Is it time to bring back the Southern Aurora?

 
  The Vinelander Minister for Railways

Location: Ballan, Victoria on the Ballarat RFR Line
WE know already that the air route between Melbourne and Sydney is one of the busiest in the world carrying literally thousands of passengers every day and on weekends. We also know that most of these pax have rarely or would even realise that travel between Melbourne and Sydney was once...Union disputes of the 1970's aside, the most enjoyable way of travelling between the two capitals...which have grown in size many fold since the heydey of the nightly silver express.

Only the parents and grandparents of today's red eye air travellers know of the former overnight trains and they largely avoided the 'Aurora because 40 years ago air travel was the modern way of travel.

These days...air travel is generally accepted to be a necessary evil. It's no longer cool to be getting up at such hours to get out to the airport etc...it's merely accepted as a means to an end.

The XPT is no option as it serves a different market with a sole sleeping car that usually means a single traveller is bunked in with a total stranger...no dining options, nor a space to conduct informal meetings such as the former Lounge car.

Therefore I suggest the operators of the cars that once formed that service to get their collective heads and their volunteers, preferably the retired ones together...and advertise for more volunteers to enable enough cars to be assembled to form enough for two sets of trains that could potentially re-create the nightly service which would utilise full celebrity chef Dining car and bar service in the former Lounge car...the potential to grow this service is only limited by the imagination of the operator.

By utilising volunteers, now retired ex-railway people and others with a passion for providing great customer service in hospitality would enable the running costs to be reduced to track access charges, the actual operating crew, drivers and assistants, Guard and head conductor. The fares would be a premium, say from $350.00 each way to start off, however there are already enough expense account execs that would happily pay for a First class service that $350.00 upwards is a tiny price to pay for not enduring the early morning alarm clock.

Travel doesn't have to be both ways by train and the current air service can still be utilised for the return journey.

Again...I emphasise there are thousands who travel daily between the capitals and ALL of them have to face the grind of getting up at the un-godly hour of 04:30 in many cases to enable an early arrival at their destination and because there are so many, and because it's so easy to advertise an alternative means of getting to their destination, it would be easy to syphon a low percentage of those pax to travel on the overnight express, which at its former maximum load only ever carried 198 pax.

WE know AMTRAK still operate many sleeping car trains and in Europe despite the economies of operation there are still several sleeping car services:

https://www.seat61.com/sleepers.htm

and in England/Scotland...a new dawn of sleeping cars has arrived.

http://newtrains.sleeper.scot/

I feel the opportunities are there to re-commence a low cost operation by utilising the equipment that still exists which...with the size of the potential market that's offering can only grow and is only restricted by the imagination of the potential operator with their potential army of willingly trained volunteers.

Opinions and suggestions Question

Mike.

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  trainbrain Deputy Commissioner
  potatoinmymouth Chief Commissioner

I fear you might be a bit optimistic in thinking there are enough capable railway people sill around who would be a) willing and b) able to make such a contribution to your scheme.

That said, I have long said on these pages that I am convinced the business travel market on each of the sectors of Adelaide-Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane is sufficiently large to fill a good part of a nightly sleeper train, if marketed properly. The Caledonian Sleeper seems well able to make a similar scheme work on a commercial basis.

With all of the capital that is poured into nebulous and hopeless road “upgrades” there is no reason a grant couldn’t be found for the purchase of 12 new carriages “off the shelf” from somewhere. Much easier to present a business case explaining how many passengers a train will need to make its money back than one trying to justify a road on the basis of its “wider economic benefits”.

Of course, at the end of the day, we run into the question of whether government should be subsidising or operating a competitor with a private market (the airlines) that does an adequate job of meeting the needs of the travelling public. The most compelling justification is that the Sydney-Melbourne route is essentially a duopoly; hardly a shining example of competition, as we saw in the irrational behaviour of the capacity wars and subsequent price increases.
  petan Chief Commissioner

Location: Waiting to see a zebra using a zebra crossing!
The Southern Aurora was all bed passenger cars and the beds totaled around 200, and if you are lucky and achieve high train passenger average loading, you are only replacing **one** plane on that route, which really is not making a difference to the total market, so you only become a niche market. Google the number of planes on that route each normal day to see what the total market is and then work out how many trains you would need each day to make a real difference.

