Trains, planes and automobiles

It was a matter of time before I wrote a transport post, and I’m sure there will be more to come. But here are some initial observations on how people get around over here, and how the experience differs from back home.


Trains in and around Sydney are operated, by the imaginatively-named Sydney Trains, a division of Transport for New South Wales. Most transport in Australia is controlled at the state level and the modus operandi varies – for example both the trains and trams in Melbourne are privately run on a franchised basis similar to in the UK. But enough of that – I’m just getting my work brain going after my first week!

The Sydney rail network isn’t nearly as wide as the London tube or suburban rail (it has 178 stations) due, I’m sure, to much lower population density. A lot of investment has recently been committed though, including a new metro service to the north west and, later, the south west, and various light rail lines. But there are huge areas of commuterville which are, and will remain, nowhere near a rail service. Nationwide, there is no material passenger service other than around Sydney and Melbourne, though you can also (infrequently) get between them and to Canberra and Brisbane, and on tourist-focussed weekly services between Adelaide and Darwin and between Sydney and Perth. To illustrate this, turn on the public transport layer on Google Maps and zoom out until all of Australia is on screen. There aren’t many lines on the map!

In Sydney and around, most of the trains themselves are ugly on the outside but comfy on the inside (the one in the photo is one of the newer and more attractive sets) and, and this always seems to amaze many Britons, double-decker, with a mezzanine level where you get on and off. It’s weird to sit on the bottom deck and be below platform level! The direction of the seats is reversible, so you can choose to sit in a group of four, or not, and to always face forward if you wish. The regional services aren’t speedy (a 54km journey last week took an hour) but they are cheap outside the peak (the same journey cost a remarkable $4.60). I must add though, that I then had to take three buses to get a further 30km to my cousin’s house, making a total of three hours travelling, when in a car it would have taken just over an hour end-to-end. And I had a battle with a rail replacement bus in amongst that too.

The hub of Sydney’s rail network is Central station, which is of mammoth size – 27 platforms – but isn’t really in the centre of the city, though many trains do serve the CBD further north too. According to Wikipedia, annual patronage at Central is about 11 million, compared to nearly 100 million at London Waterloo. Even if like isn’t quite being compared with like in terms of the data, that’s quite a difference!

Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland all have their equivalents of London’s Oyster card: Opal, Myki and AT Hop respectively. They work very much like Oyster does, though you need to tap off as well as onto buses, which takes some getting used to (and I paid an idiot tax when I forgot in Auckland!). The Opal offers a $2 discount for journeys involving more than one mode, and once eight journeys have been made in a week, the remaining ones that week are half-price. The other great thing about Opal is it’s not constrained to the Sydney urban area but works throughout NSW, unlike Oyster where it can be annoying to realise you’ve touched on but where you’re going is outside the Oyster zone.


Air is the main way to get between cities here, given the distance between them. It’s also surprisingly popular in NZ , where distances are much smaller. Sydney to Melbourne takes 90 minutes in the air and there are over 50 per day. On popular routes like this, there’s strong competition between four airlines (Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin, Tiger), meaning there’s usually an opportunity to bag a pretty low fare.

I took three internal flights with Jetstar and Virgin on my trip, and am writing this from Sydney airport as I’m about to board a Tiger plane. Jetstar I see as the equivalent of easyJet, while Virgin gives you tea and a checked-in bag in the base fare. Qantas gave me lunch and a glass of wine on a trans-Tasman flight, but then I took AirNZ back to Melbourne and failed to remember that food wasn’t in their basic package. I succumbed to an overpriced toasted sandwich as I wasn’t going to last three and a half hours without!

Common to all my domestic flights was a very different (and more relaxed) approach to security than I’m used to. Pleasingly, there’s no liquids restriction on domestic flights, so I didn’t have to faff with clear plastic bags and burying my toothpaste in my checked bag. More surprisingly, at no stage of the process on any of the three domestic flights did anyone ask for me to identify myself. I could have sold the ticket to anyone (probably anyone female, realistically)! Non-passengers can go to the gate if they are prepared to have their bags x-rayed, and you can walk in off the street to the baggage carousel. I always wonder how common baggage theft is, but have never heard of it being an issue.


I don’t know the stats, but it feels like car ownership is high here, and certainly higher in Sydney than London. After three years car-free, I think I’m as likely as not to buy one before very long, even though I’ll live quite centrally. Motorways and multi-lane highways run very close to and through the city, tolls are widespread, and peak hour traffic is hideous. I have no idea where these people park near their offices!

Driving itself isn’t far removed from the experience back home, though there are some subtle differences. There are more larger cars and more automatic cars – good luck if you want to hire a manual! But the biggest differences I’ve noticed is that there’s no obligation on dual carriageways to keep left unless overtaking, and so passing on the left is commonplace, and cars with a green light to turn have to give way to pedestrians crossing the road they are turning into, who will have a green man on the crossing – so they turn part way and then wait by the crossing. These both take some getting used to, especially seeing a car turn towards you when you’re a pedestrian crossing on a green man.

A note on the rest

Sydney appears to have a pretty good bus network. I’ve only really used the buses to get to and from my cousin’s place in Castle Hill, but they’ve been frequent and reliable, even in the peak. The express buses to the city run on the motorway where there are dedicated bus lanes and a couple of stops in the central reservation accessed via bridges. I haven’t experienced the inner city buses in the peak yet, but that may end up being how I commute. Ferry is another commuting option, depending on where I live. It’s pricier than the bus or train, but there’s something very pleasant-seeming about getting to work that way. The ferry network operates from Circular Quay, which is about five minutes from the office and is also served by a rail station.

In Melbourne, tram is the main way to get around, and around the CBD there’s a zone where journeys are free, which is great for tourists like me, though I do wonder how many trips would otherwise be made on foot.

3 thoughts on “Trains, planes and automobiles

  1. I love thedouble decker trains and the flippable seats. First time I saw someone flip the seat around blew my mind.
    I didn’t realise Opal did all of NSW! That’s smart. I’ve yet to experience the wonder of Opal.
    Being able to meet people off the plane at the gate was wonderful for me as a small child – unaccompanied minors need that much less reassurance/supervision when they don’t have to navigate the airport with a stranger.
    The buses are fine but SLOW once you get out of zone 2-3 equivalent – I have had some tortuously slow bus journeys (in the days before Google Maps too) along the Northern Beaches / up in Frenches Forest and Church Point.
    Oh yes and the turning left through a green pedestrian light takes some getting used to.
    I love the expression “idiot tax”. Stealing it.


    1. Oh steal away – it’s a good’un!
      There’s a shiny new express bus from Wynyard up the northern beaches, which I’ve seen but not yet experienced.
      I may be wrong about scope of Opal but it’s def not only Sydney – I was cheerfully using it up towards Newcastle.


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