Travel: Sydney to Melbourne XPT – Overnight Train

Is this an untapped gem of intercity business travel?

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The short answer – HELL NO.
I found out there is a good reason why thousands of people fly between Sydney and Melbourne each day yet only a handful of pensioners choose to catch the overnight XPT.

If you want the long version – read on……

It seemed like a really good plan:

  • Finish a meeting in Sydney’s CBD at 7pm
  • Slide down a mixed grill at Maloney’s Hotel
  • Jump on the train at Central at 8:30pm
  • Have a relaxing night on the train, meet some fellow travellers and hear stories of great railway adventures
  • Be rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the train
  • Wake up well rested and have a shower on the train as we speed along Melbourne’s train network
  • Enjoy the complimentary breakfast
  • Arrive at Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station at 7:30am
  • Show up at work in the CBD feeling refreshed
The fold out bunk was comfortable enough – but passengers over 6 feet tall might struggle with the length

Why didn’t I just fly like a normal person?

I worked out that by the time I flew back to Melbourne and got back to Chateau de Bretto I would be lucky to get 5 hours sleep before I had to get back to work. Having flown countless times between Sydney and Melbourne I get annoyed that it takes several hours from door to door for what should be a 55 minute flight. Which is where the train comes in – no security screening, no taking my shoes off, no smelly taxis, no waiting to get on the plane, no waiting to get off the plane, no guy in the next seat who wants to fight over who gets the armrest, no stupid inflight entertainment that runs for 18 minutes before you “prepare to land”. I could go on…..

Anyway, back to the train. Let me start off with some good points:

  1.  The train departed and arrived at the scheduled time – and I mean exactly.
  2. My cabin and the train in general were very clean
  3. The staff onboard the train were very friendly and helpful
  4. It is quite cheap. At about $220 one-way it is cheaper than a flexible airfare.
  5. They kept the doors locked when we stopped at Broadmeadows station.

I was lucky that I scored a 2 berth sleeper to myself and as I was at the end of the carriage I had an ensuite to myself. But if you want to guarantee you don’t have to share a cabin with a stranger you need to book and pay for 2 berths – which is still pretty reasonable.

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So you are thinking…..the cabin looks nice Bretto – it sounds like a fun journey….you sound like a grumpy old man that likes to complain about public transport? Well yes I do hate public transport. Not public transport as a concept – but just the 3rd world public transport I have the misfortune to use around Melbourne.

So what was wrong? Where do I start….

1. Movement

I think there is about 1km of straight track near Wagga Wagga but apart from that the whole trip was very lumpy and bumpy. I thought that the guys that laid the track back in the 1800’s must have been drunk but I have since been advised by a rail industry professional (we’ll call him RIP for short) that the tracks are designed for heavy freight trains which accounts for the majority of services on this line. The relatively light passenger train just seems to bounce along the undulating track as it sways from side to side. Although they could apparently buy a new passenger train with better suspension to make the journey more comfortable it seems the low patronage on this route doesn’t warrant such an upgrade.

I thought that perhaps I was being too needy and my expectations were too high – but RIP has travelled extensively on sleeper trains around the world (predominantly Europe and the UK) and he said it was the worst motion of any train he had been on by far. I don’t think he was exaggerating when he told me that he feared he might be thrown out of the upper bunk onto the floor below.

If you are really old and/or drunk I think there is a good chance you would fall over as you walk around the train.

 2. Noise

The high levels of noise on the train seemed to be a direct result of the high levels of movement. Furthermore I think they had installed a special “Squeak and creak amplification module” under my cabin which managed to generate a loud range of noises throughout the journey that was accompanied by the constant rattle of the train passing over the tracks. I had taken my own ear plugs to mask the sound of snoring if I had to share the cabin but it turns out that my concern was unfounded. There is just no way you could hear someone snoring over the sound of the train. I noted the complimentary toiletries bag given to First Class passengers included a pair of ear plugs. Perhaps this is this a requirement to meet Occupational Health and Safety Requirements for exposure to damaging levels of noise?

I guess that is why old people like to catch the train so much – they can just take out their hearing aids and enjoy the serenity.

I jammed a magazine in between the upper bunk and the cabin wall to try and stop some squeaking – and then a few hours later the magazine worked loose and fell down onto my legs in the dark and scared the crap out of me. At least I wasn’t asleep.

 3. Ventilation

The train has windows that don’t open and they lock the external doors – presumably to stop passengers taking their own lives (it crossed my mind at about 2am). The cabin was warm and stuffy with no ventilation that I could find.

The bathroom looked like it was taken straight from one of North Korea’s submarines built in the 1950’s.
 4. The bathroom

There is an “ensuite” located between every two sleeper cabins so if the train was full you could be sharing the facility with 3 strangers. The ensuite is like the swiss army knife of bathrooms. Imagine trying to shoehorn the functionality of a full bathroom into a small airplane toilet. I expect a 1950’s North Korean submarine would be more user friendly. The only good thing I can say is that at least it had full headroom to stand up.

