Why was the “Southern Aurora” train so significant?

Lounge Car of the Southern Aurora train (photo by State Records NSW - CC-BY)

In 1965, my school classroom was decorated with two large posters. The first was of a young Queen Elizabeth. The second was of the Southern Aurora train arriving in Melbourne after its inaugural run. Why was this train so important?

To appreciate the significance of this train, we need to look back to the formation of Australia in 1901 as a federation of six states: New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. Although these states now shared a federal government, the physical links between them were tenuous. The distances between the capital cities were enormous. The roads were narrow, winding and congested—and the railways were severely hampered by the differing track gauges in use, meaning that there could be no direct train service between Australia’s biggest cities: Sydney (with its standard-gauge railway) and Melbourne (with its broad-gauge railway).

Freight cars could run between Sydney and Melbourne only by swapping the bogies (i.e. exchanging all the wheels/axles) at the break-of-gauge. Passengers had to alight at Albury to change trains, at an unsociable hour if on the overnight train.

A standard gauge link between Sydney and Melbourne was anticipated for decades, and was finally completed in 1962. A new train was launched to provide a direct overnight service: the Southern Aurora. This was a first-class-only train, and consisted entirely of sleeping accommodation, together with a lounge car and a dining car. Later, a Motorail facility was added so that people could take their car on the train too. The dining car employed top-class chefs, and its reputation was such that it would open a couple of hours before departure from Sydney’s Central Station so that people could dine on it, even if not travelling. The overnight sleeper service was ideal for business travellers, who were transported from city center to city center without the need to book a hotel. Discounted books of ten tickets were sold to frequent business travellers.

The inaugural run of the Southern Aurora caused national excitement. Although Australia had been federated in 1901, the standard-gauge rail line provided the iconic physical link and was greatly significant to the nation, which is why the Southern Aurora poster came to be displayed in my childhood classroom. There were great celebrations, and an early 60s band The Joy Boys had a number 2 hit record with Southern Rora in 1962.

A first-class sleeper ticket from Sydney to Melbourne was expensive, and as a student I would travel between Sydney and Melbourne on the Spirit of Progress, an unpretentious train that left ten minutes after the Southern Aurora. The “Spirit” arrived in Melbourne much later as it stopped at the minor stations along the way. During busy times a “second division” of the Spirit of Progress would depart ten minutes after the main train, using whatever spare carriages could be mustered.

Despite the physical link being completed between Sydney and Melbourne, the bureaucracy took a while to adapt. For many years, the Sydney locomotive would be uncoupled half way along the journey and a Melbourne locomotive attached, and the wonderful corridor-style buffet car would close down for a couple of hours while the Sydney staff washed up, packed up, cashed up, and handed over to the Melbourne crew who would then unpack before they could resume service.

There was also a direct day train, the Intercapital Daylight.

By the 1970s, however, the service had started to decline. The jet age had arrived, and the successful business traveller wanted to fly instead of ride the rails. Laws which had restricted road services from competing with the railways were lifted, and low-cost coach travel captured the budget market. In 1986 the Spirit of Progress and Southern Aurora were combined into one service, the Sydney/Melbourne Express. As of 2011, a day-train and night-train still run between Sydney and Melbourne, but the golden age of rail travel has passed and these unnamed services comprise much shorter trains than those of the 1960s.

Despite the completion of the standard-gauge rail line and the introduction of through-trains, the existing trains continued to operate from Melbourne to Albury (on broad-gauge track) and from Albury to Sydney (on standard-gauge track). Due to a pricing anomaly, it was 20% cheaper to make the journey on two separate trains with a change at Albury. When funds were tight during my student days this is exactly what I did. Simple economics trumped the technological advance of the standard-gauge link and (for me) eliminated the advantage of the new services. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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1 Comment

  • Brian says:

    I stumbled across this article whilst doing other research. I was a senior Conductor in Victoria in the 70’s and worked the Southern Aurora regularly, as well as other interstate trains.
    I can recall the return economy sitting carriage fare on the Spirit of Progress and Intercapital Daylight being $25. Cheap even for that time. Air was still too expensive. The Aurora of course, was first class and more expensive, with the sleeping berth fee added to the first class fare. There were many secrets about the Aurora that would be no big deal now, but “top secret” back then. I remember an air strike, and most airline passengers booked onto rail, and extra sleeping and sitting trains were deployed from Sydney to Melbourne and vice versa. A few “celebrities” of the day travelled on these trains, and if only their “partners” knew what went on. Then we had the regular hookers who would travel on the Aurora from Sydney to Melbourne, picking up clients in the lounge car, (as well as other places), on the train. These ladies were not on drugs, or of questionable character like many “working girls” of today, but were high class and well educated. They would stay in hotels during the day in Melbourne, returning to Sydney that night. What great days in rail they were.No privatisation, reliable trains, and passengers who were friendly. How times have changed.

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