Treating the Paying Public with Contempt – Slow Journeys (2023)

The theme for this blog has largely been the Australian railways many lost opportunities – from the original post on a 1975 Counterfactual Scenario where this blog gets in the time machine and saves the VR, as it was then, and makes it a viable operation.

A sub-theme called Looking Back in Anger has covered those opportunities that really were just management or government bloodymindedness, but covered an eclectic set of issues from the closure of the Ropes Creek Line or the Anzac Parade tramways (since partly reinstated at huge cost) and the loss of the original S class steam locomotives off the Spirit of Progress.

This post will not focus on any particular physical asset as such, but at the habit of all the Australian railways, in their different times and situations, of treating the paying public with contempt. And in particular around using needlessly poor timetabling and journey times.

Of course the important qualifier is needlessly. You can’t run a train faster than it is safe to do so or than the power plant can propel it. Nobody would criticise that the 1920s train service to Bendigo behind a D3 class locomotive is slower than today’s Velocity service, as the latter is actually a faster (and with several coupled together, a more powerful) train.

And within some limits it was reasonable in the past for some other practical constraints to be imposed. The Melbourne to Sydney service, prior to 1962, forced passengers to change at Albury which added time to the journey, and very early trains in Australia were a bit too rough for dining cars, so their journeys included meal stops at railway refreshment rooms.

A final point, before getting “all aboard” for the post. This contempt for the paying public has not necessarily stopped.

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Meandering to Mernda in 1939

A favourite anecdote is to take the passenger back to early 1939 and imagine the journey on the Saturday afternoon picnic train from Melbourne to Whittlesea, a branch that later partly closed (1959) back to Lalor but has since incrementally reopened to Epping, South Morang and Mernda.

This is a fascinating journey. The train of steam locomotive and country cars leaves Spencer Street Station on a fairly circuitous journey via the Upfield line to Royal Park, across the now-closed Inner Circle to Fitzroy before swinging around to the electrified section of the Whittlesea line, which was double track to Preston and single beyond to Thomastown.

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Treating the Paying Public with Contempt – Slow Journeys (3)

The train would stop at about 1/2 of the stations on this section, the larger ones. From Thomastown it was onto the countrified branch section and stopped at all stations (though some were request stops).

Around 1 hour and 8 minutes from Spencer St it would stop at the Mernda station, just beyond the yard limit of the current one.


Let’s look at the characteristics of the train: a fairly basic branchline steam locomotive, probably a D1/2/3 would have taken this train, with less than stellar acceleration compared with, say, the electric trains of the day. The locomotive might have been 40 years old then and 100 years old now, if it was D3 639.

It was not an express train and would have found some of the hills a challenge, including around Royal Park and Reservoir. It took an indirect route from the city.The line was lightly laid, and was replete with hazards including wandering cattle and level crossings.

So why is this train noteworthy? Because it took exactly the same time to get to Mernda as trains take today!

It is not that the 1939 train was slow – but that trains to Mernda in the 2020s are ridiculously slow given the advances in technology and the vast sums of money spent (many hundreds of millions rebuilding from Keon Park to Mernda, for example).

And Mernda is not alone. Trains have reached the likes of Frankston faster in the past. Journeys to Pakenham and Cranbourne are far too slow.

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The Need for Speed

This blog has watched, and researched, as some rail traffic has bled away over the years due to poor journey times. Research reveals old timetables where it is clear the public would have baulked at poor journey times, and gone with rougher roads or expensive air transport in those days because of it.

There were other problems too, as this blog has extensively covered, for example, lack of air-conditioning though it was available (and hence the first and second of the counterfactual blog posts in the Crazy Projects series – to get the Victorian Railways of 1975, then the NSWGR/PTC of 1975, to run all their long distance trains with only the air-conditioned stock they had at that time. Probably a topic for a further post.

We also know the general malaise, the lack of investment in new capital and willingness to downgrade services, as discussed in this blog post on Dr Beeching and All That, Besides the lack of investment in speed, the condition and morale of the railways was poor. Unreliability increases, and loss of services means lack of frequency.

