Letter from Australia (2)

Just a quick few thoughts about Australian trains. Most of the rail industry is , of course, geared towards freight traffic with massive flows on certain routes, and passenger trains are usually an afterthought, except in suburban areas, generally used by relatively poor people or not at all. The fares are incredibly cheap and pensioners in New South Wales, can go virtually anywhere in the state for a flat fare of $2 50, in other words one pound 25p! Amazing.
I paid $18 to go to Newcastle, about 100 miles from Sydney – they don’t sell returns, the ticket office clerk told me with rather bad humour – a fare that is available any time of the day. Actually, they are just getting round to introducing off peak fares on the Sydney suburban system, and it is causing something of a political fuss!
The trains, though,are underinvested and pretty grotty. There is new rolling stock coming through but at the moment most of them are the double decker trains used by the French RER system and many Dutch trains. They are grim inside, with hard seats – not much fun for the near 3 hour journey to Newcastle – lots of graffiti and toilets you would rather never see.
It does raise an interesting issue about keeping fares down. Does that become a barrier to investment? Is too much money focussed on subsidies rather than capital spending? Since the railways are in state hands, there is always that reluctance to put fares up. And, indeed, low fares should attract people onto the railways. There is, as ever, the need for balance and I would veer, generally, to keeping down fares. But frankly $2 50 to travel anywhere for the over 60s is a bit daft and is just pandering to the Grey vote.
Moreover, fragmentation is a it of a problem here, too. There are different organisations running local services CityRail and longer ones – CrossCountry Link and there was nothing in Sydney station to indicate which one was serving Newcastle. Seemed a bit far to me for CityRail, so I went to the CrossCountry Link ticket office, only to be directed back to the other. Railways around the world always seem to assume that the traveller knows what to do to buy tickets and get information, and they are often user unfriendly. So it is with the railways in this v friendly country.

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