Life on the Ghan: the train across Australia

By Gail MacCallum 30 September 2010
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Life finds a tempo all of its own in the sleek cocoon speeding between Darwin and Adelaide.

THE SUN HAS JUST SET, and the local watering hole is bustling. Barmaid Sonja Lemondine is trading jokes with a group celebrating an anniversary; lounging nearby a couple of blokes cradling cold beers are swapping tall tales and tips of the plumbing trade. A mother and daughter sit across from each other with glasses of wine; a kid sips lemonade and with her coloured pencils draws a picture of a train. Four friends laugh raucously over the card game “aces and trumps”. “She’s killing us,” exclaims one to me.

From the distance come the sounds of the restaurant preparing for the mealtime rush, and waiters pick up the pace as people dressed for dinner arrive for an evening drink. It could be any night, in almost any town in Australia, but there’s one big difference: we’re on the Ghan, speeding across the continent on one of the world’s great train journeys.

The Ghan slides like a drop of mercury down the map of Australia, running 2979 km between Adelaide and Darwin in a nation-slicing 60-hour trip. The train’s residents – its crew – start from Adelaide, heading for Darwin and a quick sleepover, returning six days later for four days off. “There’s a rhythm,” says James Rosenthal, one of the chefs. “It’s full-on work when you’re on board. But when you’re off, you’re off.”

I’ve only been aboard a few hours, but I’ve already learnt that here, time takes on a new flexibility.

“Train time runs on food…when dinner starts, when lunch starts,”  James tells me. “If anything goes wrong, it’s always food that comes to the rescue,” adds chef John Cousins. There are scheduled stops where passengers disembark in Katherine and Alice Springs – for the crew, these arrival and departure times are referred to in pre- and post-lunch terms. The passengers are on a long-anticipated trip aboard a famous train on which they’ll cross Australia’s arid red heart, but for the 23 staff it’s another day in Ghantown, with a new set of guests, coming to visit their close-knit community.

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Mr Fix-it

In a place where specific skills seem to matter the most – chef, locomotive driver – no-one is as versatile as Ghantown’s Mr Fix-it, Wayne Lehmann. He’s a regular fixture on the “main street”, his lanky figure leaning back against the cabin walls to let lurching passengers pass as he lopes from one end of the train to the other, carrying an intriguing array of tools and gadgets. Wayne’s primary job is the care and guardianship of the two generators in the power van, directly behind the locomotives, that run everything from the kitchens and air-conditioning to the hot water and bedside lamps. He’s an electrician by trade, but “you do everything… You’ve got to fix TVs, DVDs, microwaves, air-conditioning, PA systems, brakes”.

When something goes wrong, it’s always a different thing, and in a different place. Someone brought a pedometer on one trip and Wayne used it to measure how far he walked. It was on a 16-carriage ‘single’ train, and not too busy, he says, yet he covered 18 km in a day.

Improvisation is standard, and Wayne’s face lights up as he explains how once, when the PA system failed, he jury-rigged a power source out of 6-volt batteries, electrical tape and wire. “You’ve got so many different jobs; for some things you might not have the spare parts and you have to make them up.”

Wayne’s day officially starts at 5.30 a.m. and usually ends after 10 p.m. “I’ve been on the train for five years now, and you work out that no-one wants anything done at 5.30 in the morning, but…after they have their meal-sitting and go back to the room – then they’ll find that something’s not working. “I’ve had people say, ‘You must get horribly bored on here – what do you do?’ And I start telling them and they’re amazed.”


After you’ve been aboard the Ghan for a while you relax into the train’s movement, relentless and implacable, and the carriages become your universe. It starts to feel as if the train is the stationary object, and it’s the landscape framed by the windows that’s on the move. The sun goes down on the tropical northern scenery, but by sunrise the next morning, we’re part of a new set of colours and shapes, as the light starts to slide across scrub and sand dune.

Most crew members are due on shift between 5 and 6 a.m., but the train feels deserted, with all the cabins tightly shut. The absence of chatter brings the realisation of how peaceful the train is. “It’s really quiet,” says Ian Kelleher, the night manager. “When you’re out there, when you’re shunting the train, you just don’t hear anything. They call it the ‘silent death’.”

I’ve discovered Ian in one of the kitchens, pouring himself an early morning coffee before the first passengers appear. Like many who work on the Ghan, trains run in Ian’s blood. His father worked on the Ghan and although Ian has worked in hospitality across Australia, he was drawn back to life on the trains. He tells me that he enjoys its rhythm and the peace of the night. He and I share a quiet conversation about his family as crew arrive to set up for the day. They’re busy with their tasks, while swapping stories.

“On my birth certificate my father’s occupation is ‘silver boy’,” Ian tells me, smiling. “He started off cleaning the cutlery.” Hospitality attendant Jess Valentign adds that there used to be “a person in each carriage just to shine the shoes”.

Once breakfast is over for the guests (there are two sittings for each meal) it’s time for the crew to grab some food or, for Ian, a snack before bed. Jess is finishing her morning meal with a cup of sweet coffee – and, for good measure, a teaspoon of honey as a chaser. The early starts are taking their toll, and each has their own method for dealing with it. “Even if you get an hour break everyone sleeps for 45 minutes. Seven minutes up [to the crew car], seven minutes back… I’ve timed it,” Jess says.

