It's a sunny Friday afternoon and there are quite a few people waiting at Sydney Central for the 1602 Goulburn service, which is the next stage of my Extreme Commuting experiment. In fact, if you want to board this train, you don't even need a ticket.
This service — the only direct commuter train between Goulburn and Central on the Sydney Trains network — departs from Platform 1, which is normally used for country trains going to even more remote destinations. Because of that, and unlike most other intercity platforms, it doesn't have any ticket barriers. Barring the appearance of an inspector, you could get all the way to Goulburn without ever having to produce a ticket.
Evidently, someone has crunched the numbers and determined that the cost of implementing security is way higher than the potential number of fare evaders. Still, that also means it's hard to calculate how often the service is used. Not everyone who travels to Goulburn will necessarily buy a ticket naming it as the destination: a MyMulti daily or weekly will also do the job. I suppose this would matter more if there was any suggestion that our train network might ever receive additional investment in the future. (It's clearly not a priority for the current Federal government, which cancelled every rail project which included federal funding upon its election.)
Located on the Southern Tableands (though part of the Southern Highlands line in rail terms), Goulburn is some 216 kilometres from Central. The daily commuter service is minimal: one direct train each way Central-Goulburn, one service each way between Goulburn and Campbelltown, and a handful of connecting buses between Moss Vale and Goulburn during the day.
I'm on a Friday train (the only time this will happen during the experiment) because a combination of frequent trackwork closures, a less-friendly weekend timetable and other commitments made this the only possible choice. Workers aren't much in evidence; a lot of people seem to be on pensioner tickets. But it is January; perhaps everyone's on holiday.
The direct journey to Goulburn takes the better part of three hours. Unlike Scone, I'm not sleeping, so I want to use my time productively. While the second half of the journey is pleasingly scenic, a regular commuter needs to stay occupied.
Gadgets are both your friend and your enemy here. I'm armed with a Surface, two smartphones, an iPod, a wireless hotspot, a Kindle and a spare battery for each phone. Multiple phones and hotspots mean I can test access on all three networks. They also mean that I won't entirely run out of battery during the trip. Because I'm spending a total of eight hours on the road (three hours there, one hour on the ground, and four hours back) this is a major consideration.
A daily commuter would have the advantage of being able to recharge their phone in the office, but it's still a big issue and something you'll need to plan for every day. Devices with long battery life (the Surface and the Kindle — an iPad would be just as good if I owned one) are an absolute essential. For the record: every single phone network I used suffered gaps, and not always in the same places. You can't assume uniform coverage.
Compared to Scone, the station is much more elaborate. There's even a ticket machine, though the choices on offer are limited. If you want a weekly or a more unusual destination, you simply grab an "authority to travel receipt" and then buy a ticket further down the track. Again, it seems like an easy system to rort.
Could you do this commute daily?
Daily commuters from Goulburn can catch a two-part service at 0531, arriving at Central at 0834, or a direct train that leaves at 0740 and arrives at 1040. In the afternoon you can leave at 1602 and arrive at 1907 (as I did), or leave at 1712 and arrive at 2037 (with one change). That's a long journey either way, but you could just about squeeze a 9-5 day in, especially if you can work for part of the journey. It's certainly a much more realistic prospect than Scone.
Tomorrow, we'll head even further west, to Bathurst. It's a gold rush town, but the train doesn't rush so much; Bathurst was only given back a direct "suburban" service in 2012. Does it need one?