High speed rail would be the best.
Travelling from the centre of Sydney to the centre of Melbourne in less than three hours on an airconditioned train with power outlets and wi-fi and cup holders and seats that recline a bit but not too much to upset the person behind, and maybe a great meal car somewhere in the middle of a train that also sells magazines – that would be entirely appropriate to the modern world.
Renewed push for high speed rail
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Renewed push for high speed rail
Transport Minister Anthony Albanese says there is a demand for high speed rail which could see passengers travel from Melbourne to Sydney in under three hours.
Commuting from Newcastle to Central Station in 45 minutes – well, the technology exists to do it in half an hour. It should be possible.
But all the signs indicate the great dream of high speed trains on the east coast of Australia will not be realised any time soon, if ever.
Thursday morning's release of a $20 million government study into high speed rail only underscores that fact, grim as it may be.
And it serves to underscore another fact, also grim: when governments have no intention of building things, they instead commission reports into building things and call for public debate on whether it might be worth the cost and effort of building those things – while waiting for many years to pass while those things don't get built.
The study, prepared by seven architectural, finance and engineering firms, puts a healthy $114 billion price tag on a fast rail network stretching from Brisbane through Sydney and Canberra to Melbourne.
The part of the line that would attract the greatest use – Sydney to Melbourne – could be built for about $50 billion. That section of line, and a detour to Canberra, could be built in less than 20 years, the report says.
But it is not going to get built.
Instead, the report really represents the long tail of a 2010 election political fix, when the Greens were winning headlines and support in inner-city Sydney and Melbourne seats by, among other things, associating with the appeal of very fast trains.
Anthony Albanese, the federal transport minister who holds the inner-Sydney seat of Grayndler, found $20 million to pay for a study that has now, almost three years later, been completed and released to the public.
"This is about ... moving the nation and economy into the future, increasing productivity, supporting a sustainable population and tackling climate change," Albanese declared at the time.
Three years down the track, study in hand, Albanese now wants to start a "comprehensive program of public consultation and debate" on what high speed rail would mean and could do for the Australian east coast.
Most people who have travelled on fast trains overseas – in Japan on a shinkansen or in Europe on a TGV – have some understanding of what high-speed rail can do.
It can provide a convenient means for business travellers and holidaymakers to move between cities without tiresome airport security and noxious airport traffic.
It is clean. It is comfortable. And it can drive the economic development of regional centres in a way highways can not.
The French train company Alstom cites the economic development of Lille as an example of what fast trains can do to a city.
"[Lille] is the same distance from Paris as Sydney is from Newcastle ... with the city in decline, it was a mining and textile town. High-speed rail came and now it is booming," says Chris Raine, the president of Alstom in Australia.
Both cities would benefit, for instance, if it were possible to work in the centre of Sydney and commute from Newcastle in less than an hour. As it is, taking the train from Newcastle to Sydney takes longer than when it was a steam train.
This state of affairs will not be remedied soon.
Partly, this is because Thursday's study shows there would be little chance of attracting private money to the project. Of the $114 billion needed for the east coast network, $98 billion would need to come from the government.
And calling for a "comprehensive debate" on a project is not the same as salting serious money aside for its development, or even beginning the long process of buying land that could form a rail corridor.
But the most telling sign the Gillard government is not serious about a high speed rail link is that Albanese has attempted to keep debate about a fast train entirely separate from debate about a second airport for Sydney.
Albanese has been saying for years that Sydney needs another airport, and has spent millions of dollars on studies into where one should be located. (He still cannot say.)
But the reports into high speed rail have been kept distinct from these studies into Sydney's airport requirements.
Surely, if he was serious about the train line, he would have looked at the two issues together.
The net result of Thursday's high speed rail report is, sadly, a lot of taxpayers' money in the hands of a few consultants, and some headlines about a train line that will not be built but would really be quite good.