The Spirit of Queensland: Cairns to Brisbane Train [REVIEW]

The Spirit of Queensland train is a luxury train that makes the 1600km trip from Cairns to Brisbane. Over its 30 hour journey, it stops in at key Queensland towns, including Mackay, Rockhampton, Townsville and Bundaberg. This is a modern rail travel experience not as common in Australia as the rest of the world and a rail journey worth checking out as you explore Queensland.

We asked travel writer Maureen Spender to share a review of her recent experience on the train to help you decide if long-distance rail travel is right for you.

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On a recent trip to Cairns from the Gold Coast, the Bag Carrier and I flew up to Cairns but returned on the Spirit of Queensland train to Brisbane. We love a good train trip, and the shiny 100km to a maximum speed of 160km per hour tilting train called the Spirit of Queensland sounded like it was going to be quite a different experience to the usual Australian train trip. Here’s how it went. We travelled in a railbed seat, so our review reflects this.

Is it a plane or a train?

With its luxurious seating and flat rail beds, on first glance, you might wonder if you have accidentally boarded a plane. This train offers a modern rail travel experience with great entertainment options. It really does offer a similar experience to that you get when you fly and if you are a train buff you will appreciate that the entire trip is a comfortable and convenient way to explore the Queensland coast.

How long does a trip on the Spirit of Queensland take?

The Spirit of Queensland train departs Cairns Railway Station at 8.35 am five times a week, there is no trip on Tuesdays or Saturdays. The overnight journey is 1680 km long and takes about 25 hours.

Explore the best of Queensland by rail with Spirit of Queensland
Explore the best of Queensland by rail with Spirit of Queensland

You will travel in daylight from Cairns to Proserpine (6pm) or Mackay in summer (7.36pm) and arrive ain Brisbane the following morning at 9.20am.

You get approximately the same daylight time in either direction and the same scenery. The Mackay to Maryborough section is completed at night in both directions.

The return trip between Brisbane and Cairns also travels five times a week, with no service on Thursdays or Sundays. It departs Brisbane at 3.45 pm and arrives in Cairns at 4.30 pm the following day.

Should you choose a rail bed or a premium economy seat?

If you decide to travel on the Cairns to Brisbane trip by train, your first decision will be which class of ticket to book. Premium Economy is the popular option for people doing shorter sections of the route and not requiring a lie flat bed for the night section. It is comfortable and all that most travellers not staying on board overnight would need.

The Premium economy carriages have four seats per row- two on each side of the aisle. The leather seats are reasonably spacious, with 43 inches of pitch, and can be reclined 30 degrees. Each seat has its own entertainment system -an 8.9inch screen on the back of the seat in front.

Spirit of Queensland Premium Economy carriage
Premium Economy seating

There are overhead lockers for luggage, a powerpoint for phone charging, and a reading light. Your ticket allows you to take one 20 kg bag and one carry-on item. A knee blanket is provided, but no pillows.

Food and drink are available from the Galley Car, which is open 24 hours and provides meals, drinks, and snacks.

We booked the Railbed option, as we are now of an age where sleeping sitting up in a seat is too tough! The Railbed seats are very similar to a business class seat on a plane in style and design. This was unlike anything we had previously experienced on a train.

Railbed Car - Spirit of Queensland
Railbed Car – Spirit of Queensland Credit: Queensland Rail

Each seat or pod is contained within its own hardback shell. There are three seats (pods) per row- two on one side of the aisle and one on the other- perfect for solo travellers. There is plenty of legroom, and what a treat that is! The seats have 35 degrees of recline. The floor is carpeted, and in true airline-style, there is an overhead locker for bags.

3 b. Railbed Carriage 1

There are plenty of other extras, including a complimentary welcome pack containing an assortment of toiletries. Your entertainment options are good too, there is an 18.5-inch screen which is mounted on the seat in front as it is in an aeroplane, a handy fold-out table, a drink holder, a reading light, a 240-volt powerpoint for phone charging, and a footrest folding down from the seat in front that can act as a seat too for any passers-by that want to have face to face, sit down chat with you!

What is the food like in the Railbed section?

A Spirit of Adventure Menu is in your seat pocket when you get on board, and you are given options, including vegetarian for the three meals served during the trip. A complimentary wine, beer, or juice is served with lunch and dinner.