That 200 bed total is ok if you are one of the lucky ones in the single berth LAN cars, but the NAM cars were twin berth which means a single traveler is bunked in with a total stranger. That train was aimed at the business traveller who these days expect business class standard attendants as provided on the airlines and meal options to match. That meal would need to be cooked to order, not preloaded and reheated, so a modern kitchen, not 1960s cooking equipment. Then there is the ticket price for those business class amenities, including the bed.
  The Vinelander Minister for Railways

Location: Ballan, Victoria on the Ballarat RFR Line
The Southern Aurora was all bed passenger cars and the beds totaled around 200, and if you are lucky and achieve high train passenger average loading, you are only replacing **one** plane on that route, which really is not making a difference to the total market, so you only become a niche market. Google the number of planes on that route each normal day to see what the total market is and then work out how many trains you would need each day to make a real difference.

That 200 bed total is ok if you are one of the lucky ones in the single berth LAN cars, but the NAM cars were twin berth which means a single traveler is bunked in with a total stranger. That train was aimed at the business traveller who these days expect business class standard attendants as provided on the airlines and meal options to match. That meal would need to be cooked to order, not preloaded and reheated, so a modern kitchen, not 1960s cooking equipment. Then there is the ticket price for those business class amenities, including the bed.
petan

Fair comments Petan, however this is the reason I suggested the service. I've acknowledged the thousands who already fly early each morning and the train would not even be a threat to the airlines as you say.

Many pax travel with companions so the use of Twinette cabins would not be a total loss and there's the added advantage of possible retention toilets and existing shower facilities in those cabins.

This embryonic service should use ex 'Aurora cars so it can gauge the amount of interest from the general public and one only has to travel on SteamRail or other tourist services that operate in Victoria to see the numbers of volunteers already on the books. Tempting more volunteers to learn hospitality in co-operation with providers of hospitality services would not be difficult.

Costs of course are kept low 'ish' due to the minimum number of paid staff.

The galley on the 'Aurora has an oven, gas hotplates and refrigeration to enable fresh food to be easily prepared by an adventurous and creative chef. Moreover refitting a Dining car galley would be much cheaper than building a new carriage. Moreover, people are willing to give a bit of leeway for a new service and it would not be difficult for the operators of this proposed service to travel...say to Canada to see how the Rocky Mountaineer does it .

But thanks for your suggestions....keep them coming people.

Mike.
  petan Chief Commissioner

Location: Waiting to see a zebra using a zebra crossing!
Mike, just to clarify, is your main target market the general public or similar to the somewhat forgiving type who used that train for the Sydney Melbourne trips based around the Melbourne Cup.Not sure if that Melbourne Cup trip operated in recent years.

If general public, rather than rail fan, then I suspect general public may expect service standards similar to Qantas especially if they are paying a commercial fare, which would be required anyway to cover costs etc
  Valvegear Dr Beeching

Location: Norda Fittazroy
I wonder how the Union would view a regular service staffed by volunteers ( as distinct from the heritage rail specials.)
  freightgate Minister for Railways

Location: Albury, New South Wales
Europe is going back to sleepers and the uk has recently launched new sleepers and business services. There is a market for
High end sleeper services in Australia.

I Love the idea mike.
  TOQ-1 Deputy Commissioner

Location: Power Trainger
I do not think an interstate train is able to be marketed for the convenience. Instead, it needs to be marketed as an experience.

I think the potential for rail tourism, along with say one carriage that could carry passengers who need rail transport, is high. Basically the model of the Overland, but with a little more (of what I am not really sure) to make it successful.
  62440 Chief Commissioner

I used the overnight XPT a few years ago as I had meetings in Melbourne, then Sydney next day. Had a good sleep, breakfast in bed, bathroom to myself and much easier city-to-city. And, if you include bus and train links, cheaper than flight plus hotel! Anybody used it recently with an update? Reasers of this page should be looking for reasons to use it. And no, it will have no impact on flypax, just another option.
  potatoinmymouth Chief Commissioner

I used the overnight XPT a few years ago as I had meetings in Melbourne, then Sydney next day. Had a good sleep, breakfast in bed, bathroom to myself and much easier city-to-city.
62440

Exactly. If such a service were to exist - and I sadly don’t believe it ever will - it could very well be marketed to convenience. I can see the TV ad now: the train traveller enjoys a nightcap while the plane traveller sets his alarm; the harried wake up and fighting early morning airport queues and tickets while the Aurora speeds (ha) through the night; the crammed “luxury” of business class breakfast while the train traveller shaves and dresses; and finally, the train traveller steps onto the platform at Southern Cross, groomed and smiling, and strides purposefully down Collins St, while the plane traveller sits in a dirty taxi in an enormous car park on the Tulla.

