The Sunlander. Queensland, Australia

The Sunlander train travels between Brisbane and Cairns; a distance of 1680kms (about 1045 miles) and is described on their website as “one of Australia’s great journeys”. I wouldn’t go that far but it was interesting on several levels.

The Sunlander at Roma Street Station

There’s something about state run enterprises that always leaves me wishing that someone who really cared or had a vested interest ran the business. If you’ve been lured to long distance train travel by movies like “Murder on the Orient Express” or “North by Northwest” (one of my all time favourite movies) you’d be a bit disappointed by the “ordinariness” of the Sunlander. Having said that, a long train trip on an ordinary train is a thousand times better that a long bus journey or driving oneself.

Both my wife and I like long train journeys, so on the 18th of this month both of us went first class on the Sunlander to Cairns.

Engogirl in our first class sleeper

First class doesn’t really mean classy, it just means that you get two bunks in your sleeper. Economy class has three bunks in the sleepers.

Economy class sleeper

There are also tiny little “roomettes” for people travelling on their own and of course there is also plain old Spartan seating.

If you really want an up-market train experience on the Sunlander, closer to what is shown in the old movies, there is another class called “Queenslander class”. Twice a week, two extra cars are added to the Sunlander and for double the cost of a first class ticket you can purchase a berth in Queensland Class which caters for the well heeled looking for that old time luxury train trip complete with better quality meals. The hoi poli with cheaper tickets are barred from the extra cars.

On a side note the whole concept of “Queensland class” seems to be an oxymoron, as there is very little that can be considered classy in Queensland. Queensland is to Australia what the deep south is to the US. Queensland has the most decentralised and most evenly dispersed population in Australia, which means more people live in the rural areas there, than do people in other Australian states. Queenslanders tend to be down to earth laconic types with not all that much time for fripperies like comfortable travel, good food and civilised company like us effete Mexicans (that’s what Queenslanders call all us people from “south of the border”).

Besides sleepers the Sunlander has a rather nice club car which serves alcoholic drinks

The club car

and a restaurant car serving better than expected food in surroundings that evoked thoughts in my mind of industrial workers canteens.

Engogirl having breakfast in the dining car

Whilst waiting in line to be served (Table service? Don’t be silly! That’s only in “Queensland class”) I met an older Scottish couple and ended up discussing live theatre.

The Scottish theatre goers 

I was told that they like to see live theatre in the various places they travel and they had enjoyed a show in Melbourne so I suggested that they might want to see “Pig Iron People” at the opera house on the way back home via Sydney. They were a vibrant couple who were very engaged by culture, full of life and good humour. As we were chatting an older Queenslander with deeply suntanned leathery weather beaten skin, dressed in thongs (flip-flops), stubbies (shorts), short sleeved shirt and a broad brimmed felt hat (it was night) was being served at the counter when we heard the following exchange, “how do you want your steak cooked?”

Blank stare, “what do you mean?”

“How do you want your steak cooked? Rare, medium rare, medium or well done?”

Further look of non-comprehension, with “I don’t care, whatever”, grunted out in response.

“What sauce would you like with it?”

Blank stare again.

Not waiting for a question seeking clarity, the woman at the counter continued with, “Diane, mushroom or pepper?”

“I’ll have it with gravy” was grunted back.

The woman at the counter, realising that the guy had no idea said, “mushroom is the closest to gravy that we’ve got” to which our cocky (as in cow cocky which is Aussie slang for country person, usually a farmer or grazier) replied, “yeh that’ll be right”.

So there was this guy, possibly in his sixties who’d probably never had a steak cooked properly in his whole life. I found it hard to understand such a mind set. He seemed almost malevolently ignorant. He was a guy that  seemed to be so uninterested in what was outside of his little world. Back in the early 1970’s I went on a long train ride in western Queensland and I met people there in the outback who’ve never even been to their state capital, and the old bloke ordering the steak reminded me of those people and that time.

Like they say about Queensland, it’s more of a state of mind than a place.

23 thoughts on “The Sunlander. Queensland, Australia”

  1. First things first, “north by northwest”! My favorite. In just about every way. Adventure. Thriller. Romance. Cary Grant for me today and always!

    And, once, when I took an overnight train from Denver to Oakland California, I slept in my bunk with thoughts of that movie!!

    Thanks for this post. The engine is configured in a very unusual way relative to trains up here. But, the insides are very similar. Was this a one night trip? Is this a scenic trip? Do they have an observation car or anything like that?

  2. Pat

    It was an over night trip that left in the morning and arrived in the afternoon of the next day. It’s not really a scenic trip (speaking as an Aussie) as the land is fairly flat cattle country interspersed with sclerophyll forest, sugar cane and pineapple farms.

    The scenery doesn’t change all that much until you pass Townsville and then things start to look more obviously tropical. So, no observation car.

