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Oct 28, 2009

We need new fast trains … fast.

We are all to blame with our pathetic mimicking of the American arrogant entitlement to drive anywhere we want. But fast rail lines, like those seen in Spain, are exactly what Australia's public transport system needs.

Poor Guy Rundle, who cannot but feel his pain expressed in his rant yesterday (We don’t need new fast trains). One has to admire his energy and ability to get all fired up. Sadly this author has lost that ability, having fallen into a funk of depression upon returning to Oz after a few weeks overseas, when our unutterable mediocrity, smug self-delusion and complacency is unavoidable to anyone with eyes wide open. It seems our complacency knows no bounds — probably due to the Lucky Country and No Free Lunch scenarios, a consequence of this unearned easy money from mining, exacerbated by some kind of Anglo-Saxon disease.

Compare the continental Europeans and the Asians with the hapless Brits, the nightmare sprawl of the US and, arguably worst of the lot, Australia. (Is Canada rescued from this Groucho Club of incompetents by being partly French? Maybe, in the same way that the Asian Anglo city-states Hong Kong, Singapore and now Shanghai, etc, are rescued by their Chinese citizens). In the way that one can barely imagine modern Italians running the Roman empire, one wonders where the Victorians have gone when we really need them. Obviously this is not a reference to those latter-day Victorians who derive their electricity almost exclusively by burning the world’s dirtiest energy source, brown coal. No, I mean those Victorians who built the first sewers and the first Metro system and many of the world’s railways.

My sole complaint against Rundle is that he too easily shunts the blame onto politicians, such as Albanese and Rudd. They may be deserving of our contempt but no, it is all of us, the dumb voters and selfish citizens of this vast continent of which we are so undeserving. We have no excuses whatsoever. We got a good start from the tail end of the Victorian era. In Canberra and Adelaide we got two of the world’s better planned cities, even if being built in the age of the car meant they neglected proper transport planning. And Sydney had an excellent far-sighted public transport plan set out by that classic Victorian engineer, Bradfield. Only the first phase of his plan was built but it largely remains the sole functional system to this day, with barely anything meaningful added in the seven decades since.

It is not as if there are not plenty of people who know what is needed. Sydney has had no end of public transport plans any one of which, even if only half achieved, would have been something. We are all to blame with our pathetic mimicking of the American arrogant entitlement to drive anywhere we want. Our insistence on ever more roads. Our suburban dreams that turn out to be unsustainable nightmares. Among the experts and politicians, defeatism is all dominant.

For example, while Crikey’s transport correspondent Ben Sandilands writes much sensible stuff, nevertheless reveals himself to be an unreconstructed road lobbyist as well as totally inflexible about Sydney airport without any lateral thinking on the whole wider issue of planning for the 21st century (see here and here). He is so utterly defeatist about the (un)likelihood of sensible Australian, not to mention Sydney, transport planning, that he pre-empts his reader’s — and his own — enthusiasm for fast trains by labelling them as fantasy.

Rundle was mocking when he said we don’t even need fast rail lines. Actually it is exactly what we need. Not just to overcome the defeatists who blather on about Australia’s usual excuses of sparse population and large distances but because the rest of the world has been showing how to do it for three decades. Fantasy? Is there anyone who has not noticed what Europe is doing? It is no fantasy. The bigger cities such as  Lyon and Lisbon have shiny new Metros but one is astounded that even smaller cities such as Bilbao, Toulouse and Lille have proper Metro systems and others such as  Bordeaux, Nice and Seville have brand new tramway systems that work.

Yes, even countries such as Spain, considerably less wealthy than Australia. Last year, a TGV linked Madrid and Barcelona, cities comparable to Sydney/Melbourne in size and only about 30% more in distance. Iberia, the national airline, has stopped flying Madrid to Barcelona since the opening of the TGV (in Spanish, Alta Velocidad Espanola, AVE) which does the 630-kilometre journey in two hours 45 minutes.

