To Canberra by Rail
On a Sunday, the first service from Sydney to Canberra departs Sydney Terminal at 12:10 (Monday to Saturday an early morning service runs which departs Sydney Terminal at 06:37). It was this service that I booked on, to depart Sydney for Canberra on Sunday January 25th, and when I arrived at Sydney Terminal at 11:50, the train was ready and waiting for me. I quickly found my first class window seat in Car A (the leading car and buffet car of the train) and on a quick inspection of the carriage, I noticed that it was fairly well loaded, as was to be expected of a long weekend, especially one towards the end of the summer school holidays. Another observation, typical of first class Countrylink travel, was that I was the youngest person in the carriage! My suspicion of a well populated service was confirmed when a message came over the PA requesting passengers to maximise luggage space in the overhead luggage racks, as the service was booked almost to capacity, and space would be at a premium. Although the service was almost fully booked, I somehow managed to have a vacant seat next to me the entire way into Canberra.
Today, the Xplorer service would be provided by 2506/2513/2526. Although the lead car (Car A) had yet to go through the current overhaul program being undertaken by Bombardier Transportation Australia at their Dandenong (Victoria) plant, it has still had the new seat covers on all of the seats, while the centre car had already been through the overhaul process.
Settling back into my seat, we departed Sydney Terminal a minute early at 12:09, and made the short dash to Strathfield, arriving two minutes ahead of the table at 12:20. At Strathfield, a large number of passengers joined the train (seemingly as many as boarded the train at Central), leaving Car A close to capacity, with only a few seats spare. After departing Strathfield at 12:22, the buffet car opened, and lunch was offered. Today, lunch was a choice between battered fish and chips, or a vegetarian curry with rice. Opting for the fish, at $9, I received a small blue card confirming my reservation. When lunch was ready, all I had to do was present the card at the buffet, and pay for my food. This method was to ensure that no food was heated unnecessarily.
Branching off the main suburban line at Lidcombe, we proceeded to the busy Sefton Junction, where the train slowed. Suspecting that we were tabled behind a spark and were in for a slow run to Liverpool, I was surprised to see QRNationals 7BM7 intermodal service waiting for us to pass in the yard at Leightonfield, especially with the all QRN liveried combo of G516/CLP11/CLP13! With the freight out of the way, it was a short run along to Campbelltown, where we arrived right on time at 12:56. Only a handful of passengers joined the train at Campbelltown, which was fortunate as most of the seats were full!
Passing through Picton, I was surprised to see a train on the loop line, and it turned out to be CPH18, in the custody of the New South Wales Rail Transport Museum, waiting for us to pass before they could enter the station. Shortly afterwards, lunch was called at about 13:23, just as the train was passing through Tahmoor. Naturally, everyone moved to the buffet at once, and for a short (but entertaining) moment, the corridor through the train was jammed up with people eager to collect their lunch. It goes without saying that the more sensible passengers waited in their seats for the crowd to die down a bit before moving off to collect their own lunch – let me say this, moving through a moving train is one thing, but doing it with a hot meal in one hand is a whole different undertaking entirely!
The food, while not spectacular, it was not the worst meal I have ever had. Although, if the best thing a passenger can say about the food is that it is not as bad as expected, it can’t say too much for the quality of the food! The service however, remained unequalled, which was an exercise in speed and efficiency. It never ceases to amaze me how the staff can work in that narrow buffet, especially when the crowd descends for lunch! Certainly, we were a world away from the dining car on the Spirit of Progress that I was on last November! Once everyone had finished lunch, an attendant came around with a rubbish bag to clear everything away – certainly no washing up on this train!
After lunch, the train arrived into Mittagong at 13:49 (again, two minutes ahead of table), although no first class passengers would join or leave the train here, a couple of passengers would alight at Bowral, where the train would arrive at 13:54, ahead of the tabled time of 13:56. This does beg the question, why stop at these stations at all, especially when these stations are on the Cityrail map, and serviced by trains from Campbelltown. Bowral and Mittagong, unlike locations in The Blue Mountains, Central Coast or Illawarra, are not served by many direct trains to/from Sydney Terminal. This would mean that passengers would only have one or two direct services to choose from, or would have to get a suburban train to Campbelltown and change trains. With luggage (and possibly a family!) in tow, this does not seem an attractive option. Besides, each stop only adds a couple of minutes to the journey time, and makes a better use of the service. This seems the reasoning for the stop at Bundanoon also, although this stop is far better patronised, as there are very few services to Bundanoon at all! Certainly if a tourist to Sydney and travelling to the Southern Highlands, a passenger would be better off booking onto the Xplorer than trying to navigate the average Cityrail service.
