The railway station at East Perth has an extraordinarily long platform. I was there the other day as the train that services part of country Western Australia pulled in from its long trek home. There were a number of people scattered on the platform, a small boy in a bright green dinosaur top siting with his mum on the bench, a blonde lady waiting alone.
I watched the train as it drew to a halt, a door halfway along its body was opened and a plate was slid out between the exit and the platform surface, creating a small ramp for the disembarking passengers. The small dinosaur ran towards his father as he appeared and the lone blonde woman was engulfed in a long and heartfelt hug with an older man, that suggested a reunion after a long separation or possibly following a bereavement.
Each train carries a hundred stories in its belly and the Indian Pacific is one that must have seen a fair number of them. Unlike the train I saw come in the other day, the Indian Pacific has a much longer journey to make connecting as it does The West Coast of the country on the Indian Ocean and the East Coast on the Pacific side.
I am no trainspotter, but I do like being around trains. I find the idea of trains a comfort – transport that is clean and modern and direct, but with a sense of tradition about it. Unlike the bus, with its fogged windows and submarine interior, the train has space to move around and climate control. It feels like a far more sophisticated way to get around than its wheel-bound cousin and although slower, is far less stressful than the impersonal experience of air travel.
As the Indian Pacific train serves its timetable, it is easy enough to catch the rhythm of its preparations, living as I do only a couple of stations up the track. It is a very long train – almost a kilometre long. It arrives at the East Perth station platform on Saturday afternoon and lies along its entire length; carriage after carriage waiting to make its next move. The carriage bodies are silver, and I like to think that the person responsible for the design must have been inspired by a vision of it cutting through the red landscape of the Australian outback like a great silver serpent out of Dreamtime. But the Australian landscape is tough and the shiny carriages are permanently covered with a film of iron coloured dirt, leaving them a little duller than perhaps the bright streak imagined when the concept was designed.
Attached to its final passenger carriages for the journey is a two storey ramped carriage for car transport, so you can take your car with you – or send for it by train if you have come ahead. It hangs off the back of the train like a rattlesnake’s tail. Most surprising of all is the engine which does not seem to fit the design. Bullish and tubby, the engine shunts up and down the tracks between East Perth and various service areas along its length. Sometimes it pushes off on its own, leaving its massive trailing back-end lying idle at the station, sometimes it will drag its car carriage off somewhere – presumably to be loaded. It is like watching an ant go about its business moving purposefully back and forth between two points carrying various bits and pieces as it does.
It is especially active on Sunday, its day of departure, and I often see it busying itself along the track it moves back and forth between the East Perth Terminus and wherever it goes, with a honk everytime it passes through a suburban station to warn the town folk.
My parents travelled on the Indian Pacific to the east coast once. I dropped them off at the station with a bottle of something fizzy to enjoy (illegally as it happens as the train is licensed) as they pulled slowly out. While it travels on the train lines that it shares with suburban trains, its speed limit is severely restricted and it seemed to take forever to leave the station. Even though it does pick up speed once out of the the town, its first day’s journey only finishes at Kalgoorlie in the same state. It takes a full three days before it arrives at its final destination in Sydney.
My parents enjoyed it, but they are older now and nothing if not practical about time. They got the plane back, taking just over five hours and beating the train back home by some 60. The plane may have won the race, but came nowhere near matching the Indian Pacific for the romance of travel, and as I drive on a Sunday along the road that runs parallel to the station and see its massive length curling around the platform getting ready for its next trip, it never fails to make me smile.