Fast trainspotting:

Rob Pickering writes: Re. “We need new fast trains … fast” (yesterday, item 12). I totally agree with Michael James that what is needed is a high speed rail link to a airport outside of the city in both Sydney and Melbourne at least. As a frequent business traveller it’s easy to see that in most other large cities around the world, airports are well out of the city with no demonstrable effect on tourism or business travel times.

  • Tokyo Narita is a 90 minute high speed train ride from the city
  • Beijing Capital is a 45 minute high speed train ride from the city
  • London Gatwick is a 40 minute high speed train ride from the city

Why is it so difficult for us to put an airport at around 60-100 minutes from the city to improve congestion (both in road traffic and the airways)? It certainly isn’t out of the ordinary elsewhere.

Further, linking smaller centres and metropolitan cities with high speed trains makes perfect sense on several levels including:

  1. Cutting the road roll on the Hume Highway (and others)
  2. Improving road congestion on major road links such as Citylink in Melbourne and the M5 in Sydney

The ability to link Melbourne with Sydney at maybe four hours rail trip, once you factor in the 30 minute drive to the airport, arriving 30 minutes before your flight, 90 minute flight, the 30 minutes deplaning and waiting for luggage and then a 30 minute drive to the CBD you’re almost at the same amount of time as a train would take but the trains would be significantly more convenient, they could use Wifi and provide internet services for the duration to allow people to work, on demand food services etc.

Andrew Elder writes: Passenger numbers between Melbourne and Brisbane via Canberra and Sydney will not be enough to sustain high-speed rail. These lines will have to carry goods as well in order to be economical. Having married into a family with experience in interstate trucking, I was making conversation on the risk that rail lines (high-speed and otherwise) posed to their livelihood. They seemed confused by the very idea.

Transporting bulk commodities, like wheat or coal, is most efficient by rail. Rail enthusiasts make the assumption that this might be extended to manufactured commodities: that you could drive a truckload of goods to the railhead at, say, Sydney; put it on a train, then at the railhead at Melbourne there would be another truck to take it to a destination within that city. The model put forward by Michael R James relies on rail to become a competitor, if not a replacement, for interstate trucking.

Trucking offers manufacturers minimal handling: goods are put onto a truck at the factory or distribution centre, and are unloaded at the destination. The more onloads and offloads you introduce to a process, the greater the cost and the greater scope for loss and other inefficiencies. Even if a factory or wholesaler were located across the road from a railhead, the goods would still have to be trucked back and forth.

Environmentalists like the idea of rail replacing trucking: if you must have diesel engines, better one at the head of a train than thousands of rigs going up and down the highways, monstering smaller vehicles and disrupting traffic when they jack-knife. Like most environmental policies, no attempt has been made to harness economics to realise the desired outcome.

So long as the economics favour trucking over rail, grand rail schemes have no chance of being realised.

Andrew Owens writes: Reading your correspondents’ pieces on this in the last couple of days, it’s kind of funny reading about the discussion in Australia which almost self-consciously excludes that other growth state, Western Australia, where Perth has exactly the same planning issues (our outer suburban areas are our fastest growing, while we have an excellent train system it only covers certain corridors and the rest are in a transport black hole, etc.)

Our last Labor government more than doubled the size of the rail system and converted the southern suburbs bus system to run like the northern suburbs one (i.e. as a series of feeder services linked to train stations) following the building of the 75km Mandurah line — but the new Liberal government has scuttled further rail expansion plans to the outlying area of Ellenbrook and to the airport.

Yet in some other states (NSW especially) Labor doesn’t seem to have any political will to do anything about transport, and why Canberra relies on buses rather than light rail, or even normal rail down freeway medians such as Perth pioneered in the late 80s, for its public transport when it’s a designed city is a mystery.

Matthew Brennan writes: Being an unreconstructed train nut I find the prospect of travelling (as is now possible) by train from London to Paris in around the same time that the Westlander takes to climb from Gatton to Toowoomba rather appealing. But in the context of population debate, any doubling of Australia’s population by 2050 or whenever will need other infrastructure besides train tracks. For example, electricity supply (more coal fired power stations?), sewerage treatment (just keep pumping it out to sea??) and water (yeah build a few dams…).

Australia also needs to double its domestic food production (on the same productive land that we’ll be building on to house the increased population. Easy.), double the size of its fabulously well run public hospital and education systems (no comment…). We need to do this in the face of climate change, peak oil, whilst still returning water to the Murray Darling basin. (Whilst still paying no more per capita in taxes…)


Miranda Vallejos writes: Re. “ASIO can’t be bothered: less accountable, less productive” (yesterday, item 2). Bernard Keane is a windbag … It actually isn’t terribly hard to GET more information on what the extra funding to ASIO is for. I would like to know how much of a trip through the ASIO website he bothered to have, to read not only the Annual Report but the other docs available to the public.

Also, did he contact ASIO for a discussion with the media spokesperson before penning that drivel? After 9/11, many, many, many countries had a collective heart attack and realised that they were no longer at a safe distance from terrorists who conveniently stayed in their own region — the terrorists were now coming to THEM … and how!

Given this new and interesting development AND the fact that the end of the Cold War had caused the paring-back of numbers in many intelligence agencies around the world, there has been a sudden requirement for ALL of these agencies to get off their backside, start recruiting (we’ve all seen the ads in the papers), selecting (which MUST be a long and arduous process) and training a whole new corps of officers who can not only deal with technology that changes every nanosecond but also manage both domestic and international threats from an ever-expanding list of “baddies” who seem to come at our country and others from all quarters.

