Trainfinder Sydney: Travelling every train line in a single day
16 hours, 470km, and NOT A SINGLE LATE TRAIN.
Throughout 2018, Angus Kidman undertook the Trainfinder challenge, visiting every city in Australia and New Zealand with a suburban rail network and travelling across the length of every line in a single day. Learn about why he's doing it and what's involved.
I live in Sydney, so much of the suburban train network is very familiar to me. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I expected my journey to be the usual combination of Sydney Trains delays, screw-ups and lack of communication.
Shock me: this was the second Trainfinder trip I took where every single train ran on time. That hadn't occurred in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, Wellington or London. (It did happen in Newcastle, but that effectively only involved two trains, so the odds were a lot better.)
I know my fellow Sydney commuters aren't going to believe it, but it's the truth. No signal failures, no lightning strikes, no sick passengers, no mechanical breakdowns. Here's what happened when I spent 16 hours commuting the Sydney network back on 15 October 2018. (Blame the delayed write-up on the shock, if you must.)
How much train travel are we talking here?
First up, let's define some limits. Sydney Trains operates a complex network covering both suburban routes and longer-distance services. The latter go to places like Newcastle and Wollongong, and use the Intercity Trains branding. I was not including those far-flung choices.
That's partly because it would be physically impossible in a day, and partly because I'd already covered those extremities for my previous Ultimate Opal Hacking experiment. But largely it's because Sydney Trains itself divides up the network that way. If it's a line with a number (T1 through T8), it's Sydney Trains. If not, it's Intercity Trains.
So Sydney Trains proper travels to Berowra in the north (T1), Richmond and Emu Plains in the north-west (also T1), Leppington and Macarthur to the south-west (T2, T5 and T8), Waterfall and Cronulla in the south-east (T4) and Bondi Junction to the east (T4). There are also shorter branch lines to Olympic Park (T7) and Carlingford (T6), intersecting lines in the south (T3) and north (still more T1), and the City Circle loop that passes through the CBD. It's the most complex network I'll travel on for Trainfinder, not so much a spiral as a misshapen pretzel with branches.
For ticketing, Sydney now entirely relies on the electronic Opal card. Fortunately for me, there's a maximum daily cap of $15.80, so I know before I start how much I'll spend. Because you can transfer journeys for up to 2 hours and many of my trips are off-peak, I only just manage to spend the maximum.
Pedant note: I'm not including the Sydney light rail because street-running services don't count for this project (a rule I've already applied in Adelaide and will be following in Melbourne as well). I'm also not including the Chatswood-Epping line, because that has been closed to be reborn later this year as part of the Metro service that will stretch to Rouse Hill in the north-west.
My total time on trains (not including waiting around on platforms) ran 11 hours 57 minutes, across some 470 kilometres. To get that done, I did have to start early.
Emu Plains-Blacktown 4:08am-4:28am
For most of my Trainfinder journeys I've begun in the city centre and worked outward in a spiral. However, for Sydney I decided it would make more sense to begin at one of the extremities. Firstly, that would save time (since I'd be able to avoid doubling up on one line) on a tight schedule. Secondly, services from the outer reaches start earlier than those from Central in the heart of Sydney. Timetable options and a handy adjacent set of serviced apartments made Emu Plains the right choice for the job.
When I head to the station in the pre-dawn darkness, there are no emus in sight, and precious few people. I'm actually not catching the earliest possible train. Services passed through at 3:09am and 3:42am, but then I'd just be standing around at Blacktown for hours waiting for my connection.
The service I'm on is the semi-infamous "purple train" which runs from the Blue Mountains. (I'm not going there, but that doesn't mean I can't use the Intercity trains that come from there, pedants.) These have a more extended vestibule area and smaller manual doors than the newer Tangaras I'm expecting to take for most of the day. The train's largely empty and the journey passes without incident.
Oddest station name on this line: Rooty Hill (Straya!)
From Blacktown we're headed to Richmond, but there's a 17-minute wait first. Blacktown station at this hour has the general appearance of a prison, thanks to the metal netting across its walkways designed to stop yobbos throwing stuff onto the track. Fortunately, my train pulls in 13 minutes before it's due to depart, so I can avoid the local unpleasantness.
This train is much more typical of what I'll be riding on all day: reversible seats in a challengingly ugly blue moquette, on-board indicators and automatic doors. What it doesn't have yet is many passengers, though I'm not the only person on board.
Oddest station name on this line: Quakers Hill
Another 20-minute break at Richmond, but that's handy for my purposes, since I have time to race into the adjacent 24-hour McDonald's and grab breakfast. I momentarily panic when the kiosk refuses to read my Visa card, but it doesn't hold up my urgently-needed McMuffin to any dangerous extent.
