Spirit of the Outback – the train from Brisbane to Longreach

Saturday, 22 May 2021

▲ I took Queensland Rail’s Spirit of the Outback train from Brisbane to Longreach. It’s 600km north along the coast from Brisbane to Rockhampton then 700km due west inland and into the outback. That’s 1325km in total, which takes almost 26 hours. That means an average of 50kph, ie this is not a fast train! You can put some of that down to the fact that it’s a narrow gauge line.

Australia is a wonderful hodge-podge of railway gauges and you can put all of that down to colonial era mismanagement. Back when Australia was a bunch of different colonies, all run from London, rather than one big colony, the authorities back in England all had different ideas on what the gauge – the distance between the two rails on a railway track – should be. For Victoria (Melbourne) they liked broad gauge, for New South Wales (Sydney) they opted for standard gauge, while for Queensland (Brisbane) they opted for narrow gauge. Well narrow gauge was cheaper. Today all the mainland capital cities are connected by standard gauge lines, but for years a Sydney-Melbourne rail trip involved a change of train at the NSW-Victoria border, in the middle of the night if it was an overnight trip.

broad gauge – 5 foot 3 inches – 1600mm
standard gauge – 4 foot 8-1/2 inches – 1453mm
narrow gauge – 3 foot 6 inches – 1067 mm

My first class sleeper cost me A$427, an economy seat – if you felt like sitting up for 26 hours – is A$172. The trains run twice a week in each direction. There should be economy class sleepers, but they’re currently being refurbished and things don’t happen too quickly with Queensland Rail so it may be some time before they’re back in service. My first class was comfortable, but compared to the sleepers on The Great Southern train trip I took from Adelaide to Brisbane in late 2019 they’re a good deal less luxurious. You do get a foldout sink in your berth, but a toilet and shower is at the end of the carriage. The food was surprisingly good, no complaints about that at all.

▲ The Spirit of the Outback in Nambour, just 107km from our Brisbane starting point and handy for the Sunshine Coast.

▲ Burnside school children produced illustrations of the trains passing through their town, they’re displayed along the Nambour railway platforms.

▲ A twisting stretch of line between Emerald and Barcaldine meant I could look back from my window and see the train coming round the curves. If I have a single complaint about the trip it was that there was virtually no opportunity to hop off the train and have a look around, In fact you’re specifically told not to get off. This is a pity when the service is so slow and the stops are frequently long enough to allow a quick look around the station area at least. Emerald would have been a good place for a quick look, the train station dates from 1900 and is heritage listed. I regret I didn’t ignore the ban and just hopped off.

▲ The Tree of Knowledge Memorial right outside the train station in Barcaldine, 102km east of Longreach. We did have time to get off and look around the station area although disembarking was certainly not encouraged.

◄ I’m glad I did take the opportunity because Barcaldine was the site for the 1891 Shearers’ Strike which played a key role in the creation of the Australian Labor Party. The strikers met under the Tree of Knowledge which unfortunately was poisoned in 2006, it’s been replaced by the memorial

▲ On the other hand I didn’t have time for a beer in the Railway Hotel, one of several very trad-looking hotels across from the train station.