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Hopping Trains in Australia

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It was late summer in the southern hemisphere and I had been traveling in Australia for only two weeks when a friend told me about IronFest. Nothing sounded better to me than jousting, battle reenactments and blacksmithing in the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, so I was off. I bid my friends in Melbourne adieu, left a few belongings at their house, and hitched north with an umbrella I’d found along the roadside and a sign that read “Sydney.”

Several rides and many hours later on the 850 km journey, I found myself only a third of the way to my destination, standing on the side of a desolate on-ramp in the light rain as the sun sank. A car eventually pulled over. My eyes trace the curled mustache of a grinning man as he quips, “get in.” It’s a convoluted small world, and he turns out to be the father of a friend of a friend from the states. We laugh and share stories. I tell him that I’m interested in sleeping near the small rail yard in Albury, where I’m sure that I can watch freight trains change crews. The rain continues, and he says that he won’t hear of it. I sleep on his couch instead. Early the next morning he drops me off at an onramp several kilometers from his house with a bag of granola and his best wishes. The wind blows slow and cool, the sky clear, and I leave my umbrella at the roadside for the next hitchhiker.

Arriving in Sydney during the evening’s rush hour, I made my way to Sydenham where I heard there was a show in a squatted warehouse. I attend the show, and I don’t leave the warehouse after 2am. It had just finished raining and I found an out-of-the-way place to sleep on top of a metal 40-foot shipping container near the warehouse. I unintentionally slept-in and had to rush to pack my things before the sun raised high in the sky above me.

Ani St.Amand on a freight train

A short walk brought me to the small Sydenham metro station. There were no turnstiles and no transit officer on duty; just a flight of stairs leading to the train platforms below. I smile to myself and walk past the ticket machines to wait with the other passengers for an inbound train.

These metro trains are operated by RailCorp. Though the company is purported to have employed 600 transit and “revenue protection” officers since the creation of the position in 2002 – 400 of whom operate on CityRail trains within NSW’s metro areas – I was rarely bothered by their presence.

As expected, I didn’t see a transit officer on my ride to Sydney Central until I arrived at the metro station. Already near the train platform from where I would catch the Blue Mountain Line train, I saw little point in walking all the way out of the turnstiles to the building’s entrance to purchase a ticket for travel. Beside the inconvenience of it, I hadn’t intended to pay for a ticket anyway, so the matter was settled: I would simply remain on the platform and step right onto my next train.

I sat on my backpack, resting against a wall on the platform while I waited. I stared at the feet of other passengers as they passed by. I watched some; indecisive, pausing, blocking the flow of traffic. I see two pairs of boots walk by, trace the contours up past the batons and handcuffs to the blue Transit Officer shirts. I’m not worried. One of the things that help me stay calm in many situations is always having a story ready: I just got off a train and don’t know where to buy another ticket for travel… I’m waiting for a friend to purchase our tickers… Can’t I buy a ticket once I’m on the train?

Eventually the electronic board announces that the countdown has ended: 0 minutes until the arrival of my train. A while later, it arrives. I board with others and take a seat near the front of the train. I don’t like getting caught so I’m always on the lookout for transit officers on the platforms at stations, ready to get off at a moment’s notice if I see an officer.

I imagine that it’s a giant game of cat and mouse. Stay alert, watch for transit officers. One eye on the platforms, the other on my book. A friend of mine has worked for Amtrak as a conductor for over a decade. He tells me that he can tell just by looking through the passenger car who has paid and who hasn’t, by reading people’s body language. When a transit officer boards before I can jump off, I try to appear relaxed, calm. Usually there are two of them, working from either ends of the cars toward the middle. Keep reading. They are slow moving, so I hope for a stop, get up calmly, make eye contact, and smile. Get off the train. Usually it works.

If I’m the only one disembarking, I’ll watch their body language. I know that they’re paying attention to me. Are they going to stop me, ask to see my ticket?

A few times I’ve acted like I was in a rush, answering “Yes, and this is my stop” in an irritated voice. They’ll let me go. In a country with such a large tourism industry, it’s very often my foreign accent alone that gets me out of trouble like this. It’s ridiculous and I know that I am amazingly privileged, but I allow myself to accept this concession and play the tourist role now and then.

But if I can tell a transit officer going to corner me, I’ll turn it around on them: keep eye contact, approach them, and speak first. I will explain to them that I just boarded and want to know where the ticket machines are. Explain to them that there’s been a misunderstanding. They’re not expecting a guilty party to step up and admit that there’s something wrong, so usually I get out of a fine.

