Thursday 16 May 2024

A train ride


About three weeks ago, when we were on our way to Melbourne for a medical appointment for J, we broke down with an automatic transmission fault.

That's resolved now, but J had had to reschedule her appointment, and the hospital was very helpful and squeezed us into the consultant's schedule.

Due to other commitments, we didn't have the time for an overnight stay in the city, and we certainly didn't want to drive there and back in a day - it's near enough 300km each way, and these days (getting old) I find long drives after dark a  tad stressful.

So we decided to go by train. Not only is it ludicrously cheap at just over $10 for two seniors tickets due to the daily fare cap, the fairly skeletal service of three trains each way does mean you can get down and back in a day.

There's a connecting bus service from Beechworth that leaves at 0630 to connect with the 0740 train at Wangaratta, and also a bus back, but the schedule means that even though the train gets in at around 2045, we wouldn't be home until nearly 2200.

So we drove down to Wangaratta.

Up at 0515 - tea and toast, and leaving our lightly bemused felines with double serves of cat nuts and extra water, and off as the sun came up driving down through late autumn mist. 

While the car's thermometer said 4C when we left it was down to -1C by the time we dropped down into the Ovens valley, and not much higher by the time we got to the train station.

Half the carpark was closed off due to works connected with the track realignment for the new high capacity inland freight line, but I managed to find a spot, so in we trekked to the station.

The train arrived on time, and while busy, was not overcrowded. We'd had the foresight to bring some water and a couple of muesli bars with us, for as usual V/line was under the delusion it was offering a buffet service.

It wasn't. 

As usual the coffee machine was out of order, and this time they claimed to have an operating buffet. That's not as great as it sounds as the buffet was in the front three cars - the train consisted of two three car sets coupled together - and we were in the rear three car set.

Unlike some other railway operators, for example on some Scotrail trains, V/line's Vlocity trains don't have a way of providing a link between the sets when they couple trains together, which meant that the buffet might as well have been in Darwin for all the use it was.

Grumbles aside, and despite the obligatory inexplicable stop in some post industrial wasteland outside of Craigieburn, the train did arrive on time.

The hospital is in Malvern on the Frankston line so we hopped on a Metro train that claimed to be running through to Frankston. This was a complete lie, despite all the signage in Southern Cross claiming it was going to Frankston, and all the onboard signage agreeing about its ultimate destination, it terminated at Flinders Street.

Complete pain in the bottom, but fortunately there was a train on the next platform that was not only going to Frankston, but after South Yarra was running express to Malvern.

We'd had a tentative plan for a coffee and a muffin at a cafe we liked in Malvern, but we were running late and decided to walk directly to the hospital.

We might have missed the cafe, but I think it had gone.

As it was, it turned out for the best as J's consultant asked "have you eaten?", and when she said not since around eight this morning, he replied "Good, I need you to have these extra tests today if possible".

So, after a visit to the hospital's pathology lab we ended up having lunch in the hospital cafe at around half past two in the afternoon.

Our train back to Wangaratta didn't leave till six that evening, which gave us an hour or three to kill.

Completely out of ideas, we hopped on a tram down Wattletree road to the National Gallery, which not only has a more than reasonable collection, has quite a nice cafe, which late in the afternoon wasn't busy, so we had a cup of tea and looked at the art.

After the gallery closed, we got the tram to the station.

We knew V/line would be incapable of providing any catering worth a damn on the train, so our idea was to pick up some designer take out sandwiches. 

Before the pandemic Southern Cross sported a range of interesting take out sandwich shops, but these have mostly been replaced by variants on the fatburger and fries theme.

However, there's also a Woolworths Metro in the station, and we picked up some fruit, some fairly boring but fresh enough ham and cheese sandwiches, and by mistake a bag of some quite peculiar chips made out of a mix of taro and sweet potato that tasted like salty crisp foam rubber - basically a vegetarian equivalent to a Pringle.