Due to be finished this year the tunnel under the Pyrenees will ultimately join the Spanish and French TGV networks. Barcelona to Montpellier at about 300 kilometres will take between 80-100 minutes depending on other stops (probably Figueres, Narbonne, Perpignan). This will link the sunbelt smart-growth centres of Barcelona, Montpellier and Toulouse (the latter two not accidentally being the two fastest-growing cities of Europe and centres of high-tech and academia) and the whole region of Catalonia and Languedoc-Roussillon will continue to thrive.

If Australia continues to squander countless billions on roads that just create more congestion (at a cost to the economy of at least $10 billion per annum. not to mention our $26 billion oil import bill), the connectivity of our major centres and the way they serve any international visitors can only get worse. Canberra to Sydney at 280 kilometres is less than half the distance Madrid-Barcelona. Either Canberra airport should be developed into Sydney’s second international airport or a new airport halfway (with 45 minutes TGV to central Sydney, less time than most airport queues) is the perfect large infrastructure project.

A TGV to the new airport might be about $3 billion while all the way to Canberra (which would be needed anyway) might be $7 billion. Double the cost if you are a defeatist. Even triple the cost if you are a NSW politician. If we can build the 3000-kilometre Darwin railway at under $2 billion we can surely build these TGV lines. Forget the defeatists argument about the poor economics of the Darwin railway, the real question is can we afford not to build them?

Obviously a TGV from the new airport to Melbourne is the other vital link. This would transform domestic travel in south-east Australia and also relieve conditions for international traffic in two ways: less domestic traffic taking Sydney/Melbourne slots and a second airport for all three cities. And, of course, such a high speed rail corridor (Sydney-New airport-Canberra-Melbourne) would fulfil Rundle’s desire for new cities.

As in so many things, but forgotten or derided by the do-nothing conservatives, the Whitlam government was ahead of its time in championing Albury-Wadonga as a future growth city. The other growth centre, Brisbane is developing into a giant linear city (100 kilometre coastal development to the north and south — the 200km city — and inevitable expansion to the west) that cries out for a serious high-speed rail network to link it all (and with any luck transform it from dullsville to an exciting creative place; oops there’s that fantasy creeping in again).

Rudd is correct, if perhaps just accepting the inevitable, in embracing a larger Australia. With the greater Brisbane metro area possibly heading towards four million, the choice will be either to build such a rail network or face chaos and deteriorating quality of life, like some developing world cities — meaning in South America and Africa, not most of modern Asia, which is leaving us in the dust — or many American cities.

More people will bring more critical mass, higher tax revenues, higher efficiency and perhaps more important, more talent and perhaps a different perspective to the homegrown defeatism we seem to have inherited from the modern Brits. Even the US will finally get smart. California will probably be the first in the US to build a TGV line, not coincidentally linking its two major cities (LA, SF) to its state capital, Sacramento — a close enough model for Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne.

Are we going to wait another 20 or 50 years to get smart? Or as Tom Friedman complains about his fellow Americans, are we going to insist on continuing to be as “dumb as we wanna be”?

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26 comments

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26 thoughts on “We need new fast trains … fast.

  1. Mark Duffett

    I know it isn’t the main point of your piece (which I actually mostly endorse), Michael, but this isn’t the first time you’ve taken a gratuitous sideswipe at the industry, so: Exactly what is ‘unearned’ and ‘easy’ about mining?

  2. Fowls

    What makes Sydney public transport “the sole functional system to this day?” Is it the hundreds of diesel-powered buses on the streets? A lot is made of the differences between Sydney and Melbourne, but for me it’s the smell of diesel – the smell of Sydney in peak hour. It’s lacking in Melbourne due to the foresight of the Victorian planners who established an extensive and efficient tram system, and the common sense of the city’s burghers who didn’t follow the mad rush of Sydney, Brisbane et al to get rid of trams in the 1950s and ’60s. I would argue that Melbourne’s public transport, despite overcrowding in peak hour, is very much a functional system.

