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Canberra Today 18°/22° | Monday, December 6, 2021 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Hold the tram and fix the train to Sydney first

Retired bullet trains on display at a railway museum in Nagoya.

“The current rail timetable has three trains a day travelling each way between Canberra and Sydney taking more than four hours – which is no quicker than travel time in the 1960s,” writes CLIVE WILLIAMS.

JON Stanhope’s interesting article “A parable of trains, trams and lying politicians” (CN, September 10) reminded me that we have heard little from the major ACT parties about upgrading the rail system between Canberra and Sydney. 

Author Clive Williams.

It is not a particularly good rail track by any standard, but that could be offset by the use of tilt trains designed to run fast on substandard track. A tilt train in Queensland holds the Australian high-speed record at 210 km/h, but in normal operation it runs at a maximum of 160 km/h. (High-speed is defined as 200 km/h plus.) 

In 2017, I invited a representative from Talgo, the Spanish tilt train manufacturers, to come to Canberra and talk about what they could offer us by way of an improved train service.  

This was after I had travelled in 2016 on one of its high-speed tilt trains from Samarkand to Tashkent – a distance of 344 kilometres. With one stop, the journey took just under two hours – and that was in the Third World country of Uzbekistan!  

Talgo agreed to send a manager and an engineer and I organised a public meeting for them at the ANU’s University House. It was standing room only and went well over time (suggesting a reasonable degree of public interest). I then took them to meet with relevant officers in the ACT and federal governments. They subsequently met with NSW government transport officials in Sydney. 

Talgo was prepared to offer three train sets for $100 million, including running a test train beforehand at its expense to validate the exercise. The offer was not taken up because of vacillation on the part of the various politicians responsible for rail transport. 

I suspect the sticking point was “who’s going to pay for what”. Only eight kilometres of the 286-kilometre line is within the ACT – but the benefits almost entirely accrue to the ACT.  

This means that the ACT should be prepared to commit to perhaps 80 per cent of the cost. (NSW politicians are focused on Sydney’s new Metro costing around $12 billion and likely to deliver more votes than improved country rail.) 

Some of the benefits to the ACT of a fast tilt train service are fairly obvious:  

  • Reduced road traffic between Canberra and Sydney 
  • Reduced carbon emissions 
  • A more frequent and enjoyable rail service for travellers 
  • Nearly as quick door-to-door as air travel, and much cheaper 
  • Canberra becomes a more accessible tourist destination 
  • Canberra airport becomes an alternative international airport for Sydney  
  • Access to lower-cost housing for commuters to Canberra and Sydney 

If the ACT government was footing the bill, it could insist on badging rights for the train – perhaps the Capital Express or something more imaginative. It could also insist on cutting the number of stops between Canberra and Sydney from the current nine to just two (Goulburn and Moss Vale?) to speed up the service.  

Australia’s railways are a national embarrassment and an ongoing reminder of our politicians’ lack of vision. The train service to Canberra was efficient (compared to road and air travel) when federal politicians used to commute by rail to Canberra, but once they started coming by air (after World War II), surprise, surprise, Canberra’s airport was upgraded and rail was neglected.  

The current rail timetable has three trains a day travelling each way between Canberra and Sydney taking more than four hours – which is no quicker than travel time in the 1960s. Even so, it is often booked out. 

While this neglect was happening, Japan introduced its first Shinkansen bullet train in 1964 – and now even has a museum of bullet trains. They travel at up to 320 km/h and the ride is so smooth you can stand a coin upright and it won’t fall over. Most developed nations now have similarly sophisticated rail networks. 

China was a late starter, but in 20 years has more high-speed track than the rest of the world combined.  

In February, Infrastructure Australia recommended the prioritisation of rail works to enable faster train travel between Canberra and Sydney. It noted: “Improving rail services in this corridor would provide more transport options for travellers, improve travel time reliability for rail passengers and reduce pressure on the air corridor”. 

The next ACT government needs to take the initiative to provide a better rail service for the nation’s capital. It makes little sense for ACT politicians to be even considering stage two of a tram network to Woden when upgrading the Canberra-Sydney rail system would deliver far greater benefits for Canberra’s population – and at a fraction of the cost. 

Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU; he has no financial interest in promoting train travel.

A parable of trains, trams and lying politicians

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2 Responses to Hold the tram and fix the train to Sydney first

Christopher Emery says: September 20, 2020 at 1:24 pm

I was told that the cost of upgrading the track and bridge openings between Canberra and Sydney was prohibitive.

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Anthony says: September 20, 2020 at 9:47 pm

There’s always plenty of money in our budget for roads and highways surely some of that money could be redirected if there was genuine goodwill on all sides

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