The last journey in my Extreme Commuting experiment to visit all the outer extremities of Sydney's network sends me to Dungog. You'd never mistake that for a non-Australian place name. Plus: the lessons I've learned over a month of traversing Sydney's train networks like a fake commuter.
As with my earlier trip to Scone, heading to Dungog requires me to first travel to Newcastle, then switch onto the Hunter Line. Fortunately, however, I don't have to make a midnight journey to do so. On a Sunday, the 0915 service from Central gets me to Newcastle at 1153. I have an hour to kill (enough time to grab a quick bite of lunch), and then I can board the 1300 train which hits Dungog an hour-and-a-half later. 45 minutes, it turns around and heads back.
Daytime travel is way more pleasant than trying to sleep on an intercity in the middle of the night. There are also plenty of people aiming to board the train to Dungog, though (again like the trip to Scone) a large proportion of them hop off the train at the stops between Newcastle and Maitland.
By far my favourite feature of this trip are what I'm describing as "midget stations" (though the proper terminology is a "halt"). Four of the stops on the Maitland-Dungog branch (Hilldale, Mindaribba, Wallarobba and Wirragulla) are so small they can only be accessed from a single door or pair of adjacent doors, and you have to let the guard know in advance. Here's an example of how ridiculously small they are:
These stops (and similar ones such as Wondabyne on the main Central Coast line) gladden my heart. This is a very minimal way of providing a rail service, and the locations appear to be in the middle of nowhere, but there's still a train on offer. I'm in favour of that.
The return train from Dungog is not so crowded, with just six or so people. I guess a service arriving in Newcastle at 1630 is a little early if you're planning a night out.
Could you do this commute daily?
As with Scone, it might be possible to commute to Newcastle, but heading into Sydney for a day's work would not be practical. The 0648 from Dungog arrives in Newcastle at 0810. It's the first of five services a day on a weekday. The last out of Newcastle is at 1725, though, so you couldn't afford to be late.
What I learned
As I noted when I started this project, I wasn't emulating commuting properly: I was travelling on weekends when trains were less frequent, and I was generally going in the opposite direction to the way services are timetabled. All that meant that my commuting experience was arguably harder than it might be for someone who did it every day. But some obvious principles did emerge:
Know your timetable On the Newcastle and Wollongong lines, trains are frequent enough that you can afford to miss one. For other locations, it's no more than one or two a day. You need to be ruthless in giving yourself time to catch that train. An app could help, but for some of these services you'll only have one time to remember.
Charge your device and pack a battery On a three hour-plus trip, most devices will struggle. Make sure you charge in the office during the day. A separate battery pack can help deliver your productivity/entertainment needs without panic.
Train travel is cheap. A weekly ticket that costs $63 lets you travel from Bathurst to Sydney daily, and catch any number of ferries and buses as well. It's hard to argue that any alternative would be cheaper — though it might be less convenient.