Travel by night

dominic wilcox driverless car mini cathedralGetting your kicks on route 66. Flimsy motels with flickering neon. Trying to stay awake at the wheel. The only thing that interests me about driverless cars is the way they could do away with all of this tawdriness that we have come to associate with interstate travel since we, the travellers, took control of the wheel. Driverless cars could lead us once again to think of interstate travel as something people do while they are sleeping, as our great parents thought. In our great grandparents’ time one was greeted at dawn by a new city having spent the night being gently rocked by the waves or being tremoloed by train tracks somewhere on the other side of their bunks. In our near future it could be the more familiar buzz of rubber on asphalt being heard through our pillows—I emphasise could.

Will the fantasy of sleeping in a driverless car come to pass? There are too many technical, political and economic variables to assume that it might. Is there any way at all that sleeper travel might ever be mainstream again, on locomotives or ferries? There are certainly obstacles, like the low price with which discount airlines can move our sorry arses between cities and neighbouring countries (albeit in a torturous upright position), or the efficiency of turbo-diesel sedans that can move our whole families from one end of a small country to the other on less than a tank (albeit in a state of highway hypnosis).

Right now though I am moved to consider each and all avenues by which sleeper travel might become cheaper once more. I am inspired by a journey I undertook with my family last week on the Spirit of Tasmania. I am thinking that had Australia never over-invested in freeways for cars, when highways built mainly for trucking may well have sufficed, then half the decks of this ferry would not be given over to parking. Passengers would alight by the gangplank and get onto trains, rather than this nonsense of leaving like batman by car.


And if Australians weren’t so fascinated by aeroplane travel, we would be creating demand for ferry connections between major cities: Brisbane to Sydney; Sydney to Melbourne; Melbourne to Hobart, etc.. Demand would bring competition, faster ferries and lower prices. Taking the ferry, right now, is like going by Amtrak in the US compared to going by Greyhound: about five or ten times more expensive, because it’s so special.

spirit of tasmaniaFor want of reliable figures, I’ll just say a ferry-and-train combination would be more sustainable than the car-and-plane combo we’re working with now by five million percent—but you would probably have a sense of that anyway. What you might not appreciate, is how a 27knot (50kph) ferry is faster than a 700kph jet plane.

That seems absurd until you consider the real length of a 1hr flight between cities. In my experience it starts about 26 hours before you get on the plane, the moment your alarm clock wakes you up early, 26 hours before your scheduled departure. One begins the travel ritual so early to deliberately tire oneself out for the following night, knowing that if they don’t they will have no chance whatsoever of falling asleep knowing their alarm clock will be waking them 3.45 for their 6am flight. But of course none of us sleep, despite the 26 hour tiring ritual. We pace our homes, eat cereal with milk for the enzymes, and maybe nod off at two in the morning.

By the time we arrive for whatever interstate engagement we have flogged ourselves to attend, we have had one hour of sleep, spent an hour in taxis, spent nearly 2 hours in airports, felt something like a bullet being shot through our eardrums from the low cabin pressure, and consumed 6 shots of coffee and six types of painkillers for the headache we’ll be stuck with all day. Most of us take 3 days to recover and our meetings, of course, are disasters.

Our journeys may as well have started half a day later (measuring from that first alarm setting) with an afternoon train (or bike) trip from the centre of town to the ferry. Pop a few pills for the seasickness, grab dinner from the cafeteria on board and retire to your bunk with a beer: that’s how you do it. I had the most incredible sleep ever last week, waking just once to the sensation of being in zero gravity as the ferry rode down the back side of a swell.

I’ll admit dinner and bed linen on a ferry is a cost not incurred when you fly, but only if you (if you are a believer in the superiority of going by plane) are prepared to admit that the cost of a flight is far more than the advertised price of the ticket. Ground connections to and from most airports are in the order of forty bucks each: $160 for one return trip. Discount airlines make as much from their tricks as their tickets. Those 3 coffees you tried to wake yourself with would have cost fifteen bucks on their own. It never stops. And need I spell out the ways interstate travel by car costs many times more than one tank of diesel!

OB-MS079_rubin__HV_20110223130432One hopes the price of jet fuel and car fuel will cause a revival in overnight rail and sea travel. Architecture of the 1920s, with detailing and forms lifted from train and ship design, is a lasting testimony to the magic of travel back then, where aircraft design has influenced one architect, Ghery, and even then only slightly. Cars and planes are exhausting, more expensive than they at first look, and bloody banal.


  1. ian-rm says:

    Stephen, there was a time when the real Australian National Line (not the present,French owned ANL) ran a fleet of roll on roll off ferries all the way along the east coast from Cairns down to Hobart, stopping at various ports on the way. Per tonne of cargo this was ,and still is, the cheapest way to move freight. Sadly, this was lost by stupidity,greed and more than a little lobbying by the truck industry. The only remaining Australian ships are the 6 nightly Tasmanian crossings.2 Spirits, 2 Tolls and 2 Searoads ,and my heart breaks every time I visit Newcastle and see not a single Australian flag.



  2. Luke says:

    Night travel works in some places – you can get overnight trains from London to the Alps so you’re skiing the next morning. Then on the final day, you get most a day’s skiing, and repeat the process. You get back to London just about on time for work, so you don’t have to take an extra day off. What you spend on fares you save on hotels.

    PS did you see this?

    I think they pay for articles, so you might have something for them. If it’s on the lines of “Cities good, green belts bad”, or “build more bloody houses” (the editor’s personal motto), it will probably go down well.

  3. crank says:

    I travelled from Oslo to Singapore whilst never leaving the planet’s surface – train, ferry, bicycle, and the odd bus. Had a bloody marvelous time!

    But my all time fave?
    Be sure to take the *slow* ferries. You can even tent on the deck, or just sleep on the floor if you like 🙂

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