It’s the last full day aboard for the crew, and in the Ghan’s six-day working week, today is known as the ‘day five monster’, but everyone’s relaxed. “There’ve been a few conflicts. When you’re working so close to people there’s always going to be,” James says. “But you get to learn to live with the fact that it’s not like you can do your Charlie and storm off – because you’re on the train.” “People still do, though,” someone points out. James shrugs. “But even when you go back to your room, you’re just next door to them anyway.”

On the move

“To work on the trains you’ve got to have a sense of humour,” says John Brinkley, the train manager. “[Staff] have got to know when they can muck around with the guests and when they can’t. They have to know how to speak to people, so they need to have some experience in hospitality, retail, customer service…”

John is another character perpetually on the move. At 7.30 a.m., while most of us are considering our cereal options, John can be found striding determinedly the length of the train, swinging his briefcase. “I’m the doctor, policeman, mayor,” he tells me good-naturedly, and like all mayors, his work veers between administration, staffing, problem-solving – and a fair number of handshakes.

Even as we talk in the bar carriage, John has an ear cocked for any questions or concerns from the guests around us, breaking off to offer schedule information or tourism trivia. He’s sympathetic to the plight of a woman who missed her chance to see one of the landmarks, the Iron Man sculpture, which commemorates the one-millionth sleeper laid between Tarcoola and Alice Springs. “I think we’ve got a right turn down here somewhere, we can try and turn around for you,” he teases. The woman laughs, returning to her conversation happy.

John’s one of the rare exceptions to the train-family rule. He was in the Navy for 22 years before joining the railways. He started as a hospitality manager behind the bar, then was night manager, and is now train manager. “I didn’t start out as a train nut, and I still don’t think I’m a train nut; not yet, anyway.”

A mayor’s work is never done. “When you work in an office, once you leave the office that’s it. With us, when we leave our work area to get to our home, we’ve got to pass all the other offices. So if there’s a problem, then you feel obliged to stop. At night-time I might finish work at nine, but I might not get to bed until about 12.30 because I’ve stopped and chatted to people.” It’s tiring, but satisfying. And naming the best part is easy. “Being the boss.” John grins. “It’s good to be the boss.”

The strangest sight driver Andy Peters (below) has seen from the Ghan’s NR-class loco is a water buffalo “with a
bum 4 feet wide, and all muscle” crossing the track as the train approached. “It didn’t turn a hair – but it scared the heck out of me.”

Loco drivers

If John Brinkley is the mayor of Ghantown, then the loco drivers are the gods. They are a breed apart, with different food, different schedules and their own rules and regulations. “Few and far between, sometimes,” says Dave MacCallum. Fellow driver Andy Peters nods. “Often called Rafferty’s,” he shoots back, laconically. The pair make quite a comedy act.

Even the driving works in mysterious ways; the 22 m long, 132-tonne, 3000-kilowatt NR-class locomotive – one of two that pull the train – is filled with an impressive array of switches, buttons and pedals, but it takes me a while to work out what’s missing: a steering wheel. While one driver operates the train, the other is kept busy filling out forms and reports. “The railway runs on two things: paper and rumours,” deadpans Dave. “If we haven’t heard a good rumour by nine o’clock we start our own.”

Andy was caught by the train bug as a kid. “I had a ride on the Southern Track [in New Zealand] when I was about 12. Some kids dream of being a fireman, some dream of being an airline pilot. I dreamed of this since I was 12.” 

Dave comes from a train family, but never wanted to be a driver. Now he loves the freedom of it: “I’m not much of a people person.” Although the passengers in their tender care don’t know who’s guiding them at any given time there are signs for the highly attentive; each driver has their own driving rhythm and – for the particularly vigilant – each has a signature way of sounding the horn at level crossings. They take a particular pride in their responsibilities and skills: “Ten,” says Dave, when I ask him how he’d rate himself as a driver on a scale of 1-10. Then he pauses. “Probably 11.” “He’s not being humble,” Andy says. “It’s just the truth.”

In Australia, drivers must qualify to use each section of track, which can be vastly different, varying from suburban stretches, to farmland, to desert and the tropical north. On most tracks in Australia, drivers must travel the section every 12 months or lose their accreditation. Some sections, such as the complex lead-in to Sydney’s bustling Central Station, must be driven at least every three months.

When it’s Andy’s turn in the driver’s seat, he digs from his bag a laminated sheet that looks like a musical score redesigned by Andy Warhol: coloured shapes and lines, interspersed with strange numbers and the occasional degree sign.

“That’s the track,” says Andy as I stare at it in bewilderment, while he and Dave discuss the finer points of gradient, curve and line. In a train that takes 2 km to stop, drivers view problems ahead with an astonishingly philosophical calm and inevitability. “If there is a worst part it’s level crossings,” says Dave. “You know as a driver one day something’ll come across, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Every driver knows it. It comes with the job.”

We all stare quietly at the track ahead. “Still,” says Andy, “one thing about being up the sharp end…” Dave steps with ease into the set-up: “We know when to jump.”

It’s time for the last disembarkation. Passengers climb off, happy and in varying states of appearance – those from the Daynighter seats in Red-class carriages a bit dishevelled; those from the premium Platinum-class sleeper carriages are somewhat fresher. Along the platform, people step down and stand blinking in the stark Adelaide sunshine, hesitating before leaving train time to step back into real time, and its strangely static structure. For the staff there’s still a bit more paperwork to do, uniforms to hand in and perhaps a drink at the pub. Then it’s off to get four days sleep before they’re back in Ghantown again.

Source: Australian Geographic, Issue 98 (April – June, 2010)

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