Again, we’re dreaming, but it’s always nice to dream.
  The Vinelander Minister for Railways

Location: Ballan, Victoria on the Ballarat RFR Line
I used the overnight XPT a few years ago as I had meetings in Melbourne, then Sydney next day. Had a good sleep, breakfast in bed, bathroom to myself and much easier city-to-city. And, if you include bus and train links, cheaper than flight plus hotel! Anybody used it recently with an update? Reasers of this page should be looking for reasons to use it. And no, it will have no impact on flypax, just another option.
62440

The XPT has shortcomings despite the saving of a nights accommodation and its destination in the heart of the City and not at an airport a traffic jam ride away.

You could well have been sharing your bedroom with a total stranger ...and the XPT will soon be replaced by a train that will have no sleeping cars at all.

Mike.
  Valvegear Dr Beeching

Location: Norda Fittazroy
Years ago I regularly used the Southern Aurora for business trips from Melbourne. A relaxing trip, a good breakfast, and arrival at Central at 0900. A number of these trips took me to appointments in St Leonards.
I walked 100 metres to Clifton Hill station; train to Spencer Street, another 100 metres on to the Aurora; about 150 metres to the North Shore train platform, and 150 metres from St Leonards station to the office I was visiting. Total; 500 metres walking.
Had I flown I would have needed to get to Melbourne Airport by 0700; a flight at 0730 arriving about 0850 at the terminal, then get to St Leonards by trains or cabs.
I know which was the easier option!
  potatoinmymouth Chief Commissioner

One feature of such a service would have to be absolutely unimpeachable reliability to garner the business market. If a plane is cancelled, the business customers might only be delayed half an hour on their way to Sydney. If the Modern Aurora was cancelled, they might not get there at all.

So that means double heading with nice, modern locos; and coaching stock with spares available at both ends. Any sort of semi-permanent fixed consist is going to be a problem when there are train faults: just look what happens when the XPT carks it.

All of this, of course, adds to the expense, but it’s hard to see a way around the problem.

While I’m at it, another inhibiting factor in running this service “tomorrow” is SG availability at Southern Cross; only 2 platforms to dock the XPT, the Overland, the Modern Aurora and V/Line Albury services might be challenging.

This thread should probably be in Armchair Operators Very Happy
  craigfitz1 Train Controller

One feature of such a service would have to be absolutely unimpeachable reliability to garner the business market. If a plane is cancelled, the business customers might only be delayed half an hour on their way to Sydney. If the Modern Aurora was cancelled, they might not get there at all.

So that means double heading with nice, modern locos; and coaching stock with spares available at both ends. Any sort of semi-permanent fixed consist is going to be a problem when there are train faults: just look what happens when the XPT carks it.

All of this, of course, adds to the expense, but it’s hard to see a way around the problem.

While I’m at it, another inhibiting factor in running this service “tomorrow” is SG availability at Southern Cross; only 2 platforms to dock the XPT, the Overland, the Modern Aurora and V/Line Albury services might be challenging.

This thread should probably be in Armchair Operators Very Happy
potatoinmymouth

A very interesting thread Mike.

My heart says 'yes', but my head says ' a lot of problems to solve'.

As the poster quoted above states, the reliability factor is a BIG issue, before we start getting excited about celebrity chefs etc.

The current XPT sleeper service is a major fail in the reliability stakes. The significant number of days each year it is either cancelled completely, substituted with a bus, or terminated at Albury or Goulburn (at some ungodly hour) is totally unacceptable to any self respecting business traveller. ARTC's propensity for regular total line shut downs does not help either.

I do feel for rail operators, as it often seems just so hard in this country to run a reliable passenger service. There are so many things against you. Plus, the hard-headed reality that the days when the political class considered passenger trains a necessity (as opposed to merely being 'nice but not essential') are well and truly over.

I have travelled a few times on the sleeper to Melbourne in recent years, but I tend to prefer the Sydney-Melbourne trip rather than in reverse, as if the daylight train is running late on its southward journey, then the chances are pretty high that a bus will be waiting at southern Cross for the overnight journey rather than a train.

In fact it has happened to me (and i luckily knew this by lunchtime), and I simply bought a ticket on the best available fare on any plane going north (I didn't lose all my rail fare....as my base fare was part of my 6 month discovery pass, so no real loss).

Again, any business types would not accept the very real possibility of being put on an overnight bus an option under any circumstances.

But, I would love to be convinced that Mike's idea is possible.

PS: wasn't there a short lived private overnight luxury overnight Syd-Mel service in the 90s? What caused its demise?


