For The Love Of Trains

Part Three

Holidays On Rails

As rail fans David and I liked to travel by train when we went on holidays.  Australian National employees like David were entitled to a holiday pass which meant that we could travel interstate cheaply, or even free if we didn’t mind sitting up on overnight trains. We travelled on the Overland between Adelaide and Melbourne several times and always enjoyed the journey, travelling either the First Class sitting car and eating breakfast in the First Class Club Car or paying a little extra for a sleeping car berth. David was well known to most of the catering staff and sleeping car conductors and they were always very nice to us.  Travelling Economy Class was not as comfortable but I still preferred it to coach travel.

image RBJ 1970s
The RBJ used for Economy class passengers on The Overland. c1970s- SAR official photo
The 'Spirit of Progress' 70th anniversary trai...
The ‘Spirit of Progress’ 70th anniversary train, at Benalla, Victoria, Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We managed a trip on both the “Spirit of Progress” and the “Daylight Express” between Melbourne and Sydney though sadly never the luxurious “Southern Aurora“. We travelled on the Ghan to Alice Springs as well and even though we had opted for the cheap seats we still enjoyed the journey. The line to Darwin had not been built yet so that trip is still on the bucket list as is the one I would really like to do, the ” Indian Pacific”.

Indian Pacific Locomotive. Cook. SA
Indian Pacific Locomotive. Cook. SA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One train I would love to have travelled on in those days but didn’t get to was “The Tea and Sugar”, this was the train that supplied all the railway settlements along the Nullarbor Plain between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie and it always fascinated me. Today those settlements have mostly disappeared and the few that remain are much smaller now as the modern concrete sleepers don’t require as much maintenance.

The Trip Of A Lifetime

Once I started to work for the railways myself we began to save in earnest for a trip overseas.  Naturally we planned on getting a lot of rail action and so the idea was born that we would travel to the UK via China and Russia on the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian express trains. It would be a once in a lifetime trip.

We left Australia in February 1990 to fly to Hong Kong where, after a few days sightseeing we caught our first train to Guangzhou to begin the long journey to Beijing. I have just been reading that it is now possible to travel between these two cities by High Speed Train and that it takes about 8 hours. I am glad that we took longer. It was a good opportunity to accustom ourselves to China. We had a sleeping berth and ate our meals in the Dining Car where nobody spoke any English. On our first morning  for breakfast  we  were served fried eggs. They  were runny which was fine but it was extremely difficult to eat them with chopsticks. I became very cross with my inability to manage them much to the amusement of the man sitting at our table who was politely trying not to laugh.

image Chines diesel
A Chinese diesel locomotive

We found that younger people tended to speak some English and were keen to practice it with us. One of the first people we spoke with was a young man who had seen “Crocodile Dundee” and wanted to know if it was realistic. We told him that it was about as realistic as any other movie.

What we really hoped to see in China apart from The Great Wall and The Forbidden City were steam engines and we were not disappointed. Even though they were being phased out by this time there were still plenty of them about hauling freight trains and sitting in rail yards.

image chinese locomotive
Chinese Steam Locomotive 1990

Leaving Beijing we travelled on through northern China into Mongolia and Irkutsk. We were now on the Trans Mongolian Express. On this train we shared a 4 berth sleeping compartment with two young women, one Canadian and one Japanese.  Our excitement at seeing so many steam engines must have been infectious as before long Christine, our Canadian seatmate was looking for them too.

image train
Locomotive hauling the Trans Mongolian Express

It was night when we reached  the Mongolian border. We had a lengthy stop while our locomotive was being changed. Mongolian trains run on the Russian gauge of 1520mm while China uses Standard Gauge (1435mm) so all international trains must stop at the border posts for the bogies to be changed from one gauge to the other. There were steam locomotives there  as well as diesels and we were fortunate  to see one gently steaming in the chilly night air. It was a  sight I won’t forget although I didn’t get a photo of it. Before our trip I had read of travellers having their films confiscated and cameras damaged for taking photos in Mongolia so not being the bravest travellers we decided not to risk it. As it happened nobody seemed all that worried and we would probably have been fine. I might add that the border crossings were quite scary. Coming from Australia we not used  to seeing armed guards and although as western tourists they treated us very politely it felt intimidating. I remember the Mongolian official whose sole English seemed to be “Passport” and the Russian who looked so smart in a winter uniform. They all carried guns. At each border crossing we had to leave our compartment so that it could be searched. I am not sure what they expected to find, maybe stowaways. I did hear that some Chinese people were evicted from the train. The officials all stared hard at our passport photos. We must have seemed an odd group in our compartment with one Japanese, one Canadian, one British and one Australian passport.