You need a Confined Space Entry Permit to use the ensuite
You really need a Confined Space Entry Permit to use the ensuite

I found that using the fold out toilet and fold out sink to be quite a mission – combined with the confined space, the heat and the motion of the train I came quite close to vomiting and had to make a speedy retreat to the bed and lie down. Admittedly I do suffer from motion sickness at times but there was no chance I could have a shower on this train without covering myself in spew. When I had to use the amenities the next morning I made the short walk to the adjacent first class carriage that had a more user-friendly toilet – similar to what you would find on a plane.

The bottom line: It seemed like a good idea but I wouldn’t do it again. My outdoor adventures have taken me to some strange places in adverse conditions and I have never had a worse night’s sleep than on this train.

Although I didn’t enjoy the trip – if you are the sort of person that can fall asleep during a rock concert I encourage you to try it out and make up your own mind. You can find more info here:

http://www.nswtrainlink.info but if you want to book a sleeper you need to call 13 22 32.

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25 thoughts on “Travel: Sydney to Melbourne XPT – Overnight Train”

  1. This was a very helpful insite. Could you please do a review of the many and varied uses of car fog lights?
    Cheers,
    Stove collector.

    1. Hi Stove Collector. Thanks for your feedback. I hope you got some enjoyment reading about my journey.
      I can only think of one use for fog lights – and that would be driving in heavy fog. This is a meteorological phenomenon that occurs very rarely in Melbourne yet there are countless morons who drive around with their fog lights on during fine conditions. Hey look at me….my car has fog lights! WOW.
      If only the police would crack down on this most heinous crime.

      1. Thanks for the comment on your SYD/MEL train trip. We travel annually from Casino to SYD on an XPT but not as a sleeper customer.The noise you encountered seems to be endemic to XPTs. These trains are now in their 30s and really do need replacing. My wife and I travelled Europe on a Eurail Pass in 1973 and with the exception of the Sanish trains all of Europe was excellent especially the Swiss and German. Understand Spain is now excellent. The track from Broadmeadow(Newcastle) is also hopelessly inadequate and so the trip is 13.5 hours. 9 Hours by car.

  2. What about a review on amazing australian fauna? Covering real animals and others such as my friend, the drop bear. This could be useful for my holidays! 🙂
    I really enjoyed your article, this is certainly nicer than other readings…

    1. Thanks for your feedback. The only photos I have of drop bears are very blurry as I am normally running away – they can move surprisingly quick for such furry beasts. Fortunately they have a preference for the taste of overseas tourists so us Aussies are normally pretty safe. Hope you enjoy your holiday – just remember not to walk under any trees.

  3. Great post Bretto – wasn’t tempted to try the train in the first place but very informative nevertheless. I did a day trip to Perth yesterday – I could expand on the pros and cons of air travel of great distance for a 4 hour meeting but I’m still recovering. We understand you have some expertise in trailer design . Perhaps you’d be so good as to share lessons learnt? And the pros and cons of mountain climbing in thongs? And shared email accounts?
    Cheers, terawayns

    1. Thanks Terawayn. As you would have seen the XPT was derailed last week. I can’t say that I am surprised but I was pleased to see that no one was hurt. As for your cross-continental journey for a half day meeting – I wonder what the record is for the longest trip for the shortest meeting?
      Yes I have climbed Mt Feathertop (Victoria’s 2nd highest peak) in a pair of thongs as a result of foot injuries sustained during an endurance (land-based) flipper wearing session – sounds pretty stupid doesn’t it?

  4. The definitive critique of the XPT and some PR for Allan and Richard! Your Bass Strait paddle must have been a comfy doddle by comparison although not so much LOL for me. I shall read all your reports with anticipation now. You would have loved hitch hiking in the 1960s and the personalities encountered. Mate and I were rescued/hitchhiked out of Guy’s Hut area on an open dozer. All day banging and rattling though snow to escape an early winter. Cheers for your amusing but informative reports and my sympathies for Mrs Bretto

  5. Great review! I traveled from Sydney to Melbourne Sleeper class on the XPT with my son last year. I laughed hard when I was reading your article because we also experienced most of the things you mentioned.
    The main reason we trained it instead of flying (we flew back) and this could be added as an advantage in your review was because of the generous luggage allowance (40kgs each passenger, but you can get away with much more – they don’t weigh it), and you can take things aboard a train which are prohibited from airplanes. You can take things like bicycles and surf skis for $12.50, try that on a plane!
    And you didn’t ,mention the food, which was hopeless (apart from the complimentary breakfast toast). We bought some KFC and held off eating it (in our cabin) till we were out of Sydney which made the journey seem shorter.
    my son nodded off soon after our beds were made (11pm?), but I stayed up reading train magazines till around 5am.