-Craig
  Lockspike Deputy Commissioner

WE know already that the air route between Melbourne and Sydney is one of the busiest in the world carrying literally thousands of passengers every day and on weekends. We also know that most of these pax have rarely or would even realise that travel between Melbourne and Sydney was once...Union disputes of the 1970's aside, the most enjoyable way of travelling between the two capitals...which have grown in size many fold since the heydey of the nightly silver express.

Opinions and suggestions Question

Mike.
The Vinelander
Nice idea Mike, but the first two things I thought of are:
It is unreasonable to expect volunteers to work on such a consistent and long hours basis,
and,
Getting the disparate owners/operators of the remaining Aurora cars to agree and co-operate would be just too much...

Remember that sleeping stock built for Channel Tunnel purposes didn't go into service as it was considered that there wasn't a market for it,
but with new sleeper services now starting up in Western Europe, and new stock about to go into service on the Caledonian Sleeper, it seems that now there is a market for such in the UK and Europe.
Who knows, maybe in years to come it may be a commercial success in Australia also.
  Distant Beginner

Vinelander (and others), I do think the idea has merit but the obstacles are considerable.

One of the first things I would reconsider for a revised 'Southern Aurora' service, especially if it is to be aimed at business travelers, is the place of a dining car - I would dispense with it, but retain a lounge car. I am open to correction on this but my understanding is that one of the biggest costs for overnight train services in the past, such as the Aurora, was the diner.

If a 'Southern Aurora'- type service was to be reintroduced I think it would be worth entering into an arrangement with two or three of Melbourne's and Sydney's restaurants to provide dinner before moving onto the train. Passengers could then choose which restaurant appeals and eat there, or just as importantly, skip dinner altogether (maybe eat at home with the family) and arrive at the train just in time for departure. Obviously the restaurants would need to be fairly close to Central and Southern Cross. I know part of the appeal is eating on the train, but that is why we have trains like the Indian Pacific and The Ghan, dining on board is part of the 'experience'.

This approach envisages a later departure from origin and earlier arrival at destination. Perhaps 9.30 / 10.00pm out of Melbourne, 7.30am / 8.00am into Sydney (and vice versa). It is worth noting that the London - Edinburgh Caledonian Sleeper doesn't leave its origin city until after 11.30pm and arrives at the destination between 7.00 - 7.30am (Caledonian Sleeper). Such a timetable would require a much higher average speed than the original Aurora, close to 100 km/h compared to 80 km/h for the original train. I don't know if a path could be found for such a train every night.

There are other factors to consider - marketing, rollingstock, motive power, others - but it could be done, as overseas models suggest.

Btw, if it came about, the name would have to be retailed, 'Southern Aurora' was an inspired name for the service.
  kuldalai Chief Commissioner

The costs of  operating and maintaining  sleeping cars are horrific and that is why Interstate trains as transport  (as distinct from a tourist experience  viz:  GSR  Ghan,  Indian Terrific and  Southern Spirit)  have ceased to exist both here and largely in Europe too .
  historian Deputy Commissioner

When I were a younger man, I occasionally travelled to Sydney on the SEX and the MEX (too young for the Aurora, sadly) for business. Up to Sydney before the meeting, back the next night. I'd make a couple of comments on the feasibility of this idea:
  • Even 25-30 years ago the Aurora carriages were tired. They would need a major refurbishment - read total strip out and rebuild.
  • The key problem was arrival time into Sydney. Ideally, you wanted to get into Sydney 8.30 - 9. Any earlier than this and you were hanging around waiting for your meeting, later and you'd miss the start. But this arrival time conflicted seriously with peak hour - arriving at that time would seriously chew up train paths. It wasn't a problem into Melbourne in those days - having a dedicated track into Spencer Street - but might be a bigger problem today.
  • The RMS (dining car) was more important for breakfast than dinner. If you didn't eat in the diner, you had to find breakfast in or around Central/Spencer St before heading off to your meeting/work. This would take perhaps half an hour and so made the meeting timing a bit more tricky. Perhaps easier today with cafes, but quite tricky in those days unless you wanted Maccas.
  • From memory departure was about 8, which made dinner a bit tricky on the first night unless you dined in the dining car. Departure was too early to go home, get dinner, and return for the train. Really too early for a restaurant meal, particularly as you had to be finished well before train departure. In those days the dining options around Spencer Street weren't flash.
  • It took a long time; a full day of work, a second day in Sydney, followed by a third day of work in Melbourne before getting home. I didn't have a family in those days so it wasn't a problem, but these days I'd be prefer a quick up and back in a day on the plane.
  • It was a bit of an expedition - you had to take clothes for two days and toiletries. I never quite worked out how to ensure a freshly ironed shirt on the second and third days.
  • The only people that used the lounge in the evening were drunks and smokers. Usually they were both. Most passengers consequently avoided it - certainly it was never packed in my experience.
  • Noise was a problem due to the poor track (in NSW!) and regular stops (again in NSW). This was particularly true if you had the misfortune to have a cabin near the end of the car. I can still remember the banging of the draft gear and bogies, and the groan of the brakes. I found this made it difficult to sleep through.
  • Reliability wasn't fantastic - at least one trip was a bus due to a train strike in NSW. That was a really unpleasant way to travel.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it immensely. But I'm a railfan. I doubt the average traveller would see the attraction.
  ANR Assistant Commissioner

