Ipswich Station, Tuesday 8.00pm.
There’s not a lot going on in Ipswich, Queensland, on a Tuesday night… even less at the station. After the commuter traffic, the destination boards show only the times of the last trains to Rosewood and, bright and incongruous against them, the name of another, more distant destination. Charleville.
The guy in the ticket office, Patrick, doesn’t need to see my ticket – one-way to the Outback town on the Westlander – because he knows there’s only one passenger for the 8.15pm service and it has to be me. There’s not another soul in sight, anywhere.
I’m on a mission. Is there still adventure in long-distance train travel in Queensland, romance even? On the Westlander? I want to find out.
In 2015, Queensland celebrates 150 years of railways, and this former river port, Ipswich, where I live, is where it all began. In July, 1865, an imported steam locomotive towed a few passenger carriages from here to a settlement 34 kilometres away called Bigges Camp. It was slow (20kmh) but it was a start, and it began a transport revolution in northern Australia.
At the time, it could take weeks in wet weather to travel the bullock tracks between Brisbane and Charleville. The new railway, which reached the south-west Outback town in 1888, cut the trip to less than 24 hours.
Years later, before the great days of rail travel ended, they gave the train a name – the Westlander – and the people of south-western Queensland a secure lifeline east.
The journey takes less than 17 hours these days on the train. It pulls out of Roma Street two nights a week on its 777-kilometre journey, stops at Ipswich to collect the occasional passenger and heads west into the night. Tonight, I’m one of them.
A bit after eight o’clock, the diesel electric locomotive lumbers into view and stops at the deserted platform. Patrick puts my bag aboard and I follow it. A whistle blows and the train pulls out 10 minutes early. I like this. Why waste time on a long journey when nobody else is getting on the train?
On long train journeys at night, you read, eat, sleep or find someone to talk to. That’s what rail travel is all about. If you want company on this train, you’ll find it. I have a sleeper – soon to be withdrawn on the Westlander – but many passengers prefer the cheaper sitter.
Either way, the staff are friendly and your fellow passengers only a 'G’day' from a chat. And you learn a lot from those who know this train well and call it the 'Westie'.
I get talking to Julie and another staff member in the Club Car – it, too, is due to be withdrawn – and I discover something straight away: the people who work on this train love it and they value their passengers, whether they’re pensioners on discount tickets, boarding school children going away or coming home or locals and other travellers who simply like travelling by train.
There are lots of reasons to like the Westie. Back in my compartment, ink blackness outside, one of those reasons can’t be ignored… the air-conditioning, the constant clanking, the screeching of metal against metal. The unique sound of rail travel.
Surprisingly, sleep comes quickly. Toowoomba, Dalby, Chinchilla and Miles come and go unseen. Around Roma, I open the blinds to sunshine and a sense of distance travelled.
I get talking to Dell, a passenger who got on the train at Toowoomba. She was visiting friends in Toowoomba, she tells me, and she chose a sleeper compartment both ways rather than the sitter carriage. "I travelled sitting up once, but never again." She might have to re-think that if she wants to travel the Westie in future. Pack an extra pillow, Dell.
A couple of hours out of Charleville, the train stops at Morven long enough for smokers to alight and have a drag. It’s the only daylight stop of a decent duration on the trip.
There’s a tidy green park strip beside the tracks, an impressive war memorial and some shops across the road. There’s been a progressive change in the landscape. From reds and patchy greens and musty greys it’s now the pale straw gold of a country in drought.
In motion again, a group of women starts swapping yarns about floods they’ve seen, people they know and, for some reason, accidents they’ve had with brassieres.
A couple of the train crew listen in, laughing. Outside, all I can see is fallen timber and roos looking for shade. As the Westie nears Charleville, the women are still yarning and still laughing, and I’m thinking, yes, this is what train travel is about.
It’s all about people, all about the journey, and the Westie’s still got it.