High-speed rail: France fast trains are something Australians can only dream of

Whenever the subject of a high-speed rail network is brought up, you know it's election time in Australia.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese recently announced that a fast train between Sydney and Newcastle would be a Labor government priority, as a first step towards linking major cities from Brisbane to Melbourne. Predictably, the present Infrastructure minister, Paul Fletcher, said it would be "too expensive".

This dance has gone on for decades. A consortium proposes a plan, or a political party sends up a kite, the opposite party dismisses it, the public likes the idea, there are feasibility studies, and a chorus of dissenters announces it's too expensive. It's like an episode of Utopia. (And it is – series 1, episode 3.)

The crux of the problem lies in the vast distances in our country, necessitating a very costly laying down of rail tracks – it's 1600 kilometres between Brisbane and Melbourne - and the lack of big cities along the track to support the costs. I think most people understand this and that it's unlikely to happen without whopping government subsidies or tax breaks.

Last month I rode one of France's rapid TGV trains from Cannes in the south to Paris in the north. I love these trains. I've criss-crossed France in them over the years. Not only are they fast (Cannes to Paris, 937 kilometres, took a bit over five hours), they're comfortable, convenient and well-priced.

I bought the ticket directly from the French national railway SNCF website before leaving Australia. I had a choice of 13 trains a day. A Premiere class fare cost me €95 ($149). There are all kinds of loyalty cards, including seniors' discounts, if you choose to invest in one.

My ticket was on my phone via QR code, as was my French pass sanitaire vaccination certificate, necessary for entry pretty much anywhere in France now. Cannes is a small station on the Monte Carlo-Marseilles route, so I walked directly into the station from the street and onto the train. Conveniently, a map of all the carriages and their place on the train is posted on the platform, so I knew I was at the front of the train for boarding.

As the train was a double-decker and I was travelling solo with luggage, I had pre-selected a seat on the lower deck. There was plenty of luggage space, at the entrance to the carriage and behind my seat at the front. The seat was wide and plush, adjustable, with a large fold-down table. When a traveller joined in Marseilles and took the seat facing me, we had plenty of leg room between us.

The free in-train Wi-Fi was excellent. Via the website, I could pre-order meals from the restaurant car and a taxi to pick me up at Gare de Lyon in Paris. The scenery was gorgeous along the Cote D'Azur, as it was inland, where the sunny coast was replaced by snow-sprinkled woods and farms.

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Why would anyone choose to fly? I'd avoided the whole depressing mess of airport lines, security checks and delays (the train, as usual, was spot on time). It probably would have taken me five hours to fly from Nice airport, including transfers and an early check in due to COVID-19 rules.

Europeans have lots of choice in this regard. The Spanish and Italian trains are similarly comfortable in my experience. When the Swedish flygskam or flight shame, the anti-flying social movement became a thing in 2018, train travel boomed in this part of the world. Rail journeys emit about 80 per cent less carbon dioxide than a similar trip by plane. Electric trains powered by renewable energy are even more efficient (Dutch Railways has relied entirely on wind energy since 2017).

In Australia we don't have this choice. One Christmas years ago, I took the old Southern Aurora from Sydney to Melbourne. I remember it had a gazillion stops, so that it could service all the rural centres. The trip took over 12 hours. Forty years later, the XPT service at 160 km/h takes only an hour less.

I suppose it's too late to lament the decisions not made by consecutive Australian governments over the years. Economically, a new rail system will be a big ask nowadays. Building such huge infrastructure, involving thousands of kilometres of steel, may not even be environmentally advantageous in the short term.

But in the long term, how lovely would it be to sit by one of those big train windows and daydream as rural Australia flashes by?

lee@leetulloch.com

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