It’s not every day you get to witness a new train line opening. The Sydney Metro Line servicing the North-Western suburbs of Sydney opened on Sunday 26th May and me and my wife headed out late in the day to beat the crowds. We lucked out there. The queues resembled a Disneyland attraction and there certainly was a Disney-esque sense of expectation among the people waiting for the turnstiles to open.
Opening of new transport routes don’t always go smoothly. When the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened back in 1830, the local member for Liverpool, William Huskisson, was run over and killed by George Stephenson’s legendary engine, The Rocket.
My last similar experience was at the opening of the Sydney Light Rail in 1997. We had parked the car in the city and as I was about to take the keys out of the ignition the radio announcer informed us that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash. That kind of ruined the moment. We didn’t even ride on the light rail that day. We just stared uncomprehending as the shiny new carriages whizzed past.
So I was a tad circumspect when the new driverless Metro pulled in to the station. The carriage doors lined up nicely with the platform fence and the automatic gates opened and we boarded the train. Inside it felt slightly Tardis-like, the inside appearing much bigger than it looked from the outside. It took me a while to figure out why. Although the train carriages are of a standard size, the doorways that divide them are barely discernible. You can see from one end of the train right down to the other like it’s one extra-long carriage. Like an open-plan train.
Gone are the days when you could walk through the doors at the end of the carriage and ride on the external gangway, holding on to the chains, leaning out and watching the railway sleepers and the blue metal ballast zip by.
Of course a train ride like this wouldn’t be complete without the ubiquitous trainspotter. Sure enough there was one on our train. He was dressed in standard trainspotting threads: a checkered flannelette shirt, trucker’s cap, shorts and long white socks. He had a backpack and sported a thick grey beard. He told anyone who cared to listen about how many stops there were, a brief history of each suburb on the route and the exact day of the opening of other lines. The opening of the Eastern Suburbs railway on the 23rd June 1976? Our trainspotter was there. At least he had the good sense to move on from one group to the next when he saw their patience was running out.
He spoke to me rather too loudly about the good old red rattlers (Ok I remember them too but I don’t want the whole carriage to know) although I did nod in agreement when he commiserated over the demise of train tickets. The New South Wales Railways had them for over 150 years he said. What mementos could we really take from this journey? An Opal card statement? There were a few balloons at the station entrances but I’ve discovered that they don’t keep well in a suitcase in the attic.
The train was clean as you would expect for a maiden journey. You think they could have at least had one carriage decked out with grafitti and wads of chewing gum and an empty bottle of Bundy rum rolling across the floor just to provide a touch of realism.
But no, this was nothing like a typical commute. People were not fiddling with their phones other than to take photos. People were talking to each other, strangers even. Kids laughed, adults smiled. This was clearly some parallel commuter universe.
We got off at Chatswood, the final stop, and as we were meaning to just hop on the next train to go back we followed a guide’s directions to join the queue. You’d think that would be easy. Nope. There were that many people with the same idea as us that the queue snaked around in longish coils until we resembled a bunch of mountaineers near the summit of Everest.
It didn’t matter how carefully we listened to the directions from the sniggering police officers, we could not find the end of the queue. Eventually we pushed in, not meaning to be rude, just defeated by our geometrical ineptitude.
I can’t say the trip is full of fascinating scenery. Indeed most of the journey is underground and as you sit with your back to the window you end up just looking at the other passengers, or if you’re tall like me, seeing your reflection in the window opposite. Did I comb my hair at all? I can’t have shaved for at least a week.
There’s none of the old fashioned clicketty-clack noise but there’s still that familiar rocking motion. As we come out of the tunnel and onto the sky-rail section, about 10 metres above Windsor Road, it feels like being in a low flying aeroplane. You get that cosy feeling of being part of the surroundings yet slightly aloof from them.
As I sat back I thought about some of the rail journeys from books I have read.
There were the WW2 POW escape stories I read as a kid: The Colditz Story by PR Reid being one of them. Here the escapees would ride the trains dressed as foreign workers with forged identity papers in their pockets. The goal was to reach neutral Switzerland and safety. Those scenes when soldiers would board the train and inspect the passengers’ tickets and documents were full of suspense.
Then there was Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express where a murder was committed in a sleeping car on the journey between Istanbul and Paris. Just fabulous.
As an adult I loved reading about the journey of the Hogwart’s Express from Platform 9 and 3/4 in the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling seemed to tap in to a spring of nostalgia in that steam train journey to a far-off, somewhat uncertain destination.
Our journey ended at a place called Tallawong, an uncertain destination in itself as no-one actually lives there at the moment. It’s right on the edge of greater Sydney. From the platform we can see the lights of a new housing estate to the left but on the right there are none, just the darkness of open fields and the deeper darkness of the bush.
The Metro does what it needs to do. It gets you from place to place with a minimum of fuss and gets a whole bunch of cars off the road too. Apart from the PA announcements which were almost impossible to hear, our Metro journey went well. And, thankfully, there were no disasters this time.