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.