Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Quick Trip to Queensland: out hunting EMUs

So we're in the middle of Brisbane, living atop Central station, and have half a day to kill. What shall we do? We shall go gunzelling!

We left Asha to rest her weary knees and read her book, bought a GoCard (which is, according to the station staff, like a Myki but refundable), and headed down to the platforms. Since all the lines run at a fairly low frequency there were some minutes before the next service was due, but that was OK because it gave us a chance to check Wikipedia so we could recognise the different types of train. The original 1970s EMUs are almost all still in service, so let's ride as many as we can!

Central Station has an underpass connecting the platforms which is lined with old photos of QR operations - a sort of mini museum. The stand-out feature for me was a little window in the wall (which was, we saw, only a modern facade over a much older wall) showing all the types of tiles which had lined the underpass in years past. Let's bear this in mind for Flinders Street - since the tiles are heritage listed but any attempt to clean them is doomed to failure because of their maintenance intensity, we should copy this idea of just preserving a very small section in a special heritage section of the station.

When we finished looking at the photos we started our gunzelling with a trip to Roma Street. If you're reading at home, you can think of Central as Flinders Street and Roma Street as Southern Cross. So we found ourselves an EMU, jumped aboard and waited. Yes, Central is like Flinders Street even to the amount of dwell time for each train running through.

EMUs have a quite distinct set of sounds. Most of them are vaguely reminiscent of a W tram - the controller notching up, the motors revving, and the air brakes. We never heard the compressors though. The seats aren't original, but they're very nice, just like the ones in the IMUs we rode last night.

At Roma Street we headed for Platform 10, to see if any long distance trains were running. Mmmm, narrow gauge locos. Or maybe tilt trains. No such luck - it being Boxing Day there was track work and everything was bustituted. Then we went to Platform 2, which is where the XPT calls in. Dual gauge track with a huge gap between the rails! And overhead wires!

Even better, Roma Street has a busway stop attached - in fact, the busway is really part of the station, because there's cross-platform interchange between the XPT and the south-eastern busway. Now I have to tell you, busways are big in Brisbane - since the trains have such low frequency, the buses have to be pretty good, so they've given them Class A right-of-way to make them quick. Shall we take a ride? Yes, let's.

We don't want to get lost, so we take a bus which is heading for another bus/rail interchange. The bus is just like any other (a fairly modern Volgren, for the record) but as it descends into the tunnel we're disappointed to see that the busway is just a road - no o-bahn guidance system or anything. There's even traffic lights to separate out the different routes, so while they've done the most expensive bit of Class A infrastructure (the tunnel) there's a lot they could do with smart technology to speed up the trips.

South Bank isn't a very good bus/train interchange, but that's not a disaster because it's so close to the city that people are unlikely to interchange there. Heading to the station we find that it's 15 minutes before the next train back to the city, but that gives us a chance to take photos of outbound trains!

We stay on the train through Central and go to Bowen Hills, partly to get a bit more of a run (it's another EMU so we want to get as much time on them as possible) but mostly because Mayne Depot is there. We saw it on the way in last night - sparks, locos, the lot, all maintained and stabled there. Unfortunately we can't get anywhere near it because of the security, and there's a freeway bridge running right past so we can't even walk around the perimeter like we used to do at Southbank tram depot.

It's now time to head back and check out of the hotel. Kristi is coming to pick us up and life is always fun when she's around.

A Quick Trip to Queensland: landing in Brisbane

By reading the destructions in the in-flight magazine Midga has worked out that wifi can be switched on independently of flight mode, and now has full access to the entertainment app. Without headphones the only thing to do is look at the map - as we fired up the app we were flying between Gunnedah and Tamworth, and the lights of the town were visible below. Only just - it's a bit foggy, and the wingtip light means we can't see a lot. On a plane this size it feels like we can reach out the window and touch the wingtip (and it even has a nice winglet which would provide a nice hand hold) but on a pressurised plane I don't think it would be a good idea.

