Great Southern train from Adelaide to Brisbane: Australia's new luxury train unveiled

It's getting on for a century since Australia's most famous train, The Ghan – originally known as the Afghan Express after the 19th-century Muslim cameleers who helped pioneer Australia's red interior – first puffed north from Adelaide on its inaugural journey to Alice Springs.

And it's also almost half a century (48 years in fact) since the first Indian Pacific – one of the world's few transcontinental rail adventures – set off from Sydney bound for Perth. (Should that make it the Pacific Indian?)

Thousands of well-wishers were gathered a few days later to welcome the Indian Pacific's safe arrival in the capital of Western Australia. It was a truly historic occasion: the first time one train had been able to complete the 4352-kilometre journey from ocean to mighty ocean using a common rail gauge.

Now Australia is about to get its third epic, luxury, multi-day rail adventure.

On December 3, Great Southern Rail – which has operated The Ghan and the Indian Pacific since 2013 – will start taking bookings for what promises to be one of the world's great new generation of railway journeys, from Adelaide to Brisbane (and return) with multiple "experiential" stops in between.

The livery of the diesel engine that will leave Adelaide on December 6, 2019, pulling the first "Great Southern" train (with up to 218 passengers), might seem hi-vis yellow.

But it's actually a "sunset-inspired burnt orange, reflective of summer and Australian beaches," says Chris Tallent, chief executive of Journey Beyond (an Australian-owned group which encompasses Cruise Whitsundays and the Rottnest Express as well as Great Southern Rail).

Since 2004, when the previously unprofitable Ghan line was expanded north to Darwin (during the Howard years), it and the Indian Pacific have been in the forefront of a renewed global interest in luxury rail travel.

Did you catch the Kenneth Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express? Watched Joanna Lumley's various televised excursions?

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There's still something about "the slow train" that connects to the human psyche.

"A slow train is all about slowing down yourself," Tallent says. "Being on the train is wonderful, but it's what you do when you're off the train that makes the journey memorable."

More than a year of negotiations with the National Rail Freight Corporation have gone into planning the new route.

Essentially it boils down to a three-day/two-night adventure from Adelaide to Brisbane (with stopovers in the Grampians and Canberra).

And on the return? A four-day/three-night return journey to Adelaide (with stopovers on the NSW north coast, the Hunter Valley vineyards, and the famous, fast-disappearing Twelve Apostles).

Twenty five years ago you'd have been a brave railwayman to predict such new luxury rail adventures would be feasible in the 21st century.

If rail had a future, it would be ultra-fast (picking up the baton Japan pioneered before passing it on to France and China).

So why has the mystique of rail not only persevered, but proved profitable – at least at the high end? (There's a nine-month waiting list for The Ghan and the Indian Pacific for platinum class.)

It's not just an Australian phenomenon (passenger numbers on the Ghan and Indian Pacific have increased by 30 per cent since Journey Beyond bought the brand five years ago).

Other luxury operators – in Canada, Europe, South Africa and Chile – report similar success rates.

So think of a luxury train journey as "an upmarket cruise on wheels".

Essentially, the same cashed-up clientele who might consider a river cruise along the Mekong, or a boutique exploration cruise to the Antarctic will consider a rail adventure.

And if they enjoy it, they'll book another – probably in a different continent.

"People love the romance of rail," Tallent says. "But if we had kept on doing what [the previous owners] were doing, we'd be in trouble."

Until 2013, Tallent explains, "it was a transport tourism business … we've transformed it into high-value, more experiential adventure".

Both the Indian Pacific and The Ghan include good food and wine. But, according to Tallent, "We've made the adventure fully inclusive, upped the level of service, and added lots of options off the trains while focusing on local foods and wines from the regions the train passes through."

The formula seems to be working.

Occupancy on The Ghan and the Indian Pacific is 90 per cent, Tallent says.

(The company also runs The Overland, which owns and operates a train that runs between Adelaide and Melbourne twice a week, subsidised by the Victorian and South Australian governments.)

So what can you expect from the new Great Southern?

This inaugural trip will leave Adelaide in time for lunch on board.

