My train moved gracefully through the calm beauty of Adelaide’s foothills. Travellers are reading, listening to music, or looking out as nature merges gracefully into an urban setting. They understand how to share a public space for a collective bene fit. A short time ago, trains were considered a museum for more enlightened times; a time when public transport was an expression of shared values, and public investment was not seen for its insensitivity to the market. But the train is now making an inspired comeback. Attitudes to public transport were in decline well before the economic rationalism of Thatcher, Reagan and (dare I say it) the Hawke and Keating governments. As early as the 1960s, the number of train lines was in decline throughout the English-speaking world. But Thatcher captured the disdain for public transport when she asserted that a man who “finds himself on a bus can count himself as a
Adelaide’s limited train services are a staple transport for local commuters
Trains and buses, which once made cities and other services accessible to all, were for a short period considered inconsistent with modernity. Thatcher’s disdain for public transport sat comfortably alongside her economic objectives of lower taxation and the decimation of shared goods and public services. Services that are responsive to social inclusion are often unprofitable, thus dependent upon public investment. A few years ago, a young member of the Legislative Assembly in the ACT received frontpage coverage for his attack on public transport services. The kilometres travelled by empty buses over the course of a year were equal to the globe’s circumference. It was front page news and the image of unpatronised buses resonated. If efficiency of service is important, reliability and regularity of service are necessities if all people are to remain socially connected. Modern trains are agreeable. Fast, quiet, efficient. Predictable, civilised and accommodating, a trip on the train bestows on passengers luxuries that are rare in these modern times: equality, reliability and the freedom to contemplate a world that often appears to be rapidly passing one by. Train travel is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Could new rail services reinvigorate outer urban and regional centres?
A more expansive network of reliable train services within cities would contribute to social inclusion, bringing a ordable access to those who have been isolated geographically or through circumstance. In these modern times, people have been sucked into large cities in search of greater opportunities, but many remain stranded in suburbs on the periphery of our modern metropolises. Quality public transport services connect society in a way that would otherwise not be possible. As cities continue to expand to bursting point, public transport has returned to the political agenda. Motor vehicles cannot keep up with ever-expanding cities. They are also guilty of a sustain assault on the environment, and governments are rightly encouraging the use of public transport by diminishing the convenience of motor vehicle use through further levies on car parks and road tolls. Investment in alternatives to motor vehicles have also become more attractive to governments. Rural and regional communities are also isolated from the centres of power and opportunity. Trains have the capacity to connect rural communities with cities, and the cities to each other. For decades, we have imagined a system of high speed trains in Australia that passes through regional centres and connects capital cities. The original vision of the early 1980s, proposed by the Institute of Engineers, was to link the five capitals of south-eastern Australia: Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. The Howard Government, and subsequent federal governments, have considered proposals which were similar but excluded Adelaide. The realisation of such a vision would have a wretched effect on our state, and particularly on its regional centres. Justi fication for greater investment has once again been found in its contribution to greater productivity, further economic opportunities, and greater prosperity. Infrastructure that improves public transport services achieves all of these things – but such a defensive discursive position places a further distance between public investment and the idea that all people deserve access to basic services, of which transport is one.
China has recently hugely upgraded its rail network, with the addition of multiple high speed lines
Will we ever hear policy debated on its social – rather than purely economic – merits? We are passengers on a train that is easy to board but hard to leave. Our political discourse idles by. If one looks out of the window on the left or the right, the two discursive landscapes are difficult to distinguish. Passengers have ceased to be drawn to either, their dreams dulled by the sameness that they have together have conspired to offer. Whatever the justification for investment in the infrastructure that will render train travel more affordable and convenient, the future will see more passengers enjoy the pleasure of train travel. What was once a harbinger to modernity will once again be a defining element of future cities; a response to past failures of planning, environmental and social policy. Long live the train.
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