The Southern Aurora train arrives at Spencer Street Station  in Melbourne.

The Southern Aurora train arrives at Spencer Street Station in Melbourne.

One of Australia's leading domestic airlines has announced that romance is back when it comes to travel. It's hard to believe.

Most domestic air travellers just want to get from A to B as quickly as possible, no more so than on one of the busiest air routes in the world, Melbourne to Sydney.

Style and class are long gone as passengers ease their bulk into space-confined seats and are offered the barely edible.

There was a time, though, when travelling between the twin cities was full of glamour and romance. Fifty years ago, on April 12, 1962, after the unification of the rail gauge between Melbourne and Sydney, a new super train called the Southern Aurora made the inaugural run between Australia's two largest cities.

A new railway track, built to the NSW rail gauge, was constructed on the Victorian side of the border at a cost of £10.7 million. Just one week after the last spikes were driven into place the new train service was launched.

The invited VIPs that appeared at Sydney Central railway station that night were in penguin suits and gowns. The Governor-General, Viscount De L'Isle, Prime Minister Robert Menzies and the two state premiers along with a retinue of railway officials boarded the train.

Before the unification of the rail gauge, passengers had to detrain on the long platform at Albury railway station at all hours of the night and switch to a new train for the Victorian leg of the journey.

This craziness had gone on since the railway networks were first laid out. One irate passenger, a certain Mark Twain, commented: ''Just imagine the paralysis of the intellect that gave birth to that idea.''

That madness came to an end in April 1962 with the opening of a common gauge running the 900-kilometres between Melbourne and Sydney.

The express train was designed as first class throughout with sleeping accommodation for all. The marketers went to work billing it ''the finest train trip in the world''. It was not all hype. For perhaps the first and only time, Australian rail travel was as good as Europe or America.

The journey was advertised as one where status and luxury offset the cost and time it took to arrive. The comfort level was said to be the equivalent to that of a first class hotel, 1960s style.

The gleaming, American-designed, Australian-built stainless steel cars, with distinctive fluting, had air conditioning and fibreglass insulation to dampen the sound of motion. Every night the Southern Aurora left Sydney at 8pm and passengers could dine a la carte in the dining room before retiring to the lounge bar for a drink, play cards, write letters or even engage in a sing-a-long.

One NSW Premier, Tom Lewis, used the time and ambience to talk strategy with staffers. As passengers dined, the stewards entered their cabins and converted seating into comfortable beds. Those in twinette cabins had their own bathrooms and enjoyed a hot shower, not a bad feature for a train. Those in bed could be served a cup of tea and Arnott's biscuits.

The gentle swaying and motion of the train lulled passengers to sleep. They could be awakened by the stewards, one for each car, bringing in a continental breakfast. The more active could make their way to the lounge car and have breakfast watching the Victorian countryside flash by.

The Southern Aurora would arrive - usually on time - some 13 hours later at No. 1 platform at Melbourne's Spencer Street Station.

Emblazoned in electric blue neon lighting on the luggage car at the rear of the train were the words Southern Aurora. The image was meant to convey class and luxury as the train receded into the darkness.

Budget mass transport by coach, then the deregulation of the aviation market, meant the idea of first class overnight rail travel struggled to survive.

The Southern Aurora was replaced by the XPT in 1993. The new train was not much quicker and the charm had gone. There was only one sleeper car and patrons made do with a buffet, takeaway service.

Alex Millmow is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Ballarat.