You can hear their bravado; those who declare, despite the guffaws from friends, that they will be commuting from Newcastle to Sydney by rail. “No, five hours a day on the train is fine. I can read, watch movies, sleep. All that time to myself. Looking forward to it, actually.”
Three months later, they are pale, glassy eyed,unable to read as they stare into middle distance; “no more”, they whisper, “please. No more.” They have been broken by the train journey known to locals, with a certain crude brilliance and no affection whatsoever, as the “Shitkansen”.
For what sins have the people of Newcastle and the Central Coast been punished with such a rail service? When in 2012, the NSW government announced with great fanfare “the biggest timetable changes in a generation”, they were apparently referring to the “Greatest Generation” who survived the Great Depression and World War Two, as the journey from Newcastle to Sydney Central now takes longer than it did using steam engines in the 1930s. At least the long journey time allows passengers to fully appreciate the sounds, sights and smells of the train itself, and one’s fellow passengers. High speed rail has never seemed so far away.
Not only does the track meander east, west and at times even north, in the manner of my two year old on a walk or a drunk uncle at a party, there’s nowhere to obtain refreshment - even the chilled water once provided on board was suspended in 2004 due to concerns it would spread disease - let alone a buffet car. There’s no luggage racks, precious little leg room, and the toilets! Words fail me, as apparently did the bodily functions of previous passengers. And can we talk about the colour scheme? Who decided bilious green and the sort of yellow not seen since the curtains of the 1970s would make for restful travel?
Then of course there’s the much-heralded “quiet carriages”. These are not policed in any way, relying on fellow passengers keeping each other honest. They never work, usually because a group of people of “a certain age” will board, say “ooh, lovely, quiet carriages, no youngsters blaring music”, then proceed to have shouty conversations about their grandkids and the price of stamps all the way to Sydney.
All this relies on the train actually running at all. Even when NSW Trains gives themselves a break from the incessant round of trackwork that sees the line closed at random intervals for days on end, one must still deal with the ever-present risk that the train will get tangled in the wires, overheat, or someone will become ill (why can’t they train staff to remove sick passengers from the train themselves, for crying out loud, instead of forcing hundreds of people to wait for the paramedics?), meaning you’re turfed off the train and delayed indefinitely. Whilst I am sure Gosford and Woy Woy are vibrant places with much to offer the visitor, I would prefer if such visits were not involuntary and of several hours duration whilst returning from job interviews or medical appointments.
Of course politicians show no sign of wanting to fix any of this. So I invite state parliament to sit in Newcastle for a week, commuting daily from Sydney by train. Even if we don’t get a better rail service out of it, at least the pollies will be too dazed and depressed from the experience to pointlessly change department names and branding for a while.
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