Indian Pacific
Sunset glamour: The Indian Pacific. Supplied picture

It's a bit like being in a time capsule shooting across the breadth of Australia. Inside is the elegant, calmer era of the 1950s, outside is 2012.

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We're having dinner in the refurbished Queen Adelaide restaurant carriage on the Indian Pacific with train buffs Edith, 82, and Joy, 86. Edith has done the return trip to Perth 10 times and Joy 13 times, both to visit daughters in the West.

"Ever since I had my first train trip when I was six I loved trains," Edith says. "I don't know why, maybe because I'm a curious person and I can see everything."

Like many who take the trip frequently they either don't like flying or can't for health reasons, so they find train travel a more refined alternative, with opportunities to see the wildlife along the way, including kangaroos, emus and eagles.

Joy, who comes from Ararat in Victoria, grew up with trains as her "dad was a railway man". And they both remember travelling on steam trains as children.

"You learnt to sit with your back to the engine because of the soot," Edith says. "You didn't put your head out the window."

Trains have changed a bit since then. Travellers were finally able to do the whole unbroken journey across the Nullabor on the Indian Pacific from February 23, 1970 when the standard gauge line was completed.

Now depending on your budget, you can choose between the Red, Gold, or Platinum Service.

Red Service offers sleeper cabins and daynighter seats but you purchase your meals, while on the Gold Service they're provided.

Over the past two years the Gold Service's twin cabins have been refurbished, and now feature a modern, compact bathroom and new soft furnishings and fittings including improved bunk ladders and safety rails. They also have an audio system with five radio channels. During the day the beds fold away and you have a seat and room for your book or laptop (my tip: bring DVDs).

If you have the dollars and you really want to do the trip in total stylish comfort, the Platinum Service, which was launched in 2008, is the way to go. The cabin is about twice the size of a standard Gold Twin Cabin and has either a double bed or twins, a spacious but compact bathroom and extended room service including a nightcap liqueur. No metal toilets any more.

You choose between two sittings - the Blue Card or Red Card - for meals. Warning: the early sitting is very early.

You can always have a drink in the Outback Explorer Lounge (some people never leave there) and for the past 12 to 18 months the trains have had entertainers on board - singers and bush poets.

The two-day, three-night trip from Sydney to Perth includes short stopovers at Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook on the Nullabor Plain, and Kalgoorlie.

On our trip the train is running late because of track work so all we have time for at Broken Hill is a quick jump off around 8am for fresh air and bags of lollies sold by a local.

After this stop, hospitality manager Sonya Lemondine, who has been working on the train for 10 years, takes me for a rollicking walk up to the Matilda Cafe diner and the Red Gum Lounge, used mainly by Red Service guests.

Like all the staff, Lemondine is based in Adelaide, where the company, Great Southern Rail, operates from. She came from a hotel background, but prefers the variety of this job, the chance to see more of Australia and the opportunity to deal with people who are "all happy, in holiday mode".

We get chatting with twin brothers and cinematographers/photographers from Adelaide, Barry and John Ellson, who are on the way home from a weekend in Broken Hill, a six-and-a-half-hour trip each way they have been doing for 40 years.

"We're not train freaks. We just like the comfort and luxury of rail travel. It's so relaxing," Barry says.

"South Australia didn't have poker machines. So you'd go to NSW, have a night out and spend your money and come home.

"I like looking at the scenery," his brother says. "It changes so much. It goes from semi arid into bush into farmlands all in a few hours (and) the wildlife - emus early in the morning, cockatoos and galahs."

The brothers have given a few parties for their friends on trains, including their 50ths when they and a dozen blokes hired a private carriage and went as far as the tiny settlement of Cook for a barbecue.

For their 60ths they took a group of friends to Sydney and back. For their upcoming 70th, they "haven't quite decided yet".

After Adelaide, we jump off at Cook, now a bit of a ghost town. Located on the longest stretch of straight rail line in the world it once had 50 residents; now there are only four.

Six-year resident Andrea opens the souvenir shop when the train comes through. Her other job is to "clean up after the train drivers at the Rest House".

"It's not isolated," she says when asked. "There's people coming from here, there and everywhere. If I need to be isolated I can go to the city."

It's a freezing night when we arrive in Kalgoorlie, our last stop, but we decide to take a walk into town rather than go on a bus tour. It's a bit more sophisticated than when I was here in the '80s, with delis selling good produce and pubs providing fine wine and food.

The next morning the train arrives in Perth and as we alight it seems strange to be back in the real - if not quite so relaxed - world.


FACT FILE

The Indian Pacific departs from both Sydney and Perth twice a week during the high season and once a week during the low season. It's now wildflower season in the West.

Deal: The Margaret River Experience, from Perth, includes three nights' accommodation and a full day tour of the Margaret River wine region and a visit to the Busselton Jetty and Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse.

For more information, or to book, visit www.greatsouthernrail.com.au or call 13-21-47.

The writer was a guest of Great Southern Rail.

The West Australian

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