For our first meal, which was lunch, we chose the Spinach and Pumpkin Feta Filo pastry with beetroot relish and a Greek salad. Dessert was a New York cheesecake with a passionfruit topping. All meals were served by the friendly attendants at our seats on trays, as it is in business class on an aeroplane.

Spirit of Queensland Lunch onboard
Lunch in the rail bed carriage

For dinner, we had an entrée of a Chicken Basil Penne Pasta Salad and Braised Beef Cheeks for our Main Course. Dessert was Apple and Rhubarb Crumble. Both the lunch and dinner were delicious and well presented and served.

However, our cooked breakfast the following day was a disappointment. It was very much like a tasteless ‘economy class on a plane’ breakfast- very overcooked and bland. It was labelled a fluffy spinach and feta omelette served with pork chipolata, bacon, and roasted tomato.

Our train was running an hour and a half late in the morning; unbeknown to most passengers, there had been a medical incident overnight, and the train had been stopped for quite some time during the night while waiting for an ambulance and medical assistance. We decided that this was probably the reason for our very overcooked breakfast!

Spirit of Queensland Rail
Galley Car Credit: Queensland Rail

The Galley car, which is open 24 hours, can also be accessed by people in the Railbed section if extra snacks or drinks are required.

The magic of the seat that converts to a lie flatbed

I had expected the whole seat would simply roll flat like a sofabed, but this was not the case. Announcements were made, giving us plenty of notice for when the crew would be coming to convert our modern seating for the night.

All the seats in the carriage were converted at the same time. You did not have an option of when you would like the bed made up.

The process was fascinating to watch and quite labour intensive! The attendant carried a remote control gadget that he plugged into the power socket and hydraulics took care of, actually slowly flipping the seat to become a lie-flat mattress. The bed was then made up with pillows, sheets, and a doona.

005 spirit of queensland railbed 3000x1841 1
RAILBED Is it a train or is it a plane?- Credit: Queensland Rail

It was quite a comfortable bed, cozy even! The flat beds are 515mm wide and 1900mm long for the window seat or 1700mm for the aisle seat. The aisle bed is shorter to allow the person on the window side to get out of bed without having to climb over the person on the aisle side.

The showers and toilets are at either end of each carriage. They were quite spacious and reasonably clean. Towels are provided too which was appreciated.

Things to do and see on the train ride

The entertainment system has a good variety of movies, TV shows, music, and podcasts to keep you entertained. The scenery was interesting and varied. We passed through many small country towns, and we saw tropical rainforests, plenty of sugar cane fields, and banana plantations.

10. Photo credit Queensland Rail Spirit of Queensland train
Credit: Queensland Rail

There were plenty of big mango trees laden with mangoes on one section that we felt we could almost reach out the window and grab!

We could get off the train and stretch our legs at a few stations. However, this was a stressful exercise as the announcement on the platform that the train was now departing was made at almost exactly the same time as the train departed! It required a very quick sprint to get back on board the train.

So would we do it again?

It certainly was a comfortable, interesting, and different train ride experience and very much a similar experience to a business class flight. The tilt train did make for a very smooth ride. However, I think my personal preference for an overnight train trip would still be to have my own compartment with a little more privacy.

Is the Spirit of Queensland value for money?

At the time of writing, the fare for the railbed from Cairns to Brisbane or vice versa was $389, and the Premium Economy fare was $221. Our flight from Gold Coast to Cairns was $139 per person economy class, so this is not the cheaper form of transport.

To make the comparison regarding cost, you would also need to factor in the price of one night’s accommodation and meals and the business class service on board the train, as compared to the economy service on the flight.

Overall, it was undoubtedly a much more pleasant experience than flying and dealing with queues, baggage control, and time spent hanging around an airport. It was certainly offered a chance for some relaxation and less stress than a road trip where you are dealing with traffic, navigation, and finding accommodation and meals.

About the Author: ​Maureen is a travel writer lucky enough to be living in New Zealand and has a great passion for travel. Since she became “empty nested” in the late 1990s, she has travelled and worked in over 70 countries! Now she writes articles to share her amazing experiences with other travellers in the hope of providing practical information to help them to prepare and plan for their travel trips.

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