The Overland

The Overland train
Locomotive NR6 leading the last unrefurbished ‘The Overland’, though Moorabool, near Geelong. Photo Marcus Wong via Wikipedia 

It was terrible to discover this week that The Overland, the only rail service between Melbourne and Adelaide, faces an imminent axing due to a lack of financial support from the South Australian government.

The Overland holds a special place in my heart, in many ways helped to define me as a person in so many ways both large and tiny. I want to share with you some of the memories I have of this wonderful service.

I was born in Melbourne, but most of my mother’s family lived in Adelaide. In the days of my childhood air travel, especially for a larger family, was prohibitively expensive so when we visited my grandparents, uncles and cousins it was all but once by land. That meant a two day drive or an overnight ride on the train.

The current Overland service is operated by the same private company that runs the luxury Indian Pacific and Ghan services to Perth and Darwin respectively, but in those days they were all part of the government run railways and utilised by ordinary travellers.

I think I was about five or six years old when I first rode The Overland, catching it at least twice each way between Melbourne and Adelaide.

The excitement starts from right at Spencer Street, now Southern Cross, station. Even today the pale blue-white summer sky over the Port of Melbourne evokes strong memories, a sense of a great journey about to begin. Then waning of the day and the fall of dusk is still the time I associate with departing on a journey.

Harsh white fluorescent lights illuminate the ribbed stainless steel carriages of The Overland, their sides of red and bare silver. Then we’d show the conductor our tickets and step up into our own little world separated from the mundane outside.

My old Lima HO model of The Overland

Slowly the diesel hauled train crawls away from the platform and the twelve hour journey begin.

We’d squeeze all our entire family of four, then five, into a single First Class sleeping cabin equipped with two bunk beds, a fold down toilet, wash basin and a shower. Kids slept snuggled into a parent on each bunk, though when my younger brother was born I found myself banished to the portable cot set up on the tiny floor space of the cabin.

Sleep was not my objective on these trips and, despite my young age, I would try to spend the entire journey awake and staring out of the window. I still do so today, though usually not by choice.

My parents would shut the grey Venetian blinds for privacy, but I’d squeeze them open a crack and look out. For most of the journey the scenery outside will be mostly of dark silhouettes against a night sky, but now and then we’d go past the green or red glow of a signal or come to the lights of a town. I imagined them alive at night with nightowls like me. 

And always in the background the clack-clack clack-clack of bogies over the unwelded tracks and the almost white-noise hum of the locomotive and air-conditioning. I still prefer to sleep with the fan on at night, remembering the sounds of the train.

Early the next morning the conductor would open the curtain separating us from the corridor and hand us our tray of breakfast. Two slices of toast with small packs of marmalade, butter and Vegemite with an orange juice to drink and no doubt coffee as well.

Outside would be the Adelaide Hills, with their distinctive bush shades of khaki and brown in the morning sun.

There was no entertainment on the train except that which we brought with us. I once carried a little green suitcase adorned with stickers (it sits in my storeroom now) containing a first birthday gift from my other grandparents, a basic Marklin train set consisting of an oval of track, a tank engine and a couple of green tinplate carriages. Plugging the controller into the electric shaver socket in the cabin, I setup my layout and ran a train within a train.

Our journey came to an end at grand old Adelaide Station, where we would be met by our grandparents and taken back home to the play in their sun room with its rocking chair or to be pushed in a wheelbarrow around the huge willow tree in the back garden. And then when Christmas was over it would be time for the return journey back home.

Perhaps I only travelled on The Overland two or three times as I kid, but I remember taking my Mum to Spencer Street for a solo journey to Adelaide. I had changed my mind as we drove in and decided that I wanted to go to. I had my Star Wars figurine, that was all I needed, and I’m pretty sure I bawled my eyes out when I was told it was too late, I couldn’t go.

We moved away from Melbourne in my ninth year and it was another decade before I caught The Overland again for one last time. I was then a university student in Canberra and I had to get to Adelaide for a family function. Unfortunately that journey was in a seated car, never pleasant for an overnight trip. This time the train was equipped with a television screen which you could tune into with a portable radio.

I caught the bus back to Canberra from Adelaide and that was terrible. If The Overland is shut that will be the only non-flying option for those who are without a car.

But that trip won’t be my final memory of this service should I never have the chance to ride it again. A little earlier in that year, with the help of a $60 student rail pass, I did a two week exploration of virtually every operating line in Victoria. One of my trips was aboard The Vinelander, an overnight service between Melbourne and Mildura. I paid extra for a single first-class sleeping cabin for that trip and the carriage turned out to be a repainted Overlander wagon. Although again I did not sleep I did spend the night reliving the memories of my childhood.

Even the breakfast the next morning was the same.

Today, while it still runs, The Overland is a twice weekly daylight service aimed at those who can afford to take the slow route or have no other choice. It connects not just two capital cities, but the towns and people between them. Places without airports and cheap flights but still with people that need to get somewhere.

You can’t know the land from 30,000 feet and travel should not only be about the destination. I hope some way can be found to keep The Overland operating and to allow anyone to ride her.

Update 12/12/2018

Great news! The Victorian government has agreed to additional funding that will tide The Overland across to the end of 2019. Time to start booking!