|The Overland, the longest-running inter-capital passenger rail service in Australia, is celebrating its 135th birthday today.
The 19th of January marks the day that the first Intercolonial Expresses departed the respective cities, but as this train no longer runs daily, it will not travel through the Wimmera today, Journey Beyond is planning to mark the anniversary of the arrival of the first Intercolonial Express into Melbourne tomorrow morning with an event at Southern Cross Station.
The passenger service between the Victorian and South Australian capitals commenced in January 1887 once the last link in the inter-colonial railway was opened between Dimboola and Serviceton near the border on January 19, 1887.
Originally knowns as the Intercolonial Express, or the Adelaide Express and the Melbourne Express (by those west of the border), it was given the name The Overland Express in 1926, which has since been shortened to just The Overland.
Since August 1993, it has been the only passenger train to service the Wimmera after the twice-daily train between Melbourne and Dimboola was cut back to Ararat and eventually only as far as Ballarat in May the following year. The train to Ararat was restored just over ten years later, in May 1994, but currently, no intra-state passenger trains venture any further west.
As the rail gauge in both Victoria and South Australia are the same, the Intercolonial Express could travel all the way from one city to the other, unlike the trip north to Sydney that up until the 1960s required passengers to change to a different train at the border.
Despite this, until the 1980s, each state provided the locomotives to haul the train through their territory with a change at Serviceton near the border, but the passengers could remain in their seats or bunks for the whole journey. As a result, locomotives from either state could be seen hauling the service, and it was not unusual for one from each state to operate together.
Having been run by the state government railways for over one hundred years, the operation was privatised in 1997, with Great Southern Rail Limited taking over the management of the train. They sub-contracted the haulage of the train to Pacific National. The operator is currently known as Journey Beyond.
For over one hundred years, this service operated as an overnight train in each direction seven days per week, and in its heyday consisted of up to nineteen vehicles including sitting and sleeping carriages, dining, cafeteria or buffet cars, was all hauled by two locomotives. There was even provision in the timetables for a second train in each direction when demand required it.
Through the Wimmera, these trains stopped at Ararat, Stawell, Murtoa, Horsham, Dimboola, Nhill, Kaniva, and Serviceton.
The reduction from a daily service began in May 2000 when it was reduced to four times per week, operating to Melbourne during the day and to Adelaide overnight. In May 2007, it was rescheduled to three times per week in each direction, with all journeys during the day, and by August 2013, it was reduced further to the current twice weekly in each direction.
The Motorail service was added to The Overland in late 1979, allowing passengers to take their car with them, and this lasted for 36 years, with a period during the mid-2000s when the Melbourne terminus at Spencer Street Station was being redeveloped the only time it was not included before it was removed altogether in November 2015.
Over recent years the service has been under pressure, with the South Australian government removing their financial support altogether in 2018 and although the Victorian government continues to subsidise the service, their funding agreement usually only cover short periods at a time, leading to uncertainty over the train’s long-term future.
COVID has added the extra complications of border restrictions and other COVID-related measures contributing to service suspensions for extended periods over the last two years, but for now, it has returned.
In 2022 The Overland operates twice weekly in each direction as a daylight service and typically consists of a single locomotive hauling seven coaches.
The train departs Melbourne on Monday and Friday mornings and Adelaide on Sunday and Thursday mornings and no longer stops at Murtoa, Kaniva or Serviceton. The trains may also skip some stops if there are no passengers booked to join or depart, but it regularly pauses at Dimboola to change over drivers.
It is scheduled at Dimboola eastbound at 1.34 pm on Sunday and 1.10 pm on Thursday, and westbound at 1.20 pm on Mondays and 1.28 pm on Fridays.