The XPT’s history, Australia’s rail speed records

Brenden Wood
9 min readFeb 11, 2024

The fastest speed that a passenger train has ever travelled in Australia is 210km/h (130.5 mph) — it happened on the 23rd May 1999 when the Queensland Rail electric Tilt Train was operating under test conditions between Meadowvale and Avondale, near Bundaberg in Queensland.

Prior to the Tilt Train, the New South Wales government established an Australian rail speed record of 183 km/h between Table Top and Gerogery, north of Albury, when they were testing the new InterCity XPT train on 6th September 1981.

The XPT parked at Sydney railways stations. Photo: Brenden Wood

Nine years later, NSW rail staff then beat their own speed record on 18th September 1992 when a test XPT travelled at 193km/h (119.9 mph) between Table Top and Yerong Creek, which was conducted along a longer length of the rail line than the 1981 speed test.

The XPT parked at Bathurst and a photo showing the seating in the sleeper carriage. Photo: Brenden Wood

The XPT rail service has been operating passenger services to interstate capital cities and NSW regional centres from Sydney since 1982. And in this article I’ll explore some of the history of the XPT, whose design was inspired by British Rail’s InterCity 125, later known as the High Speed Train (HST).

XPT history podcast

In an exclusive interview, John Shields talks us through the history of the XPT rail service in New South Wales. John has decades of experience managing the fleet, and ended his career as the general manager of Countrylink NSW which was the outfit that used to oversee the XPT fleet’s services.

“Some would say that the ‘X’ in XPT stands for ‘expensive’”, John Shields humoured on the podcast.

Click here to listen to the XPT history podcast with John Shields.

Comeng at Granville

In 1979 the Wran government announced that Granville’s Commonwealth Engineering, known as Comeng, had been awarded the contract to build 100 high speed rail vehicles which was wound back to 30 when the contract was signed in 1980.

Canberra Times — Thurs 8th February 1979

In a 1981 report produced by L. D. McNaughton of Comeng and J. R. Broadley of the State Rail of NSW, they assessed speeds for the XPT: “The train speed will be comparatively slow compared to the British HST because of the high proportion of sharp curves. The planned running time to Albury of around seven hours (Average Speed 93km/h) can only be reduced by some 20 minutes if all the curves were superelevated for the X.P. T. and freight operations were eliminated. Under British conditions the 650km journey could be up to three hours less. Where New South Wales track conditions are sympathetic such as between Junee and Albury an average speed of l2lkm/h is achievable.”

McNaughton and Broadley concluded: “A frequent question asked is where will ·the train run at l60km/h? Obviously the speeds of X.P. T. , in the main, will be governed by the curves, not so much the gradients as the train will have sufficient power to maintain track speeds on these. The areas where l60km/h could be run are between Junee and Albuy or Parkes and Broken Hill; the high speed acceptance trials will probably be run in the Western Metropolitan Section for convenience. The first operational X.P. T. trains will probably be confined to a maximum speed of 130km/h, and the speed will be increased to that dictated by demand and operating conditions. Even so, with this type of high performance train large inroads into present journey times will be made…Engineers are confident that X.P.T. will fulfill all its roles, and this train will be the classic example of what combined technologies can achieve. X.P.T. will be kind to our tracks, more so than any other train in N.S.W.”

The XPT drivers’ cabin was designed by Comeng employee John Dunn. He worked closely with drivers Don Chapman and Bill Summers on the cab design.

“John wanted a cab that the drivers would be comfortable working in. The three of them spent a lot of time with mock-ups to get it right,” says John Shields in the podcast.

Media representatives inspect the new XPT driver’s cabin. Credit: Photographer Kevin Brown, Women’s Weekly — 14th October 1981

“John told me that he was on holidays in Switzerland in the mid 80s and called in at the headquarters of ABB in Baden and asked at reception if any of their loco design people were available for a chat. After a short wait, the entire loco design team arrived at reception wanting to meet him. He was surprised to discover they had adopted the XPT cab design as their preferred model for the Swiss Railways latest locomotive and it has become the basis of design ~ with enhancements of course ~ for almost all locomotives produced in Europe since. From little things big things grow,” said former Countrylink manager John Shields.

XPT driver Bill Summers, who gave advice to Comeng’s John Dunn about the XPT cabin design, with manager John Shields. Photo credit: John Shields

Copies of John Dunn’s books, A History of Commonwealth Engineering, can be read at the state or national libraries, or, if you’re lucky you might find some copies selling online. In volume 4, John Dunn drills-down into the XPT history.

The State Rail Authority of NSW commissioned an excellent documentary about their design of the XPT. “The XPT came through with flying colours”, said the presenter of the XPT’s trail. Below is the doco.

The SRA’s XPT video — parts two can be found here, and part three here.

XPT delivered to NSW Government

On the day before Anzac Day in 1981, Comeng delivered the first XPT train to NSW premier Neville Wran.

