Letter from Australia (3)

After the spartan and drab train between Sydney and Newcastle, which technically is a local Sydney service, I took the CountryLink train to Canberra, a much more pleasant experience, though one which highlights the lack of vision which characterises Australian passenger rail services.
With sun shining after three days of rain, the views of the bush and the forest are pleasant. The scenery is unspectacular but gives that feeling of vastness that you never get in the UK, except, possibly, as you pass through the border country between London and Scotland. Away from the crowded coast, there is some lovely forest interspersed by bush country, and it became ever wilder and less populated as we headed up the hills away from Sydney and reached over 2,000 feet above sea level.
The train is more comfortable, too, with a well stocked buffer, but amazingly it is only a four car diesel, one of just three trains per day linking sydney with canberra. The Thai taxi driver – I could not face public transport at 6am – was very disdainful of why I was not going to the airport. ‘Why take the train to Canberra?’ he demanded rather rudely. He did not reply when I cited the environment, the cost, the pleasure of seeing a bit of Australia and so on.
The train is full of crusties, as I discover before when I went on a long train ride in australia. Not only can they travel within the state for just £1 25 for a ride of up to 00 miles, but twice a year they get a concessionary – I think it even may be free – ride on a long distance train. Most of the people travelling on this train have clearly taken advantage of this concession and, remarkably few who, like me, have paid the full fare. Moreover, the train has very few people on it given that it is Friday and one would have thought there would be weekend trippers. The plane clearly dominates the market and the railways have yet to try to capitalise on the environmental benefits of using the train. Even on this train, there is a rather down at heel feel, British Rail circa 1970s.
Amazingly, there is an electrical socket – just two for the whole carriage – to use for computers. But really, Australians don’t really ‘get’ trains They are, as my friend Rod here said, mainly used by the poor and the old, and despite a few efforts to try to get a high speed link between Sydney and Melbourne in the 1980s which failed, they are slow and underinvested. Remarkably, a guy at the conference I went to who represents the Australian Railway Association was very dismissive of the notion of lobbying for a high speed line between the country’s two main cities, arguing it would be a distraction and that lobbying efforts should concentrate on freight. That is a real missed opportunity. Sydney – Melbourne is apparently the third busiest air service in the world (presumably after Los Angeles – San Francisco and London – Glasgow?) and with so much land available, there are nothing like the problems of creating a new line that there would be in the UK. A failure of imagination.

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