Rail infrastructure – a sorry tale of three continents

Two media articles today paint an interesting picture of the current status of rail transport in Australia – and also provide a disturbing contrast with what is happening in the rest of the world.

The first is a Fairfax article which reports that a survey by research firm UMR shows that almost 80 per cent of Australians would consider using high-speed rail if it was available for holiday travel, while almost 9 per cent of those surveyed support the reopening of country railways. Perhaps not surprisingly, 60 per cent strongly supported the concept of cheap $1 rail tickets for individuals and families during holidays, while 30% supported the idea.

The survey appears to have been undertaken in the context of reducing the national holiday road toll; the distances involved and whether the questions were put in relation to rural or metropolitan train travel (or both) was not indicated in the article. However, even allowing for this and the fact that the research was commissioned by the national rail union, the results show a striking level of support for rail travel.

In the second rail-related news story to emerge today, Downer EDI has announced that the next generation of Sydney commuter trains will not start operating until late May or early June because of production delays. The company will also take a $250 million hit on the Waratah train contract, on top of a $190 million provision made last year.

Although the company claimed in December that it would hand the first Waratah trains to RailCorp by early January, it now says it has found bugs in the train’s electronics and has had to recruit “more senior staff with experience in train-building” and change its production schedule. This delay will make delivery of the trains to RailCorp 14 months behind schedule.

Contrast this state of affairs – a rolling stock order continually deferred and the unfulfilled desire of Australians for high-speed rail travel – with what is happening on two other continents, Asia and North America.

In China, the 1,318 kilometre high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai has just opened, cutting travel time in half to less than five hours.  This is the longest high-speed line in the world – the entire French TGV system totals 1,700 kilometres.

Chinese High Speed Train - courtesy Wikipedia

Chinese High Speed Train - courtesy Wikipedia

 In little over a decade China has constructed the world’s largest high-speed rail network, at over 8,350 kilometres. It is expected that the system will reach 16,000 kilometres by 2016. Thousands of kilometres of urban railways are also planned to add to the systems and lines already opened.

China is not alone. Other Asian countries from Thailand to the Middle East have recently opened or are constructing major metro lines and high speed rail links, with even more ambitious plans for the future.

Los Angeles metro trains - courtesy Wikipedia

Los Angeles metro trains - courtesy Wikipedia

Even in North America, the land of the private car, 21 new light and heavy rail systems opened over the past decade and many existing ones were extended. In the next 12 months five new light rail lines or extensions will open, along with two new commuter rail corridors. A dozen public transport projects will begin construction, joining over 25 projects already underway.

So, in less than the time it has taken the (previous) Australian Government to announce and abandon an extensive feasibility inquiry into high speed rail – and then its successor to convene another “strategic study”  – the Chinese have built over 8,000 kilometres of high-speed track.

And in the time it has taken the NSW Government to build one suburban rail extension (Epping to Chatswood), commence another (South West Rail Link) and announce, cancel and re-announce about half a dozen other metros and heavy rail links, scores of North American and Chinese cities have built major rail extensions, new lines and in some cases constructed complete metro or light rail systems.

I know that Australia has greater distances and lower population densities than either North America or China, but surely we can do better than this. Judging by the UMR research, the Australian public certainly think so.

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