image Gobi Desert
In the Gobi Desert

We left the train in Irkutsk to spend a night and make a visit to Lake Baikal. David had never seen any snow before but he saw plenty in Siberia! We continued on the Trans Siberian to Moscow. As it was winter there were not many tourists  on the train. Customer service was not a huge deal to them in 1990 although from some recent accounts I’ve read things may not have changed that much. I noticed that every compartment’s windows that were so dirty that you couldn’t see outside but I guess the Russians on the train had seen plenty of trees and snow and didn’t care. We astounded the car conductor by wanting to clean the window of our compartment. She agreed to give Christine and I some cloths so we could do that and although somewhat bemused she helped us at one of our stops. She was also kind enough to point out to us which of the two toilets in our carriage was the cleaner one. One thing I liked immensely was that each carriage had a samovar at one end which was kept boiling and you could go along and get hot water for tea or soup. Most people brought a few supplies of their own to supplement what was, or wasn’t, available in the Dining Car. Hot tea with honey in it was a very good drink after a chilly walk on the platform during a stop. We did get off the train at longer stops but never strayed far away from our carriage. I remembered Paul Theroux’s story  in “The Great Railway Bazaar” of a passenger who was left behind on his journey on the Orient Express and I personally did not wish to be “duffilled”.

Irkutsk station
Irkutsk station (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
image Lake Baikal
Visiting Lake Baikal, Siberia
image compartment
Our  four berth compartment. Mine was the upper left bunk.

We met a few people who tried to talk to us but their English was limited. There was a man who kept wanting David to drink vodka with him and a lady who put on a fresh dress to visit our compartment, on top of all her other clothes. David and I had brought along a Polaroid camera thinking that it would be handy for quick snaps on the train and that people would be more willing to have their photos taken if we could give them a copy.  Watching the picture develop was something new to them and everyone would turn it over to the other side to see where the image was. Well, Polaroids were kind of like magic to me too. I never really understood how they worked. I don’t remember after all this time what the food was like except that there was no Borscht. I was disappointed about that. I do remember that we tried  the beer in each country we passed through. We  liked the Chinese Five Star beer but we  found the Mongolian beer rather flat and the Russian beer tasted the way I imagine dirty dish water would taste!

image Russian steam loco
Steam locomotive seen from the train window
image Russian Electric loco
This was one of many electric locomotives we saw.

In Moscow we made use of the Moscow Metro which we loved.  I had been on the London Underground but neither of us had seen anything like the stations in Moscow. They were so deep underground and so ornately decorated, kind of cross between an art gallery and a bomb shelter which was probably the intention. Naturally all the signage was in the Cyrillic alphabet but we had acquired a map with the place names marked in letters we could recognise  even if we couldn’t pronounce the them. By using these two maps together we were able to find our way around fairly well. Once we realised that the routes were all colour coded it was much simpler and the fares were so cheap we really didn’t mind if we got lost and had to buy another ticket anyway. Once, when we were studying our maps and trying to work out what platform we wanted a passerby helped us, pointing out the correct one but mostly we managed. We were very proud of finding our way from our hotel to the Museum of Economic Achievement which involved changing trains about three times. We couldn’t understand much about the exhibits when we got there but we did enjoy seeing the one about space exploration.

Moscow Underground-2
A Moscow Metro Station

We also travelled by train from St Petersburg to Moscow which was a lot less scary than flying with Aeroflot. We then continued our journey west across Europe finally arriving at Hoek van Holland to take a ferry to Harwich, England. It was on this final journey that I had what to me was a very alarming experience even though I was probably never at risk. I thought I was really going to be duffilled this time. It was at the last stop before we left Russia and the border officials came aboard as usual. This time we had one that spoke some English and he wanted to know if any of us had any Russian roubles left. Unfortunately I did and he wanted to know why. I explained as best I could that I had no opportunity to change them at the station in Moscow. He then took me into the station to change them while David stayed on the train. After I had done that I had to join a queue to get back on the train. It was a long queue and I seemed to be the only English speaking person. I was really afraid that I would miss the train and be stranded in a strange city without my luggage. I can’t say how long I was there, it seemed like ages but it probably wasn’t. In the end of course it was alright. I was given preferential treatment once  they saw my foreign passport and was soon back on the train again.

image author
Me outside our carriage.

