Review: Inside Central Station

This post was originally written in November 2021 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.

In my previous role, I travelled to Sydney from Monday to Friday; this is hardly uncommon for someone who lives in Wollongong, as many more job opportunities are available up the road. The trip by car from my home to Sydney CBD is approximately one hour and 40 minutes, however at peak hour and particularly if you involve a train, this can blow out to over two hours. Once you add the return trip, this is up to four hours of travel per day.

At first, I travelled the whole way by rail, driving only to the local station to catch a service on the T4 (Illawarra) line, arriving at my final stop of Wynyard Station. Although the winding trip between our escarpment and the Tasman Sea is gorgeous before continuing on to Sydney, I found this overall to be a maddening, exhausting experience. As time went on, I optimised my commute by driving 40 minutes to then walk and catch a train at Sutherland Station in South Sydney, which shook things up a bit and made whole the trip shorter; still, I depended on the Sydney Trains network to go the rest of the way, as driving to and parking in the city every day is ridiculously expensive. Trains were always packed and uncomfortable, delays were frequent and railway stations became disgustingly hot and overcrowded (indoors and outdoors) during the warmer months. I have numerous awkward stories and memories from my train trips, including interactions with (somewhat friendly) drug addicts, lecturing someone who was drinking alcohol in a vestibule, telling off people who ran through closing doors, witnessing displays of projectile urination and observing the creative placement of earwax when the offender thought no one was watching.

In the time that I commuted to Sydney, I often looked at the people who worked for Sydney Trains and the broader NSW network and wondered: Why would you want to do this job? All that I saw were packed platforms and frustrated customers; it seemed odd that someone would willingly enter this environment.

After watching the new show Inside Central Station on Australia’s SBS On Demand service, I have a new appreciation for Sydney Trains and the people and technology that keep the network running. The show is a documentary series with episodes of around 45 minutes in duration, with each instalment focusing on a certain theme, collection of people or major event that has an effect on the network—all the while displaying the ongoing of interaction of staff and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As suggested by the name, Sydney’s Central Station is the focal point, however the show includes a range of other stations and sites, such as maintenance facilities, underground tunnels and the Rail Operations Centre that oversees the entire network—lovingly known as the ‘ROC’.

Narrated by Shane Jacobsen, who is known widely for playing the lead role in the Australian comedy film Kenny, the structure of the show cleverly weaves in and out of stories, which leaves you wanting to see the resolution of each one without feeling impatient.

Two highlights of the series include the first episode’s unbelievable insight into the replacement of all the ageing rails and sleepers along the entire Sydney Harbour Bridge, and seeing the effects of 300 millimetres of rain in 48 hours on public transport across the state. You also catch a glimpse of various places and people whom you would never notice, such as rail incident commanders who attend all manner of crime scenes with police, engineers resolving derailments, a historian who looks after the network’s expansive collection of clocks and a night-shift service attendant who kindly mops up drunken passengers’ vomit with a special powder mixture, all the while maintaining the smile on his face and greeting visitors on his platform. I find it unacceptable that he should have to do that, but I admire his dedication and perseverance.

While I was grateful for and respected the work of people in the network, I was often guilty of frustration and impatience when commuting. (You can be sure that I fired an angry tweet or two at their accounts whenever there weren’t enough carriages for what was known to be a busy service—of course, they even introduce the network’s social media person, so I feel bad about that now!) Inside Central Station, however, has heightened my appreciation for this form of public transport and the people who keep it running. The show is well-made and engaging, striking an enjoyable balance between genuine information and human-interest stories, even if certain introductions become repetitive or tedious in the episodic format, to facilitate drop-in-drop-out viewing.

Perhaps I’m biased as a resident of New South Wales and a once regular customer of Sydney Trains, but I think the value here for everyone is this: take a step back and look at something that is a part of your everyday life—whether transport or a place that you visit or depend upon—and think about the unseen effort that goes into making it work for the relatively brief time that you’re present with it.

You can find Inside Central Station here on SBS on Demand.