Extreme Commuting: Midnight Train To Scone

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.

The journey

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.


Comments

    I don't think the public transport system is really designed for regular transport between the extremes of the network. At least for 9-5 purposes.

      Certainly not in Scone. But not necessarily the case with some of the others -- Newcastle, for instance, is doable, if painful. (Didn't break that one out here but will probably raise it when I return up this way for Dungog.)

    Man, now that's certainly a trip... My 2 hour train ride to/from work for most of last year was bad enough, I couldn't imagine sitting there for even longer. I definitely prefer my 20min trip now, but honestly I do kind of miss having that dedicated time to sit down with books/music/games on my 3DS on the long trip :P

    "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."
    Hilarious. Incredible commitment for which I commend you, sir. I wouldn't have the patience.

    This whole concept seems so alien to me, having grown up in Canberra anything over half an hour is insufferable. Meanwhile here in Japan I have Japanese friends who regularly commute 1-2 hours each way every day for university (families often live in satellite cities and commute into the bigger ones during the day). I think I'd go crazy on the second day.

    Last edited 28/01/14 8:33 pm

      I came home after five years of being away and I gotta say, it sure as hell isn't the same place any more. The heavy focus on urbanising everything has left much to be desired of the civic area roads (not that civic was ever well designed to begin with). I remember when it was five minutes to get any where that I had need of going, now it seems like you have to go into central if you want anything other than supermarkets.

      It might be me, but it seems like the only thing that is the same is that frigid b***h of cold mornings. :P

      i start uni in a few weeks in Brisbane. i go from my tiny country town of 653 people to Brisbane where i will commute for about an hour each way in good weather (and could be up to double that in rain)

        Slightest drizzle = expect heavy delays on Brisbane rail

      I have to leave at 10.15am to get to a 12pm class at UNSW, or at 10:30am for a 12pm start at COFA (getting there around 11:45-50am in both cases). I'm just glad I don't have any 9am starts, the travel time would possibly be better due to more frequent services from my area to the city, but I don't think I could take how crowded the buses are.

      Last edited 30/01/14 1:28 pm

    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.

    That is something that really annoys me with the Newcastle lines. Even where they do use the other platforms. Such as with Broadmeadow where you have to go through the tunnel to go to platform 2 or 3 sometimes - often the write ups on the display board about what platform and which train is going to be where can often be wrong, and any questions posed to the brash staff leaves you realising that the passengers have more knowledge than the workers.

    i used to regularly do the up and back from Berry to either North Sydney or Randwick on public transport, it was approx 3 hrs each way but it really isn't that bad. mostly i either sleep, watch a movie or read stuff i didn't get a chance to read during the day.

    Add some replacement buses and train breakdowns to your journey as it seems to happen on a weekly basis and you will end up doubling your commute in no time at all. The problem is that the Hunter line (only line operating the Central Coast) shares the track with heavy transport clogging up a already slow commute, often breaking down and blocking all traffic.

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