It would be a clear run through Burradoo to Moss Vale, where the train arrived at 1401. While stopped at Moss Vale, a few passengers both joined and left the train. Once Moss Vale was the junction for the rail link to the Illawarra – a CPH Railmotor would make the trip from Moss Vale to Wollongong via Robertson. Now however, the service to/from Wollongong is a Road Coach, and only freight (and tourist trains) travel the escarpment on the spectacular stretch of line. Passengers now must board a road coach at either Wollongong or Dapto to make the climb to Moss Vale to travel to either Canberra or Melbourne with Countrylink. After Moss Vale, the train would sweep around the dramatic curves through Werai (located between Moss Vale and Exeter) – this was a first for myself, as I’ve photographed many trains at this location, but never noticed it from the window of a train – last time, I was blissfully asleep, as I was on my way home from Albury on the overnight XPT.
After Moss Vale there is very little traffic to hold the Xplorer back, so it would prove to be a quick run to Bundanoon (14:14) and on to Goulburn. Having chased trains on the Moss Vale to Goulburn section of the line many times – from the road, doing the limit (usually 100km/h), the trains seem to just outpace you, although from the train it seemed quite a leisurely pace rolling through the curves on the line – especially after Marulan, where the train can really get up to speed. Although no passengers joined or left the train at Bundanoon, quite a few passengers were waiting the Sydney bound train which we crossed just south of the platform. The northbound train was a combination of the Canberra Xplorer and the Riverina Xplorer (which runs to Griffith via Junee on a Saturday to return on the Sunday).
The scenery between Bundanoon and Marulan is quite different from that before it. While the train is still passing through farmland, it becomes the exception rather than the rule, giving way to thick forest with the paddocks almost separated like islands in a sea of trees. The ride quality also suffered slightly south of Bundanoon (although nothing like the ride along the Bombala Line), with plenty of evidence trackside of ARTC’s continued investment in concrete resleepering along this section of track.
Goulburn was the first major stop for the train, arriving at 14:51, maintaining the two minute lead on the timetable. A number of passengers alighted from Car A, although the car remained over half full for departure, despite nobody joining first class at Goulburn. The once-busy yard held the usual collection of infrastructure wagons and decrepit NTAF fuel tankers. Although a number of sidings and buildings remain in the yard, very few remain in use. The most important section of the yard – Goulburn Railway Workshops, now a division of United Goninans was busy producing more NDVF spoil wagons and bins for Railcorp.
Easing through Joppa Junction at 15:01, marked the departure from the Main South Line, and began our run along the Bombala Branch (now known as the Canberra Branch, as the line beyond Queanbeyan has fallen into disuse). With our departure from the Main South, we were now into electric staff working territory, which explained the extended stops at Goulburn (to collect the staff), Tarago, Bungendore and Queanbeyan. The train guard will have to conduct safeworking duties at each stop for the run into Canberra.
The change in ride quality was dramatic, as noted by many other passengers on the train with comments like “gee, the railway line south of Goulburn needs a little work!”. Going from a double track mainline of concrete sleepers to a branch line with steel and wooden sleepers meant that, although we were still moving at speed, the train rocked around a lot more. The difference in upkeep can be attributed to the traffic on the line – a handful of passenger trains each way a day, a thrice weekly oil train (to Canberra), and a daily garbage service (to Crisps Creek siding, south of Tarago).
Another change notable from the train was the change in scenery. While most of the farmland on the run down from Sydney was cattle grazing land, the landscape south of Goulburn was dominated by sheep. Sheep not as used to noisy trains as the cattle living alongside the Main South – many a small stampede was started as the train raced past.
Following the track from Joppa Junction (and indeed, all the way down to Cooma) are the remains of the once extensive telegraph wire system. Over years of disuse, most of the wires have snapped and corroded, and lie dangling from their poles (or missing altogether). Just another example of the things left behind by technology.
No passengers alighted or departed the train at Tarago (where we arrived at 15:18, now three minutes ahead of table), although a long stop was made to allow safeworking duties to be undertaken. The yard at Tarago remains, although has long fallen out of use. The remains of what might have been a loco or goods shed can be seen between the tracks in the yard, although the semaphore signals have long since been replaced by colour light signals.
