Cairns to Brisbane
One of Queensland Railway’s newer trains – the Spirit of Queensland – travels the 1653 kilometres from Cairns to Brisbane (about Barcelona to Amsterdam) in about twenty-four hours at an average speed of 66 kmh. A shinkansen it ain’t … but it is a comfortable and leisurely way of getting between the two cities.
Unlike Japan’s sleeper trains Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo that make their 805 km journeys at an average speed of 130 kmh, the Spirit of Queensland (featured image LEFT from the Internet) potters along like a stately matron in heavily starched petticoats, allowing plenty of time for a stretch of the legs at several intermediary stations along the way.
The last time I travelled by train between Brisbane and Cairns was in January 1970, on my way to my first teaching position – Thursday Island High School. That journey was on the old Sunlander and it took over three days and two nights … although it seemed a lot longer …
January 1970 was battered by Cyclone Ada, and the Sunlander had to battle its way through heavy winds and rains. This old girl featured dignified timber carriages with heavy brass fittings, pressed metal handbasins that folded out of the walls in the sleeping compartments, and faded framed photographs of really exciting historic waterfalls. The doughty behemoth muscled her way through the big winds and the heavy rains and got to Cairns … eventually.
Cairns and onwards
Cairns today is a lovely, busy, bustling tropical city, and just about as far North as you can travel by train in Australia, but the city railway station is rather plain and unappealing, and is just a rather ugly addendum to a rather pedestrian shopping mall.
At cocktail hour at the Istanbul railway station you may find occasional mysterious fur-clad Russian countesses and gun-toting international diamond smugglers … but at daybreak at the Cairns railway station you will probably only find a hand-full of red-eyed people staggering about ready to start a new journey.
These passengers may have had a pleasant evening dining at C’est Bon Restaurant Français – apparently one of the best eating places in town – or they may have been chasing roulette balls at the local casino, or enjoying table dancing at the notorious Woolshed bar (www.thewoolshed.com.au), but on the platform beside the Spirit they were all tugging luggage, hauling hangovers and hoping for aloe vera face masks.
Life on Board
The Spirit of Queensland has two categories of seating.
In Premium Economy carriages people have seats with limited pitch and a 22 cm television screen in the back of the seat ahead. Passengers can go to the Galley where food and drinks are for sale. In October 2022, an economy seat cost AU$ 221.00 (or $25.00 for passengers with an appropriate concession card) for the entire journey.
Rather more expensive, at AU$389.00 (concession rate $200.00), is a seat in the RailBed carriages where the ticket includes all-inclusive in-seat dining – no need to walk to the Galley – and a seat that is magically transformed at night into a full-length flat bed with a comfortable duvet and sheets. Passengers here are offered a 47 cm flat-screen television with a choice of about twenty movies, an additional twenty television programs and about twenty audio channels.
The chairs / beds are quite comfortable, and the fold-down tray table is of a good size. The armrests would be better if there were an additional cup holder. The one supplied takes a small bottle of water but if you also have a glass of wine there is no secure place to put it.
Main cabin lights are turned off at about 10.00 pm (Goodnight, children!) although individual reading lights allow passengers to continue reading or watch television. A rude shock awaits all passengers as the lights are abruptly turned on again the next morning at about 6.00 am …
There are just nine carriages on this train with two cars for RailBed passengers and three for economy passengers. All seats are frequently sold out months before travel date. Each car has a bathroom and a shower room, but two cars also have accessible bathrooms for those who may need to manoeuvre a wheelchair into the shower.
One of these spaces was just a few steps from my bed, so going to the bathroom was a pleasant experience with plenty of room to toss a possum or to have a party for half a dozen close friends. And there it is: Train travel in every class offers more opportunity to move around, to look out the windows and to get out for a walk.
- It is pretty hard to get out for a walk or to stretch your legs at 30,000 feet
Food Glorious Food?
In the RailBed carriages passengers are offered a cup of tea or coffee upon boarding (What? No champagne?) and a hot breakfast is served at your seat a short while later. Lunch and dinner are also included, and passengers are offered complimentary wines or beer with their meals. For thirsty travellers it is just a short stroll to the Galley to buy additional boozy supplies.
The meals are OK – certainly not gourmet Michelin-starred quality – but hot and tasty enough. My lunch was sticky honey soy chicken and I washed it down with a glass of Sirromet Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc. Dessert for me was a sticky date pudding but I could have chosen the cheesecake.
Eating a three-course dinner and sipping a yummo Shiraz while the countryside outside dashes past – OK – toddles past – is why rail travel can never be beaten by air travel. An Israeli-inspired couscous salad started my dinner, followed by some toothsome roast lamb and a citrus-soaked tea cake.
Perhaps the best thing about dinner that evening was the woman sitting with her husband in the seats across the aisle from me.
Shortly before dinner was served, she packed up her QR complimentary amenities bag (Bubbles Organic lip balm, hand sanitiser, hand cream and face washer packed in a trendy little linen drawstring bag) and disappeared into the bathroom. She emerged some time later still dressed in the same clothes, but looking well-scrubbed and in full make-up as if ready to go to the opera, and said:
- I do like to look good when I am going out for dinner
In all, the Spirit meals were far better than most airlines’ economy meals but were perhaps a few croutons short of Business Class meals. However, as passengers are just sitting still for twenty-five hours – apart from popping off to swing the cat or to toss the possum in the large WC, or to buy another glass of booze – the food is tasty enough and generous enough in its serving sizes to keep most people happy, well-fed and well-watered for the journey.
