The Sheep Train

In another first for The Cow, this post comes to you live from the inter-city train that runs between Sydney and Melbourne. Well, not live, as such – there is no actual internet connection on the train, lest you think that Australia might be anywhere near that technologically hip – but I am typing it on my laptop ((You may think I’m that technologically hip.)) as we hurtle ((I use the word with irony.)) out of Albury Wodonga towards Melbourne, now about three hours away.

Being something of a fan of rail travel, and heading off to visit Violet Towne for a few days, I thought that instead of taking the usual ho-hum plane flight I might splurge the extra $20 ((That should really have clued me in… a 20 buck difference between Economy and First Class travel… )) and kick back in the luxury of First Class. Sure, the train takes about 6 times longer, but hey, First Class! You know: Leather seats; red velvet curtains; witty attractive passengers; crisp white linen table cloths and sparkling silver cutlery in the dining car. Orient Expressville baby! Get the picture?

Yep, it’s the wrong picture.

We head out of Sydney Central at 8am, late, but what’s rail travel without delays, right? The First Class carriage is moderately filled, but I have two seats to myself, and there is no-one behind me or across the aisle. Cool. Nice, quiet trip!

10 minutes out: Ergghh. These First Class seats are SO uncomfortable. They must be the only seats I’ve encountered anywhere in the world where reclining them increases their discomfort by a factor proportional to the angle of inclination (that’s not to say that they were comfortable upright either – I’ve sat on more luxurious seats in bus shelters). I marvel that anyone can have, even intentionally, designed something so back-achingly awful. I hope the designer, when he goes to Hell (for he surely will), spends Eternity in one of these seats.

20 minutes out: We stop at Strathfield Station, the last urban stop before we hit the country, and pick up a million extra passengers. Well I do exaggerate. But in a fitting demonstration of CountryLink ineptness, there are, in fact, more passengers boarding the train than there are seats available. Yippee. This causes more delays.

The seats around me fill up. With old ladies. Now I’ve got nothing at all against old ladies, but these are stupid old ladies. Stupid, loud, annoying old ladies. You know the kind of thing – everytime the train goes past a station one of them says “Oooh. Flemington. Oooh. Picton. Ooooh. Moss Vale”. One of them talks endlessly about absolutely nothing. In a very loud voice. For hours. I can’t even drown her out with my iPod turned up loud. I glare at her pointedly and screw my ear-buds in even tighter. She takes this as an invitation to turn her volume up from squawk to shrill. If I ever get that bad, someone shoot me.

The loudspeaker spruiks wares from the Buffet Car. Idiotically, I venture out for a cup of coffee (mostly so I can have some brief respite from the inane prattle which has now turned into a mix of racism and cooking suggestions). I come back with a scalding hot cup of weak instant sludge and a little container of UHT milk. I look at the these things on my cheap cardboard tray. Someone’s meddling with my sanity. First Class? Swill?

I try to console myself with the thought that if this is First Class, things must be truly hideous in Economy. Evidence of this is forthcoming pretty quickly. The First Class carriage is the second car on the train. The first car is a sleeper that has been converted to Economy seating for the daytime trip. This means the First Class carriage is between them and the Buffet Car.

Soon begins the long procession of Economy Class passengers intending to fuel themselves for the gruelling journey. The first thing I notice is most of these people hardly need fueling. In fact, dispensing with the train and jogging to Melbourne might be a good option for many of them.

There is one guy who has the most ENORMOUS belly I have ever seen. He’s not really a big man in other respects, but his belly looks like it composes the better part of his body mass. The most off-putting thing is that he chooses to highlight his asset by wearing tight jeans and an even tighter lycra t-shirt that allows the bottom of his stomach to sag out. The shirt’s slogan says ‘Buff Riders’. At first I thought it read ‘Butt Riders’ but I had ample opportunity to check. I don’t know which is worse when I think about it. He has no front teeth, and makes numerous trips back and forth to top up with Coke so he can remain that way.

Then there is the young, even groovy looking, guy in dark suit and sunglasses, who walks past clutching to his chest something that looks awfully like a carpet bag. Attentive to his threads he may be, attentive to his personal hygiene he definitely is not. A wave of overpowering body odour floods in his wake as he passes through. After his second trip, and the sense of disbelief that anyone could smell that bad has diminished, First Class passengers start to cringe pre-emptively when he enters the door at the far end of the carriage. For inexplicable reasons he makes numerous trips back and forth, always clutching the carpet bag, but never bringing back any food or drink.

From time to time the happy CountryLink staff keep us informed of where we are. Which wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that every time they announce “Our next stop will be Goulburn”, the old ladies go into a flurry of repetition: “Ooooh, Goulburn! Next stop is Goulburn! Oooh…!” (I kid you not). I start dreading the click of the intercom that heralds the announcements.

So. Three hours or so to go and it’s getting dark.

I begin to really really wish this was the Orient Express. Not because I’m pining any longer for the crisp white tablecloths or the mahogany trim or the caviar and champagne, but because this First Class carriage is looking more and more like a very fitting setting for murder.