Even though we had half an hour to spare, our train was waiting and the green door lights were lit, so despite the people sitting and waiting on the platform, I tried one of the doors, and it opened, so we hopped on, to be followed by everyone else who hadn't realised the train was ready for boarding.

We left on time and rattled through the dark dark night - country rail stations and country towns in Victoria have pretty poor street lighting on the whole - and arrived more or less on time.

When we got home we were greeted by a pair of yowling cats wondering where we had got to, and the discovery we were out of whisky, so we ended up finishing the Christmas cooking brandy in a pair of lukewarm brandy lime and sodas - we were out of ice as well.

However, it gave us that 'Aah' moment when you sit down after a long day.

Despite my being rude about V/line's service they did get us there and bring us home on time, and all in all we had a pretty successful, if long day ...

Tuesday 30 April 2024

The diary of a breakdown ...



I was taking J down to Melbourne for an appointment with her new rheumatologist.

We had planned to drive down, stay the night in a hotel, do the appointment the next morning and drive back.

It was particularly important as it was her first appointment with her new rheumatologist, and we’d decided I should be there as well in case we had to discuss any changes in disease management,

As we usually do, we decided to stop in Euroa for lunch.

As I was turning right into the main street of Euroa the car did a little wobble as if we had gone over something in the road. I looked in the rear view mirror but could see nothing.

Then various lights came on on the dash – traction control, hill start, ABS and the check engine light, and the red automatic transmission oil temperature light started to pulse.

The car seemed to drive perfectly well but we decided to stop, have lunch and see if it settled – it could after all be a sensor fault.

Act One

The fault didn’t settle. Initially the red automatic transmission light didn’t come on so we decided to try driving it. We managed about a kilometre before the automatic transmission light began to pulse.

We doubled back to the park in Euroa, and called the RACV.

After the usual explanation that we were actually members of the NRMA, the RACV’s sister organisation in New South Wales, despite living in Victoria – a heritage of our living in Canberra – they dispatched a roadside assistance truck.

The mechanic used a portable scanner to check the car, said it might be a transmission fault, cleared the error messages and suggested we drive it to see if the lights come back on.

He also suggested that if they did we should drive directly to the garage on the edge of Euroa, as they were approved RACV breakdown repairers and had a more sophisticated scanner than his handheld one.

Well, we set off, and after around 250m the lights came back on.

Despite the car driving normally, it was clearly foolish to continue in case we had a catastrophic failure, so we drove to the service centre.

They helped us arrange overnight accommodation as they were unable to check the car thoroughly until the next day.

We managed to get J’s appointment rescheduled at no cost, and despite the very short notice, the hotel was happy to cancel our booking, which was very generous of them.

Act Two

The service centre scanned the car the next morning, and then came the bad news, it was a complex problem and not one they could fix, meaning it would have to be towed to a transmission specialist. We had NRMA Complete Cover that includes a reasonable amount of towing, so that wasn’t a problem. When and where to take it was a problem, and they suggested that I google for someone closer for where we live.

We tried the Subaru dealer in Wangaratta, but their service department didn’t return our call (to be fair, they did, but on the next working day). Another transmission specialist in Wangaratta did say it was probably the solenoid, but they were unable to do the job.

They also said that in their opinion there was no one competent in Wangaratta and that we should try Shepparton.

Shepparton is almost as far from home as Euroa, and not easy to reach from Beechworth by public transport, so we decided to try Wodonga.

We found a transmission specialist in Wodonga, Shane’s Transmissions and Autocare, who after looking at the scan results, agreed to do the job.

Unfortunately, due to the ANZAC day long weekend they would be closed until Monday.

We told the RACV service centre that we had found someone to do the job, and as the next day was the start of the ANZAC day holiday, we would get the afternoon train home as there was a connecting bus service from Wangaratta to Beechworth.

