There's a lot of interest in high-speed rail networks at the moment, with good reason. European networks are beginning to form a continental grid of high-speed trains, and Japan's supreme bullet trains of the Shinkansen are being exported. Interest in reinvigorating the USA's Amtrak is being discussed seriously for the first time in decades. London's St. Pancras finally delivers. (And what is the design of new Macbook Air, if it's not a Shinkansen 500 nose welded to the backside of Porsche 928S, as if Luigi Colani was grinning away in some dodgy East End garage, glowing oxyacetylene torch in hand ...)
Monocle's latest issue covers many of the developments. Also, Treehugger just posted an interview with Andy Kunz, of newtrains.org, which covers the situation in the US in some detail and worth a read (if you skip past the New Urbanist bit at the start, which is woefully short of the kind of ambition and imagination that created high-speed trains in the first place.)
Meanwhile, Monocle also has a new film up - one of my favourites thus far, I must say - covering the train journey from Istanbul to Van, on the way to Tehran. Our correspondent Saul Taylor produced a wonderfully atmospheric little mini-doc, capturing exactly the dislocating sensation of those long train rides across Eastern Europe.
My own Eastern European train journey from Sheffield, via the Netherlands, to Budapest in 1991 is still a vivid memory. I've been lucky enough to experience many great rail networks. Doing a lot of business with the IHT last year meant many meetings in Paris, a very swift and easy ride away from London (it's even faster now). I recall the magnifique TGV from the north, down to Marseille; extremely fast, through beautiful terrain, and smooth as silk. Getting the train down the north-west coast of the US, from Seattle to Portland, was a not terribly comfortable ride but through the most sublime landscape imaginable. A hot dusty train from Milan to Pistoia gave me a clear sense of Italy's country and city, before I really set foot in it. The Shinkansen in the (entirely affordable) first class Green Car from Osaka to Tokyo was perhaps the pinnacle, sitting back in an armchair and watching Mount Fuji slide by, reaching phenomenal speeds yet gliding gracefully, attendants bowing to passengers upon entering and leaving the carriage. Yet Swiss railways, on simple trips along the edge of Lake Zürich, are the best examples of service design I've ever seen.
As a non-driver and only occasional flyer, the train is by far my preferred mode of transit. It's easier to work on a train, to relax and read, to stroll to the restaurant car (again, watch the Monocle film on the journey to Tehran for a particularly fine, if old-fashioned, example of the restaurant car in action.) Sleeper trains, if operated by Deutsche Bahn and not the generally woeful British rail companies, can be a wonderful way to travel longer distances in real comfort. They're safer too, if run well (the Shinkansen hasn't had a single passenger fatality in shifting 6 billion passengers over its 40-year history, including through earthquakes and typhoons).
My European roots might be showing here, but the New Rail Revolution isn't limited to that continent. Juergen Kornmann of Bombardier - one of the world's biggest train manufacturers - told Monocle about the investment in rail elsewhere.
"It's those emerging markets - India, China and Russia especially. They're making huge investments in infrastructure. They have a big need for new material, and this means very good business. Russia has an urgent need for freight rail infrastructure because they have such huge distances within the country, from the mines in the east to the population centres, and Europe, in the west. In India, passenger traffic has increased as more people move to big cities. In China, it's both."
The options for trains are increasing too. Over and above the Shinkansen, Deutsche Bahn has a fleet of ICE trains, which can reach speeds of 300km/h. Generally, an all-electric line would be the way to go.
So high-speed rail cuts across countries with vast open spaces as well as densely-packed Europe. And now we are either just post-peak oil, or thereabouts depending on who you read, the other benefits of trains over cars and 'planes barely need stating. (Again, read the Treehugger interview with Andy Kunz if you do want the stats on how much more energy efficient trains are.)
But it's not just about efficiency. There's a romance to the train journey that has never been fully captured by the aeroplane, save those early heady days of flight, and the initial commercialisation of airways (see Evelyn Waugh's Labels for an example). The road movie has a certain panache, admittedly, but is usually defined by an existential solitude. Flying is usually defined by anxiety and fear, whereas the train by intrigue, chance, possibility, cameraderie, romance, and travelling rather than arriving. Examples abound, from Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train to Georges Simenon's The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By to Greene's Travels With My Aunt, and many others. See also the films, such as Strangers ..., The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes from Hitchcock alone. You will have your own favourites.