RailCorp issues an AUD$200-500 fine to passengers who fail to purchase a ticket. I’ve never been issued such a fine. I’ve talked myself out of several, once handing an officer a twenty dollar bill and asking for a ticket to the next stop. I looked like an idiot, but at least I wasn’t an idiot who was out 200 bucks. Back in my own country, the United States, when I can’t talk myself out of a fine I just try to avoid using that specific train service. There are so many other ways to reach one’s destination.

Leaving Sydney on the Blue Mountain Line we travel west for some time. The platforms vary from side to side and the towns shrink in size. Eventually, I see two of the distinctive blue shirts with radios waiting to my left. Since I’m at the front of the train, we pass some considerable distance by them before the doors open. I wait near the entrance, ready to jump off. They never get on, so I sit back down. “Wrong stop,” I say to someone sitting next to me.

It’s about a three hour ride to Lithgow, my destination in the Blue Mountains. I settle back down with my book, looking up when the train starts to slow. A bit later I find myself confronted with a similar situation. This time, the officers board and I disembark just in time.

The wind has picked up and the temperature has dropped. I check the schedule. A two-hour wait until the next train. I pull out my sleeping bag, wrap it around myself, and try to take a nap on a bench on the outdoor platform. Two loaded coal trains pass while I rest. They are headed to ports in Newcastle; this line services many mines along its route. It occurs to me that a coal train would be less of a hassle to hop than this passenger train, but I’m heading out of the city toward the mines, and the trains running in this direction are sure to be empty and headed out to the hills.

Australia train station

Finally, the next passenger train arrives, and I am glad to see it. The journey through the Blue Mountains is breathtaking. I stare out the window as the tracks wind through the mountains, overlooking vast eucalyptus forests. It’s late April and autumn has come to this region of the country. Winds sweep through deep canyons and up over high ridges, pounding relentlessly against steep cliffs.

When European settlers first approached the Blue Mountains, they considered these geographical features to be impassable. Unbeknownst to them at the time, at least six different groups of aboriginals had lived in this area for thousands of years before the arrival of white colonists.

The creation stories of these indigenous peoples speak first of vast and empty lands. Then the Dreamtime came, and the giant creatures that had been sleeping for countless ages awoke and rose up out of the flatlands. These beings took the form of animals, plants and humans. They traveled across the lands, creating rivers, valleys, and mountains. Not a single physical landmark exists on the face of the land today that was not created and influenced by the Dreamtime beings. But their journeys exhausted them and eventually the Dreamtime creatures returned to the earth to sleep.

The creation story of one group, the Gundungurra, tells that two Dreamtime creatures, one half-fish and the other half-reptile, fought a long battle in the mountains. Their struggles carved out a giant valley, which is now known as Jamison Valley. I stared hard out the left windows of the train car, hoping for a glimpse of eucalyptus trees dropping away to nothingness where the bodies of Mirigan and Garangatch fell. The train continues. Passengers get on and off. I look away.

When in Australia, I think about the indigenous laborers; many physically forced or under threat to build these tracks across the bush and through the mountains. Across their lands I think of the corporation’s financial holdings and wonder in which part of the industrial war machine they sit, accumulating interest. It’s not that I’m under the impression that stealing a ride makes any difference in the larger scheme of all of this, but I do feel better for every dollar I hang onto and spend in a community that I respect, rather than giving it to an international corporation that is accountable to few of the world’s citizens.

We approach Lithgow, and I am happy to see that there are no turnstiles for me to swipe my ticket a second time before leaving; only stairs. I smile and climb. The electrified tracks are set down low between the streets. Lithgow is picturesque, a dramatic sky over red roofs and old wooden and brick buildings. I find my way to the fairgrounds and come to an agreement with the volunteer coordinator. I’ll get a weekend pass into IronFest in exchange for two hours of help each morning. I spend my day watching jousting matches and the crowd of people. Cannons periodically go off, sending plumes of white smoke into the grey skies.

The night is long. I find an unoccupied canvas structure to hide under from the rains, but the winds find me. I try to lash the tarps together more tightly for protection, but in the end give up and crawl into the giant vinyl bag that the tent gets stored in. I wrap myself in trash bags inside of my sleeping bag because I can’t find any newspaper to insulate my body heat with, and as a result wake up cold and sweaty, glad to see the morning.

