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!