Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Ghan - the train itself

 There are a few blogs out there about traveling on the Ghan but I thought I would go into more detail about what you find on board. First, these are the current fares for 2011.

$ per Person One Way Gold Service Red Service
Sleeper Cabin Daynighter Seat

Adelaide - Darwin or v.v

Rail Saver*
*Rail Saver: Payment required at time of booking. No changes permitted.

 There is a higher class level called Platinum level

$ per Person One Way Platinum Service

Adelaide - Darwin or v.v


Adelaide - Alice Springs or v.v


Alice Springs - Darwin or v.v

#No concessional fares available. All fares include fuel price surcharge.

Since I will be traveling all over Australia by train, I purchased an Ausrail Pass from ACP Rail International that cost $619 plus a delivery charge. The one way day nighter seat cost of $754 exceeds the cost of the pass which is good for three months. At the time of writing this blog, the A$ was worth a little more than the US$ but of course, the exchange rate changes all the time.

Once I received my pass from ACP Rail, I needed to reserve a seat on the train. The only way I could do this was to call Great Southern Rail (using Skype) to reserve a Red daynighter seat. There was a $30 fuel surcharge which I paid with a credit card. Their web site does not allow this to be done electronically.

 Turn right and go into the arcade at the Mitchel Travel Center.

 Plenty of seats.

If you are traveling Red class, you go to the Transit Centre on Mitchell Street close to the Coles Supermarket. Go down the arcade and that is where the bus to the train leaves from. Several buses leave about this time so not all of the people hanging about are going on the Ghan. You will be looking for somebody in a stripe shirt selling tickets for $15. In my case, that person was Larry who eventually turned out to be the bloke who looked after the Red section of the train. He was more or less sitting under the sign for the Ghan. I then took my bag to Bill who drove the bus the 10 miles or so out to the station. That's Bill on the right in the blue shirt. Larry and Bill were both very friendly and helpful.

If you are traveling Gold or Platinum class, the bus will come to your hotel to pick you up and the cost is included in your train ticket cost.

For the Saturday train departure of 9:00 am, the bus is supposed to leave at 7:30 am. In fact they wait an extra 15 minutes to allow for latecomers. Larry gave us an introduction to the trip on the way out to the station.

 Out at the train station. The best theory I heard about why the station is so far out of town is that there was no room in Darwin itself to put such a long train.Probably they didn't want the problems of resuming the land they would have needed. The marshaling yards are out by the station and I suspect they needed cheap land for them.

To the right of the Coke bottle sign is the counter where I showed them my pass and they handed over a printed page that served as my ticket. All very friendly and in this case, quite efficient. I did have to show my US passport.

All luggage that looks heavy is weighed. If your bag weighs more than 20 kg (44 lb), it has to go in the luggage van and you cannot take it into the carriage with you. If you do have a heavy bag like that, then you probably have taken way too much stuff with you. Throw half of it out.

 The two diesel engines at the front of the train.

 Baggage van.
 Guests waiting to get on the train.
 Since there is no raised platform, they provide these steps to climb up into the carriage. They do have a lift for passengers in wheel chairs. This was the entrance to the Red class daynighter section. 

 The Ghan symbol featuring an Afghan on a camel is everywhere in the train.

 The front diesel engine that goes all the way to Adelaide.

 The second engine is actually just a spare in case the front engine breaks down. It's not needed for the extra power it would provide. Apparently because of the long distances between stations and sidings, it would cause enormous problems for all trains if an engine broke down. There is only a single track with a few passing places.

The train started off on time and in the background you can hear Larry giving an introduction to the passengers. There was only one Red class passenger car and it was pretty full.

 The Red class dining car.

 Before deciding to do the trip, I had read a few of the blogs that various people had done about traveling on the Ghan. A couple of them had mentioned that upgrades to a sleeping berth sometimes were available. At the end of his introductory presentation, Larry mentioned that upgrades would be available for $150 per night and I decided to do the upgrade. After the long plane journey in cattle class, I was so pleased to be escorted up to my cabin by one of the friendly girls who supervised the carriages. She explained how the bed worked and where the shower and toilets were at the end of the carriage.

It sounds expensive at $150 per night but I got the two berth cabin to myself and if you look at the table at the top of the blog, you will see that a sleeper normally costs almost $700 for the two nights. I had cash ready to pay for the tickets but I suspect they would take a credit card. Of course, there was no guarantee that a spare sleeper would have been available, so I was just lucky.

To the right of my feet there is a pull down sink with hot and cold water. The water tastes horrible however. There is also a mirror.

You are allowed to bring food on to the train but no booze. I brought some biscuits for when I got hungry.

 The wavy corridor in the sleeping car. There was only one Red class sleeping car.

 The shower room. The water was hot and there was plenty of room. Since I woke early before 6am, I used the shower before anybody else. Towels are provided in your compartment and there are floor towels in the shower room.

