Published by the Centre for Independent Studies (Sydney), 29 October 2009 (PDF)
By Oliver Marc Hartwich and Jennifer Buckingham
Every day, thousands of people travel between Sydney and the neighbouring urban centres of Wollongong, the Blue Mountains, and Newcastle. Increasingly over the last decade, these people are making the journey by private car instead of public rail.
The single-class trains that have been reliably servicing NSW for the last three decades offer a level of comfort to passengers that is no longer adequate on longer intercity journeys. International comparisons reveal that NSW intercity rail connections have not moved with the times. The seats are uncomfortable; there are no buffet services, no power sockets for portable electronic devices, no wireless Internet—features that are standard on many train connections in countries like the United Kingdom, Korea, Germany, or South Africa.
For these reasons, taking the train remains unattractive to business commuters who choose the more expensive option of driving when travelling intercity in NSW. A cursory examination of the amenities people demand when travelling by car and by plane demonstrates that rail is falling short of the expected standards of service and comfort.
Some simple policy changes would be sufficient to make trains a more serious competitor to the car. First, timetables for the only comfortable train to service NSW’s major cities, the CountryLink XPT, should be changed so that day commuters to and from Sydney can use it. At present, it is suited only for tourists.
Second, business class service should be introduced on all intercity routes, similar to first class services offered by train companies abroad. CityRail could either operate the new business class compartments or contract out the new service to private companies. The extra cost of business class passengers should be reflected in the ticket price. A simple solution would consist of charging twice the price of a standard fare. This would not even require new ticket machines. Beyond that, the business class service would not require additional public funding for the rail network. Quite the reverse, it could actually reduce the need for subsidies.
Forecasts of population growth for the greater Sydney region require a renewed focus on transport strategies and policies for NSW. Transport links between Sydney and regional cities like Wollongong, Gosford and Newcastle have to be improved to cope with the projected increases in population and traffic. If Newcastle Airport is designated as the state’s second international airport, this will be
Capacity building alone is not enough, though. Apart from big, capital intensive infrastructure projects that NSW needs to accommodate its growing population, it also needs a fresh start when it comes to the quality of transport solutions, particularly for rail services.
Introducing business class rail services for NSW’s intercity connections would be a straightforward, low-tech policy. It could be part of a new drive towards making rail a more effective competitor for private car journeys. In diverting traffic from roads to rail, business class services provide a solution to problems related to projected increases in population density and associated environmental impacts.