Then it's back on board for nearly an hour. As usual, one annoying passenger is watching a video on their phone without headphones. Less usually, another passenger tells them to can it. This person is my new commuter hero.
As the sun rises there should be more to see, but there's not much in the way of scenery to behold. The train steadily fills, but I still don't have anyone next to me when I exit at Strathfield.
Oddest station name on this line: Toongabbie
Another journey of nearly an hour, taking me to what is, for now, Sydney's newest station. The two-branch South West Rail Link only opened in 2015. I'm going against the commuter tide, something that (happily for me) will remain true for most of the day. I'm also seeing, for the first time today, some almost rural vistas.
Leppington itself is a new and spacious station, though for some reason Sydney Trains didn't see fit to incorporate gates. Despite being a train geek, this is the first time I've visited.
Oddest station name on this line: Merrylands
A quick hop back to Glenfield, where I will head south to Macarthur. Many other commuters also get off at Glenfield, and change to services via the Airport line. That ends up on the City Circle, just like the train they were already on, but gets there quicker.
Oddest station name on this line: Edmonton Park (to be fair, it's the only other station)
I'd expected perhaps a few school pupils on this segment, but the train is largely empty. There's also some light rain falling.
Oddest station name on this line: Ingleburn (my ingle, it burns!)
Macarthur-Town Hall 8:44am-10:01am
I've now effectively skipped the CBD rush hour. Anyone catching a train from this far south isn't going to hit the city until well after most offices open.
Outside of my home line, the Airport Line is the service I use most often, but I rarely approach it from the west. Taking this route also means I go round the City Circle, which connects the main city stations and also passes through Circular Quay, offering stunning views of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge if you're in the right seat. I am not in the right seat, dammit.
Oddest station name on this line: Panania
Town Hall-Bondi Junction 10:12am-10:22am
Normally I get out at Town Hall and head to the Finder office. Today I change platforms and head east to Bondi Junction.
This is actually the most nerve-racking trip of the day. I only have a 3-minute turnaround at Bondi Junction. Even though that only involves walking across the platform, if my train to Bondi comes in late, then I'll miss out, and the next service to Waterfall won't run for another 30 minutes, wrecking the rest of my carefully calculated timetable.
Fortunately, punctuality persists. I'm annoyed to see a coffee cart on the platform at Bondi Junction. I could really use a cuppa, but there's no time.
All the stations on the Eastern suburbs line have this giant platform lettering. Way back when I was a child, I remember getting my rail ticket stuck behind one of the letters here. I'm not about to make that mistake with my Opal card.
Oddest station name on this line: Edgecliff (actual cliff not much in evidence)
Bondi Junction-Waterfall 10:25am-11:33am
The train ventures south again, albeit on a different line. There are plenty of people using the service through to the city, but the crowds thin out once we pass Central again.
Waterfall station is distinguished by an unusually long concrete ramp, rather than the stairs more usually favoured by Sydney Trains. With 20-odd minutes to spare I had hoped I might find somewhere to grab a quick bite to eat, but no such luck.
As the train departs Waterfall, I realise I'm roughly halfway through the day.
Oddest station name on this line: Mortdale (sounds deadly)
I nip back up the same line to Sutherland, where I need to change onto the Cronulla branch line. The timing isn't particularly friendly, so I have another 14 minutes standing around waiting for the next service. That would have been useful if any trains had been running late.
Cronulla itself is an attractive enough station, and the closest to the sea to be found on the Sydney trains network. OK, technically Circular Quay is closer, but you can't go swimming anywhere near there. Unfortunately, with a 10-minute turnaround, I don't have time to go and check out the view.
Unusually for a Sydney terminal station, Cronulla only has a single platform, so it's back onto the same train yet again.
Oddest station name on this line: Gymea (sounds medical)
My next stage involves dealing with the complicated mess of lines in western and southern Sydney. So it's all the way back to Redfern, and a platform change to wait for the train to Liverpool. I already passed through Liverpool on my way to Leppington, but now I'm doing it on an entirely separate line.
Redfern station is one of the busiest in Sydney (only Central bests its dozen platforms), but the crowds aren't too evident while I'm waiting for the Liverpool service.
Getting to Liverpool from Redfern takes the best part of an hour, so most people would only use this line for the intermediate stations. But not me.
Liverpool is a substantial and gated station, as befits a location where you can actually board three separate lines.
Oddest station name on this line: Yagoona (ya goon!)
I head back the way I've come, and face my second risky interchange of the day. At Birrong I need to get out and switch to the train to Lidcombe, which comes in just one minute after I arrive. I noticed on the way through that Birrong has an island platform, but if my train is late, I could still miss out. I'm so sure this will happen I assume I'll be catching the next service.
