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Taking the Train in Australia

Australia is a very large country and the only nation in the world that has an entire continent virtually to itself. It also boasts an incredible variety of things to see and do, it’s extremely group friendly, and the language is a slightly different but easily understood version of English. If you’ve not been there before, it unquestionably belongs on your and your group’s bucket list.

Railroad buffs will have many different routes from which to choose in visiting Australia. To begin with, two luxurious, world-famous, long-distance trains operated by Great Southern Rail traverse the length and width of the country: the Indian Pacific, between Sydney in the east and Perth in the west, and the Ghan, between Darwin in the north and Adelaide in the south. The same line also operates the Overland, connecting with both longer routes at Adelaide for the shorter distance to Melbourne.

As outstanding as these rail journeys might be and ideal for experiencing Australia’s storied Outback, they are neither inexpensive nor quick trips. However, there is an ideal rail alternative for tours planning to visit two or all three of Australia’s great cities in the eastern part of the country: Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Before my trans-Pacific cruise from Australia to Canada this past spring, I was fortunate to sample what New South Wales (NSW) TrainLink has to offer aboard its XPT Trains, with both daylight and overnight service traveling through rural Australia and connecting these outstanding metropolitan destinations.

Most groups will want to schedule the daylight trips simply so they can see the picturesque countryside through which they are traveling; the trains themselves are equipped to handle no more than 18 guests in first-class sleeping accommodations. For groups wishing to see all three cities, I’d recommend starting in surprisingly beautiful Brisbane, then heading south, first to Sydney and then on to Melbourne.

Although the equipment is not new, it is clean, comfortable, well-maintained and offers a relatively smooth ride. In appearance, it is comparable to Amtrak’s “Heritage” cars, although seemingly slightly narrower. All of NSW TrainLink’s XPT cars are nonsmoking. Each five-car train includes two economy-class cars, two first-class cars that offer more legroom, and one first-class/sleeper car with nine private compartments that seat up to 27 during the daytime or 18 for overnight trips.

I was treated to one of these quiet refuges — all have shared toilet and shower facilities — for my daytime trip from Melbourne to Sydney, which departed conveniently at 8:30 a.m. and arrived just a few minutes past our scheduled arrival time of 7:50 p.m. Incidentally, the cafe served a nice variety of tasty hot meals, lighter fare, snacks, sweets, hot and cold drinks, beer and wine, all at very reasonable prices.

What is there to see along the way? Although a daylong drizzle hampered my picture taking somewhat, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the sheep and cattle ranches, the farms, the rural towns and the villages as we crossed rolling countryside somewhat reminiscent of Oklahoma and east Texas, with the addition of wild kangaroos and countless eucalyptus trees.

The names of towns along the way were fascinating: Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra, Bundanoon and Mittagong. I even loved seeing the amazing graffiti painted on walls, fences and freight cars as we left Melbourne behind. But the value of also having time to simply relax and take in the passing scenery between the hustle and bustle of the cities could not be denied.