What: CountryLink Xplorer
Where: Sydney – Bundanoon, NSW Southern Highlands
Service: Southern Xplorer CLK635
A train with wine 🙂 . I was going away for the weekend to visit some good friends who live in Bundanoon, a few hours south of Sydney in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. Leaving after work on a Friday night, I booked myself a seat on the CountryLink Xplorer service that operates to Canberra making stops along the way including Bundanoon.
There are two options for train travel to the Southern Highlands and beyond, Countrylink and CityRail. On the outside, both are similar looking diesel trains, but its the inside and the service that sets them apart. CityRail, the cheaper option, doesn’t require pre-booking and operates a fleet of ‘Endeavour’ trains, with each carriage seating between 82 and 95 passengers in a 3-2 economy style configuration. The seats and services are similar to metropolitan Sydney trains with no onboard buffet or carriage attendants. The service stops at points in the Southern Highlands such as Bowral, Moss Vale and Bundanoon and terminates in Goulbourn. The CountryLink Xplorer trains do require booking a seat, either online, over the phone, through the booking office or via a travel agent and they operate two classes of service, First and Economy.
On CountryLink, there is not a huge difference between each class of service, including price on the Xplorer trains, it is mainly increased legroom and extra seat recline. The First Class car seats 42 passengers in a 2-2 configuration. Although the seats are the same width as Economy Class seats, they offer an extra 2 inches of legroom and recline to 40 degrees from the upright position. There is a footrest and tray table and the Buffet is located in the same carriage making it a short walk back to you seat after purchasing meals, drinks or snacks. I, however, was seated in Economy.
The Economy Class carriages seat between 42 and 66 passengers with the latter being the central carriages due to not having a guard or luggage compartment. Again the seats are a 2-2 configuration (or 2-1 near a ‘bulkhead’ with no window, as seen above) and have the same 17 inches of width and 18 inches of seat space as First Class, but with less legroom and seat recline being only 28 degrees.
As we departed Sydney’s Central Station, at precisely 18:11, the head attendant announced that the Buffet car was now open for purchases of snack and drinks. On CountryLink services, they offer two choices of hot meals, a standard and a dietary meal each costing $9. If you wish to purchase one of these meals, as they announce the selection, an attendant will come through the cabin handing out a meal card that you exchange, with payment, when the meal is ready. On this particular Friday evening, they announced they would not be taking orders for the main meal service until after we departed Strathfield as there were 12 passengers joining us at that point. In the meantime, I made my way to the Buffet car, located in the First Class carriage and purchased a 187ml Yarra Valley Yering Farm Sauvignon Blanc. At $6 it is slightly better value than most domestic airlines in Australia. Not soon after departing Strathfield, the announcement came that an attendant would be coming through the carriage with the meal cards and tonights choice was roast beef with vegetables for the standard meal and for the dietary meal, steamed chicken with vegetables. The familiar “Chicken or Beef” often heard on a plane was asked by the attendant as she made her way down the aisle.
I chose the chicken, the dietary meal, not because I have any specific dietary needs, but I’m just not much of a beef fan, whereas I could eat chicken all day long (or at least until ‘the cows came home’ hehehe….sorry!) It was a good hour or so before the meal was ready and at one stage, I actually made my way to the buffet car to see how it was going, and to purchase another piccolo of wine. The friendly buffet car attendant informed me, not only would the meals be ready soon, but also that passengers may only purchase a maximum of two alcoholic drinks per hour as per CountryLink regulations. It was fine for me though, I had only previously purchased the one. It was not long after returning to my seat, that the announcement was made that the meals were now ready for collection. Looking like a microwave meal, with peal back plastic, it wasn’t to bad. The chicken was moist and the vegetables still had a crunch to them although maybe a little to much crunch in the carrots. The potatos, looking roasted, were soft and didn’t have the crispy outside I would expect of a roasted spud, I guess this was from the plastic covering keeping the moisture in. What did throw me however, was the quarters of warm slushy tomato – just odd. Overall the meal was nice and I managed to finish it all (except slushy tomato) not long before we were coming into the Southern Highlands.
As the train attendant came through the carriage with a large bag collecting the remnants of peoples meals and rubbish, it was nearing time for me to disembark. I cleared out my seat pocket and made my way to the rear of the carriage where my suitcase was stored, collected it and stood near the door awaiting the train to come to a halt. We were running a few minutes behind, so I was early. I chatted to Emily, one of the attendants working this service, whom I hadn’t seen during the journey. She told me that she was an extra on this service to Canberra, helping out as Friday nights can often be full and sometimes have a few rowdy travellers on it. I asked her how many trips they do a week and where does she usually travel to and her answer surprised me. They work a 72 hour fortnight on the trains. Thats 72 hours of journey time, it doesn’t include away from home time or arrival at the station an hour before, if a journey take 3hrs its 3hrs of their 72hr fortnight! Emily mentioned that she normally does the Sydney-Melbourne XPT trip, taking around 11 hrs each way. Tonight, when she arrived in Canberra, she would sleep at the CountryLink staff quarters and nreturn to Sydney on the 6am service. What an amazing ‘office’ I thought to myself. As the train pulled into the station, I said goodbye and thanked her and the other attendant who had come to advise me we were here in Bundanoon. It was truly a pleasant way to travel the few hours from Sydney, after work on a Friday night, I’d had dinner and friendly service on this trip, on a train with wine 😉