Bernard Keane should be glad to know someone is being trained to save him. Whether they WANT to or not … it will be their job.

Niall Clugston writes: Further to Bernard Keane’s article it occurs to me that the vast expansion of ASIO must have generated enormous personnel problems. The core of long-term ASIO staffers must have been swamped by the waves of raw recruits.

Very few of the latter would have any experience in intelligence or national security, and many are probably new graduates with little experience at all. The logistics of training such a large intake are mind-boggling.

Perhaps this explains ASIO’s inactivity: the organisation is effectively paralysed.

Asylum seekers:

David Coady writes: Re. Yesterday’s editorial. Your editorial claim that countries “like India” are “fearful that they, like us, will become a destination for asylum seekers” is quite extraordinary. India is, and has for a long time been, one of the world’s main destinations for asylum seekers. Millions of asylum seekers entered and stayed in India as a result of partition in 1947 and millions more are there as a result of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Liberation.

In recent years hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tibet and other countries have made new lives for themselves in India. This should put the trivial numbers who come to Australia in some perspective.

The idea that a country roughly the size of Queensland with more than a billion people in it already, and which already has more refugees than we have people, isn’t doing its bit to address the world’s refugee problem is beyond ridiculous.

Rundle on trains, Adorno:

Guy Rundle writes: Michael R James spends the first three paragraphs of a boringly, well, trainspotterish piece on very fast trains criticising me for saying that we don’t need them. If he’d bothered to read my article about new cities, he’d see that I said we do — that new cities would only work if they were within 30-45 mins of a larger city by VFT. What I was criticising was the focus on transport alone by Anthony Albanese as an answer to population growth — it is obvious that more and faster trains of themselves don’t solve many problems.

Stephen Feneley’s remarks about Adorno, “no lyric poetry after Auschwitz” and the celebration of genius, shows he hasn’t begun to understand the point made, a common failing among the purely aesthetic. The argument is that the uncritical celebration of genius and high culture may emphasise notions of purity and exception in a way that licenses barbarity. Beethoven may well make people feel that ‘none of the terrible things they do will affect their essential decency’ as Himmler told his SS troops. By contrast, no-one ever killed anyone in the name of Bananarama.

If the moral force can no longer be assumed, what make high culture high, except that it excels at a set of criteria developed from high culture itself? — a circular proposition. Which leaves you with the question — is there any way in which Beethoven can be described as “better” than Bananarama, such that taxpayers should subsidise it? There’s kind of a shelf of books on this issue. Sounds like Stephen should read some before making his fairly asinine remarks on the matter.

Abortion law:

Jenny Morris writes: I’ve tried to resist weighing in, but I can resist no longer. Bridgit Allingham (yesterday, comments), I’m not sure if you’ve done it on purpose, or you just don’t get it, but you misstate the point when you ask “is it not the right of any person to go to another doctor and get another opinion.” Of course it is, and the Victorian amendments to abortion law don’t change anything in that regard.

The point, Bridgit, is that doctors are being forced to first identify and then refer a patient to a doctor they know will perform a practice they find morally and ethically abhorrent, viz an abortion. Quite how doctors are going to know each others’ views, I’m not sure — perhaps there is a directory listing views on abortion?

If this is the case, rather than forcing doctors to refer their patients for practices they abhor, why not make the bloody directory public, so everyone knows which doctors will perform or refer patients for abortion?

This would avoid the need for the unconscionable law imposed upon doctors by last year’s amendments.

Samantha Kennedy writes: While reading Bridgit Allingham and Alister Air (yesterday, comments) I found myself asking if a doctor refuses to help a patient on the basis of conscientious objections and then a person has to go to another doctor who will provide the services they are legally allowed to have does that mean the patient does not have to pay the first doctor’s bill? I don’t think I would.

Dr Bruce Graham writes: There is something terminally depressing about the current renewal of combat on abortion. It is like the Somme. So much wasted energy over a few symbolic metres of the ideological battlefield. There is an unresolvable conflict between the honestly held beliefs. Both sides over egg their cases.

“Doctors rights” polemicists claim they will be coerced into performing abortions. “Women’s rightists” tell us this is only to preserve the life of a woman. Preserving the life of a patient is a laudable goal.  But was this particular piece of legal clarity ever needed? Did the pre-existing muddle need to be improved by so much definition? That is not a rhetorical question.

In the decades since abortion became de facto legal in Victoria, has a woman died as a consequence of inability to access an abortion which she required and requested? I do not think cases of suicide will fit the public perception of what is at stake here. On the one hand, there are uncommon cases where the physiologic impost of pregnancy is life threatening to the mother. These cases are invariably referred to tertiary centres, where doctors who have self selected for their interest and commitment to high risk maternal health provide detailed consultation, risk analysis, support, and, where desired by the patient, an abortion.

An “outside” practitioner would never have the skills to decide on ideal management of such a pregnancy, and so would necessarily refer the patient to a specialist centre — in good faith. Failure to do so would be malpractice, whether or not abortion was a potential outcome. On the other hand, it might be imagined that a woman might present pregnant, and in such extremis that the only rational capacity to save her life would be through an abortion which was thus urgently required from some unwilling obstetrician. I have never seen such a case.

By that time, the fetus is (in my experience) already dead — and “fetal death in utero” is only a human tragedy, not an ethical battlefield. But perhaps I have missed something. Perhaps some committed Crikey reader can point me to a coronial finding which vitiates the argument. Perhaps some combatants believe that preventing maternal suicide is part of the ambit — this, after all, was the crack that Menhennitt shoved an axe through in 1969.

All I see in this renewed outbreak of hostilities is much smoke and noise, considerable human suffering, and no gain.

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