One last ride on loco hero

20:00, Jul 25 2013
ON THE RAILS: The railway bridge approaching Mount Bartle.

Cairns Airport is shuffling queues, junk food, expensive shops, security checks, airconditioning and overly bright lights.

It's a pleasant enough airport. But it's still an airport; it's a factory for movement. If travel was ever about freedom and a sense of escape, then airports have long ago ceased to be about travel. Ah, but trains. Trains are different.

The first steam engine, the progenitor of today's trains, was patented by Scottish engineer James Watt in 1781. The first passenger jet airliner lifted off in 1948. That should tell us something right there. Different eras. Different sensibilities.

Sixty years ago this month, the iconic Sunlander lurched off the platform at Roma Street station in Brisbane and made the maiden return journey to Cairns.

But this anniversary is a mixed moment. It also kicks off the Sunlander's final year of operation. Soon it will be replaced with a fleet of more-modern rolling stock that aims to be faster and more, shall we say, "facilitated". It's a step up for Queensland Rail. But it's the end of an era. The next 12 months offer an opportunity to travel Australia's only long-distance coastal rail line, voted in the top 25 rail journeys of the world by the Society of International Railway Travellers. One more year to experience how travel used to be.

You could fly to Cairns from Brisbane about 15 times in the time it takes for the same journey on the Sunlander: 31 hours. But these are quality hours. No transit. No bag checks. No airport shuttle buses and parking issues. No ignoring other passengers by way of pretending their leg isn't touching yours or that you can't smell their breath. It is about space. Light. Presence. Olde Worlde Travel.


Cooroy station, a few hours out of Brisbane in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, is the kind of country train stop that looks like it fell off a charm bracelet. Weatherboard huts, maroon piping, a rickety fence and remnants of days of old - a grumpy-looking crane all rusted and squeaking in the breeze.

The big nose of the Sunlander's brutish locomotive lumbers around the corner just a few hundred metres away, just as the sun tips off the horizon and the air chills by degrees.

On board, I'm comfortably ensconced in the Queenslander-class cabin, which itself is a throwback. There's a tongue-and-groove built-in cupboard, an enamel wash basin that flips into the wall, sloshing its contents on the track below. The emergency pull handle carries two warnings and two penalties; one for $10, the other for $3000. There's 60 years of regulation right there. Ghosts of trips past gather around you.

Some of these ghosts you can talk to. I meet Ron somewhere around Ayr. Looking out of the window of the buffet car, over the plains of wheat-coloured grass and scattered trees, he recalls being at Roma Street station as a boy and seeing the first Sunlander all those years ago.

I talk to Bob, who used to work at the Newcastle train yards before getting laid off in the 1990s. His wife died in April and he seems lonely and shy. By trip's end he is everyone's favourite uncle, cracking bad jokes and telling dodgy tales. It's like this trip has brought him back to himself.

All the while, the view edges by like a 1700-kilometre long postcard. Grassy sugar cane fronds nod in the winter sunshine, mauve flowers poking above like delicate flags marking harvest time. These dense little forests reaching four metres high crowd their way into almost every view. Rivers pan out on both sides as bridges are crossed and water-birds are dislodged. Landscapes rise and fall, mountains loom on the horizon and shuffle out of frame. It's a meditation just to sit and gaze.

For all its time, our trip on the Sunlander passes too quickly. A night in Cairns and we are obliged to invite reality to return. It isn't easy after this little escape into the days of our parents, of full employment, rosy-cheeked kids, the simpler pleasures of 1953. Sure, the Sunlander has modernised, but its charm is its connection to the past and this is rather lovingly fostered. But, soon, it too will pass.

Entering the airport, with all its shiny surfaces and spotlit gracelessness, it's hard to leave behind that rocking cabin, the bed that folds off the wall, the quaintly chipped paint and the excellent restaurant food.

In that world, you can shower before dinner, feel you are part of a truly shared experience, and be lulled by the gentle clacking and rhythmic sway of your passage. In that world, the journey is the point, not the destination. It's about process, not progress, the getting there, not just the arrival. If only life could be this way.


The Sunlander departs from Brisbane every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday and from Cairns every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The trip takes 31 hours.


The Sunlander can be used as a launching pad for the Great Barrier Reef, the tropical north, Kuranda and the Atherton Tableland.


Standard Queenslander Class fare between Brisbane and Cairns is $899 a person. Queensland Rail Travel is offering deals for travel from August 1-March 31 2014 from $532 a person. Fare is inclusive of one-night accommodation, access to lounge car and restaurant and all meals. Generous senior concession fares are also available.


Non-Queensland Class passengers have access to a buffet serving hot meals while those in Queenslander Class have a bar/lounge and restaurant car with a la carte menu.


Great food and service.


The windows don't open.


The writer travelled Queenslander Class on the Sunlander courtesy of Queensland Rail Travel.

The Age