So I wanted to head to Scone, which is the northernmost point on the Sydney rail network, for the first leg of my Extreme Commuting experiment. There was one big problem: the timetable made that almost impossible unless I elected to spend some time hanging out in one of Australia's less reputable cities late on a drunken January Saturday night.
Travelling to Scone from Sydney requires two trains: one on the Central Coast & Newcastle line to either Hamilton (the interchange point) or Newcastle at the end of the line, then a Hunter Line service to Scone. The first journey takes about 3 hours (a little less on an express train), the second takes 2 hours. So you're looking at five hours each way. That is seriously extreme commuting.
I could only take the journey on a weekend, when there are just two services into Scone. At first, I thought I could catch the 1745-1943 Scone service, and then return on the 2047-2245. However, it turns out that at that time on a Saturday night, there are no more services back to Sydney — the furthest I could get was Gosford.
There was an alternative, but an unpleasant one. If I caught the last train out of Sydney to Newcastle, which departs just before midnight, I would arrive at Newcastle at 0246. The other train to Scone departs an hour later, at 0351, getting in as the sun rises at 0556. It turns around roughly half an hour later, and by the time it reaches Hamilton, an interchange back to Sydney is possible.
Only a lunatic would spend 10 hours on a train to spend half an hour in a regional city just to prove it could be done. I am that lunatic. At least, I told myself, it means I've also covered Newcastle, which is an extremity of the network, albeit one I've already visited more than once for Lifehacker purposes.
Though I took a precautionary nanna nap earlier that day, I had figured that I would try and sleep on the trip up to Newcastle. The main problem with this wasn't drunks venturing back from a night in the city (I was in a quiet carriage and most people stayed quiet, oddly enough). It was that the seats on the V set trains used on the Central Coast & Newcastle line are not quite tall enough for me to comfortably rest my head against. I'm also a little too tall to scrunch up in the three-seat rows that other people chose to nap in. So I slept fitfully at best.
Newcastle Station was, to be fair, not quite as loaded with drunkards as I had expected, but there were definitely a few cheery souls around, including one totally mashed customer in the 24-hour convenience store where I stopped to grab a drink. I didn't feel threatened, but I'm a bloke and I'm 186cm tall.
What doesn't work well on a Saturday night/Sunday morning in Newcastle is that multiple trains depart from platform 1, rather than using the other available platforms. This means that the two-car Hunter Line train didn't open until just before it was due to depart, and there's lots of confused discussions with station staff about which train is which.
There were probably 30-odd people who boarded at Newcastle, but the vast majority of them got off at or before Maitland, which is the section of the line that scores regular service throughout the day. By my count, only three people travelled all the way to Scone. I hopped off and quickly checked out the surrounds of the station, but couldn't find anywhere open on the main street to sell me a coffee, or even just a bottle of water. I haven't been to Scone since I was 11, but it doesn't seem to have changed much.
The train up might have been near-empty, but the return journey was closer to full. I suspect that was mostly down to the fact that families with kids can travel for $2.50 on a Sunday, and many were heading to Sydney for a holiday stay — suitcases were very much in evidence. That said, there isn't a standard Sydney Trains ticket machine at the station, so customers were travelling on trust — honest longer-distance commuters would have to buy their ticket at Hamilton or Newcastle.
Could you do this commute daily?
My weirdly-timetabled experience aside, the question is: could you make this journey as a regular commuter? To help answer that question, Scone station actually has a fully mapped-out timetable stuck up outside the station:
The conclusion? It would be feasible (if not massively flexible) to commute from Scone to Maitland or Newcastle, since that only involves one line. Scone to Newcastle is a 2 hour journey, so you could take the 0602 weekday service and arrive at 0804, then return on either the 1625 or 1755 out of Newcastle. Long, but no longer than what many Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Wollongong (or Bendigo) workers put up with every day.
Working on the train using mobile broadband might be a challenge — at some points, none of the three networks functioned. If that's the plan, you'd definitely want some locally-stored content on your device.
Heading to Sydney simply wouldn't work as a regular prospect. Even if you're on the 0602 service, the earliest you'll get to Central is 1056. And in order to catch even the 1855 back from Newcastle, you would have to leave Central on the 1515. Not many jobs require you for four hours in the middle of the day, with five hours of train travel on either side. The occasional meeting perhaps, but not a regular routine.
Tomorrow, we'll head south and west, to Goulburn. This isn't a night-time journey, so that will also serve as a good entry point to discussing how to stay productive on a lengthy train journey.