    “North by Northwest” is a masterpiece. It still looks very stylish even by today’s standards and Hitchcock is a master and Grant is always a pleasure to watch. James Mason’s portrayal of the smooth baddy was the cherry on top. Great stuff!

  3. I LOVED North by Northwest! Im not sure if it’s my favorite… but it’s up there for me as far as Hitch goes. I want to get in a fight on Mount Rushmore just watching it.

    Great.. now i’m doing my bad Cary Grant impersonation. It goes well with my bad Johnny Carson.

    This is a great review… and I love the pics.

  4. Ditto, Razz: fantastic post. I loved reading this. Even though it sounds like a really long trip, the pictures, description and “how do you want your steak” story really bring it to life. Travelling slow brings back the interest of crossed paths and meeting fellow travellers. If you’d flown to Q’land, you probably would have missed out on most of the people factor.

  5. In response to “How would you like your steak done?”, I usually answer “cut off the horns and wipe the ass” … then I change my mind and order it rare.

  6. Pomdog

    I just had a mental image of you at Mt Rushmore conducting a poll of the tourists as to what is their favourite movie and then wrestling the ones you don’t agree with.


    Glad you liked it and we all know who’s to blame for the quoted speech. Slow travel is like slow food; better for you and much more interesting.


    I bet the guy ordering the steak wishes he had the wit to answer the steak question your way.


    Trains are great because you can get up and walk around. Meeting people is always good and it’s even better if you can get away from them as well when their company palls and not be stuck with them like on a train or bus.

  7. My nephew on his first visit to the US when asked how he wanted his steak done, looked at his father, getting no help there, he said “Cooked, please”.

  8. As a Canadian living in Queensland I find your comments almost ignorant in themselves. Queensland is a fertile environment ripe for crops and animals alike. It has been said that Queensland contributes a substantial portion of foodstuffs to the nation. What would the country do without these poor backwards sunburnt labourers who have no idea about steak? Without them who would stay in rural areas to grow crops and make sure there is fresh milk?

    Before you make such a judgement on these ‘poor backwards Queensland’ people, just take a minute to realize that every country needs a combination of people, not just those that know how to order a steak rare.

  9. Chris

    Ignorance comes from the Greek word gnosis for knowledge and ignorance basically means “without knowledge”. I lived in Queensland for 5 years and I’ve travelled around quite a bit of it over the last 40 or so years. So I think your use of the word ignorance is incorrect.

    I’ve also met and known lots of “simple country folk” from all around various parts of the world. Many through no fault of their own, live in impoverished circumstances and never get the chance to know any better. Others, live in rich countries with free education and easily accessible mass media but still wilfully, almost malevolently, remain ignorant.

    Knowing how a steak is cooked is more of a metaphor for a general mind set than a specific example of ignorance. As a matter of fact I was taught how to cook steak perfectly by a guy from the country when I was in Arizona in the US.

    Just because someone lives in the country doesn’t mean that it’s a reason to deliberately turn one’s back on some of the small pleasures of life. Many country people around the world take an interest in the rest of the world and know how to live well.

    So in short, don’t bother getting on your high horse with me, you just sound shrilly peevish about an inconsequence.

  10. I’ve ridden on the Sunlander, Brisbane to Cairns several times.If I had been in a hurry to get to Cairns or Townsville I would have taken the plane, fares are cheaper too.To enjoy a long distance train trip you need to ride with the train,not in it.Become part of the train,lie back and enjoy seeing the world going by, in this case for two days.No point being in a hurry.A cup of tea and a sandwich now and then or a beer or two passes the time very well thanks.I will admit you’re doing it tough if you don’t have a sleeper,unfortunatly they cost the money.Our daughter came back last year from a trip on the Orient Express through Europe complaining they didn’t even have a shower on board,and I had to report,”but the Sunlander has”.It’s a great ride,very private if you book a sleeping compartment for two.

  11. Hi, as a Queenslander thinking of taking The Sunlander to see the Great Barrier Reef, I found your blog on this very informative and interesting. But, with all due respect I think you were quite harsh on Chris. Having grown up in first the city, and then the country, I am aware that some rural people are quite touchy with some people’s, shall we say, snobby attitudes of them. Admittedly, some country folk amaze me with how little interest they have outside their own world, like you put it. I live in a small town and I’m sure there are a few people who haven’t been over the bridge outside our town. But, if thats how they prefer it, then thats their life and its up to them. I think the word Chris was looking for, was arrogant. I did find some of your wording to be a bit arrogant, and quite frankly offensive. For example, (Queenslanders) “with not all that much time for fripperies like comfortable travel, good food and civilised company”, I found that a putdown; very arrogant, pretentious and offensive. Perhaps you didn’t mean to come across that way, by it did exude a superiority complex. I can see both sides, as I live in a small town, yet love culture, travel and adventure. However, that doesn’t make me a better person than someone less inclined towards adventure and travel. It doesn’t make you a better person than the guy who didn’t know how to order steak. People are people. You have a great flair for writing and making people want go on the adventure themselves, but don’t spoil it with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude of airs.

