The states still operate to their own gauges, but there are now standard gauge lines from Perth to Sydney via Adelaide, Adelaide to Alice Springs and on to Darwin, between Adelaide and Melbourne, and also from Melbourne to Sydney and Brisbane.
To the traveller, these gauge problems will be unimportant, except that he or she will notice that it is still necessary to deal with several different railway companies.
Great Southern Rail has taken over the operation of what used to be the federal (Commonwealth Railways, then Australian National Railways) lines. Three services are operated and these will be the most important three services to the visitor.
The Indian Pacific between Sydney - Adelaide - Perth
The Ghan between Adelaide - Alice Springs - Darwin
The Overland between Melbourne - Adelaide
Countrylink operates trains and buses in New South Wales, with its network extending to Melbourne in the south and Brisbane in the north. You can travel to virtually any destination in New South Wales with Countrylink.
V-Line operates trains and buses in Victoria, with its network extending to Adelaide and Mt. Gambier in the west (by train plus bus service), and to Canberra and Batemans Bay in the north (also both by train plus bus service). You can travel to virtually any destination in Victoria with V-Line.
Queensland Rail operates trains and a few connecting buses in Queensland. You cannot reach places in the extreme north, such as Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and Cooktown, and some of the popular beaches entail short bus rides from the railway stations, but otherwise coverage is comprehensive.
Western Australian Government Railways operates a few trains and many buses in Western Australia. These services are limited to the southern part of the state, extending north only to Kalbarri and Meekatharra, but coverage within the area served is comprehensive. Moreover, most of this area cannot be reached at all with the long distance bus companies.
South Australia no longer has any intra-state rail services. The only services are the interstate trains provided by Great Southern Rail and the V-Line bus plus train services to Melbourne via Bendigo and to Sydney via Albury. However, in fact, these options satisfy most requirements.
The Northern Territory is serviced by the Ghan to Alice Springs and Darwin, via Tennant Creek and Katherine.
The only area which is not well served is the north-west, although there is also the handicap that there is no connecting route between the centre and the northeast.
Now to the types of rail pass which are available.
The Rail Explorer Pass offered by Great Southern Rail gives 6 months of unlimited travel over the whole GSR rail network. Three interstate trains connect Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Alice Springs and Darwin, as well as more out of the way destinations such as Broken Hill, Kalgoorlie, Coober Pedy, Katherine and Tennant Creek.
This six month pass is valid for unlimited travel in a Red Service seat, but upgrades to sleeper cabins are available at an additional cost. You must hold a foreign passport, as well as a valid Student, Backpacker or YHA membership card to receive a discounted price.
For further information, visit www.gsr.com.au or contact your local Travel Agent.
For most visitors travelling around the East Coast of Australia, the type likely to be most useful is the Austrail Flexipass. The Austrail Flexi Pass offers flexibility across all participating rail companies and is available for travel in an economy seat over 15 or 22 days in a six month period from the first day of travel.
The Austrail Flexi Pass is available for travel on rail services operated by Great Southern Rail, Queensland Rail and CountryLink. The pass is not available for travel on any Queensland Rail Citytrain service or the Savannahlander, however is available for use on the Kuranda Scenic Railway and The Gulflander. The pass can be used on all CityRail services operated by NSW State Rail.
The Austrail Flexi Pass is only available to foreign Passport holders. For additional detailed information on terms and conditions, including luggage allowances etc, please visit www.railaustralia.com.au
In addition to the Austrail Pass and Rail Explorer Pass, the various railway companies offer rail passes for their own services only.
Well, then, out of this multitude of passes, which should we choose? For most travellers, the fifteen-day Austrail Flexipass will be the best bet. However, your itinerary will be an important factor. If you do not need to travel far north of Brisbane, the Countrylink Backtracker Rail Pass will be very good value.
If you just want to travel up or down the east coast, one of the East Coast Discovery Passes will be ideal.
You will find most of the trains in Australia spacious and comfortable. The Great Southern Rail network of trains have plenty of leg room, a restaurant/bar. There are also showers and toilets at the end of each carriage, and towels are provided on overnight services. Upgrades to sleeper cabins are available however the cost margins are quite high. The trains are usually reasonably punctual, since the timetables allow margins for delays.
Queensland Rail trains are also comfortable, with ample leg room. Showers are provided, but no towels for sitting passengers. If you invest in a sleeper, choose the upper berth, and then you will get the window also. There are three passengers to a compartment. At present, Queensland Rail has not degenerated to the level of pre-packaged food. Meals are still cooked to order by the chef on the train, and prices are not unreasonable. Punctuality is usually quite good.
Countrylink has a modern fleet of trains with aircraft-type seats. There are no showers for sitting passengers on overnight trains and berths are prohibitively expensive. The food is pre-packaged, but reasonable in price. Punctuality is variable.
V-Line offers only medium-distance trains. The seats are padded bench-type with five across the carriage, half of them facing backwards. There are no overnight trains.
Catering is limited, but the journeys are not so long. Punctuality is fair. Western Australian Government Railways has few trains. The Australind is relatively new and aircraft-style with pre-packaged food. The Prospector is ageing, but reasonably comfortable. Its disadvantage is that it is not a corridor.
The buses operated by W.A.G.R., Countrylink and V-Line are generally of the highest quality, with air-conditioning and toilets, and they are driven well. As long as the connecting rail services arrive on time, the buses are usually punctual.
Purchase the most suitable type of rail pass, and then see the country comfortably and surprisingly cheaply. You will be able to travel to places of which you never would have heard if travelling by long-distance bus, and you will meet people too in a way which you would not on the buses.
Most importantly, realise that some passes do not restrict you to trains. You can also use bus networks which cover the whole of New South Wales and Victoria and the southern part of Western Australia. Your opportunities are much greater than with the long- distance bus companies and you will find that your costs are lower and your comfort enhanced too.