During the recent Federal Election, noises were made by both the major parties as to plans for a high-speed rail system along the Eastern Coast. Labor seemed to be more committed to the idea, promising to buy up the real estate needed before it became too expensive. It’s a project of course that has been mooted since the early 80s but has remained a virtual pipe dream with no government prepared to commit the billions that would be needed to finance it.
Whilst major improvements have been made to suburban rail services in Sydney with the introduction of the Metro, interstate and country trains have been locked in a kind of time warp. Tourists from countries such as France, Spain, the UK, Japan and China, all with very modern, fast and technically sophisticated long-range rail, must find the ageing XPT a museum-like experience – unchanged since it was first introduced in the early 80s.
Whereas the countries above, and many more like them, had the foresight to plan fast regional train systems, soon after WWII, in Australia it wasn’t until 1962 that both NSW and Victoria even settled on standard gauge rail for their interstate passenger services. Prior to this date if you caught the train from Sydney to Melbourne you needed to change at Albury on the broad gauge track to Melbourne.
Once the track became standardised the modern, the all sleeper Southern Aurora replaced some particularly ancient rolling stock, and a new era of interstate transport was introduced with club and dining cars enhancing the experience. This is a point in the history of East Coast rail where we surely should have gone forward, developing high-speed services and making train travel a competitive and enjoyable alternative to flying or taking your chances on the then goat track like Hume Highway.
Unfortunately, successive governments did nothing, the long term value of regional and interstate train services was never realised and even the Southern Aurora was gone by 1986. The XPT (“express passenger train”), with its aerodynamic design, was introduced with considerable fanfare but after 40 years of service is probably better off in a railway museum.
It is, however, a uniquely Australian experience if you chose to travel on one of these services. Take for example the 15 hour trip from Sydney to Brisbane, which includes a bus ride from Casino to Roma Street in Brisbane on the daylight service. There’s no dining car but hot meals can be ordered and collected at the buffet carriage. It’s not uncommon for any leftover food to be offered at half price over the public address with announcements like, “We have two meat pies and a roast beef dinner at half price in the buffet if you are interested.” Not exactly the gourmet experience of upmarket tourist only trains like The Ghan or the Indian Pacific.
Some might find the old fashioned, good-natured service takes the pain out of the marathon journey but how different things could have been with a Japanese style bullet train streaking down the East Coast from Brisbane to Melbourne. Maybe Sydney would not be such a congested city as it now is, with the population more evenly distributed up and down the rail corridor. Hindsight – it’s a wonderful thing but foresight is a helluva lot better.