There's a certain romance about riding the rails; a sense of national identity that can be garnered from taking in so much of the landscape on a long cross-country journey.
From the opulence of Europe's great rails to the over-crowded passenger trains of India, you can see certain trains and know exactly where in the world you are. But this isn't the Orient Express, nor is it the Darjeeling Limited. This is the Indian Pacific and, stretching from Sydney to Perth across the Nullarbor, it's the quintessential Aussie rail.
Play it by numbers
To give you an idea of the magnitude of the journey, here are a few statistics to take into consideration:
- the train is more than 700m long
- it weighs in excess of 1100 tonnes
- travels 4352km
- and has an average speed of 85km/hr
All of this sounds very impressive but it also adds up to you spending three days and three nights, roughly 65 hours, on a train, so you'd better choose your accommodation (and travelling buds) wisely.
What will it cost?
There are a range of options to suit any budget for travelling on the Indian Pacific, but as with all things the old adage "you get what you pay for" definitely applies. Pensioner, child and students discounts are available but bringing moody teenagers or small children on a train for three days and three nights seems a recipe for disaster if your family is anything like mine, so all prices shown are standard adult fares (see more here).
The Red Class is firmly planted in the "budget" travel category and a one-way trip will set you back as little as $716 for a Daynighter seat (agoraphobics, look no further) and $1402 for a sleeper. It's a cheap way to get from one side of the country to the other, while taking in a lot of the countryside, but comfort is the trade off. Meals aren't provided but snacks and drinks can be purchased on board. On the plus side, new lounge cars were introduced on the Indian Pacific in August, so you can be cramped in style.
To give you an idea of the size we're talking, Red Class seating is about the same as premium economy seating on a plane. Comfortable enough over short distances but after three days expect some cabin fever to set in and that lounge bar to look increasingly inviting.
Middle of the road
The next step up is Gold Class, and it's a big step in price and product. A single Gold Class ticket costs $2008 per person and Gold Twin and Gold Superior cabins for two people run at $3341 and $5726, respectively.
Standard Gold Class cabins offer a much more comfortable journey than Red Class, while still employing the economy-of-space motif. Beds are a fold-out affair, as are the toilet and wash basin, making it all feel a bit Swiss Army Knife. The main advantage of Gold Class is having your meals in the dining car (included in the price of your ticket) and the extra privacy of your own cabin.
(Note: even though you are in the middle of nowhere privacy is not total. A personal incident involving a towel malfunction, an open set of blinds and a car waiting at a rail crossing should illustrate the point succinctly. A thumbs-up from a total stranger whilst standing in front of him in your birthday suit proved a memorable experience.)
Room for the entourage
If the difference between Red and Gold Class is a step, then the difference between Gold and Platinum is one giant leap for mankind. At a not-so-insignificant $6152 per person you should expect a Platinum cabin to have all the trimmings, and it comes darn close. From the in-cabin breakfast service to the private lounge, full-size shower and real double bed, no detail has been overlooked in making the Platinum Class about as comfortable as you can be while on a train.
As with Gold Class, meals are included in the price of your ticket and are served in the same dining car. The three squares served are much better than airline food but in a stationary restaurant would be nothing to write home about.
Whistle stop tours
Whistle stops are a great way to break up the monotony of the journey and tick off the main tourist highlights of the stopover cities. Tours can be organised by speaking to one of the crew members and cost about $23 to $74 per adult.
If you're on a tight budget, a little time management can save you a pretty penny without missing out on seeing the sights. Most destinations on the whistle stop tours have free entry, so do a little research before the "all aboard".
When to go
The Indian Pacific runs year-round, but the peak period is from August to December. Travelling during the cooler months might be wise for those sensitive to extreme heat, but part of the appeal of this trip is seeing the Nullarbor baking in its stark beauty.
If you're planning on travelling towards the end of the year, keep an eye out for the annual Outback Christmas Train. It's the usual Indian Pacific journey plus a few extra stops, some carolling pre-teens, a (B-grade) celebrity performer or two and a visit from jolly Saint Nick himself.
The Christmas Train started in 2000 and a decade later it has seen hols of all sorts. Truly unique moments like Jimmy Barnes nearly missing the train because he was having too much fun kicking a footy with kids are offset by other years when an unnamed performer was too busy sightseeing and forgot to show up for his/her own gig.
No matter the quality of entertainment, a stop in Watson (an outpost in the middle of nowhere) to meet some members of the remote Aboriginal community is the highlight of the trip, and makes the whole trip a worthwhile experience.
Related video: Getaway's Indian Pacific journey