It’s time to bring back a bit of class to rail travel

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 2009

It’s a pity this year’s Nobel Prize for physics has already been awarded to achievements in fibre optics. The managers of CityRail would have been almost as deserving for their ingenious invention of time-travelling. How else could you describe the experience when boarding a 1970s-style intercity train from Central?

For a city that wants to play in the first league of the world’s great cities, our dated intercity train connections are not good enough. Our transport problems will only get worse. Population growth in the greater Sydney region will increase traffic between the city and regional centres. This means more congestion on the roads – unless trains become a much more attractive alternative to the car, especially for business commuters. Quite literally, we have to put the class back into rail travel.

Since they were introduced almost four decades ago, the carriages travelling from Sydney to Wollongong, Newcastle and Katoomba have hardly changed. The seats are still reversible, but that’s about their only special feature. Information screens? Nope. Accessible toilets? Of course not. A buffet car? You must be kidding!

Back in the 1970s, such basic carriages may have been appropriate. But today’s commuters are used to much better transport quality – just not on NSW’s intercity trains.

Australians travelling abroad can only marvel at other countries’ train services. From London to Birmingham, VirginRail passengers can use wireless internet throughout the train. Newspapers are provided in first class, and meals and drinks are served at the seat. Before the journey you can relax in plush lounges at the station.

In South Africa, passengers get an even better deal. A new rail connection between Johannesburg and Pretoria opened last year. Apart from offering comfortable seats, free refreshments, free newspapers, a laptop workstation with power points, and wifi access, there are stewards and stewardesses in every coach – and all for a journey that lasts an hour. Even more importantly, the train ticket includes free parking at the stations and a bus shuttle service from the stations to the city centre.

For travellers on the Newcastle and Central Coast line, such luxuries must seem unreal. For now they would be grateful for a paper cup of coffee during the 2½-hour journey form Broadmeadow to Central. Isn’t it odd that drinks are served even on short-haul budget flights at 30,000 feet but not on slow-moving CityRail trains?

Transport quality matters if greater Sydney is going to expand as forecast, because much of the increase in population will happen in the outer urban areas. For these places to grow, good transport links for business commuters are essential. Train connections should become more reliable and faster, but commuters should also find the journey more appealing than being stuck in an outdated train for hours each way.

For these reasons, CityRail should consider introducing dedicated business class carriages on intercity routes.

Even if we don’t get trains as sophisticated as those in South Africa, we can easily do with better seating – old benches can be replaced with individual reclining seats, dramatically improving comfort. Tray tables would make a big difference to passengers with laptop computers. And attendants could not only sell snacks and drinks but keep the carriages tidier than they are now. They would also improve safety.

It’s true all such improvements come at a cost, but business commuters should be able and willing to pay for them. Even at three times the cost of standard fare, a business class ticket would still be cheaper than driving a car. And the time spent on the train would be more productive and relaxing than being stuck behind a steering wheel in a traffic jam.

The introduction of business class sections on intercity trains can only be a first step towards improving NSW’s ailing rail network. More needs to be done in terms of punctuality, timetables and speed. Nevertheless, the business class rail is a straightforward change and easy to implement.

If CityRail’s management succeeded in catapulting their prehistoric services to the needs of today’s passengers, then this would be a new way of time travelling really deserving of a Nobel Prize.

Oliver Hartwich is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and co-author (with Jennifer Buckingham) of the report On the Right Track: Why NSW Needs Business Class Rail, released today.