It seemed pointless at this stage to remain in Euroa as nothing could happen until the following Monday, and it meant we could get our cats out of the cattery, and we had our old backup car available while things were being sorted out.

The RACV people said they would contact the NRMA and let us know how much we would have to pay to get the car transported to Wodonga.

When I called the service centre later that afternoon to touch base they were still working on our invoice. Obviously, nothing was going to happen until after the public holiday, so we left things as they were and said we would call them after ANZAC day to touch base.

I duly called them on Friday, and found that they had arranged for the car to be towed to Wodonga first thing on Monday. Even better, they had managed to persuade the NRMA to pay for the tow leaving me only the cost of their initial diagnostic services. Things were looking up.

Act Three

I called the transmission shop on Monday to check that they were up to speed with things as they had been closed on both the ANZAC day public holiday and the following Friday.

They were, and obviously nothing more could happen until the car was delivered. I did say I would call them the next day to touch base to confirm delivery of the car.

That left the problem of our out of pocket expenses for our involuntary overnight stay in Euroa and our train journey home.

Rural train journeys are so ridiculously cheap in Victoria, even more so if you have a Seniors card - $10.60 for a combined train and bus ticket for the two of us to get home. At that price it seemed hardly worth claiming, and the cost of a self catering unit in Euroa for a night was not exactly excessive either.

(We were offered a rental car, but since we have an old and battered second car at home, and given that the next day was a public holiday and we only had minimal luggage we decided on the train home as the better option as we would inevitably have had to return the rental car to somewhere inconvenient.)

So, I went to my NRMA’s website and logged in.

There were three ways I could contact them, phone, enquiry form, or Facebook messenger.

Facebook messenger was a non starter as I’d deliberately taken myself off social media a year ago. It was basically a kind of ‘dumb phone’ moment when you realise you’ve limited yourself – after all everybody uses Facebook, don’t they.

Calling the phone number was a non-starter – the NRMA’s contact number diverts to the RACV in Victoria.

I realised later that I’d misread the text they’d sent me about having the vehicle towed to Wodonga – the number they’d given me was a general non diverting contact number, not one for the vehicle recovery unit. Echoing a well known tv advert, I’ll know next time.

So, that left the enquiry form. I duly filled it in asking how to submit the invoices – there was no way to upload the invoices as part of the enquiry. However the automatic acknowledgement did say that if I had documents to submit I should reply to the message and attach them.

That provoked a response – I got an email back in a few minutes asking me to call a number and quote a case number – when I called the people in the call centre of course had no idea what I was talking about, especially as they’d been accidentally locked out of my file.

However they took my details and promised to get someone to call me in the next ninety minutes.

While I was waiting, Shane from the transmission shop called me to say that they had the car, and he’d had a look at it and it looked to be a common fault with Subaru Imprezas and readily fixable.

The price was not cheap, but I’d been doing my googling and the quoted cost was around the average most repair shops quote online for a similar job – the good news was that, fingers crossed, they should get it done this week.

And for the record, the NRMA did call me back – a bit later than they promised – and after a little bit of conversation agreed refund our out of pocket accommodation and travel costs.

Act Four

Sooner than expected, the next day in fact, the transmission people rang.

The fault had been as they expected and had been a relatively straightforward fix. We piled into my old, somewhat battered, Subaru and rattled down to Wodonga.

J drove the car back and I followed in my old car in case of problems.

There were none, case closed.


We had been debating getting a new car and tying ourselves in knots over the classic ICE/Hybrid/Electric conundrum.

Well, rural charging infrastructure is poor, and one thing we like to do is go away to somewhere remote in the country or the coast for a few days every so often.

That pretty much rules out electric as a viable option. In a couple of years time it might be an option but now, no.

If we still lived in the city and only drove around town, it would most definitely be an option, but living rurally, no.

So that comes down to hybrid or petrol. Given that we don’t drive vast numbers of kilometres these days it probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference, especially as we’ll probably keep the car for ten years, so I think it’s a case of setting a budget and going car shopping...