But speed, and journey time more broadly, are top of the list of culprits for the loss of traffic.

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Do we really know that the public wish to get to their destinations as fast as they possibly can? And should railways give that wish any weight when they decide train timetables?

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We know that passengers choose mode by speed – it was why aviation is so popular, but also why trains can beat planes in markets where the train journey point to point (eg city centre to city centre) is faster than by plane over shorter distances. The French and the Japanese, in their different ways researched this and came up with different trains but both of which were able to kill aviation on shorter routes through speed.

And at a more humble level there are plenty of examples of solid improvements in journey time made either to forestall loss of traffic, or to recapture traffic already lost.

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For example, the Northern Commercial Limited aka the Newcastle Flyer in the 1920s, had nearly 1 hour removed from its schedule, because road competition was nipping at its heels.

And it doesn’t even have to be the published schedule. Even being associated with speed through record attempts, such as the current TGV Est speed record; or the Mallard steam record in the late 1930s, or even local trains going as fast as they can, can capture public imagination and promote the idea that the rail option is fast.

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Treating the Paying Public with Contempt – Slow Journeys (10)

All in all, the railways if they are to retain traffic need to keep improving speed and journey time. Road transport in Australia is probably going as fast as it is ever going to, but may be able to relieve some notorious congestion, at least for a while and on some routes.

Air transport may also be limited to below Mach 1, but airports could make themselves more convenient as congestion there is reduced by, for example, opening new airports in Badgerys Creek or even better sited Melbourne airports like Essendon or Moorabbin for some journeys. Either way, rail needs to be on the ball.

This blog, to put together a wide variety of counterfactual timetables, including the previously mentioned Crazy Projects and some Fantasy Special Trains on the Victorian Railways branchlines of the 1970s, has researched the primary documentation.

This includes not just public passenger timetables, but also working timetables (available to employees only) and that includes not just passenger train transits but also freight. Freight, you could reason, would be the worst case scenario of a train time on any route.

And the working timetables also include other useful data like maximum train weights, what classes of train were allowed on what lines, and section-by-section transit times, even where these times may not have been used by a regular train (but might have been a feature of special trains such as the Commissioner’s train or whatever).

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These documents allow the reader to work out what the fastest train time could have been, or in fact was. You do not need to sprinkle too much fairy dust to make these scenarios come to life.

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Clearly a lack of records is not going to help a researcher understand why a given train was slower than it could have been.

There would have been any number of excuses given – from crew changeovers or safeworking stops; political interference (eg stops that the railway managers would otherwise have not sought); technical stops for locomotives or just excess padding to make up for poor reliability of connections or whatever.

But these excuses are why railway managers excuse themselves from the accountability that should have been placed on them for poor performance. Passengers just don’t care about the reasons why, just the outcome.

And the crime could be twofold: Passengers forming not an adverse view of the usefulness of rail for their own journey – but also voting against improvements to the rail system, because they see useless things such as the example below.

A simple example: a passenger (and voter) might be swayed that the XPT is a good thing, by its speed record between Albury and Wagga. And when the train did, in some timetables, run express between the two locations, it set the fastest point to point speed of a timetabled train, 120km/h.

However, that was not always, and the XPT has been forced to stop at the likes of Henty or Culcairn, very minor towns that are of no interest to people from Sydney or Melbourne, and probably even of little interest to people in Albury or Wagga. Why spend vast sums of money on a faster train if the benefits will be frittered away on needless stops?

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Political interference got in the way of a sensible rail journey that was much faster than anything a motorist could do without breaking the law.

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Delays drive passengers to driving: Melbourne to Echuca – 1970s

The Murray River town of Echuca has a modest passenger rail service to Melbourne via Bendigo. It struggles somewhat to compete because the direct road to Melbourne does not go through Bendigo, but straight down through Heathcote and Kilmore – a route that had some past rail lines on it but no longer.

