The Blues Train

Rockin', rollin', ridin'
Jayne D'Arcy The Age, Travel p.18, 21 February 2010

It's the ultimate travel experience, if, as T. S. Eliot once said, "the journey, not the arrival matters". Hop on a train, get out at all the stations along the way and disembark exactly where you began three hours (and a few drinks) later. Sure, it's a commuter's nightmare, but throw in four blues artists, call it the Blues 'Thain and it starts to sound like fun.

It's hard to know what to expect with the Blues Train. The image I'd conjured up pre-departure consisted of blues musicians wandering through the four carriages, London Tube busker-style, while we sat passively, admiring the scenic Bellarine Peninsula. I'd imagined a noisy, bucolic version of Melbourne's Colonial Tramcar Restaurant.

We arrive at Queenscliff Station at 7pm and pass through security (there's a strict no BYO policy) before queuing up at the platform's bar to buy enough drinks to last us through dinner as well as the journey to the next station.

Charismatic Blues Train founder Hugo T. Armstrong takes hold of the loudspeaker (something not unfamiliar to him - he's been a PBS FM radio presenter for more than 20 years) and instructs the assembled crowd what to do and not do. Suddenly the noticeable security presence makes sense; we are talking booze and trains after all.

People grab plates and help themselves to the buffet dinner. At 8pm the engine spouts impressive plumes of steam. We've been issued with fluorescent wristbands indicating the order of carriages that we'll be sitting in, and 1 realise that the musicians are not roving - we are. We take our places (first in, best seated) on the springy reconditioned red leather seats in carriage A. As the train begins to choof off, our musician, seated in the centre of the carriage, but roped off from any crazed fans, begins strumming his guitar.

It's a strange sensation. The historic train is full of passengers who are, in effect, going nowhere, while outside the sun sets on the picturesque Queenscliff stretch of the Bellarine Peninsula. People have parked their cars on the grassy verge to see the train roll out of town and they're waving at us as though we're Thomas the Tank Engine.

Carriage A features George Kamikawa, a Japanese blues singer and guitarist who Armstrong found busking on Bourke Street Mall (you can still spot him there). He's gutsy and fun and gets us yelling "Kampai" ("cheers" in Japanese) each time he takes a swig from his bottle. It takes a mere five minutes before a couple of women are up and dancing in the aisle.

A couple of things happen at each stop: people make a rush for the toilets (there are none on board so it's not a trip for the weak-bladdered) and then stock up on drinks to last until the next stop. When the train toots, we get into a new carriage and a different musician begins playing. At Drysdale the train starts its homeward journey. Carriage D stands for "dancing", and since it's our last carriage before returning to Queenscliff, we're well warmed up. The Andrea Marr Band is in full flight, people are dancing and the train is rolling to a stop. There's a frequent chorus of "Kampai". Indeed. What a journey.


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