Extreme Commuting: When The Journey To Work Takes Three Hours

It's not unusual to spend an hour travelling to work and the same heading home. But what about the extreme commuters: the people who are prepared to spend three hours or more just to get to their jobs? Over January, I've been testing that out by journeying to the furthest extremes of the Sydney train network. Welcome to the land that timetables forgot.

The evidence suggests most Australians have a relatively brief journey to and from their jobs. The 2006 Time Use Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found that we spend 2.5 per cent of our total time on "work-related travel", which amounts to a little over four hours a week. (The ABS repeated the study in 2013 but the results haven't been published yet.)

The average figure doesn't account for potentially big differences between capital cities and rural areas, but it definitely suggests that not many people are making train journeys that consume over three hours a day in each direction.

That might be rare, but it is possible on Sydney's unusually extensive intercity train network. From Central Station, you can travel north 307 kilometres to Scone, west 230 kilometres to Bathurst, or south 153 kilometres to Bomaderry. It's time-consuming and unforgiving; these are not (for the most part) trains that run very often. In some cases, there's just one service a day in each direction.

On the upside, it isn't expensive. A single ticket from Bomaderry to Scone covers 460 kilometres and costs just $8.60 (it will take you the better part of nine hours). There are potentially many reasons for avoiding train travel, but at that price the cost isn't one of them.

Inspired by a BBC report on the extreme commuting phenomenon, my own love of trains and my enthusiasm for a ludicrous Lifehacker challenge, I decided during January that I would travel to all the remote, non-urban extremities of Sydney's train network, to see how different this experience was from a standard city service. I've been travelling on those for 20 years, so I can claim a good degree of familiarity with the regular network.

I've circled the relevant destinations on the map below:

There were some constraints on the project:

  • I wanted to explore the rural outposts, not the ends of lines which fall clearly within the Sydney area. Hence no visits to Bondi Junction, Carlingford, Richmond or Cronulla.
  • Because I do have a regular job, I was mostly doing this on weekends, when the timetable is even more restricted than on weekdays. So for each journey, I'll also assess whether it could be realistically carried about by someone working in a 9-5 job in Central Sydney. I'll also examine the extent to which you might be able to rely on using wireless broadband to work while on the train.
  • I wanted to make the trips solely by regular commuter train (no using the substitute buses that also run to these destinations during the day, or cheating by purchasing an XPT country train ticket, which is also an option for several of these places). On top of that, I'm too cheap to pay for accommodation in any of these locations. Timetables are generally designed for people travelling from the far-flung reaches to Sydney, and not the other way around, so this required some awkward choices, including two occasions when I had to grab a midnight train from the city and then lurk awkwardly on a remote platform waiting for a connecting service at 3am.

These journeys have a few features in common. They all use diesel trains, since it isn't economic to electrify the lines that far out. They often require changing from a major intercity service to a more specialised shuttle. And they all require a solid knowledge of your train timetable: none is so frequent you could simply rock up to your local station and wait.

Throughout this week at 1800, I'll be describing my experience on each of these remote lines. We kick off tomorrow with a journey to a town more usually associated with another mode of transport: Scone, Australia's horse capital. See you then!

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Comments

    What could possibly be the point. Would some one live at one end of the line work on the opposite end?

      Yes they do, that's entirely the point because people travel for work and study.

        Either that or because they were asked in an interview whether they would accept the job if it was in Dubbo and they said yes, despite living 3 hours away :P

      they do, because they don't have a choice. this is what happens when the only affordable housing is far from the city and all the jobs are in the city and you need both to not still be living with your parents. some people even choose to in order to have a best of both worlds scenario - living in a country area but accessing resources of the city

    Cool! I'm from Katoomba myself, not exactly the end of the line, but it's 2 hours away from Central. And people do the trip because @pukoh there's shit all in terms of jobs out this way. You have no choice but to make the trip.

    ps. registered to comment here, spelt my username wrong :( :(

      Thats shit although the username looks very interesting regardless.

    I've often entertained the idea of doing this myself, so I'll definitely be interested to see how you manage it.

    Also, @pukoh, I'm one of these "extreme commuters" - come the end of February, three days a week I will have a three-hour round trip between Unanderra and Sydney so I can attend university. Not everyone has the luxury of studying or working close to home.

    This will be very interesting. I look forward to the articles.

