The general case for the reviving of long-distance passenger rail transport in Australia is very hard to dispute. Long-distance passenger rail has a lower carbon footprint than both road and air travel, in most cases uses existing infrastructure, has the potential for providing an alternative to increasingly congested air travel, and provides an important service for rural and regional Australia. However how should we go about reviving what is at the present time a declining form of long-distance travel? I want to suggest some specific initiatives.
At the outset, I want to suggest greater public investment in rail transport, to redress the current bias towards investment in highways and motorways in Australia, none of which are particularly efficient means of transport. Public investment in highways and motorways currently far outweighs investment in rail. An obvious area of public investment is in rolling stock, but more attention needs to be directed towards rail maintenance, bridge construction and repair, and rail line re-adjustment. For instance, the current NSW XPT trains can cruise at around 150 kph, but are unable to do this due to frequent curves in rail routes, bridges which are due for replacement, and a dearth of the best practice in track maintenance. Address this, and it may be possible to have much faster passenger rail transport between our major urban centres, which in turn is likely to increase patronage.
A second reform would be a more realistic fare structure. Most surveys of long-distance passenger rail transport in Australia reveal that some 90% of rail patronage is comprised of welfare concession fares, offering half fare or in some cases an even greater discount. Clearly it would be politically impractical to abolish welfare concession fares, that is, increasing fares for those holding a concession card. However what could be done is to make the level of concessional fares universal for all rail patrons. Given that only 10% of patrons are paying full fare, any prima facie loss of revenue due to lower fares would be most likely more than compensated by increased revenue from an overall increase in patronage, given that rail travel would immediately become more competitive. It is noteworthy that the growth in domestic air travel in Australia has been driven by lower air fares. Establish lower overall fares for rail passenger transport, and it likely that the patronage will similarly grow.
A third reform would be more appropriate rolling stock. Here, some rail systems are doing better than others. The worst example would be NSW, where the XPT trains were an inappropriate design copied from the UK, where there is a cooler climate and much shorter overall distances. There are simple things which can be done in train design, such as in sleeper cars saving space by having showers located at the ends of the carriage and having three level economy bunks. Some rail systems are introducing innovations used in air transport, such as on-board movies and headphone music, although there is no reason these measures cannot be adopted more widely. And with rail transport there is no reason that dining cannot be made to be an enjoyable experience, with purpose designed dining cars.
A fourth area of reform is timetabling. It seems the determining factor in timetabling for long-distance rail transport is to avoid, if possible, running in metro areas during peak commuting time. And long-distance trains are not perceived as important, given that there is low patronage and given that this is often perceived as an interstate issue in any case, and thus not deserving of political attention. Thus, in Brisbane, we have the bizarre situation where the interstate passenger train both arrives and leaves before dawn, long before any connecting suburban trains are running. The political argument for de-prioritizing long-distance passenger rail is very shallow, given that we are all citizens of this country, and the argument about low patronage is a self-fulfilling argument, given that the more long-distance passenger trains are pushed into strange arrival and departure times, the more patronage on these trains is likely to decrease, and the less attention that public authorities will need to give to this mode of transport.
Finally I want to suggest that in order to progress the revitalization of long-distance passenger rail transport in Australia, we need to abandon the more utopian dreams of very fast rail in Australia. The mantra ought to be: fast trains, not very fast trains. If improvements in track quality and rail alignment were introduced on a wide scale, we would have the potential to nearly halve the passenger travel time between our capital cities, and just with our existing rolling stock. Very fast rail travel is impractical for a range of reasons, including the demographics of Australia, the massive cost involved, and the need to service rural and regional centres. What makes very fast rail impractical for servicing the rural and regional populations between capital cities is simply that to decelerate and accelerate a 300kph train takes both time and distance. A very fast train would often only reach a cruising speed of 300kph when it would need to start decelerating.
Despite the steady downturn in patronage last century and into this century, long distance passenger rail transport still maintains much of its romantic appeal in Australia. Politicians still manage to profess their faith in rail, in much the same way as in a previous era politicians would profess their faith in the divine providence. However there is a relentless power to economic realities. Unless changes are made to long-distance passenger rail in Australia, such that we improve patronage, it is inevitable that politicians and policy-makers will cite the falling patronage to argue that they have no alternative but to axe more services. What is needed are some clear policy changes to reverse this trend in Australia, and to revitalize this important and environmentally-friendly form of long-distance travel.
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