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Australia is a huge country, an entire continent in fact, so it would seem to make sense that the best way to see it is to fly from one destination to another. But Tony Braxton-Smith, president of Great Southern Rail, has a different idea. Braxton-Smith thinks that getting to one’s destination is half the fun and, to that end, he advocates seeing Oz from the comfort of a luxury train.
“On a rail holiday, the journey is taken at a leisurely pace with opportunities to see the scenery and explore the countryside on the way to the destination,” said Braxton-Smith. “On a plane, you see the clouds or, more often, the back of the seat in front of you, so you miss out on all the glorious scenery.”
That may be all well and good, but doesn’t it mean that train travel in Australia — especially this kind, which is quite different from the frenzied commuter services in most cities — is pitting itself against air travel as the best way for clients to get around?
Not so, said Braxton-Smith. Again, he emphasized the benefit of leisurely travel once in-country.
“We do not see ourselves as competing,” he says. “After all, an airline aims to get you to your final holiday destination quickly, while we aim to make the journey a part of the holiday.”
The Great Southern Railway was founded in 1970 and, since then, it has grown to three main routes, two of the routes running east to west (Indian Pacific and, more recently, the Southern Spirit) and the third north to south (The Ghan).
Of the three, the most popular is the Indian Pacific, which carries 70,000 passengers per year between Sydney and Perth; the second most popular is The Ghan, which runs from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north and traverses the outback in the middle of the country. The third most popular is the Southern Spirit, which runs down the east coast of Australia from Brisbane to Adelaide with many small-town and sightseeing stops along the way.
The Southern Spirit, the newest train, was launched in 2010 and offers guests an 11- to 14-day “rail cruise” as Braxton-Smith calls it.
“We wanted to showcase the magnificent countryside along the Great Dividing Range between Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane,” he said. “Following guest feedback, the service was reshaped to its present form.”
The cars are nothing if not comfortable. On The Ghan, for example, I had my own cozy compartment and access to a shower and restroom at either end of the car. On the Southern Spirit, which runs several times a year, I enjoyed Platinum Service, the best, and that meant my own compartment with a full ensuite bathroom and a large picture-window that offered a great view. There are three classes of service onboard the trains: Platinum, Gold and Red.
Braxton-Smith admitted that most of the passengers on the trains are middle-aged, but that may change with the introduction of newer features aimed at attracting younger clients.
”We’ve just relaunched our Red Service, which we hope will bring more young travelers onboard. New ‘Red Gum’ lounges, introduced last year, and the new Matilda Diners, complete with a new cafe-style menu, hit the rails in April of this year.
From the outside, the cars on each train look ordinary, with no hint of the luxury waiting within. But Braxton-Smith said that the interiors were designed with several other iconic trains in mind, namely the Blue Train in South Africa and the Orient-Express trains.
“The essence of the design is to blend classic style with modern comforts and authentically Australian finishes,” said Braxton-Smith. “For example, the Queen Adelaide Restaurant was inspired by a classic restaurant car design from last century, while the Outback Explorer Lounge’s design scheme was inspired by the colors of the Australian outback in the late afternoon light. “
There are also the famous Private Carriages, which can be added on to any of the trains for those who prefer to travel in groups or for special occasions. However, two of them are restricted to travel on The Ghan and the Indian Pacific because they are too tall to fit through smaller tunnels.
Does Braxton-Smith envision adding a fourth line to his company’s portfolio of luxury trains?
“The Southern Spirit is the second new route that Great Southern Railway has added in 14 years, the previous route being the extension of The Ghan to Darwin in 2004,” he said. Building on the success of the Southern Spirit remains our focus of the foreseeable future.”