A short distance south of Tarago, Crisps Creek is a pair of sidings complete with concrete apron and two container cranes – certainly an unusual site in the middle of nowhere. Unlike the other six days a week, when a train is in the siding and container cranes are loading and unloading containers from the train, the site was bare, the cranes in their sheds, and the siding empty. Garbage from Sydney is loaded onto a PN operated train in special containers, and railed to the siding, so the rubbish may be dumped in a closed open-cut mine south of Tarago. The normal roster for the run is two 81 Class units with a 48 Class inbetween them, although on at least one occasion, an 80 class has been used to substitute for an unavaliable 48 Class. The train normally arrives at the siding at 0617, and departs in the afternoon at 1625, although it does not run on a Sunday.
After a light doze, I awoke to find the train pulling into Bungendore Station at 15:44 (now five minutes ahead of the timetable!). The station is the complete opposite to Tarago. Where Tarago is showing it’s neglect, Bungendore is vibrant and well looked after. Where Tarago is desolate, Bungendore is busy (well, as busy as a small station for a small town can be). The station building was set up as a pottery/arts and crafts shop, showing off some local talent, and plenty of people were around the station, either to visit the shop, or to meet people alighting from the train.
Shortly after departing Bungendore at 15:49, the buffet closed for service. Having been open since Strathfield, it was time for the crew to begin cleaning up before the train arrived into Canberra Station. Shortly after Bungendore (branching off just shy of the 299km post) is Bungendore Junction, where the Captains Flat line once branched off. The track still remained in 2007, although on the run past, it looked either removed or just very overgrown (the latter far more likely). Indeed, at this time of year there are often bales of hay stored along the line! Between Bungendore and Queanbeyan, the line passes through the Molonglo Gorge, which entails three tunnels – Brooks Bank Tunnel (302km from the buffers at Sydney Terminal P1), Pine Range No1 Tunnel (314km from Sydney) and Pine Range No2 Tunnel (316km from Sydney). The section of track between No2 Tunnel and Queanbeyan showing some of the most spectacular scenery on the line, with a sharp drop to the right of the train down into the gorge.
A number of passengers would alight the train at Queanbeyan, where we arrived at 16:12 (now seven minutes up) leaving Car A half full for the final run into Canberra. It is here that the line changes from the Bombala Line, which once continued south to Cooma and on to Bombala, to the Canberra Line, a short branch constructed in 1921 (originally to Civic, although later truncated to Kingston in 1923 following a bridge washaway). The train finally arrived at Canberra Station at 16:23, a full six minutes ahead of the timetable.
After meeting my friend (and local Canberra resident) Todd Milton, it was a quick run to Dickson to drop off my luggage before we headed southwest to begin scouting some of the remaining features of the Bombala Line, as it skirts the ACT south of Queanbeyan.
Hume – Finding The 332km Post
The first stop on our pre-dinner walk was a driveway/level crossing located out the back of Hume, near the 331km post. From there we walked down the line to the timber loading point, where logs were once loaded onto a Freight Australia train. When Pacific National took over Freight Australia, the service ceased. Despite no logs being loaded onto a train for a few years now, the loading area was still in good condition, located at the 332km post. No concrete or cement here, just a small clearing with a gravel apron, and no siding was provided, it would appear trains were loaded on the mainline – although at this time, there was no traffic on the section save for the occasional tourist train to Michelago. After taking our photos and walking back to the car, we drove to the 329km post, just up the line.
From the 329km post, we again walked down the line. Starting at a small bridge over a road 1.8m in the air, we walked along the line as it cut through a small hill and right up to the 330km post. At the 330km post was a safeworking hut, and B-Frame. The frame served a small siding that branched off into the back of Hume (an Industrial suburb on the south-west fringe of Canberra). Interestingly, as the railway line skirts the border of the ACT and NSW, this was the second section of the line into Canberra from NSW. Further investigation of the site would be reserved for the day following, as the sun was dipping low behind the horizon, and it was dinner time. So, a short walk back along the line to the car, with something to look forward to the following day.
Time of The Passenger Train (Second Division) by R.G. Preston
History of Railways in Canberra – ARHS ACT Website
Thanks to Todd Milton for his company and guidance over the weekend – without him, none of this would be possible.