Monday 22 April 2024

Ah, plumbing!

 Four years ago, in the early days of the pandemic, when everything was locked down, our hot water service broke.

We had planned on a greener replacement, but in the middle of the pandemic, we ended up with a like for like replacement.

And it's been fine, delivering hot water when we want it.

Now, like many Australian houses we have tempered water in the bathrooms - basically cold water is blended automagically with the hot to ensure that you can never accidentally scald yourself in the bath, or at least not as badly if you used water straight from the hot water tank, which sits somewhere between 65 and 70C.

Our kitchen and laundry/utility area both get proper hot water direct from the tank - when we had the kitchen renovated the plumber doing the work asked us if we wanted 'proper' hot water or tempered water in the kitchen. 

Not really understanding what tempered water was we went for 'proper' hot water, especially as we don't have young children around.

The automagical blending is done via a tempering valve, which at its simplest consists of a bimetallic strip opening and closing the hot water line as required

This is a picture of our old one, and probably about twenty five years old.

At some point in the last few months, ours must have ceased to do its magic and stuck part way open.

We don't know when it failed, as over summer our cold water is never really cold, more tepid or cool, and the valve must have been letting in enough hot water that we still seemed to be able to have hot showers in the morning.

Well, over the last few days it's turned to a classic Alpine autumn, clear sunny days and cold starlit nights and our cold water has turned properly cold again.

Unfortunately so did our shower, which went from acceptably warm to lukewarm.

At first I thought that the thermostat on the hot water system must have gone.

So I called a local electrician who came and tested it - no it was working fine, as was the heating element. However he flipped the tank bleed valve and was rewarded with a jet of 70C water.

So it wasn't the hot water system. He guessed it might be the tempering valve and suggested that I call a plumber.

Swapping the valve solved the problem, hot showers all round. The plumber also showed me how to adjust the degree of mixing and hence the temperature of the tempered water - incredibly simple if you know how, you just need the right tool, a little triangular valve key.

So, lesson learned. It isn't always the hot water thermostat. 

If the hot water in the kitchen sink is noticeably hotter than the shower, you probably have one of these automagical valves on the bathroom supply, and if it goes wrong, as ours did, you should find that the sink hot water should stay hot while the shower gets progressively cooler ...

Tuesday 9 April 2024

Another Covid shot

 These days, I qualify as an 'Older Australian', which for now means that I get a free Covid booster shot every six months or so, just as I get a free flu shot at the start of winter.

Our local pharmacy hasn't yet got stock of the government approved flu vaccine for us oldies which meant that yesterday it was simply a Covid booster.

During the pandemic I used to get quite an unpleasant reaction to both Astra Zeneca and Pfizer, but last time I had a Pfizer booster and it wasn't too bad.

This time they were giving out the latest Moderna vaccine that has been rated by  the TGA as particularly effective against the latest Omicron strains.

As I hadn't had Moderna before I was expecting the usual side effects, but no, they were pretty mild - the worst was what we'll politely describe as 'copious urination' or less politely 'having to get up a couple of times at night and pee like a horse'.

I certainly needed my usual two mugs of tea before breakfast, but otherwise I'm fine - perhaps a slight headache, but the the fire people have been back burning and it's a cold morning (snow forecast down to 1300m), cold enough for people to light their wood stoves, so there's some smoke in the air, so I wouldn't ascribe my sinusy feeling this morning to my Covid shot yesterday.

Sunday 7 April 2024

Changing the clock

 Today's Clock Change day, the day when the south east of Australia finally acknowledges the imminent onset of winter and puts the clock back an hour.

The cats, of course, were merely puzzled as to why the humans were still in bed and bounded in to demand breakfast and to be let out because, hey, the sun was up, even though officially it was not quite six thirty in the morning.

There will doubtless be more feline grumpiness later today when they find dinner's going to be later than usual, but they'll adjust.

