Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why is Australia still waiting for a fast, reliable train?

It’s a sad fact that if you live long enough you will eventually get cancer. And that, I’m afraid, is what has happened to Australia’s railway systems. We have entered the 21st Century with a 19th Century rail system.

Everything about our railways from our rolling stock to the way we treat our passengers is Dickensian. The system has cancer and it’s dying.

Meanwhile rail travel in the rest of the world is enjoying a renaissance, with fast trains competing with airlines for inter-city passengers. They can be faster, they are much more energy efficient and they reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

I’m sitting on a Victorian regional inter-city train listening to the all too familiar barking rage of the conductor blasting a passenger for being late and not having time to buy a ticket at the station. The conductor can sell tickets on the train, but he doesn’t like doing it. Like Basil Fawlty, he is angry because the passengers won’t get their lives organised to suit his agenda.

The “customer service” woman at head-office is totally on side. “Oh I know, we really wish they wouldn’t talk to customers like that. There is absolutely no reason they can’t sell tickets on the train – they have the facilities. It’s just some of them are lazy – it tends to be the ones who live in the city.”

She leaves the impression that this problem is as old as time and there’s not much she can do about it, because it is and she can’t. It’s an infection that has spread into the bones of our rail system. It dates back to the 1800s, the heyday of rail travel when there wasn’t much else. Rail travel was a privilege – but not anymore.

The same sanctimonious conductor who was blasting the passenger for his poor punctuality is now on the PA delivering the ritual, canard apology on behalf of the railway. Today it’s because, even though we have arrived at our destination only 10 minutes late, it will probably be at least another 10 minutes before we will be able to get off the train. You see someone has parked another train in our spot.

It’s the same the next day – different conductor, same apology, same excuse. The fact that most of the 14 platforms are empty at our brand-new metropolitan station doesn’t seem relevant. To allow us off on “another” platform would require a change in “procedure”, some lateral thinking, a morsel of concern.

Day three, same outcome only this time the excuse has changed – it’s that old reliable “signal fault”. You see the fault, the problem, the reason and, therefore, all the responsibility for this terrible recurring situation lies with “the signal”. If only those damned signals would get their act together.

For every awful conductor, ticket seller, ticket inspector on the railways there is one who is polite, courteous, helpful and extremely efficient. Sadly they are swimming against a tide of institutionalised incompetence and inconsistency and a culture of apathy.

To all those Australians who like to brag about how we “punch above our weight” on the world stage, I say take at look at our railways.

My thoughts drift back to a particularly pleasing risotto I had with a fine glass of woody Chardonnay in an exquisite restaurant in France almost 10 years ago – and bear in mind I’m a risotto purist. In this restaurant the waiting service was impeccable, the table decorations were pleasant, the wine list, although a tad limited, nevertheless included only quality. But what really made this meal special was the view. You see, the restaurant was on Eurostar, travelling through the green fields of France at around 300kmh on its way from Paris to London.

Eurostar today can cover the journey carbon-neutral in a little over two hours, even though for safety reasons it has to slow right down to the speed of the fastest trains in Australia as it travels under the waves of the English Channel.

In Australia we consider 160kmh wow-speed for a train. But in the real world 160kmh was considered fast for steam trains 100 years ago.

Today world-class trains are getting close to the 600kmh mark.

China, which remember is still a developing country, is rolling out fast train lines like spaghetti. It already has the longest fast-train network in the world.

You can now go 968km from Wuhan to Guangzhou in three hours. That’s around the same distance as Melbourne to Sydney, a journey that takes our ambitiously named XPT (Express Passenger Train) over 11 hours.

Shanghai’s 30.5km airport link – that’s around the distance of Melbourne to Tullamarine or Manly to Mascot – takes seven minutes and 20 seconds, with a top speed of 431kmh.

Oh we have tried to join the 20th Century.

Back in the ‘80s some of Australia’s leading companies – BHP, Elders IXL, Kumagai Gumi, and TNT – got together on a bold plan to build a fast-train network linking Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. When all the sums were done, the investors considered it a goer provided they could get some tax concessions from the Government.

When this was put to the Government, the answer was “computer says no”.

In 2008 a world-class fast train service was proposed for Melbourne’s metropolitan area, running from Geelong right around to Frankston. But once again the answer from government was “computer says no.”

Victoria now has a new Transport Minister, Martin Pakula. After his swearing in January he said: "The public of Victoria expect a public transport minister who’s going to get in, roll his sleeves up, and work as hard as I plan to work, to do everything I can to improve the system as much as possible."

Those in their salad days might take this as a message of hope. But experienced punters will recognise it as the traditional call of the new minister. It’s not so much a statement as a noise they make just before leaning back in their chair and putting their feet up on the desk.

The cure for our rail cancer is simple, brutal, but costless to the community.

All we need to do is bundle up our railways – infrastructure, rails, rolling stock and real estate – and give it to Richard Branson. Just imagine what Virgin Rail would look like in 10 years time. For starters it would have staff who would, to quote from V/Line’s Customer Commandments, “provide friendly personal service and the information I need to make my journey enjoyable”.

So that would mean the end of the historic Barking Conductor Corps. They’d just have to retire and go home to kick their dogs and watch TV.