The line from Bendigo to Echuca has been speed restricted to around 80km/h, slow for the Velocities that work it, however, from Bendigo to Melbourne is one of the fastest Victorian lines, rated at 160km/h for much of the length.

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James Brook contemporary photo of what the Deniliquin connection from the Swan Hill train would have looked like in the 70s.

In the 1970s, there were actually passenger trains via two routes – from Toolamba near Shepparton and the Bendigo route. Though this might have made some passengers feel it was a convenient service because it was accessible via two routes, in practice this would only have split the limited number of passengers between them.

The signature train on the route was the Melbourne to Swan Hill train which left Melbourne at 8:45 in the morning and arrived at Bendigo 2.5 hours later. Hardly a satisfactory time and one that had not really been improved on in decades. Some of the excessive time related to stops that are no longer made on this route like Elphinstone or Harcourt.

The problem, though, was not just the lengthy time from Melbourne to Bendigo, nor the slow time from Bendigo to Echuca. It was the time spent at Echuca on the connection between the loco-hauled passenger train and the rail motor.

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Note the above timetable from 1971. The train is timetabled to arrive at Bendigo at 11:15 but the connection is not scheduled to leave until 11:50. It is not clear why.

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The Swan Hill train had a buffet car on board, so the explanation can’t be for the passengers to obtain food. The train also had toilets, so it wasn’t a toilet stop. There was no change of locomotive required, so that’s not why.

But the total end-to end time, of 8:45 to 1:27, made a total of 4 hour 42 minutes, or the best part of 5 hours for a 200km journey from Melbourne.

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Western Langford photo

The other, theoretically slower route via Kyabram was in fact not slower, but 15 minutes faster, including an 8 minute connection time at the junction at Toolamba. Though that is not particularly good either.

The time calculated on Google maps for an off-peak journey is 2 hours 30 minutes by road. We can be fairly confident of drive times in those days on the fastest route – as much of the Hume Freeway from Craigieburn to Wallan was already open by the mid 70s and the rest would have been much as today – sealed with a 100km/h (60mph) speed limit.

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Treating the Paying Public with Contempt – Slow Journeys (18)

Vline today quote 3 hours 30 minutes give or take, with no connection time in Bendigo and a 30 minute faster journey between Bendigo and Melbourne. This is also not particularly acceptable, and may come down somewhat when long forecast improvements in the Bendigo-Echuca section are made.

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The Bendigo and Echuca Line Upgrade will deliver Bendigo Metro 3, with new stations at Goornong, Huntly and Raywood to give people in these growing communities access to public transport close to where they live. The Victorian and Australian governments’ additional investment in the Bendigo and Echuca Line Upgrade will deliver a modernised electronic train order system – the first of its kind in Victoria – to enable more frequent services between Epsom, Eaglehawk and Bendigo as part of Bendigo Metro Stage 2.

This investment enables the delivery two new weekday return services to Echuca – one more than originally committed –tripling the number of services on the line, to provide locals and visitors with more frequent and reliable train services. Ten level crossings between Eaglehawk and Bendigo will also be upgraded with better train detection technology, boosting safety and allowing more services to run in this section.

The Bendigo and Echuca Line Upgrade will allow trains to and from Echuca to run faster in addition to delivering extra services.

It is conceivable that the rail and road journey times in peak hour these days might be similar, simply due to road congestion.

But the nearly 5 hours in the 1970s, which was so unnecessary, showed contempt for the paying public.

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And Echuca was not alone. Just like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each unhappy in their own way, the reasons for unnecessary slow trains would vary from place to place.

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This blog is piecing together old timetables, writing about the crazy projects to reconstruct a better hypothetical rail system. Check out these posts for more:

  • Crazy projects 1: Victorian Railways 1975 Counterfactual and how you might have computerised the ticketing for it
  • Crazy projects 3: Public Transport Commission NSW 1975 Counterfactual Part 1: Introduction and Objectives
  • Victorian Branchlines: The ones left behind
  • Victorian Branchlines Postscript: Fantasy Trains
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