any more, and Railway Refreshment Rooms have all but disappeared. Smoking would probably have you put off the train.
I wouldn’t want to travel on a train full of drunks; but I doubt if travellers today will have such good stories to tell their families in years to come.