Thursday, 8 December 2022

Should flying between Canberra and Sydney be banned?

 There was an article in @guardianaus a few days ago posing that very question. The article provoked a lot of comments, some sensible, some silly and some completely loony,

But there's a point there.

Pre pandemic, and before I retired in 2016, I used to fly to Sydney from Canberra for one day meetings occasionally.

This usually involved getting up at 0515, driving to the airport for an 0630 or 0700 flight - the later ones were usually full or stupidly expensive, which usually meant that you were in the CBD with enough time for a coffee and croissant and to check your email for overnight problems etc before a 1000 start, aiming for a 1600 finish and a late afternoon, early evening flight back. Basically a 12h day, of which 8 or so hours was definitely work.

If I had time to wait at the airport I was a fan of these standup desks  that Virgin used to provide to check email and write up my notes.

Sometimes we did have skype meetings, but as most of the people I was meeting with were in Sydney anyway you usually had to travel to meet with them.

Now, before I worked in Canberra, I lived and worked in York, in the north of England, and sometimes had to go meetings in London.

That also tended to involve an equally early start, a high speed train at around 0700 which got me into central London just before nine, with time for a coffee and a croissant and a short hop on the underground to the meetings, usually at CentrePoint on Tottenham Court Road.

Similarly back in the evening trying to avoid peak hour trains and peak hour prices, and again a 12h day.

And quite frankly there wasn't that much to choose between the experiences - I did like the Virgin flight back to Canberra in pre-pandemic times, if only because they treated you like an adult, but really both experiences were cramped and tedious.

So why didn't I take the Canberra Sydney train?

Well, the main reason is that it takes just over four hours each way, and is often late. While in theory you could work on it, there's no wifi. Assuming everything worked properly, you would be pushing it to be at your meeting before 1200, and there's only one train back in the evening, which leaves at around 1700,

That and the fact that Canberra train station is at the dodgy end of Kingston near the fruit and veg market, looks like an oversized public toilet with facilities to match, has no secure parking, and is not even particularly easy to get to by bus from the city centre.

For as long as people have to go to Sydney for the day, there's no alternative short of new, faster trains, rebuilding the train line to allow these trains to operate at a decent speed, plus a new, more accessible train station for Canberra. It's telling that that you can get an express bus CBD to CBD that only takes around three and a bit  hours.

When I worked in York, the other place I used to go to for work meetings was Manchester, on the truly appalling and hilariously misnamed TransPennine express - slow old trains not that different to the ones running between Canberra and Sydney.

But that was twenty years ago, they've now got newer, faster trains, and are upgrading the route, which now means that the 120km journey can be done in around an hour and a half on a good day. Not as fast as the London train, but a speed comparable to the express Sydney Canberra bus.

But of course the distance from Canberra to Sydney is twice that from York to Manchester, and travels through markedly less populated areas, meaning fewer passengers joining the train en route, and even with a tweaked upgrade of the tracks like the TransPennine upgrade it would still take around three hours to reach Sydney - better, but still not good enough to hit the 'arriving in time for a 1000 meeting' sweet spot.

Basically, any improvement would mean spending big - really big - to build a new high speed line - and I  doubt there's any political will for that, given that any such spend will inevitably be seen as being for the fat cats of Canberra ...

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