David was entitled to discount fares in the United Kingdom through a reciprocal agreement that Australian National had with British Rail. I’ve forgotten exactly what the discount was but we found that in many of the places we went the ticket sellers seeing his pass had no idea what to charge us. We stayed in Stirling, in Scotland for a few days and visited Edinburgh three times being charged a different fare each time we travelled. On a train in north Wales the ticket collector looked at the pass and said “I have no idea what to do with this so I’ll charge you the same as a British Rail employee.”

In London we managed to visit most of the big stations, Waterloo and Victoria, Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras which is by far the most attractive but I have soft spot for Liverpool Street where the trains to Romford and Clacton On Sea depart. Naturally I wanted to recreate those journeys so David could see where I came from. Needless to say we spent a lot of time in our short London visit using the Underground. I think David would have been quite happy to have explored all the Tube lines and not worried about any tourist attractions.

image Kings Cross station UK
Trains at Kings Cross station, London 1990

We travelled from London to York, where naturally we visited the National Rail Museum. We also  took a trip on the Settle to Carlisle line and visited the Worth Valley Railway at Haworth. We carried  on to Newcastle where we spent a few days before continuing on to  Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, Fort William and, after a bus trip from there  to Kyle of Localsh, to Inverness. Our longest train journey in the UK was from Inverness all the way back to London and then on to Bexhill On Sea in one day.

Wales was another destination. I would have loved to have had the time and money to visit all the little narrow gauge railways in Wales but we saw the two that I really wanted to see. Ffestiniog at Porthmadog and the Tallylyn Railway at Tywyn. The Welsh Highland Railway is also at Porthmadog and we visited that too. Nowadays I believe it is a  part of  Ffestiniog but it wasn’t at that time and was quite a tiny concern compared to its neighbour. The Tallylyn was a railway that I wanted to visit from the time I read “Railway Adventure” by LTC Rolt in the 1970s. I loved his story of how the railway, the first preserved railway in the world, came into existence. I knew that if I only saw one steam railway in Wales it must be that one. We didn’t have a rental car so to get there we had to take a bus and a train from Bangor where we were staying. It was a weekend and  we only expected to have time for a short trip, maybe not even that if our transport was running late. When we arrived at the station we found that a train was about to leave and to our surprise the ticket office staff said that we were welcome to travel on it even though it was a private charter. That just made my day.

Back at home in Tasmania my favourite railway related holiday trip is to the West Coast Wilderness Railway which runs between Strahan and Queenstown.  I have more to say about this little railway and the west coast of Tasmania generally so will save that for another post.

Photo Credits:

All the photographs in this post were taken by me or by my husband David except for the following:

  •  Refreshment Car on the Overland. This was a publicity shot taken for the railways which David acquired when they threw out a lot of old photographs in the 1980s.
  • The Spirit of Progress70th Anniversary train at Benalla, Victoria – Wikepedia
  • Indian Pacific Train at Cook, SA – Wikepedia
  • Irkutsk Station- Wikepedia

The quality of some of our own photographs is not great because most of them were taken through glass or in low light conditions. Most of them were orginally slides. We used Kodachrome 64 and Agfachrome in those days from memory. Our cameras were a Pentax MG and two Zenit EMs , well I think it was an EM. The Russian camera drew a few looks in Moscow. We also had a Polaroid 600 and a vintage Paxette that David liked to carry for back up.

Related Links: A short film about “The Tea and Sugar”

Home -Bogey exchange at Erlian, China Festiniog and the Welsh Highland Railway – The Tallylyn Railway

Related articles:


  • The Great Railway Bazaar-Paul Theroux
  • Riding The Iron Rooster – Paul Theroux
  • The Big Red Train Ride – Eric Newby

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