Why is Australia so slow to get fast trains?

April 21, 2016
Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Australia lags behind many developing countries in setting up a high speeed rail network.

There is a joke in Australia that there will be a high-speed rail service linking the major cities on the Eastern seaboard that will run about once in every three years — whenever there is an election looming. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has, like the previous Labor government, again floated the idea.

High-speed rail is not new. Modern high-speed rail was pioneered in Japan, whose Shinkansen (or New Trunk Line) network dates back to 1964. In Europe, France's TGV (High Speed Train) began service in 1981 and Germany's Intercity-Express began in 1985. Today, high-speed trains capable of speeds of more than 300 kilometres per hour are standard for long-distance rail journeys in Western Europe.

In Asia, Japan has been joined by China, South Korea, Taiwan and Uzbekistan in having high-speed rail systems.

Australian election year proposals are usually based on a line linking Melbourne with Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, stopping at some regional centres. Adelaide is sometimes included; Cairns more rarely.

Their appearance before elections reflects the popularity of the idea, which is not surprising given it would reduce travel times between Sydney and Brisbane or Melbourne to three hours and Sydney to Canberra to one hour.
Currently, travelling from Sydney to Melbourne or Brisbane by train involves an arduous all-day or overnight journey.

The benefits would not only be in convenience. The reduction in carbon emissions from reduced air travel would be vast and immediate. Currently, Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar and Tiger Airways all fly several flights an hour between Sydney and Melbourne and between Sydney and Brisbane.

However, Australian high-speed rail proposals are marked by a “white elephant” quality. A 2011 report by the then-Labor government on the Melbourne-Brisbane proposal envisaged services not beginning until 2036. By 2013, this was revised to project that the 1750km line would not be operational until 2065.

By contrast, China began constructing a high-speed rail system in 2004, with the first lines opening in 2007. By 2011, it was the largest system in the world, 8,358 kilometres in length and by this January was more than 19,000 kilometres.

Australia's seeming inability to construct a high-speed rail system seems inexplicable. While Germany may compare favourably with Australia in terms of wealth and industrial capacity, this cannot be said of Uzbekistan.

It reflects that public transport in Australia is inadequate in comparison to most other developed countries, and many Third World countries, at all levels: urban and regional, as well as long distance. In much of rural Australia, public transport is non-existent.

Part of the reason is low population density and sprawling cities. In Europe, with its high population density and compact cities, good public transport systems at all levels are compatible with a profit-driven capitalist economy. Ironically, this does not stop politicians blaming the difficulties faced by Australian commuters on immigration and linking the issue to border security.

A greater part of the reason is the corporate profits-serving choices of Australia politicians. For more than half a century, transport policy has been road-driven.

Australia has followed the US model, whereby public funding of roads and aviation dwarfs that of land-based public transport. A 2011 Australian Conservation Foundation report put government spending on roads at 4.3 times as much as on public transport.

Urban tram systems were torn up in the 1960s and '70s and the closure of rail lines, particularly in rural areas, has continued.

Car ownership has long been a necessity for anyone not living in the inner-city suburbs of the larger cities. While politicians are fond of the truism that “Australians like cars”, this simply reflects that Australians need cars because of the lack of alternative transport.

Meanwhile, trucking is favoured over rail for freight haulage.

When the current Coalition government was elected in 2013, Tony Abbott declared he would be a “Prime Minister for roads”. His government's policies showed that in this rare instance he was telling the truth. Under Turnbull the same policies have continued, despite his liking for photo-ops on trams and trains.

One of these policies has been the expansion of urban freeways. The Perth Freight Link, WestConnex in Sydney and the East West Link in Melbourne have all generated considerable opposition from the affected communities. In the case of the East West Link, the campaign succeeded in getting the project scrapped, at least for now.

The campaigns against these projects have revealed an alarming number of instances of corrupt conflict of interest. For example, in an April 20 New Matilda article, investigative journalist Wendy Bacon revealed that engineering company Arup has been contracted by the NSW government to work on the assessment of WestConnex's viability while also holding contracts for its construction.

But beyond this, the road projects that Australian governments support not only are a direct subsidy to the companies involved in their construction and operation but indirectly subsidise the entire fossil fuel industry.

Moreover, putting corporate profits ahead of social need and the environment also negatively affects what public transport is funded. In Victoria, public transport was privatised in the 1990s, leading to a dramatic decline in services combined with increased government spending. Multinational transport operators have used their government-granted monopolies to blackmail governments for ever larger subsidies, while running down the networks.

One of the few details Turnbull has given of his high-speed rail proposal is that it will be financed by venture capital. One of its stated purposes is to boost housing prices in rural cities such as Goulburn and Albury-Wodonga by putting them within commuting distance of the major cities.

Similarly, the urban transport projects that are supported by governments are based on privatisation and real estate development. In Sydney, the Coalition Mike Baird government's flagship urban transport project is a metro to be built and operated by the Hong Kong-based MTR Corporation, which also runs Melbourne's suburban trains.

This project will mean MTR runs trains on a new tunnel between Chatswood and Sydenham and existing lines between Epping and Chatswood and between Sydenham and Bankstown — effectively privatising those existing lines. For commuters on the Bankstown line, services will worsen: not only will buses replace trains during construction, but direct services to the city will end.

However, the project involves MTR being allowed to create new housing and commercial developments along the route, spreading gentrification at the expense of existing residents.

Likewise, the main urban transport project in Melbourne is an underground railway linking South Yarra and Melbourne Airport. While improving transport between the affluent inner south-eastern suburbs and the airport will be profitable, it will do nothing for residents of transport-starved middle and outer suburbs.

The social benefits of publicly-owned, universally accessible, affordable public transport would be considerable. But there are even more pressing arguments for it.

The news on climate science is grim. Global warming is proceeding much quicker than predicted and the recent unexpected revelation that warming in the Arctic and Antarctic regions is considerably greater than the global averages has led scientists to declare that an immediate end to carbon emissions is essential to humanity's survival. Without electrified public transport becoming the standard way of moving people, this will be impossible.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.