Australians say no to rail

It’s no surprise that I am not a fan of Australia’s new Prime Minister. In particular, I disagree with his views on climate change but here I want to write about his plans or lack of for urban/commuter rail. To quote Tony Abbott,

We have no history of funding urban rail and I think it’s important that we stick to our knitting, and the commonwealth’s knitting when it comes to funding infrastructure is roads.

This is a very strange thing to say. 30 years ago it could be said that Australia had no history of funding national broadband because it didn’t exist yet. Now Tony Abbott’s coalition plans to fund a National Broadband Scheme (although a very poor one). So why he is not sticking to his knitting on that one? Why should it matter whether a government has funded something previously anyway? This to my mind, is not a very good criterion for deciding which things are worthwhile and which are not. Surely a cost/benefit analysis is, at the very least, a much better decision-making tool.

This has made me ask whether funding for urban rail is just the domain of left-wing governments? Certainly in Australia, it is only the left-wing political parties at present who are promising to spend on rail with the previous Labour government planning to invest in the Melbourne Metro, the Perth Light Rail project, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail as well as high-speed rail linking Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. There will be no federal funding for these projects now that Tony Abbott is in power.

But is it the case that urban/commuter rail is just the domain of the left across the rest of the world? No actually, rail projects get cross-partisan support pretty much everywhere except for Australia. In the UK for instance, the current conservative government is planning to invest £9 billion in Britain’s railway. Even in New Zealand where cars rule, the conservative government is planning to invest in the Auckland city rail link. Suddenly Australia’s new anti-rail stance makes New Zealand look rather good.

Why should we fund trains? I personally love trains and I love train travel. We have done a fair bit of travel by train since we arrived in the UK and in all cases it has been faster than completing the same journey by car. The trip from London to Glasgow took 4.5 hours by train. The same journey by car would have taken almost 7 hours.  There is no congestion to contend with. You have the freedom to do other things when you travel by train, like writing, reading or even texting. You can walk around the train if you want, enjoy the view out the window, play cards with your family, eat lunch, go to the toilet or read the newspaper. None of these things is possible when you are driving a car. There are some down sides to train travel. Sometimes they are crowded. This happened to us on one of our trips and initially we couldn’t get a seat. They don’t always run on time (although we have yet to experience this). The toilets and buffet car are nothing to get excited about. But on the whole, I would still prefer to make the journey by train. However it seems I am at odds with my fellow countrymen who have chosen, by voting for Tony Abbott, to ditch rail in favour of more concrete roads.

21 Replies to “Australians say no to rail”

  1. Our train system in the states is huge but it is also heavily subsided by the government. I pay about 850 dollars once a year to travel to California which is about a 33 hour trip. I also pay about double because I get a private sleeper compartment. Even with rates like this and the fact the train route I travel is always at least booked at 95 percent capicty the government still has to pay about a third of the cost. I don’t understand why just glad they do until somebody decides to start making more cuts.

    1. Hi Bob, $850 does seem rather a lot but does that include the cost of the sleeper? 33 hours is also a very long way. How long would it take to make the same journey by car?

      1. It takes about 36 hours if you have two people driving straight through. Driving you have to go around the big towns and slow down the train goes straight through.That cost does include the sleeper. A regular fare is about 450, I tried it once and it was to hard to sleep all cramped up in the cars with a stranger beside you and the food was snack bar quality. With the sleeper you also get 3 grand meals a day prepared by chefs good eats 🙂

      2. Ok, that sounds pretty reasonable then and definitely worth getting the sleeper for such a long distance. I’d love to travel by train in a sleeper. It’s not something I’ve ever done but I do find the motion of the train quite conducive to sleeping.

  2. Rachel, I found this post very interesting. I am learning a lot about Australia from reading your great posts, thank you! What I really want to say is how refreshing it is to read something positive about the UK and about our train system. You write a very fair and balanced review of train travel here, not perfect by any means, but with many pluses. Both my boys travel by train when they come home to visit (it would be pointless for them to have cars in the towns where they live, parking being at a premium and very expensive for them to run a car) and it works perfectly well. I’m so glad that you and your family are getting so much great use out of the service and enjoying your travels here 🙂

    1. Hi Sherri,
      Yes, I’ve seen lots of grumbling here about the rail network and I think it’s just one of those things that’s all relative. New Zealand doesn’t have much of a rail network at all. Very little in fact, so it’s very much a novelty for us. But if you hold the view that nothing is ever perfect and things can always be improved, which I do, then I’m sure there’s room for improvement of the rail network here.

