Relax and reminisce on these romantic rail journeys

Romancing the rails. Source: NSW State Archives

It’s like a scene plucked straight from a black-and-white movie reel. Back when people dressed for dinner: men in their spiffy suits and women in their twin sets and pearls. Fine china and cutlery so perfectly polished you could check your reflection were the order of the day.

The luggage was sturdy, hard-case and designed to last, no fancy wheels required. A butler served tea – brewed with real leaves – straight to your carriage as the sun peeked over the ever-shifting horizon.

Late nights were for sherry, cards, conversation and perhaps even a cheeky cigar, before stealing off to your quaint-and-comfortable quarters. Some snatched a smooch under the moonlight as the train rattled through the night.

Australians have long held a fascination with rail trips, particularly across our big, brown land, even better if they carried a hefty sense of nostalgia along with their passengers. These were yawning, languid journeys, which took their own fine time, allowing the traveller to sink into their leather upholstered seat and soak up the countryside, every inch of rust, red dust and the chance kangaroo sighting, fuelling even more wanderlust. 

Forget iPods, the clunk and clatter of the rail tracks was all the symphony you needed to lull you into a sanguine state as you surveyed the scenery and pondered your hunger for the next meal sitting. Sandwiches with cucumber? Quite possibly. Scones, jam and cream? Most definitely. For mains you’d start with soup, followed by a hearty beef dish with the requisite three vegetables. None of this garrulous gastronomy they talk of today. Dessert would be wholesome apple pie, with lashings of whipped cream and swirling laughter.

Back in 1960s Australia, the Southern Aurora train, which weaved between Sydney and Melbourne, was considered the darling of Australian rail travel. The overnight express passenger train, which was entirely first-class — including dining — and featured all-sleeper accommodation, ambled between Australia’s two major cities from April 16, 1962 until August 2, 1986.

The fleet of 34 stainless-steel carriages included roomette and twinette sleepers and lounge and dining cars. The addition of a motorail service in 1973 enabled passengers to travel with their cars onboard. Requisite reading was Agatha Christie, best consumed under the lights of 1930s Art-Deco fixtures from London. The books may have been murderous, but this journey most certainly was not.

Now, this darling is back, after being lovingly restored to its original ’60s condition by historical societies and private owners. Vintage Rail Journeys is resurrecting this rail romance with the new Aurora Australis, which is running a range of itineraries throughout New South Wales in 2022 and 2023. 

These four-night journeys, from Sydney to the Golden West; Sydney to the Riverina; and along the scenic NSW north coast; aim to capture the golden era of rail in Australia. Travellers who were aboard the original journey back in its heyday, have reminisced with Travel at 60, about their experiences:

“One of my best holiday memories growing up. My dad took me to Tasmania to visit family when I was seven and this was one of the best parts of the trip.”

I worked on that train as a travelling power car and air-conditioning engineer during the late ’60s and early ’70s Sydney to Albury overnight and then return to Sydney.”

“Travelled from Melbourne to Sydney on our honeymoon in 1974.”

“I still have two of the suitcases. Remember the drop-down hand basin?”

“I did several trips on the Southern Aurora. Nice beds and a waiter brought breakfast.”

“I remember the single sleeper compartment was very compact and even had a toilet. I was very impressed and loved the dining room.”

To recapture the spirit of old-fashioned train travel, book one of these upcoming trips on Aurora Australis. Oh and do pack your hard-case suitcase… for old time’s sake.

Have you ever been on a vintage rail journey?

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