 The toilet ( dunny for Australians). It works like a toilet in a plane and does that 'whop' sound as the remains are sucked away. No more draft on your backside from the wind as the poo drops on to the track below.

Unlike the toilets on the planes that fly across the Pacific, these toilets were kept in spotless condition the entire trip.

 The lounge car which was beautifully restored. If you were in the daynighter section, you had to pay $20 to be able to use this car. Most didn't. Those with sleepers could use the lounge.

Dinner. I thought this was pretty good compared to airline food but some of the other passengers were less impressed. It cost about $14.

When I first got on the train, I was seated next to a bloke about my age from Port Lincoln in South Australia. We happened to meet as we ordered dinner so we ate at a table and had a good natter over a couple of beers. He was getting off in Alice Springs and doing the rest of the journey by plane. I met him again at breakfast and he said he had not slept very well in the seat even if it did recline.

The bed folded down and ready for me to sleep in. I slept very well both nights though initially it was a bit disconcerting as the train swayed from side to side. If there are two of you in the tiny compartment, it can be quite crowded and one of the passengers has to climb up into the top bunk which lowers from the ceiling. There is not much room for luggage in the small compartment.

 The engine at Alice Springs. Note that they had wound down the shades over the windows to keep the heat out. I noticed after returning to the sleeping car after the stops in Katherine and Alice Springs that the train staff had wound down the blinds in my compartment. 

 Click on the photo to see details about the engine.
 Click on the photo to read details about one of the carriages.

 Before the train left Alice Springs I walked up to the back of the train and came across this carriage with glass windows that looked different to all the other carriages. I talked briefly to one of the passengers getting on who told me it was a new sleeping car for Platinum passengers. Apparently you get a room with your own shower and toilet as well as special gourmet dinners.

I started to tell her how much I had paid for my sleeper and she didn't want to hear it. I can't blame her. Over $3000 is a chunk of change.

 The Guards van.
The train also has a couple of wagons where you can put your car. It's probably a lot cheaper than paying the cost of the petrol to drive all the way.
 They gave me a little carry bag that contained shampoo, conditioner, a body wash and some tissues.

 Cold water. Fortunately I had a small squat water bottle that could fit in the space available. A taller bottle would not have worked and most people bought water bottles from the dining car cafe. The water was fine to taste unlike the water in the sink in my compartment which tasted pretty awful.

Before you get off at Katherine and Alice Springs, the announcer advises you to take water, a hat and sunscreen with you. Even in September it was quite hot and I was very glad to have my water bottle with me.

 The sleeping compartment had a number of power outlets (`110 for shavers only and 240 volts). The announcer recommended the use of a power surge protector.

 Each passenger was also given a complimentary coffee card. There was only one card for the entire trip which meant mine had to last all the way from Darwin to Adelaide.

 Early in the morning before the dining car cafe opened.

 Some poor soul up early waiting until 7 am when they started to serve breakfast.

Some jams and vegemite for toast.

The Red class menus. Gold and Platinum class passengers passengers eat in a dining car with waiter service. The cost of their meals is included in the cost of the ticket.

 The wrist band that gave me access to the lounge car.

 This lounge car was recently restored and it was just beautiful. Unfortunately, not that many people used it. I spent about a third of my waking time there and had several interesting conversations with other passengers.

What they need here is a Keurig coffee machine. Actually two of them since one is sure to break down.

 The workmanship on this old restored carriage was beautiful.

 All of the Red class passengers were housed in four carriages at the front of the train. A daynighter carriage, the cafe car, the lounge and the sleeper car. A further ten carriages carried the Gold and Platinum passengers and their dining cars, sleepers and lounges.

 The doors to the outside world are kept locked for the entire journey except for the long stops at Katherine and Alice Springs. Smoking is not permitted on the train.

 Adelaide. The train does not terminate at the old station downtown but terminates at a relatively new station a few miles west of the downtown area.

 Pulling into the station. When the train pulled into Katherine, Alice Springs and Adelaide it slowed down to walking pace about a couple of miles away from the station and then crawled into the station. I don't know why but it is puzzling. Similarly, departures were very slow.
One of the two girls who looked after us. Danielle and Lodi were efficient, very friendly and very helpful. They work eight week shifts and travel on all of the GSR trains: the Ghan, The Overland to Melbourne and the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth. They said that they love doing the job because of the ever changing scenery but they do get disoriented at times with the long hours (7am to 9pm) and sometimes they wake up not knowing quite where they are. Apparently when one thing goes wrong then lots of things go wrong. Murphy's law! The staff have their own carriage.

I really enjoyed this trip. If somebody said to me "Ray, you have to do this trip again tomorrow', I would have been pleased to do it. Provided I had a sleeper of course.

Other blogs will cover Katherine, Alice Springs and the scenery outside the train.

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