Rooms with a View
On the Southbound journey passengers can enjoy the scenery from departure at 0830 through to sunset at about 1800 (July), and then again from about 0700 the next morning until arrival at Roma Street station in Brisbane.
Sugar cane, bananas and papayas grow in abundance in the north, and July is the start of the cane-cutting season.
Long gone are the days when sweaty singlet-clad labourers fought their way through freshly-burned-off cane fields, hacking down two-metre lengths of sugar cane and wielding their lethal machetes against a rather jolly assortment of vermin – rats and toads and snakes – that lived in the cane.
Today it is all mechanised and probably a lot safer for everyone.
Not far south from Cairns, the Spirit passed a cane farmer who had started his harvest and whose progress was followed enthusiastically by a vast flock of white birds pecking at the ground all around the harvester – no doubt doing the job of clearing up the same vermin flushed from the field by the mechanical harvester.
The Spirit railway lines are echoed in many areas by tiny railways that allow the sugar cane harvesters to offload the crop into long snaking chains of open-sided wagons tugged by tiny diesel engines – the old Puffing Billy steam engines have long since been retired and sent to that great railway museum in the skies.
According to Sugar Australia (www.sugaraustralia.com.au), sugar is Australia’s second largest export crop with an annual revenue of AU$2 billion, and 95% of that sugar is grown in Queensland.
Sugar mills are strategically dotted along the coast, and the cane is crushed and shredded with the juices flowing one way, and the bagasse (the fibrous waste matter) carried off to be recycled as fuel for the boiler furnaces used to purify and concentrate the juice.
I used to have friends who lived a few kilometres from a sugar mill in Babinda, just south of Cairns.
They dreaded the milling season, as the carbon particles from the burned bagasse travelled airborne for miles, coating every surface in every house with a fine greasy layer of black soot. Laundry days during the milling season always started with a good scrub of the outdoor clothes lines so that newly laundered bedsheets did not end up with unwanted zebra stripes or Dalmation hound splotches of black.
Perhaps the air quality controls are better these days … I certainly hope so
Six hours south of Cairns lies Townsville, a small city of about 190,000 happy shoppers. I do not know much about Townsville, but it has a large military base and more importantly, vast areas of freshwater wetlands. A local website (www.townsville.qld.gov.au) speaks of the importance of these areas as they provide habitat for:
- Ducks, geese, herons, cormorants, spoonbills, pelicans and rare Rajah Shelducks
The Spirit passes some of these wetlands, and while my notes from the time list mobs of cattle, kangaroos, some sort of long-necked wading birds, geese and black pelicans (?), it now seems that I may have spotted some of those rare Rajahs – or Radjahs according to other authorities.
Onwards, ever onwards, brave travellers!
Townsville gives way to Giru (a town I had never heard of, but which is apparently home to 400 people) … Ayr (smoking sugar mill happily pouring polluting bagasse ash into the air) … Home Hill (carefully irrigated soy bean crops) … Bowen (mangoes) … and Proserpine, where we finally lost all sunlight … and were it not time to have some roast lamb and tea cakes, it may have been as Samuel Pepys said
- And so to bed
Early winter mornings in this part of SE Queensland are chilly and foggy. The Spirit looked like another type of spirit or ghost as it wove its way through soft tendrils of mist on to Nambour where the train stopped for a much longer halt than scheduled. The local ambulance service had to be called to assist in the removal of a passenger from the train.
Remaining passengers were not given further details – so we did not know if the passenger had had too many glasses of Sirromet Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, or if DVT had set in during the night in the smaller chairs in the economy carriages, or if there was some other medical emergency.
- Is there a doctor in the house?
The Spirit toddled into its final destination – Brisbane’s Roma Street station – about an hour late. Passengers’ Spirit tickets entitle them to complimentary onward rail travel on QR suburban services, and I was able to link up with a fast train to the Wooloowin railway station, a short UBER ride from my apartment.
Is the Spirit of Queensland a great train? No. Is the journey from Cairns to Brisbane one of great scenic excitement and jaw-dropping vistas? Nope. Is the food and drink on board something Gordon Ramsey would give a XXXX about? Uh-huh.
But is it a journey worth doing? Yes – certainly yes.
It is a relaxing, comfortable, friendly way of travelling from the North to the South (or vice versa). The RailBed is very cosy. There is plenty of time to watch pleasant scenery passing by and, if you want company, the Galley has seats and tables where you can sit and sip and chat with fellow travellers. No piano bar here, just friendly fellow travellers.
I can see why this railway service is justifiably booked out months in advance.
Journey July 2022
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall October 2022
All images marked with * are from Internet
In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit. I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship
3 thoughts on “Spirit of Queensland”
Fab !!! Harrison Used to work on the Thursday island and I visit ! 2011
I live main beach half year Maybe I see you around for champagne or tassie Pinot noir See you. We in Bali and islands and Thailand see to Col Julie Jaqi
Another rail trip to add to the list. Sounds like fun
Yep … and soon to add the Outback train to LOngreach! Have you booked yet?