  3. Michael James

    From Michael R. James:
    Mark (2.27pm): if I remember correctly, Mark you are a mining engineer 🙂
    Obviously I have nothing against the highly skilled engineers such as yourself (some of my best friends….). But actually while mining today can be a highly sophisticated thing (especially the offshore oil and gas rigs etc) at the same time it does not compare to other hi-tech value added sectors. As in the developing world, Australia imports most of the expertise and all of the equipment. Of course it is even a misnomer to say “Australia” because most of the companies, including the ones often thought by the public as Australian (even with names like “Queensland Coal”) are majority owned by others (Brit, American, Japanese, Swiss). And the industry doesn’t even employ that many people (most of the wealth we gain is via corporation tax). Also some mining is still pretty basic: China is the world’s largest coal miner and it is not much different to the 19th century in methodology.
    But all of that is still not the main point. It is as described by Guy Pearse, of us as a Quarry Nation. I recently read a history of Spain and it was fascinating to see how they were utterly corrupted by their easy money from south america and played a significant role in them becoming the poor man of Europe. And ditto Portugal, have you been to what was the world’s largest gold&silver mine at Minas Gerais? Maybe a trillion dollars extracted and what today is there to show for it? The even more fascinating flipside is the history of Barcelona. Historic enemies of the Castillians, the Cataluynians were excluded from the S.American bonanza, and so instead turned to industry. It is no accident that the only parts of Spain to industrialize were Catalonia and the Basque–and this persists to this day. Barcelona is without any skeric of doubt the most exciting and dynamic city in Spain and one of the greatest in Europe.
    Well, you know what lesson I draw for Australia from this? Guess whether we are Cataluynian or the dirt poor Portuguese in the long term. (Hmm, I feel a longer Crikey essay coming on…..thanks, Mark.)

  4. Michael James

    from Michael R. James:
    Addendum to my 2.56pm post. By “Minas Gerais” I meant the mountain-top town of Ouro Preto (“black gold”, because it was in iron-ore seams I believe) in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. I took the deep underground tour there—it shows that modern technology may improve the efficiency and profitability and extractability but that 17th century mine still extracted incredible amounts of the stuff from deep shafts etc. What remains of it today, other than the holes in the ground, are dozens of elaborate churches with absurd solid gold ornamentation. The place is UNESCO listed. What of our mining industry mines/towns will be worth heritage listing? Mt Isa for a monument to human (Australian) stupidity for building a town on top of a lead mine?

  5. sean hosking

    I was appreciating this up until the point where you say “rudd is correct, if just accepting the inevitable about australia’s population increase”. Having decried the politics of ‘defeatism’ this lazy and highly defeatist point left me feeling a bit flat. Australia’s population growth, the second highest in the world flies in the face of everything we know about environmental sustainability – particularly with climate change now pretty much tracking the worse case scenario’s. it won’t matter how fast the trains are – I’d be more worried about where the water is going to come from…

  6. Mark Duffett

    Close enough, Michael R., I’m actually a geophysicist.

    “Australia imports most of the expertise and all of the equipment” may be so to some extent in the petroleum sector. Almost the exact opposite is true in the minerals industry, though; we export a lot of expertise and not a little equipment to the mining sector globally.

    And if you want to look at history, much of Victoria (including anything that’s heritage listed in Ballarat, Bendigo, Melbourne, Stawell…) was built on gold wealth, and they seem to be getting on all right these days. Ditto California.

    It’s far from obvious to me, indeed counter-intuitive to say the least, that a big injection of wealth from mining to one generation means impoverishment for the next. If its products are squandered, is that the mining industry’s fault?

