Arts & Entertainment

THE NAKED CITY: TRACKS OF MY TEARS

It’s a common weekend sight in greater Sydney and throughout regional NSW – steam train enthusiasts gathering to drool over lovingly restored locomotives from a bygone era. Both kids and adults alike pack out the regular steam train excursions, travelling in beautifully refurbished vintage carriages. Whilst there is an ongoing love affair with the romance and splendour of an outdated technology, it seems the public has little adoration for the railways of today. 

That’s not surprising given the history of rail transport in NSW over the past 50 years. Both metropolitan and country services have been badly neglected by successive governments without any long range plan in place. Whilst numerous other countries have built extensive ‘fast train’ networks, that kind of infrastructure remains a fanciful dream, especially in NSW. The new Sydney Metro system promises big improvements but is long overdue whilst other areas of the network are crying out for modernisation.

The public transport system took a huge hit during the pandemic and is only slowly recovering as commuters return to daily travel. Prior to the lockdowns the main concourse at Central Station was the bustling heartbeat of the city, with restaurants, a bar and a coffee stand all servicing the constant stream of commuters. Today it is almost a lifeless mausoleum – the restaurants have closed and the coffee stand which once served hundreds of cups a day has shut up shop.

I can well remember travelling on some intercity services last year when there were more cleaners sanitising the train, alighting at Central than actual passengers. On another occasion, on the normally busy Eastern suburbs line, the only other commuters in my carriage were a young couple with a three legged cat  (travelling without an Opal card no doubt). It was a surreal image at an equally surreal time.

It might be simplistic to state so, but clearly NSW train travellers have fallen out of love with the network. Whilst the daily commute to work on trains in the UK and other European cities is seen as a relatively enjoyable experience, in Sydney it’s simply a means to an end, often fraught with delays and stoppages. Despite rising fuel prices, excessive tolls and traffic gridlocks, many commuters still prefer to sit in a car for hours than commute by train.

Whilst there is a huge spend on metropolitan services underway, intercity and country services are still awaiting an upgrade. The XPT is now over 40 years old and almost qualifies for vintage status. Admittedly it still does have certain charms like picking up a hot meal in a cardboard box from the buffet. It’s also well known for its particularly cheerful and helpful staff, a welcome compensation for what is now a sadly antiquated service.

Similarly the old intercity trains have been run into the ground, awaiting the new and highly problematic South Korean built carriages to take their place. With the Union holding fast on safety issues with the new fleet, some of the bureaucrats in charge should take time to actually travel from Central to the Blue Mountains – maybe on a late night service when all the stations are unattended and the on board security buttons no longer work. When they are the last passenger in the carriage leaving Mount Victoria for Lithgow they will appreciate what the word ‘vulnerability’ really means. No three legged cat to keep them company here!

Travellers, particularly children, continue to fall down the gap between trains and the platform on the Blue Mountain line and anybody waiting for a train after 5.00pm in the winter is prone to hypothermia with most of the waiting rooms closed. The old V set carriages are often heavily vandalised with scratched widows and graffiti and must be a big turnoff for foreign tourists and day trippers.

The railways in this state need some love and in turn gain some love back from the public. The men and women who work on them do an incredible job, often under great difficulty and duress. The Government needs to convince people that travelling by train today can be a rewarding experience, almost as good as jumping onto an old steam loco. They will only do so by putting the safety and comfort of passengers first, upgrading the various fleets and bringing back the much needed coffee stand at Central station!

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