An old train will bring a slow-travel mentality to what has become a commuter run, when the newly commissioned Spirit of Progress makes her first journey in 33 years between Melbourne and Sydney in March.
Australia's oldest operating train began her working life running from Melbourne to the NSW border at a time when Victoria and NSW were on different rail gauges. She started service in 1937 and was unlocked with a gold key by the then Victorian premier, Albert Dunstan.
When NSW's standard gauge extended down to Victoria in 1962, the Spirit also extended her reach, working as the everyman's night train between the major cities. Complementing the faster sleeper train Southern Aurora, the sit-up Spirit of Progress dominated the night rails for 24 years before retiring in 1986, pushed out by better roads and cheaper air travel.
In her retirement, she's worked as an historic train in Victoria but is now back on the long-distance tracks with a series of heritage rail journeys between the two capitals.
Powered by restored diesel locomotives built in 1957 and 1971, the 83-year-old train has enjoyed a six-figure restoration by the Seymour Railway Heritage Centre and Lachlan Valley Railway in partnership with rail-cruise specialist Cruise Express.
She retains her original gold-and-dark-blue livery, and her three passenger compartments, the parlour car and kiosk car can accommodate 150 passengers. Cruise Express managing director Meg Hill says the train is striking when you see it on the city platforms or rolling through the countryside.
"Much of the restoration work was done by volunteers, many who are ex-railway workers, and it's been amazing to discover so many historic carriages, locomotives and stock sitting in different parts of Australia, bought by private buyers who couldn't bear the thought of the trains being discarded," she says. "We're bringing back rolling stock that hasn't been seen on the rails in decades."
The historic inter-capital run of the 1930s train will be marked with a send-off from Melbourne's Southern Cross station on March 31, overnighting in Albury's Atura Hotel before continuing on for lunch in the Junee Station, historically, a major railway hub with lines out to Griffith and Hay. Its grand pavilion was built in the Victorian free classical style in 1883 and guests take lunch in its original refreshment rooms before continuing over the Blue Mountains and into Sydney's Central Station on April 1.
The inaugural journey is booked out but trainspotters are invited to peek inside the train at Central Station on April 2 before her departure to Melbourne the next day on a six-day journey, with passengers returning by sea on the Golden Princess cruise ship, which is also now fully booked.
"We were expecting these journeys to be quite popular, but it shows how sought-after this form of slow nostalgic travel is," says Hill. "Many people have a direct connection with the train, whether they travelled on it as a child, or their father or grandfather was a train driver with Victorian Railways... all these lovely stories keep popping up."
The next journey, dubbed the Far West Express, departs in July on a nine or seven-day adventure heading westward, with three nights in Orange and three nights in Broken Hill, including a visit to the Silverton Hotel, filming site of Mad Max 2 and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The Spirit of Progress's future sees more journeys between Melbourne and Sydney, tapping into events such as Sydney's Vivid light festival in May. There is also talk of extending to Brisbane, connecting the three east-coast capitals on historic train adventures.
"We're taking people to regional Australia, and with so many affected by drought and bushfires, it's very rewarding for us to spend our money in local communities," adds Hill.
The Far West Express to Broken Hill departs Melbourne on July 8, and Sydney on July 9. Costs to be confirmed. See. See cruiseexpress.com.au to register interest.