    Overall it was ok, I will do it again if I need to, but not any time soon. 😉

    1. As an old person 80 plus and 3 years after low back surgery I booked the sleeping cabin as the smoothest way for me to go from Sydney to Melbourne. I did not read the comments in advise and if I would I probably wouldn’t believe it.
      Anyway it was something so horrible and I was very upset and in shock. I asked the conductor for any free seat in 1. class and sit the whole way to Melbourne. I must say it is dangerous for old people who could get slipped disk or a fall and could be in pain for the rest of their life. I must warn everybody. This sleeping carriage is dangers. It is a great GREAT SHAME OF AUSTRALIA.

  6. I remember doing the old Southern Aurora run between Sydney and Melbourne when a child in the early eighties. Then a twin had its own shower, basin and toilet. Single berth carriages were an option then too with shared toilets/showers at either end of the carriage.

    Those well laid out carriages are no doubt currently plying the route of the Indian Pacific and the Ghan.

    In 2005 I tried the twinette cabins again and got a real shock. It was now a shared toilet between two twin cabins!!! And we definitely did a ‘milk run’ to Melbourne where I didn’t sleep a wink. Ended up using the car I hired to drive around Melbourne to get back to Sydney to avoid the return train trip home. Seems like things haven’t improved much in the last 10 years. At over $400 each way to guarantee a twin cabin to yourself you really have no choice now but to sit in a comfy seat in first class or just fly down.

  7. Thanks for the pics and story on your experience. Was going to try it but now might just drive or fly. It is a pity the experience is not better as train travel is a nice way to sit back and relax.

  8. What a missed opportunity for TrainLink / XPT. They have the monopoly and could really sway some annoyed flyers by going via the train route. It seems the current $90 promotion for a return trip on the XPT from SYD to MEL economy is definately a no go – especially since you don’t even get sleeping berths (unless you drink yourself to pass out on the ‘recliners’).

  9. Having just completed the XPT trip Sydney to Melbourne, I thought it was wonderful!! Had the best nights sleep. The room was nicely air-conditioned and the bed very comfortable. I had the upper bunk and thought was spacious, plenty of headroom, to get changed, etc. It was quick to board and even quicker to deboard. Toilet, shower room not great but manageable. A lot better than the toilets on the Trans Siberian! We have travelled on many trains day and night around the world and although it was not as smooth as others, it still had plenty of pluses for me. I would definitely do it again, I enjoyed it so much. Recently we flew to Melbourne return as well, which was ok, but it took much time, effort and cost to do. Train to airport cost (Sydney) flight cost more each way than the cost of the train. We saved the cost of a Melbourne hotel! Arrived at Southern Cross station, which was an extra part of the trip, by bus (Melbourne) time wise and cost wise. So lots of benefits over flying. It’s a shame as train travel is so relaxing, no queues, no security screening, no added extra trips, no parking costs. It’s a fading way of travelling for those who love it!!

    1. Thanks for your comment Christine. I am pleased you enjoyed your trip and shared your thoughts. I am sure readers of my (rather negative) trip report will benefit from your experience. Enjoy your travels….

  10. I was just thinking of the train but have refocused thanks bretto. It was after a 9 hour time slot from the time I left home til my destination in Sydney plus the cost of accommodation – yes it was 9 hours and 100s of $ later. My flight from Sydney even worse was cancelled three times due to storms in Sydney over four hrs Wednesday night which was very stressful and would not happen on a train unless a cow wandered into the tracks. I was on the overnight Budapest sleeper in October to Zurich with paper thin walls and a crowd of four young Dutch ensuring I got no sleep. Looking at the recliner Bing in first class seats I would probably pass on the sleeper now. How shameful is it that you have to call to book a sleeper for starters. In fact I have concluded they don’t want us to take the train people. My view is that with a decent fast service you could forget the sleeper and forget the new airport for Sydney since the melb syd route is the busiest in the world. I could have driven and.listened to my whole Neil young collection!

  11. Hi,
    I was travelling from Melbourne to Sydney overnight in ECO. I found it a pretty pleasant experience. My only downside was the noise you mentioned, but I could handle it with earplugs. The movement was no problem, maybe the sleeper cabin has a disadvantage because of the position orthogonally to the driving direction(as ECO was facing the direction of driving). The main reasen I took the train were: it was way cheaper than a flight and a hostel, and I had just a few days in Australia, and therfore I could maximise my time in the city.

    1. But I also hope that somewhen a highspeed connection like in Germany or France is coming. MEL-SYD ~ 900km, so it could be an easy 3-4 h journey

  12. Thanks Bretto, really enjoyed your review. I’ve taken other trains in Australia (e.g Adelaide to Perth) in the past as well as the XPT. Last took the XPT almost 20 years ago and decided to wait until they’d upgraded before trying to travel south by train again.

  13. I enjoy this trip – much prefer it to flying and have always had a sleeper carriage to myself. Would never do this as a daytime trip. As for sleep, I worked ships for 12 years so noise or rocking was never a problem. My only advice – buy food before you board – the buffet car gets crazy once the open for service announcement is made – you may need a stun gun to battle the hungry hoards. Luckily you have complimentary breakfast in your compartment so no need to line up in the morning.

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