This is the first, and maybe only, post in an occasional series about living in Newcastle, NSW -just north of Sydney on the map if you’re looking from outside Australia.
After several years of living in Newcastle and involvement in a number of aspects of Newcastle life I’ve decided to put some words down about what’s wrong with the place, and maybe some others about how it could be improved. If you want to agree, disagree, observe or comment otherwise, please do. That would be grand.
There is one phrase I hear – and say – fairly often: “Newcastle is easy to get around.” It’s true. No part of the main part of Newcastle city is more than about 25 minutes drive from any other. Newcastle has a negligible peak traffic time in the morning – maybe half an hour of real slowdown if you’re unlucky. Behind this comfortable fact are some other issues, however.
My favourite peeve currently is the trains. Not so much that the main train station has been closed down and the rail line covered over to accommodate – nothing. I’m not aware that any real plans have been made for what goes in that long vacant lot that now slides through the heart of the downtown; certainly nothing visible is happening. It’s not even that the somewhat vague plan for a light rail in town seems to have disappeared from view entirely, although public transport in the greater Newcastle/Lake Macquarie area is wretched. It’s really about the trains to Newcastle*
Many times I have heard, and sometimes said, something like: “Sydney’s only a train ride away.” Technically this is true. In fact, it’s at least five, yes five hours of train travel for a day out in the big city, maybe six or more depending on the train. So, you get on the train at least kind of early to make it to what you want to see before midday, see or do it, then back onto the train for another maybe three hours back home.
That is lot of travel time, if you want to see a show, go to a gallery, go for a meal, check out the zoo, or whatever. Then you say: “well, just stay the night” – but now we’re into a whole realm of other things, like hotel rooms, giving money to AirBnB for not much, meals, getting someone to mind the cats, etc, etc.
The last time I did this I began to think more than passingly about the fact that this train trip, between two big places, happens on nineteenth century hardware. A trip that might take anything from an hour to 45 minutes on even moderately modern ‘high speed’ rail in many countries is stretched out to at least 2 & 1 ⁄2 hours here. Commuting, which I have never done, must be a never-ending nightmare for those that have decided to do this. Even from halfway between Sydney and Newcastle on the Central Coast, the hours that are eaten from your life every week would be shocking – much more than a full working day taken, every week, from your existence.
I am aware that the poor state of almost all NSW train lines outside Sydney is legendary, with decades of neglect and mismanagement turning slow train rides into a cliche. I have in the past ridden the mail trains to the Victorian border, so slow that you could hang out a window and count the sleepers as they passed under the train. They have been this way for forty years at least, which is the span of my personal experience.
Whatever the reasons for this state of affairs, and I am sure there are more than a couple, it has the effect of holding Newcastle at arm’s length from Sydney, reputedly one of the most beautiful, vibrant and interesting cities in the developed world**.
But, you may say – drive your car. I guess. But it takes the same amount of time, parking fees are rapacious, and if you’re the driver the relaxation factor is not there.
Newcastle, in fact, is not close to Sydney at all.
The general thrust of these posts will be that Newcastle exists in a little bubble. Inside the bubble, the people of Newcastle tend to think they have the best of everything. There are however several factors that mean that there is an uncertain basis for this claim, one of them being that travel to Sydney is in fact such a pain in the arse that many people in Newcastle don’t actually go there more than once or twice a year. So Newcastle, while having all the potential in the world, is handicapped by a number of factors that keep it in the gilded prison of being a country town, one of them being that they have no realistic basis for comparison.
I feel it’s worth commenting on these, one reason being I’d love everyone in Newcastle to be as pissed off with the train to Sydney as I am.
*well, okay, to Broadmeadow – trains actually go not quite to Newcastle now.
** yes, yes, I know, Newcastle has good things too. I’ll get to them in another post.