      1. I just loved the way you gave a different perspective. Because I lived in California for almost 20 years, and believe me, as much as I loved so much about life there, I was very homesick for my home in England the entire time, and I did miss many things. That’s why I tell people now not to complain as we have so much here in the UK which we take for granted. I agree totally with your viewpoint, a great way to look at things. But you know how us Brits are, we just love to complain 😉

      2. I agree. I love the UK and would love to be able to stay here, but sadly at the end of 6 months, we must return to NZ.

        The extensive rail network you have here is something to be treasured.

  3. Rachel – how I would love to have a decent rail network in Australia. Travelling between cities and towns rail is like going back a century. The train to Sydney from Canberra is a total joke. Takes miles longer than travelling by car or bus and stops constantly. Agree that there’s lots of room for the government to include an upgrade of our rail network as part of its ‘knitting’.

    1. Hi Bronwyn,
      I’m surprised to hear that the train between Sydney and Canberra is so slow! That’s amazing. Is it because it’s so old?

  4. Tony Iddiott should stick to knitting, but I seriously doubt he’d even get that right.

    32 hours Santa Cruz de la Sierra – Puerto Quijarro, Bolivia; cost $30 First Class, distance from memory about 600kms (400 miles +/-). I don’t think it is subsidised. You could travel ‘C’ class on wooden benches for $5…


  5. Labor made all sorts of rash promises it couldn’t deliver on going into the election, rapid trains, moving naval bases and giving handouts to football teams are just a few that come to mind.

    1. I disagree. The federal funding commitments to rail were fully costed and budgeted by labour. This is in stark contrast to the obscenely expensive parental leave scheme which Abbott has proposed (again not a very conservative policy to my mind) which he has yet to tell everyone where the money is going to come from and which will likely see poor mothers subsidising rich mothers.

      1. I also want to point out that the parental leave scheme will apparently cost $5.5 billion per year and will be partly funded by a levy (tax) on large companies which will see self-funded retirees also paying for it.

        The $3 billion budgeted by labour for the Melbourne Metro and the $715 million for the cross river rail project in Brisbane are peanuts by comparison.

  6. Most of Labor’s costings over the last few years were dubious with a complicit Treasury. You know, creative accounting and all that, spending future incomes which were inevitably overestimated….. As to the PPL scheme, it’s unlikely to get through the Senate as those (six?)”new” senators have mostly come out against it so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. In any case, there were not nearly as many beneficiaries as most of us originally thought.

  7. Of course. Why would people want to live like hamsters as they do in Asia and many parts of Europe. Most of us in the United States and Australia are fortunate enough not to have to stand waiting on a train platform, then squeezing into a sardine can. Although the left would love to force us into a life such as that, the simple reality of economics and abundance of land will guarantee that we will be able to continue our trainless lifestyle; unless the left pushes it upon us that is!

    1. Why would you want to sit in a car in traffic? Personally, I’d rather catch a train than sit in traffic. A recent study found that living in proximity to light rail, had a positive impact on quality of life –

      Trains transcend political affiliations. The point of my blog post here was to illustrate that every political party, except for the Australian Liberal Party, thinks investing in rail is a good thing. Providing good rail infrastructure does mean that every Tom, Dick and Harry must use it. But it does mean that if Tom and Dick wish to use rail, then there will be less congestion on the roads for Harry if he prefers to use his car. It’s giving people a choice.

      And for what it’s worth, I’m currently living in the UK and these hamster conditions are rather nice. Riding on a train also gives you much more space than sitting in a car and you have the freedom to walk around.

      1. I’ve lived in both a society where I had to wait on trains and be packed in like a sardine and where I have to wait in traffic. I must say, I’d choose traffic!

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