They built her for comfort, not speed, but she could still give the XPT a run for its money

April 15, 2012

Pomp ... guests prepared to board the inaugural Southern Aurora service to Melbourne at Central Station in April 1962.

Pomp ... guests prepared to board the inaugural Southern Aurora service to Melbourne at Central Station in April 1962.

Fifty years after the first direct train trip from Sydney to Melbourne, the travel time has barely changed, writes Daniel Lewis.

''ALBURY, all change!'' For nearly 80 years these three words were the curse of anyone catching the train between Sydney and Melbourne. David Burke, 84, remembers the freezing nights when he would drag his luggage across the platform at the border town because NSW and Victoria had built their rail systems on different gauges.

As Mark Twain observed of the old Albury break of gauge: ''Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth.''

But all that changed in April 1962 when the opening of the standard gauge line between Melbourne and Sydney led to the launch of the famous Southern Aurora, an Australian-built luxury overnight sleeper service which for the first time let passengers pass through Albury without changing trains. Mr Burke was on the first Aurora service as a journalist and has fond memories of the grand trip.

On board were the prime minister, the governor-general, the premiers of NSW and Victoria and railway officials - ''all these blokes in penguin suits and women in long dresses''.

Mr Burke also remembers a sense that the single-gauge line and the Southern Aurora represented a great step forward for the nation.

But in the 50 years since, the Sydney-Melbourne route has produced no similar sensation. Services have gone backwards.

There are still two trains each way each day between Sydney and Melbourne but they are not luxury, world-class trains like the Aurora was in its prime.

And then there are journey times. In 1962 the Aurora had a top speed of 130km/h and did the Sydney-Melbourne run in 13 hours - two hours and 10 minutes less than the old service.

These days the 959-kilometre Sydney-Melbourne run is conducted by XPTs, which have a top speed of 160km/h. But because of ''mud holes'' caused by drainage problems, the track is riddled with speed restrictions and sometimes the speed is as low as 20km/h to ensure safety. They make the service slow and habitually late, Bob Newham of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union says.

Anyone getting on the 8.40 service at Central tonight will arrive in Melbourne at 7.35 tomorrow morning if the train is on time - a journey of 10 hours and 55 minutes.

Just two years after the Aurora made its maiden journey, Japan launched the first of its Shinkansen ''Bullet Train'' high-speed rail lines. The trains now travel at up to 300km/h and the network, connecting most big cities, covers more than 2000 kilometres - enough track to connect Brisbane and Melbourne.

But renewed debate about a second airport for Sydney has put focus back on building a high-speed rail line for Australia's east coast.

The grand carriages of the old Southern Aurora are still in good condition, cared for by the volunteers of the NSW Rail Transport Museum. And tomorrow they will be back at Central so they can haul passengers to Melbourne to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Aurora's maiden journey.

Australia's greatest rail advocate, former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, will address the passengers at Albury when the train stops there on Tuesday.

In a rally cry for constructing fast rail, he will tell them: ''Celebrating the past is useful, but planning long-term for rail infrastructure is vital. I'm absolutely in support of high-speed rail. Australia needs the high-speed rail Brisbane-Newcastle-Sydney-Canberra-Albury-Melbourne.''

Such a line would also take a great deal of pressure off Sydney Airport, according to Mr Fischer, because most flights in and out of the airport carried people within the same Melbourne-Brisbane corridor and the French experience showed most of those passengers would switch to high-speed rail if it became an option.

''We would be able to offer two hours 50 minutes [Sydney-Melbourne],'' he said, adding that the existing Sydney-Melbourne line was ''a shocker''.

''It's 11 or 12 hours on an XPT on a good day [Sydney-Melbourne]. Australia, because of its rundown interstate passenger train services, actually has more to gain by introducing high-speed rail than any other country in the world.''

The federal government recently announced an extra $134 million for upgrading ballast and drainage along the Sydney-Melbourne line to solve the mud-hole and speed-restriction problems.

In the meantime, despite many years of track upgrading, you still do not need a time machine to experience what life was like before the single gauge and Southern Aurora.

Anyone catching the XPT to Melbourne at Central at 7.42am today faces a trip the timetable says will take 12 hours and eight minutes because trackwork will require passengers to change to a bus - at Albury - for the rest of the journey to Melbourne.

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