    I have heard of so many people travelling by train (or car or bus) weekly, or even sometimes daily, to get to their jobs or schooling. Choosing to live somewhere else, and make the commute. For many factors, like cheaper housing, better area to live, etc.

    It would be interesting to see how some of the costs and times stack up, compared to fuel consumption and drive times. etc.

    Kids and Teens do it too. I lived in a small country farming town which had nearly nothing, and so many went to boarding schools 2-3 hours away, and came home weekends. Otherwise it was an hour and a half (one-way, so 3 hours a day there and back, IF the bus didn't break down) bus trip daily to the nearest day school and the commute was seriously irritating for me as a kid.

    I also remember once such article written in the paper here where I now live, a few years back, and found it online - hope it is OK to link to it:
    http://www.coffscoastadvocate.com.au/news/apn-the-last-sydney-xpt-for/7981/

    "After 21 years of travelling 609km by train to work, Adrienne Casey is commuting to Sydney for the last time this week."

    Last edited 27/01/14 8:39 pm

      Great example! I note that no-one wants to commute from Coffs daily though :)

      "It would be interesting to see how some of the costs and times stack up, compared to fuel consumption and drive times. etc."

      This is what I am hoping to find out, too. I live in the Sydney CBD and spend zero dollars (and less than five minutes round trip) commuting to and from work. I know I could save on rent if I moved out of the city, but I wonder how far I'd have to move, and how much I'd end up spending (money and time) on the commute.

      Looking forward to the articles.

      I guess it would be like the episode of Seinfeld where they contemplate the idea of collecting cans or bottles and driving interstate to cash them in. You need to take the cans in bulk to make the trip worth it, but the fuel costs and cost of larger vehicles outweigh the bulk aspect.

      When you think about it, if you drive say an hour compared to 3 hours on a train, it's one unproductive hour vs three hours work you could be doing,

    lol no, that is one long trip - it's a job in itself!

    I do it once a year to visit relatives, and it's bad enough! haha

    As a Dungog local, I bid you a safe trip. The hunter line has some less than savoury commuters. Also, as some who regularly does the trip from Dungog to Central, I may just run into you.

    Years ago I was commuting from Colyton, which isn't actually all that far out (near St Marys/Mt Druitt), through to the University of Sydney.

    Then one day they held an exam at 8am. There were no buses sufficiently early to let me catch a suitable service. I left home at around 5am to walk to the station (45 minutes), then catch a train which landed me at Redfern station at 7:30am, in time to walk to the theatre where the exam was being held.

    I was soooo ticked off at the on-campus college students that day. The same exam was scheduled for 1pm as well, but which exam you sat was pre-scheduled...

    When you get out past Government bus territory, bus timetables are much more of an issue than train timetables. I was stunned to discover shortly thereafter that Government buses ran through the night...

    3 hours is not worth it. Your kids will be asleep when you leave and when you get home from work. You will not see your partner.

    I would never be able to do this. My current journey is only 30-40mins by car. I remember some of my High School teachers had to commute from Wollongong to Western Sydney around 1.5-2hrs each way.

    @anguskidman - You need to make the distinction between travelling to work for 3 hours, and travelling 3 hours per day. The heading and first paragraph suggest the 3 hour trip is one way, but then in the third paragraph you say "three hours a day", implying it's both directions combined.

    There is a big difference between the two. I live in Penrith for example and my commute is an hour and a half in one direction, which includes travelling to and from the station at both ends (actual train ride is 50 minutes if you get an express service), so do that twice a day and it's three hours.

    Last edited 27/01/14 10:47 pm

      Have edited to make it clearer (note also that at the extreme ends of the network as listed we're definitely in that territory).

    No way I could do this. A family life, hobby and fitness killer all rolled up into 4-6 hours a day of commuting.

      it helps to not have any hobbies and if all your fitness is walking to the station :p

        It helps if you have sit down hobbies, I jokingly call my laptop the Mobile Skyrim Device.

    There are a bunch of commuters in Bendigo who travel 2 hours to Melbourne.

    When your done and want to compare with the other side of the spectrum, send me an email.
    We decided years ago to throw away all that and live where we work.
    Then got married and had kids. Now our kids are 3 and 1 and we both live and work together running a guesthouse. We are both with our kids all the time, no commute time, no commute cost, and a closer family unit. Wins all round!

