Feature

Australind, the tanking engine

It is just after midday on a mild, still day in Wollaston, a six minute drive from the Bunbury CBD. The local station will be expecting the Australind’s train passengers any moment now. However, something is wrong. There is no screeching on the tracks. No boom-gate sirens bellowing to oncoming traffic. No shiny carriages reflecting the sun’s rays onto the otherwise lifeless buildings lining the track. There is nothing. 

A few collective ticks of the station’s clock later, a refrigerator-white coloured bus takes a sharp left turn off nearby Picton Road. It rumbles as it pulls up next to the platform. Soon afterwards, the passengers for the Australind “train” disembark. 

An Australind train carriage sitting at the Public Transport Authority's Claisebroook train depot in 2016.
An Australind train carriage at Claisebrook train depot in 2016. The train has increasingly been out of service in recent years. Photo: Mark Brandenburg (CC BY 2.0)

For months, Bunbury’s passenger terminal has been operating as the train station without a train. With the aging carriages deteriorating over recent years, the Australind is becoming increasingly confined to a Perth maintenance yard. It is not exactly what public transport authorities were thinking about more than 30 years ago when marketing the Australind as “the train that thinks it’s a plane”.

Three road coaches lined up at the Bunbury passenger terminal.
All tread, no tracks: the Australind is currently replaced by bus services between Perth and Bunbury. Photo: Sean Van Der Wielen.

Waroona shire president Mike Walmsley remembers the joy of seeing the new train arrive.

“It was exciting to see the big silver bullet come in,” he says, referring to the mostly metallic exterior of the train.

“It was this brand new, quite modern-looking machine as opposed to the older type carriages. It was lovely to see it renewed and also to see the people using it.”

At its establishment in 1987, the current Australind train was the jewel in the state’s public transport crown. It was fast, cutting the travel time down from three and half hours to two. It was modern, with double-glazed windows, air conditioning and vastly improved passenger services. Most of all, it was reliable. It did not need a locomotive and had a long service life of three decades. To prove how advanced the train was, then premier Brian Burke personally drove the Australind the last few kilometres of the inaugural journey. 

The Australind train arriving at Pinjarra train station in 2010.
Better days: the Australind train arriving in Pinjarra in 2010. Photo: Wikimedia/DBZ2313 (CC BY 3.0)

Fast forward two and a half decades, the Australind’s passenger losses are piling up faster than the bugs on the driver car window. The opening of the Forrest Highway saw more than 22,000 passengers swap the train tracks for tyre tread in a single year. In five years, nearly a quarter of all passengers abandoned the service. 

While Transwa is busy replacing its 10 year-old road coaches, it is making no mention of a replacement for the nearly 30-year-old Australind. Transport Minister Rita Saffioti claims the previous state government dropped the ball.

“The train should have been replaced prior to 2017, once it reached the end of its working life. However, they failed to plan for or fund a replacement,” she says.

A similar line is used by Saffioti when asked why it is expected to take at least five and a half years for the new train to be built under the current government. The new state opposition begs to differ, with the Nationals blaming the delay on the government being Perth-centric.

“The Premier himself has stated that Metronet is the reason the people of Bunbury are missing out on a reliable train service,” says the party’s former transport spokesman Vince Catalina.

“A new train for Bunbury won’t be purchased until they are ready to put trains on new lines in Perth first.”

In recent years, the train’s lack of reliability has become comical. In May 2019, the state government announced the Australind was back in service after a $770,000 maintenance program had been completed. It was taken off the tracks five days later with a mechanical issue. 

In a similar incident in February, the Australind returned from more than two months out of service and was taken off the tracks only 12 days later with wheel damage. A spokesperson for Transwa says the train’s reliability problems have been compounded due to many of the train’s parts being obsolete.

“Because of its age and despite regular maintenance, it is more liable to faults,” the spokesperson says.

“When faults are detected, they often take longer than normal to fix because parts are now difficult to obtain. This is especially the case if we need to make the part ourselves or have it made.” 

In addition, the train will have to remain out of service until issues with the track have been fixed.

The entrance to the new Bellevue railcar facility in late March 2021.
The future: the new railcar assembly facility in Bellevue is set to build the new Australind. Photo: Sean Van Der Wielen.

It’s just after midday on a blisteringly sunny autumn day in Perth’s eastern suburbs. The buzzing of Roe Highway is joined in concert by the hum of nearby work vehicles. A group of sweaty landscapers in high-visibility clothes are busily greening up the entrance to Bellevue’s new railcar construction facility. 

The State Government has committed to building the new Australind at the facility, with half of the parts to be made locally. While the railcar assembly facility is close to complete, the commissioning facility remains a metal skeleton on the industrial skyline. 

Even with the new Australind prioritised for delivery, it is not expected on the tracks until late next year, if not early 2023. Meanwhile, the state and federal governments have committed to funding a feasibility study for a new rail link between Perth and Bunbury. Just don’t expect new tracks to be laid anytime soon.

Two workers on top of the under construction Bellevue railcar commissioning facility in late March 2021.
Far from complete: work is still underway on the railcar commissioning facility in Bellevue. Photo: Sean Van Der Wielen.

“If the study finds a fast train feasible, it is still realistically many years away,” Saffioti says. 

Curtin University sustainability professor and train enthusiast Peter Newman doubts the claim, saying a new, faster rail line is necessary with the state’s continued population growth.

“I believe we would have a fast train to Bunbury announced before the next election and built before the end of the 2020s.” 

Even when a fast train eventually arrives, Newman expects the Australind train service will continue.

“I don’t see those communities putting up with losing their passenger service, even if they don’t use it very often.” 

As for the new Australind train, shire president Walmsley has three words: bring it on!

“We’re really looking forward to when it’s a stable service again without the disruptions.”

Until then, the coach service between Perth and Bunbury will continue. Just on a bus. 

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