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”?

Peter Fray

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