(Most meals on all three of Great Southern's rail adventures are taken on board in the various "dining cars": watching the scenery go by is part of the rail experience. There are two standards of service: Gold and the even more upmarket Platinum.)

At Victoria's underrated Grampians, the train will stop so passengers can explore a part of Australia they will probably never have seen before.

Fancy a stiff walk after lunch? MacKenzie Falls might suit. Or perhaps you'd prefer an hour or two at Brambuk – one of Australia's greatest Indigenous interpretative centres?

Either way passengers will probably be welcomed back on the train with champers or cocktails .

I'd love to reveal more, but Tallent doesn't know himself.

He and his team will be spending the next six months fine-tuning the off-train adventures.

They'll all be local operators, Tallent promises: "It's important our passengers meet people with local knowledge … and that we contribute to the local economy."

TRIP NOTES

The inaugural Great Southern rail adventure is bookable from December 3: greatsouthernrail.com.au.

Both gold and platinum accommodation is provided in single or twin cabins, inclusive of on-board dining, beverages and "off-train excursions".

THE THREE LUXURY AUSSIE TRAINS

THE GHAN

First journey: Adelaide to Alice Springs, 1929. Track extended to Darwin in 2004.

Destinations: Adelaide to Darwin, return, stopping in Katherine and Alice Springs.

Modern journey: 3 days/2 nights northbound; 4 days/3 nights southbound (including day in Coober Pedy).

2019/20 departures: 112.

Annual passengers: About 30,000.

Fares: Gold Single starts at $1049pp, Gold Twin starts at $2099pp, Platinum starts at $2749pp.

See also: What it's really like on board the Ghan

INDIAN PACIFIC

First journey: Sydney to Perth, 1970.

Destinations: Sydney to Perth, return, stopping at Broken Hill, Adelaide, South Australian wine regions, the Nullarbor Plain and Kalgoorlie.

Modern journey: "Off-train excursions" differ depending on whether you are travelling eastbound or westbound.

2019/20 departures: 104.

Annual passengers: About 25,000.

Fares: Gold Single starts at $1789pp, Gold Twin starts at $1979pp, Platinum starts at $3799pp.

GREAT SOUTHERN

First journey: Dec 2019.

Destinations: Adelaide to Brisbane, return.

2019/2020 departures: 16.

Each trip: 218 guests.

FIVE GREAT (LUXURY) RAIL ADVENTURES OF THE WORLD

1.CANADA THE ROCKY MOUNTAINEER

Still the benchmark that all other luxury rail rivals judge themselves by, it's less than 30 years old. Founded as a family company in 1990, it has welcomed more than 2 million passengers – and is particularly embraced by Australians. See rockymountaineer.com.

2. PERU THE ANDEAN EXPLORER

It's telling that the food, on-train spa and excursions feature earlier on the website than the actual routes in Peru.

But this claims to be the highest luxury rail journey in the world, visiting Cusco (the ancient capital of the Incas) and Lake Titicaca. See belmond.com/trains/south-america/peru.

3. SOUTHERN AFRICA ROVOS RAIL

Namibia, anybody? A nine-day, 3400-kilometre journey from the high veldt of Pretoria, though the stunning Namib Desert before arriving at the edge of the African Atlantic.

Or north-east from Cape Town through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania? See rovos.com.

4. IRELAND THE GRAND HIBERNIAN

Only got three days/two nights? Then A Taste of Ireland will see you travel from Dublin to Belfast to experience the award-winning Titanic Museum, then travel overnight to Waterford, the historic Viking port famous for its crystal.

Of course, if you have nine days or more (and the appropriate euros to pay for it) the world is your Molly Malone oyster (forget the cockles and mussels). See belmond.com/trains/europe/ireland/belmond-grand-hibernian

5. EUROPE THE ORIENT EXPRESS

The most famous long-distance train in the world was created in 1883 and its most celebrated incarnation is the version from Istanbul to Paris as described in Agatha Christie's Poirot novel.

Now called the Venice Simplon Orient Express, it usually terminates in Venice. See belmond.com/trains/europe/venice-simplon-orient-express

See also: Ten of the world's most incredible luxury train trips