  7. Michael James

    from M.R. James:
    Mark at 5.03pm. “If its products are squandered, is that the mining industry’s fault?”
    I must be failing in my intent. I do not blame the mining industry at all. It is us, all Australians, and as you say, what we do with it. What Howard didn’t do with that amazing bounty, and perhaps the awful realization as feared by Rundle, that the Rudd government doesn’t care either. Your example of the gold towns is pretty much what I was saying: solid Victorian heritage serving the following generations. But today what is the legacy of the mining booms–probably just their various holes in the ground (coal in Qld and Hunter, lead etc in Mt Isa, giant pits and poisonous slagheaps at Olympic Dam, levelled mountains in Pilbara and giant oil slicks in the NW shelf) and a completely unproductive (counterproductive) property bubble. Debt to the eyeballs but no sensible public transport in the major cities. Meanwhile our own manufacturing, ok like the rest of the world, has moved offshore and so little intellectual enterprise onshore. I think the Spanish example is a good (bad) one for Australia.

  8. Rena Zurawel

    Michael James
    I do agree with most of your arguments. What I do not feel comfortable with is your attitude towards people of different opinion. We argue problems not personalities.
    Guy Rundle may be right to suggest building new cities as the priority. In previous post I suggested infrastructure as the priority. I am not an engineer but my husband is and has been struggling with politics and culture in Australian industry for over a quarter of century. Being a migrant he has not been ( he could not be) very successful although he had worked with the biggest steel plants all over the world and he had had his training in Toshiba-Japan, Linz in Austria, ASEA Sweden, Wurth – Luxemburg and many others. Managers and accountants make decisions in this country- not degree engineers or any technical staff for that matter. Do we have any engineers in our Parliament???
    What I am trying to say is that hoi polloi in Australia have nothing to say and our votes do not count. The decision making process in Australia is beyond belief. Howard promised ‘no GST’ and no one had anything to say when the GST was introduced because apparently our governments have ‘ a mandate’ to break all possible promises. Howard’s government was treating AUstralia as a corner deli owner Mr. Arkwright from ‘Open all Hours’.
    So it actually IS up to politicians and their lobbying friends to make all sorts of decisions; very often stupid or contrary to Australia interests…
    Rudd and his government are responsible for running the country. Otherwise we would not need any elections. The government should be accountable. They have all the resources and money to hire proper advisors and make proper decisions. Their actions have to be on the radar screen all the time. They are supposed to represent Australia and respect their voters.
    We have scandal after scandal as it comes to infrastructure. I spent my last holidays in Gold Coast where my children live. It is beyond belief that it took me nearly two hours to get to the train station in Gold Coast and get to Brisbane.
    Adelaide’s Gepps Cross has been a drivers’ nightmare for ages and apparently nothing can be done because the politicians who get to power no longer feel responsible for anything in particular.
    A million of air/jet planes take off every day all over the world. I do not know about Australia but I think fast trains would help us lower emission per capita. They should be fast trains from Adelaide to Melbourne and from Melbourne to Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane.
    One big scandal is that we are not poor Spain, overpopulated Brazil or overpopulated and resource -poor Japan. It is a shame that we cannot afford better development of our country. We are getting behind..and spend too much money on non-issues like …detention centres
    And we do need a national debate on the future of this country. We do not even have a population policy and I am not sure we need one. I would be happy to listen to other people’s opinion.

  9. Simon Burrow

    You may be interested to know that even South Africa is investing heavily in a high speed train network due to road congestion and a chaotic taxi industry. A multi-billion Gautrain project linking Johannesburg airport, Pretoria, Sandton and Midrand will open in time for the World Cup in June 2010. It’s being developed by French and Spanish companies (sound familiar?) and will travel at speeds of up to 25okm per hour. It will revolutionise the economic hub of Africa.

  10. bakerboy

    Michael – interesting treatise on high speed trains but they are only a small part of the problem highlighted by Rundle. We must stop the unplanned urban sprawl in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. A TGV is of no use to a family living 40 klm out of Melbourne or Sydney with no public transport to take them to work. Sure, let’s look at high speed trains where the population density would warrant it (Australia is not Europe) but we do need new cities away from the existing capitals to cope with population growth. Read my comment on Rundle from yesterday. Alex