The world of travel these days is more often than not a long queue, delayed flights, overcrowded terminals and impatient passengers seemingly in a hurry to go nowhere. Enter the great railway journeys and in this instance the rebirth of a journey that first began in 1937.
33 years ago the Spirit of Progress stopped running an overnight service between Melbourne and Sydney. Although a day time service still operates it is not in the romantic vein of the old Spirit which dominated the night time service between the two capital cities for 24 years and was seemingly abandoned following the introduction of cheap air fares and allegedly better roads, although anyone who drove on the Hume highway in those days would dispute that.
On 17 November 1937, at Spencer Street Station in Melbourne, Victorian Premier Albert Dunstan took a special gold key and opened the door of a brand new world-class train – the ‘Spirit of Progress’. Launched in a blaze of publicity the all steel train ushered in unheard of levels of comfort on the express run from Melbourne to Albury.
Its overall exterior and interior design reflected the latest Art Deco style, and interior fittings used materials such as stainless steel and native Australian blackwood veneers. The luxurious new train also featured a dining car with a modern galley kitchen and, at the rear, a round-ended parlour/observation car offering panoramic views of the Victorian countryside as it disappeared into the distance. In April 1962 the NSW standard gauge line was extended into Victoria which allowed the Spirit of Progress to travel all the way from Melbourne to Sydney. Running in tandem with the then brand new Southern Aurora, the train ran nightly in each direction. The steam-hauled Spirit of Progress is reported on occasion to have reached speeds as high as 86 mph (138.4 km/h). In 1952 a new era in train travel arrived with the introduction of diesel locomotives and quickly proved their superiority to steam. Sadly none of the steam locomotives were saved for preservation, all were withdrawn and scrapped by September 1954.
For the first time in 33 years, the Spirit of Progress will travel from Melbourne to Sydney departing on 31 March 2020. The train arrives into Sydney station on the evening of 1 April 2020. This run is being organised by Cruise Express. She’ll be powered by diesel locomotives built in 1957 and 1971 and faithfully restored bringing back an era known 83 years ago.
The Spirit of Progress engaged considerable public interest when it first went into operation. On its inaugural journey, the train was opened for public for display, and over 56,000 visitors passed through its carriages. Today it is difficult to think of a comparable example of modern transport technology which would bring out the crowds that the Spirit of Progress did. However, the extension of the Ghan railway line from Alice Springs to Darwin in 2004 was certainly a significant development in public rail transport in Australia.