Comeng delivered the first XPT to the NSW Government on 24th April 1981. This photo shows a publicity opportunity at Comeng in Granville, attended by the NSW premier Neville Wran. Photo credit: Ron Bannon
Canberra Times — Tuesday 25th April 1981

The XPT on display

The first XPT was delivered to the government during an election year. The NSW state election was held on Saturday 19th September 1981. And between when the XPT was delivered by Comeng in April, and the election in September the new train was kept busy touring around the state.

The XPT departing Campbelltown and the XPT sleeper carriage. Photos: Brenden Wood

Three months before the 1981 election, the minister for transport Peter Cox told Australian Associated Press that he had ordered a speed record to be attempted between Tarcoola — which is in the middle of South Australia — and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

Australian Associated Press— Friday 12th June 1981

There is no record of the speed recorded being attempted by any XPT in South Australia or the Northern Territory. The premier eventually won the election, in his second ‘Wranslide’ — this was despite announcing when the XPT would begin actually carrying paying passengers.

Canberra Times — Friday 28th August 1981
Tuesday 8th September — Canberra Times

XPT media spin

After winning the election, the NSW Government invited media aboard the train in October 1981 to sample the higher speeds that the XPT could achieve — this XPT test had a guard’s van from the Southern Aurora attached, reported journalists at the time.

“The XPT can do 183km/h but it’s designed to be a high-speed train,” XPT public relations officer Pat Prendergast told Sandra Moore of the Australian Women’s Weekly.

“It’s a high-performance train designed to extract the maximum speed from existing track conditions. Journey times will be significantly reduced.”

In late-1981 the XPT was regarded cynically by some rail staff. “It was called the ghost train,” said project manager for XPT Country Services Peter Niven to the Women’s Weekly.

“When it did eventuate, some called it a white elephant. Now, it’s called the tadpole, all up front and nothing behind,” joked Mr Niven.

Canberra Times — Monday 9th November 1981

1982 — The XPT’s launch year

Canberra Times — 3rd February 1982
XPT trial run to and from Albury on 2nd and 3rd April 1982 — travelling via Strathfield, Lidcombe and Cabramatta

First XPT service

The first passenger service of the XPT occurred on the 8th April 1982 when the train travelled from Sydney to Dubbo.

‘Four days after the first revenue run of the Central West service, the new XPT climbs past Smiths Hill, between Newbridge and Athol’. Photo taken on 12th April 1982. Credit: Paul G Hogan

XPT Royal Train

Two XPTs were converted to Royal Trains for Princess Diana and Prince Charles who visited Terrigal and Gosford on Sunday 31st January 1988.

XPT Royal Train driver Ted Daley (left) and pilot driver Dave Johnson at Meeks Road. Photo credit: John Shields

As part of the Bicentennial celebrations, the royal couple had to be in Kirribilli to watch fireworks that night and they were assigned two XPT trains to travel from Gosford to Milsons Point via the North Shore line.

One of the XPT Royal Trains at Gosford. Inset photos show Princess Di boarding the train, and engineers at Meeks Road affixing the Prince of Wales crest. Photo credits: John Shields

There was a lot of publicity about their XPT Royal Train. I saw their trains pass through Woy Woy late in the afternoon. Former XPT employee John Shields was privy to the planning for the day, and revealed in the XPT history podcast that the defence force had been assigned to secure the two ventilation stacks above the Woy Woy railway tunnel.

The two XPT Royal Trains travelling through Thornleigh with Charles and Diana. Photo Credit: Andrew Hayne

The 1990s

Canberra Times — Saturday 24th November 1990
A regrettable incident that occurred at the XPT’s Meeks Road service centre, near Sydenham. Driver John Moffat lost a finger in the collision. Photo credit: Bob McAlpine

Least popular XPT carriage revealed

Canberra Times — Saturday 13th March 1993

2024 XPT passenger review

Yesterday my wife and I travelled from Melbourne to Sydney with the XPT. We caught the 8:30am train from Southern Cross station. The train was due to arrive in Sydney at 8:10pm.

The train was about 60% full when it departed Southern Cross station.

Our XPT service was on time, and even arrived at Junee 5 minutes early. But we had to wait at Junee for the late-running southbound XPT to pass. At Junee, the northbound train is required to reverse into the platform to pick up and set down passengers after the southbound train stops for their passengers. The southbound train was about 15 minutes late.

The XPT departing Melbourne’s Southern Cross station — Saturday 11th February 2024. Photo: Brenden Wood

I sense the rail infrastructure at Junee needs to be improved — an extra line to cater for two trains? Or maybe the re-opening of the platform at the western side of the Junee railway station.

Our driver did well to make up time, arriving at the next station, Cootamundra, on time at 2:41pm.

But, despite being told that our XPT might reach speeds of 160km/h our train never went higher than 120km/h, even in southern NSW.

The XPT travelling north through Southern NSW. Photo: Brenden Wood

The XPT arrived 20 minutes late at Moss Vale, and 19 minutes late at Sydney’s Central railway station.

The seats were very comfortable. The XPT staff were excellent. And the buffet has a good variety of food, drinks and snacks.

Luggage rack and the kitchen on the XPT. Photo: Brenden Wood