Soon after we started our descent and tried to gather as much geographical knowledge about South East Queensland as possible. The landing itself was pretty smooth, but the amount of reverse thrust that was applied to bring us up was quite substantial. The E190 feels a lot more nimble than a 777 though, so it didn't feel out of place.

We disembarked (last - it's easiest to just stay put and let everyone else crowd the aisle as long as they want to), collected our baggage and headed for the Airtrain. Now last time Midga was in Brisbane he didn't know either me or Asha, but he did know about trains, and decided to ride from International to Domestic while Dad was de-hiring the hire car. This time we'd take a proper journey, all the way to the city.

We just missed a service, and the normal train frequency in Brisbane is half an hour. That's not so good. Still, nothing to do but wait. Well, and make snide Facebook posts about narrow gauge rails.

By the time we got onto the train it was dark, and the double glazing and scratchiti meant we couldn't see much out the window. For the record, it was IM8162, the I standing for Interurban - this service would run all the way to the Gold Coast. The seating was about the same as we'd find on any spark at home, but with Real Padding that would stay comfortable for the whole trip. It was very quiet inside, even when we were cruising at 100km/h.

Coming off the airport branch onto the main system we merged with two other lines, onto a single track section which went for quite some distance! No wonder the frequency isn't going past half-hourly, they must have awful timetables during peak time.

We got to Central station, disembarked and pulled out Google Maps. We needn't have bothered though, the signs to our hotel were right there along with the rest of the station signs! The hotel is literally part of the station complex. Let's bear that in mind when we talk about refurbing Flinders Street!

The humans were quite tired and I was running low on battery, so we didn't do much more that night. The hotel room had a desk, which was a logical place to put charging electronics, but since we use Bible Gateway instead of carrying a dead-tree Bible, evening devotions had to be done there instead of in bed! So if anyone asks you what it's like to see a grown man standing in a hotel room in his pyjamas reading Hebrew names off a smart phone (we're up to 1 Chronicles), you may refer them to Asha for her opinion.

A Quick Trip to Queensland: the Jungle Jet

We made it to our new gate without incident - well, with only one incident. Midga had completely forgotten that he had his mini screwdriver set in my case, a throwback to the days when my hard drive was playing up. Customs in Terminal 4 had examined them closely but not said anything. In Terminal 3 they said screwdrivers are prohibited on flights and took them off us. Ah well, we'll get another set some time, and they'll be brand new instead of slightly damaged ones.

So as I was saying, we got to our new gate. It was right at the end of the terminal so we weren't sure which plane was ours, but there was a Jungle Jet (Embraer E190) out the window and we were hopeful.

As we arrived the staff were in the middle of an announcement about people who might have trouble boarding - and said we'd be using airstairs instead of an aerobridge! What fun! Asha said she'd appreciate help with the stairs (her knees are still giving her a bit of grief) so she got to get on board first. Midga and I followed, and since we were from a bumped flight we were right down the back in the cheap seats - which was great because we could get in and settled before everyone else started crowding onto the plane.

We've never been on one of these before, but wanted to ever since Australian Aviation ran an article about them. It said they'd done a lot of second-mouse improvements over the 737 and A320 ("The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese" - ie if you wait til someone else has gone in and done something, you can learn from their mistakes). The windows are nearly twice as wide as on a 737, and line up with the seats fairly accurately. The fuselage is wide enough for 2+2 seats with a very comfortable amount of width and an aisle that people can pass each other in. And the way Virgin have done them there's enough leg room even for Midga to stretch out without kicking the person in front. I very much suspect we're in better comfort here than in Emirates' 777s!

There was a bit of condensation coming out of the air conditioning as we were waiting for takeoff - the same as on the Aldi Airlines DC-9 we flew when we were in the USA. Maybe it's a back-of-the-plane thing.

