I can now say that 160 kilometres per hour is the fastest I have travelled on land, and I did it in my sleep. I also did it while watching the Queensland countryside go by, and taking in a movie.
As I lay in my RailBed on the Spirit of Queensland tilt train, hurtling through the night, I thought of my last journey along those same tracks on The Sunlander. I had travelled from Cairns to Brisbane on the Sunlander’s 60th birthday trip, now here I was on her replacement, a train that will soon celebrate her first birthday and marks a new way of travelling by rail.
The first of her kind in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of the first in the world, the Spirit of Queensland has two classes and both remind me of something you’d usually see in the sky.
The premium economy carriages feature leather seats, entertainment systems with on demand movies, TV and music in the back of the seat in front of you and a 30 degree seat recline.
Meanwhile the RailBeds are reminiscent of business class seats on an airline. Or possibly first class, depending on who you’re flying with.
By day the RailBeds are large seats that can recline 35 degrees and have a footrest that can be used as a seat if you’re travelling with someone who wants to come and have a chat. By night they are converted into the sort of flat bed that I’d be very happy to find on a plane, measuring 1.9m x 0.51m.
There are two RailBed carriages, with 19 in one car and 16 in the other to allow for wheelchairs. Most rows have three seats, two and one divided by an aisle, so if you’re travelling solo as I was you may want to request the single bed aisle when you book rather than the double if you’d prefer not to sleep next to a stranger.
While the Sunlander’s Queenslander class has a full dining car, the Spirit of Queensland’s RailBeds continue that airline feel with a trolley service, so you can have dinner and a movie without moving from your seat.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all included in your RailBed ticket, with one glass of complimentary wine with your evening meal. Any other drinks and snacks can be purchased from the club car, which is where premium economy passengers buy their meals.
Unlike the Sunlander where meals are all freshly prepared in the kitchen, here they’re more airline food style. It’s still all fresh Queensland produce but it’s mostly been prepped on land before it’s finished on board.
When it comes time to get ready for bed, the staff leaps into action, bringing out the hydraulics to flip the seat over to reveal a mattress. They then make the bed for you, providing all of the bedding as well as a towel for those who fancy a refreshing shower at high speed.
The shower may move a little bit more than you’re used to, but it’s surprisingly good, and there’s more space than you find on some other trains so your clothes don’t have to get wet when you do.
If you’re feeling brave enough to wash your hair, you receive a shampoo and conditioner in your Bubbles organic skincare amenities kit, along with a beautiful face mist, sweet mint lip balm, body lotion, face cloth, eye mask and ear plugs. I’d already packed my own ear plugs in case we had any noisy folks in the carriage, but it was good to see they’d thought of that as well, and in the end everyone was respectful of the shared space so no problems there.
As for what to wear to bed? Before leaving home I’d already decided I was going the PJs route and had packed my Singapore Airlines Givenchy sleep suit. As I came back from the bathrooms feeling all comfy I noticed some people had the same idea as me while others planned to sleep in their clothes. So really the choice is up to you, and whatever you feel comfortable doing.
With the beds all made up, the lights dimmed and the curtains closed, the RailBeds feel like a fun slumber party. A fast moving slumber party.
While the Spirit of Queensland can and does do 160 kilometres per hour at times, she doesn’t stick to that speed the whole way. There are little things like bends and track conditions to take into consideration, and of course slowing to come into towns and stopping to let passengers on and off.
But she does feel fast. While you can’t feel the speed of a plane once you’re up in the air, you can feel the speed of a train. You feel connected to the rails, and as the train tilts, so do you. It’s quite exciting and I’m grinning like a kid on a theme park ride as I pop my head under the curtains to see the shadows of trees whizzing past and the moon and the stars shining above.
As my train / airline experience blurs a little I sometimes forget where I am, and think ‘oh, a little turbulence’ as the train moves. I also wonder why I can’t find the call button to contact a member of staff, and then realise this isn’t a plane and there isn’t one, except for wheelchair customers.
The next morning I wake up, look out the window and smile. The sun is preparing to come up over the mountain range, there’s mist everywhere, and kangaroos are hopping beside the train. I may have grown up on a farm where kangaroos were commonplace but the sight puts a big smile on my face. It’s beautiful out there, and I feel lucky to be seeing this part of Queensland.
As someone who loves having a private compartment on a sleeper car, and the old fashioned romance of rail that comes with the Sunlander, I’m sad to see that service being taken off the rails at the end of the year. For train lovers who have yet to experience this great rail journey I say book quickly before it’s too late.
But I can also understand that a lot of people want to get from A to B faster, and the Spirit of Queensland can get you from Brisbane to Cairns in 25 hours, compared to the Sunlander’s more leisurely 31 hours.
The price points are different too. While you can get special deals and save if you book ahead on both trains, travelling Brisbane to Cairns or vice versa on Queenslander Class on Sunlander is $899 while a RailBed is $519. That’s each train’s premium product of course, and there are a range of classes on Sunlander starting from $269 and while Premium Economy on Spirit of Queensland is $369.
I’ll miss The Sunlander, and I hope that someone saves at least a few of her carriages so she can follow in the Southern Aurora’s tracks and still come out for special trips now and again. But if she’s going to be replaced by someone younger and faster, the Spirit of Queensland is a very good way to go. That’s one train trip I’d gladly go out of my way to do again.
Love trains? You may also want to read about taking the Venice Simplon Orient Express from London to Berlin, doing Machu Picchu in style on the Hiram Bingham, check out one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the world, the Oslo to Bergen railway in Norway, ride the Pacific Surfliner in California or pay a visit to the Trainworks Museum outside Sydney.