These days, if you catch any of the airlines between Syd-Mel during breakfast or dinner, you are better off eating at the airport.

Or, you can go hungry....

In any class of travel...

As I have said before, unless the new Spanish CAF wondertrain replacing the XPT can do Syd-Mel in 3 hours, it needs a sleeper car.

I will bet they will do away with the buffet car as well. BYO food.... They might even ask pax to bring their own fold out stools.... And there might be an extended stop in Albury to allow pax to use the station toilets...

The Aurora doesn't look so bad now, does it?

There's always the option of a Greyhound bus....
  petan Chief Commissioner

Location: Waiting to see a zebra using a zebra crossing!
Do the Southern Aurora carriage water tanks have sufficient capacity for every passenger to have a proper shower like they can in a hotel, without being topped up mid journey?
  potatoinmymouth Chief Commissioner

Just having a look at some fares, Melbourne-Sydney in peak hour on the two mainline airlines is about $250 for standard economy, $500 for Flexi economy (the most popular with business) and $1000 for business class.

So I rounded up Mike’s proposed fare to $400, assumed 75% load factor, 6 runs a week e/w and got annual operating revenue of $36 million.

What can you do for that money? It’s never going to be enough to pay back a loan on new stock, so that would have to be a grant.

Fiddling around with some numbers gives me about $3-4 million p/a for track access charges to the three relevant infrastructure managers.

Staffing costs: I have no idea what a hook and pull contract would look like. But say 2x2 person train crews per trip, so you might need to pay the equivalent of 10 full-time crew. Then passenger staff: maybe 10 per train? What does the Cal Sleeper use? In any case I’d conservatively guess a wage bill of $$8 million, just to run the train itself.

Fuel, maintenance, supplies, insurance, accreditation, administration...

As kuldalai said, the costs involved in this start to make things look pretty bloody marginal even on my back-of-the envelope calculations. I do think a smart person with a business brain and actual rail industry knowledge could make a go of a business plan, but it will always come back to the capital and startup costs involved, and, ultimately, the multi-million dollar question of how many people will use the damn thing, to be answered using very little evidence.
  james.au Chief Commissioner

Location: Sydney, NSW
Btw, if it came about, the name would have to be retailed, 'Southern Aurora' was an inspired name for the service.
Distant
And is owned (and defended) by Transport Heritage NSW.....
  The Vinelander Minister for Railways

Location: Ballan, Victoria on the Ballarat RFR Line
Do the Southern Aurora carriage water tanks have sufficient capacity for every passenger to have a proper shower like they can in a hotel, without being topped up mid journey?

petan

Yes...I never heard of the cars running out of water. BTW the shower head was exceptionally frugal with the water supply, however there was good pressure. Also, not everyone 'enjoyed' taking a shower in the train and many managed with a good wash. I always had a good long shower as it was fun attempting to wash whilst negotiating the curves south of around Menangle... Smile

The Twinette shower/toilet were tiny and these days with some of the super obese people that are getting around, I think the en-suite would be a challenge to say the least

Mike.
  petan Chief Commissioner

Location: Waiting to see a zebra using a zebra crossing!
Do the Southern Aurora carriage water tanks have sufficient capacity for every passenger to have a proper shower like they can in a hotel, without being topped up mid journey?


Yes...I never heard of the cars running out of water. BTW the shower head was exceptionally frugal with the water supply, however there was good pressure. Also, not everyone 'enjoyed' taking a shower in the train and many managed with a good wash. I always had a good long shower as it was fun attempting to wash whilst negotiating the curves south of around Menangle... Smile

The Twinette shower/toilet were tiny and these days with some of the super obese people that are getting around, I think the en-suite would be a challenge to say the least

Mike.
The Vinelander
Sorry, should have mentioned I did not check the 1960s timetables to see if there was time to refill the car water tanks at somewhere like Albury during loco swaps. The give away was some places had the water pipes and long hoses along side the track opposite side to platforms.

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