Fast trains in France are something Australians can only dream of

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

Labor leader Anthony Albanese recently announced that a rapid train between Sydney and Newcastle would be a priority for the Labor government, as a first step towards linking major cities from Brisbane to Melbourne. Predictably, current Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher said it would be “too expensive”.

This dance has been going on for decades. A consortium proposes a plan, or a political party sends a kite, the opposing party rejects it, the public likes the idea, there are feasibility studies, and a chorus of dissidents announces that it is too expensive. It’s like an episode of Utopia. (And this is – series 1, episode 3.)

The crux of the problem is the vast distances in our country, necessitating the very costly laying of railways – there are 1600 kilometers between Brisbane and Melbourne – and the lack of major towns along the way to bear the costs. I think most people understand that and it’s unlikely to happen without huge government subsidies or tax breaks.

Last month I took one of the fast French TGVs from Cannes in the south to Paris in the north. I love these trains. I have criss-crossed France in them over the years. Not only are they fast (Cannes to Paris, 937 kilometers, took just over five hours), but they’re comfortable, convenient and affordable.

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

My ticket was on my phone via a QR code, as was my health vaccination certificate, needed to enter just about anywhere in France now. Cannes is a small station on the Monte Carlo-Marseille route, so I walked straight into the station from the street and onto the train. Ideally a map of all the carriages and their places on the train is displayed on the platform, so I knew I was at the front of the train for boarding.

As the train was double decker and I was traveling alone with luggage, I had pre-selected a seat on the lower deck. There was plenty of space for luggage, both in the entrance to the car and behind my seat in the front. The seat was wide and plush, adjustable, with a large folding table. When a traveler joined Marseille and sat across from me, we had plenty of legroom between us.

The free WiFi on the train was excellent. Via the website, I was able to pre-order meals in the dining car and a taxi to pick me up at Gare de Lyon in Paris. The scenery was stunning along the Cote d’Azur, as it was inland, where the sunny coast was replaced by snow-covered woods and farms.

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

Europeans have many choices in this regard. Spanish and Italian trains are equally comfortable in my experience. When the Swedish flygskam or flight shaming, anti-theft social movement became a thing in 2018, train travel exploded in this part of the world. Train journeys emit approximately 80% less carbon dioxide than a similar plane journey. Electric trains powered by renewable energy are even more efficient (Dutch railways have been entirely dependent on wind power since 2017).

In Australia, we don’t have that choice. A few years ago at Christmas I took the old Southern Aurora from Sydney to Melbourne. I remember there were a billion stops, so it could serve all the rural centers. The trip took over 12 hours. Forty years later, XPT service at 160 km/h takes only one hour less.

I suppose it is too late to bemoan the decisions not made by consecutive Australian governments over the years. Economically, a new railway system will be in great demand these days. Building such vast infrastructure, involving thousands of kilometers of steel, might not even be beneficial to the environment in the short term.

But in the long run, how nice would it be to sit by one of those big train windows and dream away as rural Australia rolls by?

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