Drunks on a Train

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Mount Isa country

Con’s Inlander story

When I was eighteen, Mum and I caught the Inlander from Townsville to Mount Isa: a 24 hour trip.

inlander con 18
Con aged 18

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.

inlander townsville station Qld dept env and science
The old Townsville Railway Station Pic: Dept of the Environment and Science

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.

inlander stockmen slq
“Group of stockmen enjoying smoko, ca. 1960” Robin Smith photo, SLQ

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.

inlander ad RRRooms

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.

inlander abbotts

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.

inlander 2 You Tube
21st Century Inlander

Goodbye, Sunlander

 

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!”

TOUR-SERT

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.

IMAG2032

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.

fullsizeoutput_2bb8

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?

IMG_20161129_143016_BURST001_COVER_resized_20161206_123142562

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

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