This turns out to be wrong. The interchange is speedy but flawless, and a stack of school kids do the switch as well.
The Lidcombe branch of the T3 line is short, with just two intermediate stations. The train is relatively crowded, but that's largely down to the migrating packs of acceptably non-feral school children.
Oddest station name on this line: Berala (again, not much to choose from)
Lidcombe-Olympic Park 3:54pm-3:59pm
Lidcombe is a big messy interchange station. As well as 5 main platforms for the western lines, it also boasts Sydney's only platform 0, which serves the loop train which runs every 10 minutes to Olympic Park. That train line was built to serve the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and continues because there's now a large corporate presence on the site during the day, and concerts and sporting events at night and on weekends.
In theory I might have been able to catch the 3:44pm service, but I always figured fighting my way through a crowded station from one end to the other and getting to platform 0 would be too hard, so I planned to get the 3:54pm. For once, this turned out to be a wise assumption.
Olympic Park-Lidcombe 4:02pm-4:08pm
Confession: while I've often visited Olympic Park, this is the very first time I've caught the train there and back. Usually, I'll walk from there to Concord (on the Northern line) to avoid the crowds. Only a handful of people get on to visit Olympic Park, but rather more do so on the way back, having (I assume) finished work for the day.
Because of the 10-minute loop, there's only time for a quick selfie before getting back on board and returning to Lidcombe.
Another single stop journey, taking me from Lidcombe to Clyde. (I already passed over this section of line this morning on my way from Richmond, but some repetition is unavoidable.)
The Carlingford line has been hard done by. At one stage it was due to be doubled, extended to Epping and then connected through to Chatswood, but that plan got ditched because it was too expensive. Now that the Epping-Chatswood line has instead been converted as part of the Metro, Carlingford is still stuck with a measly once every 30 minutes service all day. Much of my afternoon timetable plan was designed to ensure I wouldn't have to wait for half an hour at Clyde to catch it.
Given that, I'm somewhat astonished to see a tower block going up adjacent to the station. I guess any kind of railway service is an attraction to property developers. It's too early for post-work crowds, so only a handful of people get off at the end of the line.
Oddest station name on this line: Rosehill (because "Racecourse" should come after it)
Barely time to blink and I'm back on the same train to return to Clyde. We're now properly approaching rush hour, which should mean crowding. But it might be a good time to note something almost as remarkable as Sydney Trains' punctuality: throughout the entire day, I've never had anyone sitting alongside me.
I've often been on fairly-full trains, but I've always managed to still have one vacant seat next to me. I'm really wondering if I'll be able to maintain this when I pass through the centre of Sydney in rush hour.
To try and maintain this status, I give off antisocial vibes as our train progresses from Clyde to Central. Apparently, it works.
The Main North section of line from Strathfield to Central is one of the oldest and busiest on the network, and I traverse it every time I go to work. But this is the first time I've done so today.
Oddest station name on this line: Petersham (home of Peter's ham)
Only three trains to go! Long experience suggests to me that there's no way a train leaving Central just before 6pm is going to be anything other than packed. My no-one-next-to-me record is under threat.
Then I remember I can take advantage of a quirk of Sydney's newest trains: in each carriage, there are single seats at each end of the carriage, where no-one can sit next to you. So I barge my way quickly onto the Berowra service when it comes in and nab one of these. Result!
The train is indeed full by the time we leave Wynyard, just two stations down the line. We shed passengers at a steady rate after Chatswood though, and by the time we reach Berowra, there are only a handful of people and I'm surrounded by bushland.
Oddest station name on this line: Gordon (Gordon Bennett!)
Fact: Only three people want to head from Berowra to Hornsby at this time of night.
And so to the final section of the day. I live on this line, so I actually have to speed past my home station in order to cover the entire network. But just shy of 16 hours after I started, I've covered the entire network. On time. The odds would be ridiculous.
Oddest station name on this line: Beecroft (bees not much in evidence)
What I learned
The fact that every train I caught today ran on time is not going to stop me whinging bitterly on Twitter the next time Sydney Trains screws up. But it does remind me that the network in my hometown is actually fairly robust. $15.80 for almost 500km of travel is also nothing to complain about.
It's also the most decentralised network I've dealt with during this challenge. Every other Trainfinder attempt involved me repeatedly returning to the central station in that city and fanning out. In Sydney, I made 22 separate journeys but only passed through Central three times, and only changed there once.
The next and final instalment of Trainfinder sees me tackle the Melbourne network. Catch it soon!
Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears regularly on finder.com.au.
- Trainfinder Perth: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Auckland: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Newcastle: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder London: Visiting every London airport by train in a single day
- Trainfinder Adelaide: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Wellington: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Brisbane: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder: Travelling every suburban train line in Australia and New Zealand
Pictures: Angus Kidman