On the XPT, no one can hear you scream

I recently crisscrossed Europe on their wonderful very fast TGV trains and enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to catch the overnight XPT train from Sydney to Brisbane, instead of flying.

It was a mistake.Munch

Firstly, the XPT appears to have no suspension, which ensures a   bone rattling experience in the twin-bed sleeper compartment. The upper bunk is less rickety but has no safety railing. So if you roll over in your sleep you will drop two meters to the floor.  No one will hear your screams because they will be drowned out by the loud creaks from the carriage.

The en-suite bathroom features a quaint foldaway metal toilet that is flushed when you lift up the pan to stow it away. Apparently a similar toilet could be found in war-torn Somalia’s defunct Mogadishu-Villabruzzi train line, built in 1910 – but it was more hygienic than the XPT version.

The temperature in the sleeping compartment ranges from freezing to boiling hot, depending on whether it is attached to the front or back of the train. The heavily stained carpets on the walls and floors do provide some insulation, but not much. Another problem are the diesel fumes that periodically leak into the cabin.

When I did finally drift off to sleep I was awoken shortly after in preparation for our arrival at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station at 2.41am (yes, that’s quarter to three in the morning!). Here, we were greeted by a dark, empty station with not a taxi in sight. An elderly lady from my carriage was so relieved that the journey had ended that she kneeled down and kissed the platform in gratitude.

I have subsequently learned that the XPT stands for Express Passenger Train. But it really stands for Extremely Painful Torture. I should stress that I am not criticising the XPT staff who do a wonderful job, considering the outmoded equipment they have to work with.

The bigger question is, why doesn’t a relatively well off country like Australia have a decent interstate railway system. A fast train service between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide would connect up the southeastern corridor – where most people live – and simultaneously increase efficiency, reduce the road toll, cut down pollution and make travelling more enjoyable for millions of people. This is vital infrastructure. Let’s get on with building it.

Note: This Rant originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review as a letter on 12 November 2013