The curse of CityRail

Sydney is supposed to be a major global city. We’re constantly telling ourselves how world-class we are, and major surveys keep agreeing – most recently we were ranked fifth best city in the world to visit. And we are the largest city in a wealthy, highly developed nation. So can someone explain to me, in extremely simple terms, why our train system is reminiscent of a third world country – or, worse still, England?

The problems always seem to be so minor, but happen so infuriatingly frequently. An electrical fault on the bridge, a hatch cover flies off, two carriages lose power. Each time, unreserved apologies are issued and we’re told it won’t happen again, that it’s the government’s top priority, and so on. And yet nobody has confidence in the system.
Which is not exactly surprising, because the system has never been reliable. I commuted across the bridge to school every day for a decade, and the “trains are running late and out of timetabled order” announcement was a regular occurrence. And worse still, the train was replaced by far-slower buses while they did “trackwork” nearly every weekend. What they were fixing, and why it required work for so many years, was never clearly explained. I don’t live on the North Shore anymore, thankfully, so no longer depend on the caprices of CityRail. But a quick look at CityRail’s website shows that they’re still doing trackwork decades later. The private bus companies must have made millions out of this constant trackwork. Honestly, what are the rail workers doing on the weekends, playing an extended cricket series up and down the North Shore Line track? They surely could have re-layed the whole track two or three times by now. With such a consistently hopeless train system, you can almost forgive our upper North Shore compatriates from sticking to their beloved 4WDs. Especially now that BMW makes one.
And it’s not just the Bridge. Virtually every line has trackwork scheduled at the moment. What on earth’s the matter?
The NSW Government keeps apologising, and it’s easy to blame our political leaders, but it’s hard to imagine it’s the fault of the current crop of politicians, given the decades of chaos we’ve experienced. The pressure on RailCorp from Macquarie St must be intense, given the regularity with which senior ministers have to cop egg on their faces. The problem must lie in its overall design.
Unless, of course, the system is cursed. My theory is that a hex may have been placed on CityRail by one of those old train announcers as they were carted off to redundancy, retirement or more likely the CityRail CEO’s job. You know, the ones who used to gabble incomprehensively over the loudspeakers before the Olympics saw the arrival of computer-generated, clear announcements? It used to sound something like “Thetrayoplafowuhgotohoooby.” If you pronounced underwater.
Although on seconds thoughts, it’s unlikely the spirits would have understood the incantation either, especially if it had been delivered it over the PA. Nevertheless, experienced witchdoctors should be asked to look into it as a matter of urgency. They’d probably do a better job at maintenance as well.
John Safran could also be useful – after all, he lifted the curse on the Socceroos. And Guus Hiddink wouldn’t hurt either.
But as bad as Sydney’s rail system is, the national rail grid is even worse. Australia must be the only first-world country where it’s faster to commute between the two largest cities by car than by train. And sure, few (if any) developed countries have smaller populations on larger land-masses, so it’s difficult to invest much in rail infrastructure. But you’d think that at least one decent train line from Sydney to Melbourne might be possible. Even if it has to go via Canberra, so the Federal Government funds it.
I caught the train once, years ago, and it’s a mistake I’m not likely to repeat. I remember a shocking night where the train vibrated constantly and lurched from side to side, making sleep impossible. And the decision to serve beer on board meant that half the passengers were blind drunk – probably a good way to deal with the experience, in hindsight – and every single bathroom was putrid.
With all the attention being paid to climate change, we need a major rethink on rail. Right now, anybody could be forgiven for declining to entrust their daily commute to CityRail, or choose the train to Melbourne over a cheap flight. But a reliable, more extensive rail system is surely the best long-term way of getting cars off our choked roads. Building new train lines, and upgrading the ones we have properly so they can support trains that move at faster than walking pace, must be a major national priority over the next decade. Whatever the cost.

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