After IronFest ends, travel back to Sydney is uneventful. It’s a Monday, but it seems as if there are no transit officers to evade. I don’t get off the train once.

Arriving back at Sydney Central with the crowds, I notice a few officers watching the masses pour out in lines to the streets. I avoid the herds and the small gates through which they must swipe their cards to leave. Without pausing to bring attention to myself, I walk confidently to the wide handicapped gate and motion to my large travelers backpack; too wide to fit through the gates.

The bored attendant nods, and unlocks and opens it for me. I walk outside, with plans to head back south to Melbourne. It will take me two days again to hitchhike there, but it’s an easy route to travel and I’d rather stand patiently on the side of the road then stay up overnight on the train watching for transit officers. As it turned out, I would unexpectedly be back in Sydney within a week.

A few days pass and I find myself in Sydney again, saying goodbye to a friend as she boards a plane to head back to the United States. I ride the ridiculously overpriced CityRail Airport Line back to Sydney Central without paying. I feel inconspicuous leaving the airport with my travelers backpack.

Standing back outside on the city streets that morning, I find a payphone and call a friend of a friend. She says they have room in their squat for me, which turns out to be a giant camp under a historic sandstone bridge separating two suburbs of Sydney. I have to take buses out this far, but a few times convince the drivers to let me ride for free, or tell them that I’m only traveling one zone when I board and pay the cheaper fare.

A week passes and I leave Sydney, heading north toward Newcastle. It’s about a two hour trip, and a friend tells me that people are pulled off this route more frequently for riding without a ticket. Nonetheless, I figure it’s worth a try. I arrive on foot to Sydney Central and walk to the ticket machines, stalling for time while I scan the room around me looking for transit officers. I could just buy a cheap ticket to a metro station one stop away to get through the gates, but I’m stubborn and don’t want to, just for the principle of the matter.

I decide on trying to enter through the handicap gate. I’ve had good luck so far with this technique. Though usually staffed, it’s not often that someone asks me for a ticket. This time, security did, and I stared blankly at him for a few seconds.

Resolute, I racked my brain for a plan. Without coming up with a better idea, I try to get him talking for a moment in hopes that he’ll forget to ask me again for my ticket. I tell him that I’m heading to Newcastle but don’t know where my train is. Success! Distracted by my request for directions he confirmed which track I wanted by pointing it out to me, telling me that it was about a two hour ride north. I pointed along with him to the other side of the station as he nodded and smiled, popping open the gate. I thanked him and walked through without a challenge. I smile: one more obstacle behind me. But riding ticketless is still an endless game.

Back home later that summer, I’m crossing over the Cascade Mountains on the old Great Northern railway, now operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. I look at the track bed lying between high rocky crests on the mountain pass.

The train passes over a steel bridge arching dozens of feet above a giant river canyon and I think about the hundreds of Chinese and Japanese laborers who met their end working on railroads in the northwest. Dynamite. Frostbite. Fatigue. Death. I’m not riding a passenger train this time; I’m on the back of a freight train owned by BNSF; one of several Class 1 railroad companies that together use billions of gallons of fuel each year.

No, I’m not riding this train because I think that I’m saving the world. There’s just some indescribable pleasure in riding for free. Some hard-to-pin down feeling of euphoria, of courage, of daring, of adrenaline, and of fear that compels myself and others to hop trains. Some difficult to articulate passion and anger about how it all went down – some deep-seated shame for my country and my people who stand by and blindly consume oil shipped through Burmese pipelines for which entire villages were enslaved to build.

In a way, I’m just looking for pathways through which to channel my frustrations. I know that refusing to pay doesn’t make much of a dent in any corporation’s bottom line, so I’m not about to start proselytizing. But until I’ve found some tangible way to help hold myself and others accountable for our actions and for our privileges, I’ll continue to ride – with one eye on the platform.

Lire cet article en Français sur De Trains en Trains à Travers l’Australie.

*Article originally published in Vagabond Explorer Magazine, Vol. 1

Find out more about the type of travel that Ani showcases in this article on Vagabondjourney.com’s free travel page.

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Filed under: Australia, Budget Travel, Oceania, Train Travel, Travel Stories

About the Author:

Ani St. Amand is truly a modern day hobo, hopping freight trains, stealing rides on passenger trains, and hitchhiking all over this earth. Originally from the state of Maine in the USA, Ani continues to travel “with one eye on the platform.” has written 15 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.