    The line from Port Kembla is electrified, and is only 14 minutes from Wollongong. There are a huge amount of daily commuters from Wollongong (and from as far south as Unanderra and Dapto) to Sydney, so whilst irritating, I wouldn't call it extreme commuting.

    Bomaderry on the other hand is a different story. The electrified trains stop at Kiama, where it changes to diesel through to the end of the line. You'll be welcomed by a lovely smell and absolutely nothing to do while you wait for the return train home.

    Make sure you take the Wollongong train during daylight hours, sit on the top deck and on the eastern side; the view from Waterfall to Austinmer is spectacular. Also, try and get the express train. The all stations train is torture.

    Hello Angus, just wanted to say thank you for doing this article project. I've been attempting to google exactly this topic for the last few weeks.

    It's because I would one day like to own my own home, but I'm single, on a low income. I have been priced way out of Sydney, yet I love my job in the city , and am not willing to change that. So my only option in the future is going to involve an extreme commute it seems.

    So what I would love to read about, is how people add extra value to their travel times. So one does not feel 6 hours of their day has been wasted.

    I already have a 1.5-2 hour trip to work, one of the things I've done is invest in 3DS, iPad, and a low budget gaming laptop. And thankfully I love reading too.

      Hi FoxSyd. I travel approx 2hours each way every day for the exact reasons you have mentioned (Housing prices, love the job in the city). Thankfully getting on at the end of the line for me means a seat in the morning which I honestly use to get a little extra sleep on many days.

      Coming home though, space is at a premium with everyone trying to leave the city, so I have found audiobooks, stored on my phone (some educational) to be a good use of time seeing as standing and actually holding anything (whether that's a book or tablet) to be difficult/hazardous. After a seat is available it's often the tablet/Laptop with some videos.

    Welcome to my world. The only home we could afford was beyond the end of a train line in Victoria. In my industry, work is ALWAYS going to be in the CBD. For me it's a 15min walk to the bus stop, 30min bus ride to the station, then 1:15 minutes on the train, followed by a 10min walk to our office (annoyingly right in the middle of all the train stations in Melbourne, always at least a 10 min walk no matter the station). Then the reverse going home again (and god help me if I don't catch a train that will line me up with a bus coming home.). Driving to the station is only sometimes possible as the car parks fill up extremely early in the morning, plus the added cost becomes hard to manage.

    This is a total of at least 4h to 4h20 at day, a total of around 22h per week just getting to and from work. For a lot of us this is just how it is.

      Ballarat? I did the same and could not cope with having to deal with vline and the lack of seats. Giving up having a life just so we could save money while being stressed out about other things was no way to live.

    Move out of the styx people, home ownership is not worth hours of your time every day.

    I have been doing the Cardiff - Central run twice daily for 4 years now. 3 hours one way.

    Why? IT roles in Newcastle are hard to come by.

    I sleep in the morning and engage in reading/music/games/non-work programming in the afternoon/evening.

    Does have a huge impact on quality family time. Would give it up tomorrow if I could find a job that pays my mortgage in Newcastle.

    Angus, I'm curious - I had assumed that Lifehacker covered your 'crazy challenge budget' but you mentioned you were too cheap to pay for accommodation. Does that mean you were $175 out of pocket after that McDonald's challenge?!

    I live not far from Bomaderry (next stop back up the line) and I work in Sydney. The south coast line is notoriously awful - beautiful and scenic in parts, but so mind-bogglingly slow that nobody in their right mind would ever use the line from Bomo to Sydney on anything other than a very rare occasion when no other alternative mode of transport was available. I commute to Sydney from here in my brand new and very frugal VW Golf. It takes me 1hour and 40mins to get too and from work - if I did it by train it would be closer to four hours each way (and that's being generous). I'm lucky in that my office is south of the CBD near the airport, but I have friends who work north of the harbour and who drive to Helensburgh (a very pleasant one hour drive from here) and catch the (much speedier) train in the rest of the way.

    Years ago I got a job in West Heidelberg, not extreme but I caught a train and bus for an hour and 40 minutes. To drive would take an hour and 30 minutes so no advantage to drive. Then there was a restructure and I worked in Moonee Ponds before transferring to Frankston, a 20 minute journey.

    Just read the Goulburn article and am excited to see the future articles.

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