The posters of Tom Purvis, those GPO films of the London to Brighton route, numerous great pieces of music. A nostalgic point admittedly, but what a different class of cultural production, as if the imagination is stoked by the train more than any other mode of transport.
Moreover, trains can be amongst the most thrilling examples of industrial design, train stations our sublime secular cathedrals, rail bridges our finest creations in civil engineering, and so on. So this isn't at the 'knit your own scented mung bean' end of sustainability; rather, gleaming future cities ascribed with high-quality, high-tech mass transit.
Except here in Australia.
Many think the Australian economy will be shielded from recession by China, and it's currently running at a fairly hefty budget surplus. Either way, spending on infrastructure works is one way of dealing with productivity during global economic slowdowns. So there's money. And sure enough, the Australian government is looking at infrastructure.
"Cabinet also decided yesterday to go ahead with plans to establish Infrastructure Australia, a body to co-ordinate public and private investment in areas such as ports, roads and railways."
Yet the train network has long since departed from the popular imagination, and that's the major issue (economic capacity to invest in infrastructure is really a question of will, which is in turn a question of culture). In fact, Australia might just have been a little too new for it to really have ever landed, as a concept. Even though my initial observations suggest that large areas of Australia's cities are given over to rail and related infrastructure, many will see this as ripe for redevelopment (e.g. the certainly very good CarriageWorks development of the Eveleigh Rail Yards.)
Certainly, this is a car-based culture, just as with the US. Yet it's significantly without that cultural memory of the long arms of iron railroad, hardwiring America out of its mid-western plains (described most wonderfully in Jonathan Raban's Badland.) The interior of Australia is still largely untouched by industrial development, and will always remain so. Politically, the governance model has been left in an unhelpful position, indicating the careless negligence with which rail has been treated. Rail networks were created and run by the states, rather than the federal government, even leading to different gauges of track being laid down from state to state, apparently. They're still run by state-based companies, which means you sometimes still have to change trains to get from Sydney to Melbourne, an incredible state of affairs in 2008.
Of course Sydney to Melbourne is no small journey. Australia is such a vast country, based around effective city state economies, that a constant series of flights shuttle back and forth between cities almost every half-hour, providing hour-long journeys between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. The iconic drives take a day or so, if done by car, which people seem happy to do.
But neither of those modes of transport are tenable going forward, for mass transit, from almost any perspective you'd care to mention. To be clear, cars and planes will still be valid options, just not for the vast proportion of the travel required. The road journeys - the Great Ocean Road, the Grand Pacific Drive, the Pacific Highway - will still be tourist experiences, quite rightly. Infrastructure like the Sea Cliff Bridge in New South Wales will always provide visceral experiences of Australia's beautiful terrain, almost second to none.
But the roads need to be replaced as as the platform, no pun intended, for mass transit. They're barely suitable for freight, and certainly not suitable for business travel. A AUS$3.6 billion upgrade to the Pacific Highway alone is a lot of money to spend on a short-term solution.
In comparison, the train wins out in almost every possible future scenario. Leaving aside that small matter of peak oil, trains are far more comfortable to work in, as long as the space plan is generously laid out (again, don't look to British trains here). Wireless and mobile networks are far easier to implement on trains than in the air. And they deliver you from city centre direct to city centre, as opposed to depositing you well outside the outer suburbs with another journey ahead of you (never fun rushing from the airport to a meeting in near-tropical conditions.) Moreover, as Kunz points out, it's easy to integrate interstate trains with an urban light-rail/tram network, in a three-tier system of national, regional, local.
I see the opportunity for a primary southern- and eastern-coastline based network, connecting Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, with a tangent shooting off to Canberra, and a possible stop at Newcastle. These are all classic 'city pairs', in the language of high-speed rail network planning. (Perth and Darwin are just too far to connect on this line directly, but should be served by long-distance high-speed sleepers, with the level of comfort and service achieved by the Deutsche Bahn City Night Line. Lines exist on these axes already, run by Rail Australia essentially for tourists - the Ghan (bottom to top, Adelaide to Darwin, 3000km) and the Indian-Pacifc (the 4300km from Sydney to Perth via Adelaide)).
