Australia’s Slow Journey to a Fast Train

It’s 226km from Rome to Naples, the gateway to Pompeii. Our train slides out of Rome Termini at 9:17am, only two minutes behind schedule, pretty good I reckon for a country not renowned for its punctuality.  

The early part of the journey is smooth but sedate as our Frecciarossa train glides through the outer suburbs of Rome. Twenty minutes into the journey our speed increases noticeably. It’s not an abrupt acceleration but you can soon feel the power of the train as it nudges 300kmh at its peak and the rolling green hills of Italy whizz by. 

This is train travel European style! It’s fast, sleek, comfortable and makes you wonder why anyone would ever get on an aeroplane or drive a car again. It also makes you wonder why we’ve wasted so many years in Australia arguing about routes and commissioning feasibility studies and still have no fast train link between Melbourne and Sydney. 

According to Google Maps the Rome-Naples trip is 226.1km, which the train covers in 1 hour 10 minutes from Rome Termini to Central Station in Naples. The same journey by car takes 2 hours 37 minutes. That equation is line ball on the efficiency front because the car trip is presumably door-to-door and it’s possible, depending on how far you are from the station and where you’re going at the end, that that puts the car on par with the train. The train is still a no-brainer for a day trip from the capital to Naples compared to the 50 minute flight between the two cities, once you add in all the hassles associated with airports these days and their distance from the centre of most cities.

So, what about the feasibility of a fast train from Sydney to Melbourne? Would it be worth it, given the comparative flight and drive times? 

Google Maps tells us the total distance Melbourne-Sydney is 878.3km – that’s 3.88 times the distance between Rome and Naples. So, if we translate that roughly into train travel time using our Rome-Naples figures, that works out at a train-travel time of roughly 252 minutes or 4hrs and 12 minutes. Again, if you add travel time at each end that might make a six hour trip, depending on your point of origin or destination. 

That’s a pretty reasonable equation considering the total drive time Melbourne to Sydney Google measures as 8 hrs 50 mins, though that might vary slightly up or down depending on departure and arrival points. Let’s say for argument’s sake it’d be roughly a 10-hour trip on average. It also looks like pretty good compared to flying, which might only be 90 minutes gate-to-gate but has all the inconveniences that come with air travel these days – getting to the airport, parking, security, delays and collecting baggage just to name a few.

So the question is why doesn’t Australia have a fast train service when the case for it seems like a no-brainer? 

The answer will be no doubt some combination of cost and feasibility and compulsory land acquisition, but will probably also be about votes and marginal electorates and the concerns of the few – that’s unfortunately how democracy works. 

It’s true the train I’m on probably doesn’t bring much value to the numerous towns between Rome and Naples it whizzes by. It also appears to be true that it doesn’t appear to impact on the surrounding landscape any more than a normal train – though the neighbours and their livestock may have a different view. 

Perhaps the most important reason to develop a fast train link between Australia’s capital cities is the sense of community that comes with train travel. Trains have traditionally been ways of linking communities and though modern train travel may lack the elegance of days gone by, it is still an experience of connectedness quite unlike other forms of travel. The car and the aeroplane are individual experiences; they involve the suspension of the experience of travel and emphasise efficiently getting from point A to point B. ‘Community’ is not part of these modes of transport and interaction is discouraged; the journey is either filled with other distractions or demands concentration. 

Train travel, however, can be part of the travel experience itself. You have greater freedom on a train to take in the landscape, sleep, eat or walk up and down the carriages. Trains offer much greater possibility for interaction than other forms of transport. This is reflected in their design – groups of four seats with a table in the middle are built for the possibility of interaction and engagement and unimaginable on a plane. 

So how far are we from embracing this form of transport?

There are some positive signs. For the past few years a group called CLARA – Consolidated Land & Rail Australia – has been working up a business case for a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney fast rail link. It claims a Melbourne-Sydney express train could complete the journey in under two hours. The Federal Government also tipped in some cash in the 2017 Budget to, you guessed it, develop three different business models.

However, I seriously doubt I’ll be able to ever replicate the Italian experience in my lifetime and sit in a comfortable train whizzing through the Australian countryside at close to 300kmh.  It’s a pity, because it is such a nice way to travel.

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