Meeting the Birthday Girl — Southern Aurora 60th Anniversary Tour

The Southern Aurora looking good for sixty years old.

In the lead-up to Anzac Day we signed up for another trip. A very special one.

The Southern Aurora was a luxury train when it first began its regular commute between Sydney and Melbourne. The full commute on the one train was only made possible when the standard gauge track was completed between Sydney and Melbourne in 1962, with the first freight train completing its run on 3 January 1962. The first passenger train to go the whole distance in the one trip was the Southern Aurora, making its debut trip on 12 April 1962.

Train spotters at the ready. Many of them follow their favourite trains by car, appearing at the scheduled stops along the way. That’s dedication!

Often used as a business train, Southern Aurora would welcome you on board in Sydney in the evening, perhaps have dinner in the dining car with a friend while the train sat at Sydney’s Central Station, then you would settle into your sleeper compartment for the night as the train worked its way through the rat runs of tunnels on the beginning of the overnight journey to Melbourne.

A nightcap, perhaps? The lounge car had a bar, or you could simply retire early after the luxury of a shower in your own bathroom.

The Southern Aurora was the first train in the world to feature showers in the cabin bathrooms. It took decades for the rest of the world to catch up.

When rail was first built in Australia, there were different gauges in different states, which meant that those travelling interstate by train had to change trains.

Before 1961, the overnight trip from Sydney to Melbourne was punctuated in the wee small hours by the announcement, “Albury — all change!” and the grumbling of passengers as they emerged blearily into the darkness and cold of the Albury night to change trains for the next leg of the journey. The rank of the passengers did not matter. Some celebrities who travelled from Sydney to Melbourne and had to endure the train change included Agatha Christie, Don Bradman, H G Wells and even the famed race-horse Phar Lap. Australian opera star Nellie Melba (my one-time namesake, who made her professional debut as Helen Armstrong) travelled between Sydney And Melbourne by train, also having to endure the necessary train change in the night.

When travelling from Sydney to Melbourne in 1895 (pre-Southern Aurora days) celebrated US author Mark Twain commented on the lack of uniform gauge that necessitated this. “The oddest thing, the strangest thing, the most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australia can show… think of the paralysis of intellect that gave this idea birth.”

The completion of a standard gauge track all the way from Sydney to Melbourne in 1962 finally made the trip possible on just the one train.

Our trip was on the sixtieth anniversary of that first Southern Aurora trip. It was going to involve a little more than just overnight.

Jeff, masked, paces the platform before boarding.

As with a lot of adventures these days, there is always uncertainty about whether it is safe to travel. We had to prove we were Covid-safe by having a negative RAT on the morning of departure and show certification of our vaccination status. For us, we had the added problems of landslides on our road due to flood damage. Rain had kept falling and we had to allow extra time to get in to the city. Landslides to the south on the rail lines had caused a lot of problems too. For the organisers, this was particularly problematic as the usual location for the storage of these heritage carriages was cut off by landslides and floods. Luckily most of the carriages had already been out and in use before the landslides. However, the planned locomotives were still trapped behind the earthwork barriers and replacements had to be found.

With the combination of floods, landslides and Covid we spent the week before departure carefully avoiding crowds and gatherings. We weren’t going to miss out!

Of course we arrived early to Central Station. Due to Covid (and perhaps the later afternoon hour) there was no café open on the concourse, and we had an hour to kill before check-in, so we dragged our bags downstairs in search of caffeine. We knew we’d be fed on the train, so we avoided food.

On the way. By train, of course! Covid restrictions apply.

Back upstairs, we noticed that all the other people checking in were on a first-name basis with the organisers. Everyone knew each other. A good sign — repeat business with the company.

This was very much a ceremonial event. Although we were early, the trainspotters were even earlier. Also gathering on Platform 1 was the Railway Band, ready to give us a proper send-off suitable to the historic occasion.

Railway Band getting ready. Southern Aurora got a wonderful send-off.

Some speeches, some music as the sun set, and soon we were ready to board. Some important announcements — the rolling stock is sixty years old, treat the cabin with care and respect. Special instructions regarding toilet-flushing were shared. Get it wrong, we were warned, and the carriages would run out of water. As the only toilets on board were the ones in our cabins, we had to get it right.

Finally we officially boarded, found our cabin and headed to the dining car allocated to us, for our first meal on board.

The menus were recreations from the originals.
Dinner on board, at Central Station. First course…

The problem with the landslides had robbed the train of a dining car, so there had to be two meal sittings. We were lucky to be in the first sitting, although it did mean early rising. For us it was no hardship, it meant we could watch the sunrise from bed.

In order to reduce Covid risks, we were allocated the same dining partners for our four-seat table for the trip. We also were required to wear masks when out of our cabin and moving about the train. Two carriages per dining sitting, and we were kept in those carriage groups as much as possible for all the other excursions on the tour, as our own Covid-safe bubble.

After a delicious (and very filling) dinner, we rolled back to our cabin and investigated the mysteries of the bathroom. It was tiny, but comprehensive. The shower head was on one wall, there was room to stand as long as the toilet and basin were folded up into the wall. To use the toilet, you had to fold it down. Leave it down to flush, we’d been warned. Don’t fold it back up while it’s still flushing or the mechanism could go doo-lally and not shut off the flushing water. The other passengers in the carriage would be very unhappy when  the water ran out. There are very few opportunities these days to refill a carriage’s water supply.

The basin also folded down from the wall to use, but it would automatically empty as it was folded back up.

Compact and a little challenging. The pile of fluffy towels that had been left for us had nowhere to go, so I stacked them on the shelf in front of the mirror. I had just washed my hands when the train lurched a little, and the pile of DRY fluffy towels tumbled into the basin full of water.

Bathroom in the cabin. The top metal bit is the basin, the bottom one is the toilet. Close the door first, you won’t be able to close it afterwards. Note the wet towel…

Train travel is not without its challenges. I wonder how Nellie Melba would have handled this sort of Pullman-class bathroom catastrophe.
After hanging the towels to dry, we climbed into our bunks and settled down for an early night.

I was woken during the night by lights shining in the window — we’d stopped in Goulburn to pick up another engine and driver. As we got underway again, the gentle rocking of the train soon lulled me back to sleep.

What adventures would tomorrow bring?
Watch this space…

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