Let's call this new network the Southern Cross Line, as Melbourne's excellent re-worked Spencer Street station could be its centre-piece (it's a fine station by Grimshaw, and winner of the Walter Burley Griffin award for Urban Design in this year's RAIA awards. It indicates the fine opportunity for quality in civic architecture the railway station presents).
Just as that station attempts to suture Melbourne's CBD together with its Docklands, the high-speed rail network would genuinely connect most of Australia's major cities. Roma Street in Brisbane and Central Station in Sydney would both need a re-vamp (yet Elizabeth Farrelly in the Herald suggests a way forward for the latter in Yuval Fogelson's plan to sink Central underneath Sydney's inner-west.)
(For fun, I've dashed off a simple identity, drawing on the best elements of the Australian flag set on the turquoise of the accompanying ocean, then indicating how an animation could warp the constellation slightly to indicate the major destinations (below), a sequence of pearls along Australia's coastline. The Commonwealth Star remains on the logo, alongside the Southern Cross, indicating this wider national sensibility connecting the city states. This bending of the Southern Cross stars towards the cities relates to the maps of Europe warped by high-speed rail I posted about before. I've half a mind to re-draw Australia on that basis, indicating a pinning of the fabric pulling towards this densely-packed south-east corner. And of course a train with a hooter like the Shinkansen (top) surely deserves a pimple.)
It barely needs pointing out that this 'Southern Cross Line' would also instantly be amongst the most beautiful rail journeys in the world, particularly given a few show-stopping bridges and viaducts hugging the coast as much as possible, yet also easing through lush pasture and rocky outcrop, tinder dry plain and damp rainforest.
The trains should quite simply be imported Shinkansen bullet trains. Taiwan have bought the first exports (700 series) from Hitachi (video of Taiwanese tests below). Russia are interested, for their Trans-Siberian Railway. China has taken a joint-venture approach, modifying bullet trains built by Kawasaki. Even the UK has ordered 29 aluminium Javelin trains, from London to Ashford for the 2012 Olympics (possibly overkill given the UK's small footprint. Unless they give it a bit more of a journey, it'll be like tethering a greyhound on a very short leash.) So the Shinkansen import model is alive and well, and if elements of Japan's service culture and attention to detail in branding and service design (certainly a little more thought than my five-minute sketch above) can be imported too, all the better.
Australia has imported wisely from its Asian neighbour in the past - its peerless architecture is heavily influenced by Japanese tradition through the work of Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds et al, and its cuisine likewise. There's no harm in doing a bit more importing here.
From Tokyo to Fukuoka is 1,174km, and the N700 bullet trains do that in five hours. Melbourne to Sydney is roughly 900km and currently takes around 10 hours. Sydney to Brisbane is 1000km and currently takes around 13 hours. Both services run essentially 1 train per day. With Shinkansen, and newly built track optimised for high-speed, you might guess that Melbourne to Sydney would take around three and a half hours, and Sydney to Brisbane around four hours, and you could run them on the hour. That's getting comparable to flying time, as trains have far quicker check-in and can deliver you from city centre to city centre.
This 'Southern Cross Line' can run alongside the Gahn and the Indian-Pacific, which remain great tourist services. And of course, cars and planes are still part of the mix. It's just that, given the circumstances, the balance now has to shift heavily, back towards the train.
So I call on Mr. Rudd's administration to spend some of that budget surplus - which could be around AUS$18billion - and build a national high-speed rail network. Reorganise the governance to be a federal network, as rail is inevitably an interstate issue. Buy the trains from Japan and lay down the track. Create a network that people would be thrilled to use; would be proud of, as the Germans, French and Japanese are proud of theirs; that would ultimately make them leave the car at home and the plane on the runway. Rudd is right to have made broadband networks one of his administration's priorities, but this is a different network, a different level of investment - and return on investment - altogether. It's a new network for Australia.