The concept of some sort of very fast train (VFT) service connecting major cities is endlessly discussed in Australia, but nothing ever seems to happen. Why can't we get this concept moving?
Last week I travelled to Perth to attend the Ausrail conference, the annual gathering at which Australia's various rail industry companies and bodies get together and discuss the state of railways. There's a lot of bodies to represent, because rail in Australia still largely runs on state lines, reflecting the unfortunate decision made in the 1800s to install different gauges across the country. That lack of Victorian-era foresight is still impacting on rail planning in the 21st century, despite the recognised benefits of trains in terms of environmental impact compared to most alternatives.
While there are railway lines of some description in every state of Australia, it would be hard to describe us as a model of efficient train usage. Once you leave the eastern seaboard, there are no train services which passengers can take outside of a capital city which offer other connections within the same state. The Indian Pacific, Ghan and Overlander services offer interstate connections for tourists, but don't remotely resemble a general use service. Within capital cities, there's something going in in every mainland state, and even a handful of free options, but no-one who lives in Melbourne or Sydney would argue that those public transport systems work particularly well.
The bulk of Australia's $35 billion rail industry comprises freight, and that makes sense — anything that can remove trucks from the roads is a good idea. But one of the more compelling ideas pushed at Ausrail is also one of the oldest: introducing a high-speed train service to connect our capital cities and other major centres, enabling passengers to skip long drives or cramped flights to move around.
Using fast train systems developed elsewhere in the world, a high-speed line between Melbourne and Sydney could run in just three hours. For all practical purposes, that's faster than flying (given the need to get to the airport and to arrive considerably in advance). And there's plenty of demand on the route: Sydney-Melbourne is the fourth-busiest air route in the world, with more than 950 flights a week. Sydney to Brisbane and the Gold Coast isn't far behind, with a combined total of more than 830 each week.
In global terms, introducing a simple service connecting two or three capitals is remarkably unambitious. China's plans for a national fast rail network, which it only began planning in 1994, includes 16,000 kilometres of new lines and aims to connect every city with a population of 200,000 people or more. An equivalent list of cities in Australia would include Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, Newcastle, Wollongong and the Central Coast. There are trains of some sort in all those cities, but nothing resembling a high-speed connection between any of them.
As I've said before when discussing public transport, it's unlikely and unfeasible that Australians can abandon their reliance on motor vehicles. But if we can reduce our usage, it will make a difference. To note another figure often quoted at Ausrail: transport is responsible for 15% of Australia's carbon emissions, and 89% of that figure comes from motor vehicles.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman likes a slow train trip as much as the next tourist, but not when there's stuff to do and no 3G signal to be had. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.