Long distance trains can be a bit like casinos; the image is a romantic one, all mid-century decadence and glamourous people sipping martinis, but the reality is of faded former glory, threadbare furnishings and elderly people. And so it was on my ten-hour journey on the Overland from Melbourne to Adelaide.
Run by Great Southern Rail, the ‘luxury’ passenger enterprise that also runs the Indian Pacific and the Ghan lines which bisect the country, the Overland is the shortest and least celebrated of the three lines. The 828km of track trundles through the flat, rural farmland of Victoria and South Australia, passing through a handful of small towns on the way.
The vast majority of passengers were in the 65 to 80 age bracket, primarily residents of Adelaide spending a few days in the bright lights of Melbourne. Waiting to depart from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station at 8:00am, I was surrounded by the bubbly chatter of couples reuniting with people they had met on the journey there are few days earlier, reviewing their hotels and remarking how cold it had been. As the conductor came on the loudspeaker there was a solemn hush as everyone listened attentively to the intricately detailed instructions of how to open the carriage doors and lock the toilet door, and it felt like being on a coach tour as my fellow passengers chuckled at the conductor’s jokes.
As soon as I got on the train I was a world away from the grungy, hipster domain of the under 30’s that I had been used to in Melbourne, and I loved it immediately. I listened to the life stories of my neighbours, enjoying the way their stories meandered along without trying to be funny or particularly entertaining, and I remembered what Bill Bryson observed about train travel when he wrote about his journey on the Indian Pacific. He said that long train journeys are blissful preparation for one’s later years, when you learn the joys of elderly pursuits like gazing at the scenery, dozing, and thinking about nothing in particular, and he was quite right; I spent all day doing pretty much nothing but reading, eating, sitting and snoozing, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. If this is what retirement is like, I can’t wait.