Now here's something for the tech heads. Midga and I can't work it out with our combined expertise so let's open it to the world. As part of the In-Flight Entertainment there's free wifi on board this plane (told you the Jungle Jets were good), but to access it we need Virgin's app and - here's the weird bit - we need to be in flight mode. Doesn't flight mode turn off wifi? Or does Virgin's app have special permission to use wifi even with flight mode on? Anyway, we can't seem to make it work, and besides, we don't have any headphones so the only option is to pay for them. That kinda takes away the value of free wifi. Shame about the movies though.

Fairly soon after we reached altitude the snacks came around. Being a much smaller cabin than on a 777 they arrived at our seats pretty quickly, even with only one trolley doing the whole plane. Midga put his tray down to hold his cup of tea, and I could fit on the remaining section of the tray. It's good being a slightly smaller laptop sometimes.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Quick Trip to Queensland: departure, take two

Good afternoon dear listeners, you'll never guess what happened! About two seconds after we last spoke, our flight was cancelled. They'd been juggling flights around departure gates for a bit, so I suspect we got the short end of the stick in a massive cascading exercise - take a plane from a less-crowded flight to avoid cancelling a more-crowded flight, and delay another flight to allow a crew from an incoming flight to make a quick transfer to avoid another cancellation.

So we're now flying with Virgin instead of Jetstar, which is fine with me because it'll probably be a 737 or E190 rather than an A320. It's departing two hours later than our Jetstar flight was going to, so hopefully the Brisbane Airtrain runs all night on public holidays.

Virgin's check in system hadn't caught up with the fact that we're now flying with them so they told us to come back in an hour. Jetstar gave us some vouchers for airport food as an apology for the inconvenience - and while I deplore the silly habit most humans have of eating all the time, if they must do it it's probably better to do it now than when they get to Brissie. And the cafe they chose to eat at has a TWROAPP!

As a "new world order airline" rather than a low cost airline, Virgin fly from Terminal 3 not Terminal 4. It's a few years since Asha worked at the airport but she still knows every nook and cranny of T3 - no matter how much the shops and decor get changed the structure is still the same.

I guess that makes it time to go and check in. I'm going to get x-rayed again, I bet you. No pain, no gain...

A Quick Trip to Queensland: day 1, departure

For no reason at all folks, what's the date? December 25th, it's Christmas! What, so they both fall on the same day? Must be slippery!

Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. My name's Clippy and I'll be your compere for this holiday blog.

So I guess you're all wondering where we are. Well look around you - airliners, overpriced coffee, crying babies, and banks upon banks of uncomfortable seating. Yes folks, we are in an AIRPORT!

To be quite exact we're in the brand new Terminal 4 at Tullamarine. It's very nice - lots of windows for looking at planes from, power points at every seat in the eating areas, and drinking fountains that have vertical taps for filling water bottles. Considering it's the "el cheapo" end of Tullamarine, serving Jetstar and Tigerair, I'm quite happy with it. A High Speed Rail station underneath is the only thing that could improve it.

So we're flying with Deathstar, and our A320 is just outside the window waiting for us. Narrowbody jets look so tiny after all the 777s we've been on before! The cafe next to the terminal has a huge mural of a Douglas A-26 Invader (the 1944-45 version with the eight guns in the nose, can't remember which version it is), and the radial engines on the wall look bigger than the whole fuselage of the Airbus.

We used the self-service check in to drop off our hold luggage. It's quite a painless process, just press a few buttons, scan a few barcodes and you get your luggage ID sticker. Stick it on, drop it on the conveyor belt and you're done. And there's people around to help if you need it.

Then we went through the usual x-ray (they took a good hard look as I went through - all the phone chargers etc were packed in the front pocket and it lit up like a Christmas tree) and then tramped through the endless corridors to our gate. Since this is the budget end of the airport we didn't have to thread our way through duty free alcohol and jewellery shops, which was an unexpected bonus.

Our flight has just come up on the departure board so I'm going to sign off and have a short snooze until Midga lets me know we're at altitude and I'm allowed out. Talk soon!