In the old days, when I still had family overseas, clock change day was important as suddenly we went from being eleven hours ahead of the UK to nine hours - at one time for some weird reason Canberra used to go forward when Europe went back and vice versa, which was a bit silly - by the last weekend in October we were well into spring, and the last weekend in March was a little too early.

Nowadays we change on first weekend in October and the first weekend in April.

The one advantage of following Europe was we didn't have a few weeks in October and a week around Easter when the time difference was ten hours - scheduling calls is definitely easier when the difference is only nine hours rather than eleven.

In the old days, and I'm talking thirty or forty years ago, when there was no internet wide time synchronisation and time servers needed to be reset and reconfigured by hand clock change day was always a bit stressful as inevitably there would be one server in an inaccessible cupboard somewhere that hadn't picked up the update.

However that's all in the past - we're down to the oven, the microwave and the big pretend railway station clock in the loungeroom needing to be changed manually - since we replaced all the other clocks with either Lenovo smart clocks or Google smart displays everything else just does it automagically ...

Friday 29 March 2024

Tasmanian election fun (we should get out more)

While we were in Tasmania, they were having an election.

That is of course their business but for us it was a source of amusement, from counting the number of rural candidates with hats - a sort of ‘I spy with my little eye’ on long drives across the hinterland, and of course double points if it was someone we hadn’t seen before, to looking out for candidates with implausible names.

This game was a bit of a failure, the only candidate with a vaguely amusing name was the Greens' Tabatha Badger, whose name irresistibly reminded us of the mythical Gerald Tree-Frogg, a character in a BBC late night satire show who once appeared in a moth eaten baggy gardening jumper claiming to be the Greens’ defence spokesperson and suggesting that they would scrap the defence forces and replace them with a very large hedge. 

(I’m sure that Ms Badger is in reality a serious politician, and has no plans regarding the deployment of hedges, large or small.)

There was also a minor scandal caused by a satirical video by Juice Media that the Liberals claimed was defamatory - if you’re interested you can watch it via the Guardian’s website, which given the complete lunacy of some of Tasmanian politics is not as detached from reality as you might think.

For example, the Liberals proposed helping fund a chocolate fountain and promoted as job creation program that would encourage tourists to visit - like, you’re giving money to a multinational to build a chocolate fountain  ...

Anyway we don’t live there, so we’ll move on ...

The end of the growing season

 The days are getting shorter and the nights are growing colder, so here on the edge of the Australian Alps Easter usually marks the end of the growing season.

This year's not been the best, dry then cold and wet in spring. 

We did get some decent broad beans and early potatoes, but the capsicums and chillis were a total failure this year and both the tomatoes and zucchini nearly so.

After the possums, who've never been much of a problem in previous years, destroyed my zucchini and tomato plants several times over I resorted to rearing them in cages.

The zucchini were really started too late and didn't do much more than produce a lot of leaf, but the tomatoes finally came sort of ok while we were away in Tasmania

In normal years we usually have an embarrassingly large crop and it doesn't matter if the local wildlife steal a few, but this year it was a race with the pouched demons as to who got there first.

There are still a few green tomatoes left, but the plants are beginning to visibly die off, so I suspect that next week's threatened few days of cold and wet will kill them off.

We still have a couple of smallish Japanese kobacha pumpkins that are still growing. I'd expect to harvest them towards the end of April about the time of the local pumpkin festival, and that will be that for 2024's growing season.

Still, I'll be planting my broad beans in May and hoping for a better growing year in 2024-5 ....

[Update 30/03/2024]

Conversations with other gardeners suggest its not just me - other people have had problems with possums and zucchini and tomatoes not cropping.

The local possum population is obviously hungry - some have even resorted to trying (and rejecting) windfall lemons. 

At the same time it wasn't the zucchini plants not flowering, it was the lack of a crop, suggesting a lack of pollinating insects, and that is worrying...