  12. Heather

    “with not all that much time for fripperies like comfortable travel, good food and civilised company”

    Was meant as a back handed compliment because when I lived in Queensland I felt that many of the Queenslanders I met were pretty down to earth and tough people who don’t seem to care for fancy things. A bit Spartan if you will.

    Having said that, I’ve also seen the bristling resentment that can often happen if while in the company of men, the conversation moves from football or cars into something a bit more cerebral.

    As a woman you’re possibly oblivious to how dangerous Queensland can be for men who don’t fit into the normal, “bloke” stereotype. One of the reasons why I left Queensland is because of all the violence I used to see when I went out at night. Not directed at me, but others. I’m not kidding, Friday nights often turned into bloodbaths.

    I would also say that we all benefit from being told how others experience us, so with that said, thanks for your comments and I’ll take your points on board.

  13. Nice pics of a luxury train, we would think this is standard gauge of broad gauge. But this is Queensland, the Sunshine State with 8300 km of narrow gauge track. Only the track is narrow gauge, all the rest – locomotives, passenger cars, freight cars, EMUs, DMUs, signalling, catenaries, facilities – it has the same dimensions as many standard or broad gauge railways, and sometimes even larger or more advanced, see the automatic AAR coupler, superb suitable for heavy bulk trains and 1000 km track suited with efficient 25 kV overhead catenary. In Europe, we must couple our rail cars with dangerous buffer-and-chain couplers. . .

  14. Joost

    Thanks. It is just so crazy we have different gauges in different states. It’s so stupid and inefficient that I wish I could go back in time and slap the idiots who made the decisions.

  15. To be honest I work in an A and E room in brisbane, and for a while i also lived in melbourne, and i found melbourne the more violent city. Although its got the culture and arts. maybe its a queensland of old where you saw these bloody rights of manhood. i was born in the country and hadnt been in an elevator till i was 18 and at uni, so i really understand the poor old dude and the steak. I love train travel though and traveled to melbourne on the train from brisbane on the countrylink. It felt like a refugee transport. i was in a sleeper cabin which was a standard 2 bunk or three seater, and was the best class you could get, it also had no power points although you did get some bbq shapes and a dip complimentory. It had no club car no dining car. one buffut car that served soggy steamed fish and chips<yes thats right …steamed for safety reasons apparently, maybe the poor chip lady fell into the fryer once? And you only knew you where first class because the croaky lady announced we got to order the soggy fish and chips before anyone else which i thought was special. In between the cabins in first class was a shower slash toilet wetroom cupboard thingee. the toilet and sink folded into the wall to give you the shower effect. the train rocked so much i was physically thrown against the shower wall in the nude 7 times before loosing the soap and calling it quits. And i loved every minute of it cant wait to try the Sunlander out , i might even try that queenslader class out, becuase even though i am a queenslander i do like frippary i want to shower in all its finest frippary. thanks for the account loved it


  16. Troy

    Thanks for dropping by, and the long comment. You’re right, my experiences of living in Queensland were back in the mid 1980s during Joe’s heyday. As for your experience with the trains out in the country I know what you mean. Back in the early 1970s I did a few long train trips in Queensland in the outback.

    Here’s a link to posts about the experience if you’re interested.

  17. We are Californians who are considering a train trip from Sydney to Cairns to visit dear friends who live in the Cityview area and who can barbeque a perfect rare steak, by the way.

    We flew the last time and are not excited by the prospect of having to go through the airport hassle. So I did a web search and found this write-up. Price wise the train’s economy price is a bit better than the best air fare offered by Virgin and a lot better on our preferred dates of travel. In fact the Q’land class is about the same as most of the Virgin offerings.

    So, while I understand your comment about government operations, I’ve used our Amtrak enough to be comfortable in the Aussie equivalent.

    Thanks so much for your writeup. After reading it we’re quite ready to give the train a go, at least in one direction but probably both. Overnight from Sydney to Brisbane, a day exploring Brisbane, and overnight to Cairns.

    Our objective is a combination of a relaxing and hassle free trip and an opportunity to meet and enjoy a variety of Aussies in a good setting.

  18. I have read all the comments so far. I have done many long distance train trips in variouus parts of the world. Most of you people would not have survived during the last war. Overnight accommodation was usualy sitting on your suitcase in the corridor jammed in with many other people.Meal service ? forget it no such thing. If lucky the train stopped at a station where the Railway Refreshment Rooms served some very rudimentary food(?), also there was the chance to go to the toilet ON THE STATION. I am glad those days are over & am thankfull for any of the service that is now available on all trains in Australia & the World.

  19. 2 questions I wonder if you might be able to answer, if you please…

    I like the idea of a long, slow train ride, but not necessarily with young kids (who may need to be entertained for hours on end)- are there any facilities for them?

    and in the same vein, are there any whistle stops along the way where the children may get out to run around a bit?


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