Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Parkes: The legendary Elvis Express

In terms of unusual train journeys, this is one train ride that is all shook up. The Elvis Express begins Down Under in Australia at Sydney's Central Station, and heads 365 kms west to the outback town of Parkes in central western New South Wales. But not before passengers are treated to a concert on the platform at Central Station by some of the world's best Elvis impersonators before boarding the train. You see, this is no ordinary train journey. This is The Elvis Express, a train journey that heads to The Elvis Capital of Australia, an outback town called Parkes.

The once-weekly Outback Explorer arrives in the Central Western New South Wales town of Parkes.

Parkes, New South Wales. Outback Australia. About as far as you can get from Graceland, USA. But it doesn't stop hundreds of Elvis fans from dressing up in white sequin jumpsuits and boarding the Elvis Express from Sydney's Central Station on the second week of January each year to celebrate Elvis Presley's birthday on the 8th of January. The train always sells-out when tickets go on sale each August, and for five days the town of Parkes is transformed into a Down Under Graceland for the Parkes Elvis Festival. I've passed through the outback town of Parkes, (named after early the early Australian politician Sir Henry Parkes), many times when travelling the Newell Highway. The key regional centre that boasts a population of 12,000 is perhaps more famous for 'the dish', the huge CSIRO radio telescope famous for beaming pictures of the moon landing around the globe, and star of the Australian comedy film of the same name. It also boasts a large railway station that serves as a stop on the twice-weekly Indian Pacific trans-continental train journey between Sydney and Perth and a weekly train called the Outback Explorer that travels as far as Broken Hill.

Parkes Railway Station in 2011 with passengers waiting to board the train for Broken Hill.

I was fortunate enough to arrive in town on my most recent trip through Parkes, (in 2011 on my way back to Queensland from Tasmania), and discover while making my customary five minute stop to photograph yet another railway station that a train was due to arrive shortly. To a railfan in Australia, my US readers should first understand that this is as exciting as scoring courtside tickets to a Laker's game. Country rail lines in Australia often see sparse rail traffic, and passenger trains are even less frequent. To my wife and kids waiting in the car it was nothing short of a nuisance. I didn't want to leave my vantage point on the pedestrian overpass to let them know of my discovery in case the train happened to arrive when I left. After five minutes of groans and sighs from my children, God bless them, my wife arrived at my side and after learning that the train was due any moment waited patiently with me on the overpass. However, I soon learnt the train was running half an hour late!

Parkes has long been a busy western railway station on the former NSWGR. Photo taken 2011.

By the time the three-car-long Outback Explorer finally pulled into Parkes, my wife had long given up and had walked across the street to buy the kids KFC for lunch. My five minute stop had turned into a forty minute delay on our long trip back to Queensland while Dad took a picture of a train.

The Outback Xplorer bound for Broken Hill leaves Parkes Railway Station, 2011.

Still I wonder if it was The Elvis Express arriving that day if they would have been as excited as I was. Rock n' roll music, a street parade and hundreds of blue suede shoes as a train load of Elvis's got off at Parkes. Then again, there would have been more than four people waiting on the platform for the train to arrive.

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