A ridiculously slow road to a fast train

For years, I’ve dreamed of sauntering down to Melbourne’s Southern Cross station and sliding into a comfortable seat on board a shiny new Very Fast or even Extremely Fast Train. I’d sit and work on my laptop, or read a book, or recline my seat to take a nap while the landscape whizzed by, faster than a Saudi diplomat being pursued by the AFP.

Occasionally, kind people would come past with coffee and snacks, and perhaps an in-seat massage. And then, less than three hours later, I’d alight at Sydney Central, and get on with my day.

I’ve loved travelling by train, ever since I lived in Europe as a child and got a taste for the romance of long-distance rail. More recently, travelling by shinkansen in Japan has hooked me on the convenience. There are so many trains between Tokyo and Kyoto, that at off-peak times you can just turn up at the station, confident you’ll get on one.

But even if it ends up being slower point-to-point than catching a plane, I think it’s still a better option. Just think of all the faffing around you avoid when you take an intercity train – not to mention the extra expense of the airport transfers. From Melbourne, there’s the Skybus or taxi queue, then queueing to dump baggage if you have it, then the security scan, then the extra screening I seem to attract whenever I have a beard, then schlepping to the gate, then boarding, then you can’t take out your laptop for roughly half the trip, then you wait to get off, then you wait at the baggage carousel, then you wait for a cab or train.

With a plane, you’re constantly queuing, shifting, and lugging bags around. Trains are infinitely simpler.

Sure, complaining about this stuff is definitely a first world problem – but then, most of the rest of the first world has fast intercity trains. Australia’s the only first world country I’ve ever visited where intercity trains, with their dedicated traffic-free corridors, are reliably slower than driving.

Just try travelling from Sydney to Newcastle, a route that inexplicably begins the trip to Newcastle, which is north-east of Sydney, by travelling due west to Strathfield, and you’ll get a sense of just how absurdly archaic our train network is.

The Sydney-Melbourne air corridor is one of the world’s busiest – and incidentally, I don’t think a fast train will kill the airline industry, seeing as some of the more popular routes, like Tokyo to Fukuoka, are in Japan.

But with regular trains, just think how many more of us would travel intercity on a regular basis. It would provide competition to airlines, and it’d also provide a way around the Sydney Airport curfew. At last, you could leave Melbourne after dinner, and arrive in Sydney after midnight.

And the benefits to regional communities are surely enormous, too. Newcastle and the Southern Highlands would be transformed by quick connections to Sydney – it would become far more feasible for people to be based there and come to Sydney for meetings with clients, for instance.

Brisbane and the Gold Coast have already seen many benefits thanks to being connected by a relatively slow train, which will eventually connect both airports. How much better would it be for the region to be connected by a rapid line that continued south to the other east coast capitals?

A fast train would also integrate Canberra far more successfully with the most populated corridor in the country. The Acela train that links Washington DC with New York, Boston and Philadelphia is a legendary piece of infrastructure, famously caught by Vice-President Joe Biden so he could remain based in Delaware with his family – and yes, even the car lovin’ Americans do intercity trains better than we do.

The Very Fast Train (and please, let’s come up with a better name – I’m in favour of Ridiculously Rapid Train) rears its head with amusing regularity come election time, as Michael Koziol pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald today. Malcolm Turnbull has been floating possible funding models, and Labor’s Anthony Albanese has been a long-term booster of rapid rail.

Traditionally, we dream big pre-election, and then discover via a post-election study that it isn’t viable, so I’m bracing myself for disappointment.

There’s always a chorus of naysayers who point to the cost – and the estimated costs vary so widely, that I simply can’t comment on whether it would make economic sense. That’s why studies into these things tend to cost millions of dollars themselves.

But I’d point out that in other countries, they don’t seem to dither over the cost of major infrastructure projects – they just build them. It’s impossible to quantify the potential upside of the economic benefits that would flow from a high-speed train with affordable ticketing, especially for regional areas. Nor can we estimate the impact on our roads of far fewer inter-city drivers – it could reduce expenditure there, potentially – and there’s also potential for a significant emissions reduction impact, especially if the trains were powered by renewable energy.

Why is it only Australia that seems unable to stomach major investment in rail infrastructure? France is only 2.5 times larger than Australia in population terms, and yet it’s viewed as a given that they’ll have high speed rail links. (2,000 kilometres of them, which is more than we need to link Melbourne and Brisbane.)

In Japan, they’re extending the shinkansen network to Sapporo, a city of under two million people – much smaller, in other words, than the three state capitals that an East Coast Fast Train would serve. The bill will go into the trillions of yen, 76 per cent of the new line will have to be through tunnels, and it won’t open until 2031, but they’re just doing it anyway.

With Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane alone, we service a population of well above 10 million, within a 1700km track distance. Add in the Gold Coast, Hunter, Canberra and the Southern Highlands and you’re well above half of our population, all in a reasonably straight line. Surely this would have been done years ago in any other wealthy nation with a relatively flat, seismically stable continent and these kinds of population patterns?

If we can afford $2 billion to host the Commonwalth Games in the Gold Coast, and can pay Telstra $1.6 billion to upgrade the network it already sold to taxpayers (and Telstra got $11 billion for selling its HFC and copper wires to NBN Co, incidentally), surely we can afford even upwards of $100 billion for a high speed rail network? Especially when, as Peter Martin has pointed out, debt is unusually cheap.

And if you don’t buy into the dream the way I do, ponder this – if our international lawyers can figure out a way to make Saudi diplomat pay their speeding fines, that could go a long way towards funding it.

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