First steps towards 21st century rail

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 30 October 2009

According to a Chinese proverb, every long journey begins with a first step. This holds true even for a train journey.

The Sydney metropolitan region is growing with population increases up to seven million people, bringing along transport issues. It is important that cities and areas like Newcastle, Blue Mountains and Wollongong are well connected to Sydney so they can absorb some of the population increase. More investment into faster and more frequent trains will be required.

Much has been written about the need to upgrade Australia’s infrastructure to meet the demands of its growing population. We tend to think about such upgrades in terms of big, capital intensive projects. This should not stop us from looking at gradual improvements to our existing infrastructure.

It is an embarrassment that in 1929, the railway connection between Sydney and Newcastle was seven minutes faster than it is today. It may be hard to believe, but passengers 80 years ago could even get a drink and a sandwich on board. Until 1974, NSW trains featured first class compartments that offered travellers more space and comfortable seats.

For Cityrail, the past may hold some ideas for its future. Today, Cityrail’s ageing intercity fleet does no longer meet the requirements of modern business travellers.

The company should consider reintroducing a premium service to win back those business customers it had long lost to the car. Small steps would make a big difference: Reclining seats, power sockets and tray tables for laptop computers, and some snacks and drinks offered on the journey. It’s not rocket science. In fact, even no-frills airlines offer similar services in economy.

Upgrading Australia’s infrastructure is the key policy challenge for the coming decades. It is high time to make the first step on this journey.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is a Research Fellow at CIS. His paper On the Right Track: Why NSW needs Business Class Rail (co-authored with Jennifer Buckingham) was published this week.

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