The flights were expensive so I took the overnight train from Sydney to Melbourne – it was cheap and cheerful (at first)

The sky is purple as I walk up and down platform one at Sydney Central Station on Thursday evening. It’s 8.15pm and I have about 20 minutes to make some last minute steps before my 11 hour train to Melbourne. I’ve already made the trip and know to stretch ahead. But tonight the scene in front of the XPT is different.

It is much busier than normal and the type of passenger boarding is different. There are young professionals, many in suits, and hip types in smart clothes. There’s even a group of students who look like they just stepped out of a high-end vape shop. They are all ‘beginners’, as the train crew call them, and appear to be about to board the Hogwarts Express.

Related: Time warps and Thai curry: the 11-hour train journey from Melbourne to Sydney | Bridget Delaney

They approach the XPT with a wide-eyed sense of excitement that they will soon lose when they hear the service is fully booked (meaning it will be crowded). It will turn to disappointment when they learn there are no charging sockets or wifi, and then anger when they discover there is no mobile reception on board.

Let me tell you how we got here.

Australian air travel is in shambles. Airlines are still reeling from Covid inactivity, fuel prices are high and there is increasing demand from travellers, meaning Australians face record prices to fly this Christmas.

The consumer watchdog is wary of carriers who deliberately run fewer services so they can keep airfares high.

In late November I wrote that Australians were opting for cheaper night trains and coaches to travel between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Patronage on these routes has more than doubled in recent months and services are running out. Then I realized that I was about to join this trend.

I was celebrating a friend’s 30th birthday in Melbourne a few days away and still hadn’t booked flights. Faced with a $500 fare, I turned to the only sensible option: the train. There are two services each day between Sydney and Melbourne and I opted for overnight and a cheap (non-sleep) place for $78.

As we entered the carriage and took our seats on Thursday evening, an announcer warned first-time passengers to take their assigned seats. While some may feel empty in Sydney, passengers will board at each of the 15 stops, in towns and cities such as Goulburn, Wagga Wagga and Albury.

Train officers, wearing Transport for NSW embroidered shirts, patrol the carriages throughout the night with small torches, flashing them in the faces of passengers who need to be woken before regional stops. So swapping places is a big no-no.

The warning is repeated three times before our first stop – a measure the staff have taken to deal with the wave of newbies who have taken XPT in recent months due to unaffordable domestic airfares.

Carriages have rows of two seats on either side of a central aisle in economy and first class – the latter having seats that recline further with slightly more legroom. There are a limited number of sleeping cabins, which were sold out during our trip.

After warning against swapping places for the fourth time, the announcer concludes his welcome: “We’ll all be friends and take you where you’re going.” I turn to the man sitting next to me and smile. He grunts and turns to the window.

Initially the experience is pleasant, especially compared to the flight. I’m tall—I stopped counting once I passed 188cm—and as someone who thinks about surgically shortening my legs every time an airplane seat recline makes my kneecaps creak, the XPT’s legroom feels luxurious.

The aisle is also spacious: passengers can get through the carriages without crawling those in the aisle seats.

And where are they walking? In addition to the two toilets per carriage, which are about 50% larger than a budget toilet on an airplane, the buffet car is a major attraction.

The hot meal menu is read at the start of the trip, and following the advice of my former colleague Brigid Delaney, who has taken XPT, I avoid the mango chicken curry option. Instead, I choose roast turkey with vegetables. Main meals cost between $9.50 and $12.50.

When the meals are ready for collection around 10pm, I walk to the buffet car to collect mine. Cakes, sausage rolls, chocolates and salads are also on sale, as are mugs of red and white wine – the train is a licensed local and those who smuggle in their grog will be warned. However, there is a bottleneck at checkout, as the Eftpos machine processes slowly.

How come? Because it relies on a patchy internet connection, and as the employee serving me explains, the tinted metal windows block mobile reception. The effect is the equivalent of wearing a tinfoil hat to block the mind-controlling waves.

My iPhone on Telstra goes between “SOS Only” and a bar of 3G all the way, but can rarely load a simple web page except when doors open at stops. “These trains weren’t built for Apple Pay,” the mullet buffet attendant says as he hands me the food in a box.

To be fair, when I take my roast back to my seat, it’s hot, tasty, and satisfying. However, many passengers either were unaware of the buffet car or looked forward to it opening. As soon as we exited Central, the passengers around me brought out the dinners they’d brought with them. The smell of a roasted pork chop from the supermarket passed me and collided with the steam rising from a large tupperware container of garlic shrimp being consumed to my right.

Later, a 20-year-old is questioned for at least 10 minutes by the pensioner sitting next to him about the difference between Oporto and Ogalo, after having discarded his hamburger from the former.

This excitement in the cabin wears off fairly quickly, and when the carriage lights are turned off at 11pm, most of the passengers fall asleep.

Within 20 minutes, about three men around me are snoring violently. In a way, this is a testament to how comfortable the XPT service is, even on a budget, and I’m happy for them. But another way, around 1 am, I want to get violent with them. I try to think how good Samaritans they are all, having opted for a mode of travel with a responsible carbon footprint. But I still hate them.

At one point I go to the bathroom and come back to see the loudest snorer sitting awake. I immediately try to get him to sleep sooner but I lost in a minute.

When we arrive at Southern Cross station at about 7.40am, I managed to sleep for about seven hours. Unfortunately, these came in seven hour-long blocks, as I was woken up by bright lights at most stops.

Overall, these problems can be solved with an eye mask and earplugs. And a cushion will help soften your armrest. Once you’ve embraced the cost savings, lower carbon footprint, and longer-travel trade-off, the XPT offers an enjoyable service. It would be great if the tracks were updated so the trains could run faster – sometimes it feels painfully slow. Phone reception would also be a plus, although it’s nice to be forced to unplug. You’ll also save on airport transfers to both sides.

And Mother Earth will smile at you, even if you’re ready to punch your fellow travelers in the face.

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