Sunday, 11 December 2022

The hollowing out of the train service

 A few days ago I vented about the Sydney Canberra train service

Since then there's been various reports that the Sydney/Melbourne train service has been enjoying a substantial increase in patronage, basically because flights have become unaffordable for some.

What's interesting is the way that people have to be told about how the train service works - long distance train travel has ceased to be a thing in Australia, and train travel in regional and rural Australia has become the preserve of those who live too far from an airport or who can't afford to fly.

Railways are of course operated by the State governments, and not the Federal government.

Here in North East Victoria, we've just got new trains on the Albury line, shortening the journey time by twenty minutes each way. We havn't used them yet, but while we grumbled about the old locomotive hauled service, it basically worked, getting us there and back in a day when we needed it, even during the pandemic.

V/line is a pretty attenuated service however - our local station in Wangaratta is still in the old 1880's building but has shrunk down to a waiting area with these bolted to the floor benches once only seen in social security offices, a ticket counter and some toilets - not the most welcoming, but it does the job. Strangely, reasonable amount of parking.

V/line shrank nearly to nothing but is now beginning to claw its way back with new trains, track improvements, reopening closed lines and stations, etc, to try and provide a half way decent service.

There's still not enough trains and services are often slow but they're trying and one has to give them  credit for trying to move things in the right direction.

Queensland Rail has also been investing, replacing the old long distance Sunlander between Brisbane and Cairns with a newer modern train with improved journey times.

However, New South Wales, which operates the Melbourne Sydney service and the Sydney Brisbane service is still using 40 year old XPT trains, over track which is much as it was in the early twentieth century.

The result is a distinctly sparse, slow and unreliable service between the three largest population centres on the east coast. However, it's been like that for at least a generation now, meaning that unless you have had experience of a decent, fast, long distance train service overseas, it's what you take for normal. Even if it hasn't always been like that, it's what you expect things to be like.

Fixing the problems all at once is probably impossible, the money is probably not there for track improvements, electrification etc. 

While the Inland Rail project has delivered improvements for the Melbourne Albury line, it's not going to help the improve the line from Albury to Sydney, which is much as it was in the 1880's with sections of single track, nor is it going to help with the line from Sydney to Brisbane.

In the 1980's the then NSW government reportedly wanted to abandon all non metro passenger services. This was not acceptable politically, with the result we have a bare minimum service for people who either live regionally or who cannot afford to fly.

And when patronage increases, there's not enough slack in the system to cope.

I suspect that the NSW government would prefer to invest its rail budget in continuing improvements in the Woollongong/Sydney/Newcastle area - it's where most of the population lives after all.

However, it's not all gloom.

New trains are promised from 2023 onwards, which may help improve matters, but without improvements to the track I suspect that there won't be any marked increase in speed. 


Likewise without additional rolling stock over and above those older trains being replaced, there probably won't be any increase in frequency of service.

So what's the answer? I don't know. 

What I do know is that while Victoria and Queensland have shown a willingness to invest in their regional services, New South Wales has not, which is unfortunate given that they have control of the Melbourne/Sydney/Brisbane passenger train service ...

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