May 21, 2024

Fast electric, intercity rail is key to solving transport emissions. But could a train like The Overland be part of that future?

For acupuncturist Carol Williams, The Overland train is an efficient and cost-effective way to travel between her home in Murray Bridge and Melbourne where her grandchildren live.

Williams prefers to join the intercity service enroute instead of flying, avoiding the hassle of driving more than an hour to Adelaide airport and airport security.

“Why have that stress?” she says. “This is like a day out.”

When Cosmos meets Williams onboard the train, she is knitting a jumper of grey wool-nettle blend and enjoying an espresso coffee in Café Matilda, the train’s 1960s mint green diner with laminate booth seating.

For the rest of the twelve-hour train journey, Williams plans to read her book and will probably return to the cafe later for a beer and a sandwich.

With its 70-year-old rolling stock and diesel-electric engine, The Overland service carries around 20,000 passengers per annum, twice weekly in each direction between Melbourne and Adelaide. The intercity train is privately operated, albeit highly subsidised by the Victorian and South Australian governments.

The Overland’s current status is a far cry from the train’s heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s – before discount airlines came along – when patronage was as high as 500,000 and the train ran in both directions 7 days a week.

Yet prospects for intercity rail could be about to switch tracks.

Along with recognising the climate benefits of passenger rail over road transport, the Australian Government has established the High Speed Rail Authority to lead the development of a fast, intercity rail network along Australia’s east coast, connecting cities and regional centres.

Carol Williams on board The Overland. Credit: Petra Stock

And climate and transport experts agree better days for intercity rail could be coming down the line.

Professor Peter Newman who is the coordinating lead author for transport for the global Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and an expert in transport and sustainability at Curtin University, says electrifying and accelerating intercity and regional rail is a crucial component of achieving net zero emissions in transport, particularly given the limited and highly expensive aviation options.

In China, India and Europe, “there’s a major focus now on getting rid of diesel locos replacing them with battery electric systems”, he says.

The Australian Government has established the High Speed Rail Authority to lead the development of a fast, intercity rail network along Australia’s east coast.

India has electrified more than 80% of its diesel systems, China 70% and in Europe more than 60%. Much of the progress includes updating many country and intercity services which had been kept, but not necessarily kept up, he says.

In Australia, freight rail company Aurizon has announced it is already working towards converting its fleet of diesel locomotives into electric ones, using large on-board batteries, capable of capturing regenerative energy when trains brake or travel downhill.

The International Energy Agency’s net zero by 2050 report expects rail to replace a significant share of long-distance road and regional air transport under its net zero scenarios.

And, as part of a crackdown on greenhouse gas emissions, this year France became the first place to ban flights between cities in favour of regular, fast and efficient train services, where there is a suitable intercity rail service alternative.

Newman believes other countries will soon follow.

The second rail revolution is underway, Newman says. This process is happening very rapidly, and Australia risks being left behind.

Back to The Overland, where the train chugs and shudders across Western Victoria’s sheep and wind farm country. Windows offer uninterrupted views of wide blue skies softened by cloud puffs, almost like a Japanese Ukiyo-e print.

The 135-year-old train’s future has been under a cloud since the South Australian Liberal Government withdrew financial support in 2018. In 2020, the Victorian ($3.8 million a year until the end of 2023, and a further $11.5 million over the next 3 years), and later South Australian ($1.4 million over 4 years) governments stepped in to keep the service, connecting many regional towns – Murray Bridge and Bordertown in SA, Nhill, Dimboola, Horsham, Stawell, Ararat, Geelong in Victoria – on track.

Then COVID-19 hit an already struggling intercity train service hard.

Williams tells Cosmos she caught that last service on The Overland before interstate COVID-19 border closures shut the service down for extended periods throughout 2020 and 2021.

Patronage dropped from around 20,000 per annum (pre-COVID), to around 18,000 in 2022, according to a spokesperson for the South Australian Government.

Patronage on east coast intercity trains doubled late last year… and more than 23,500 passengers caught The Overland in the 12 months to April 2023.

Peter Don, a transport engineer and economist with the Rail Futures Institute, describes The Overland as being “on life support”. He says the train is operated with its original rolling stock, some of which dates back to the 1950s.

The train is desperately in need of a future vision, he says.

The Institute proposes a set of modest improvements that might help keep the service, and its future potential on track.

These include increasing the service from 2 to 3 times a week in each direction, switching to more modern carriages, promoting holiday packages (like allowing people to get off in the Grampians for a few days and re-join the train later), and better coordination between The Overland’s timetable and interconnecting trains and buses.

Both Victorian and South Australian governments declined to answer questions about medium to long term plans for the train.

Transport planner Dr Garry Glazebrook works with fast train advocacy group Fastrack Australia. He describes the current status of intercity rail in Australia as “dismal”.

A view of paddocks through a train window
Credit: Petra Stock

He says there are about twenty countries around the world which already either have high speed rail already, or are building it. “We really haven’t got any more excuses”, he says.

Many of the overseas proposals are well over 1,000 kilometres stretching between cities like Rome, Paris and Madrid.

“Now admittedly, you might be able to fly that in 2 hours, but when you add in the time getting to and from the airports, and all the other hassles to do with flying, a lot of people are really quite happy to spend certainly 3, 4 hours on a high-speed train,” he says.

Fastrack’s proposals start with the Sydney to Melbourne corridor, tackled in 5 stages. The first covers Sydney to Southern Highlands, currently “a very windy, slow piece of track [that] carries the heaviest traffic on the Sydney Melbourne corridor, both freight and passenger”.

He says in its current state, The Overland “is hardly what you’d call a high-quality intercity link”. But there are things we can do to improve things, he says, noting Spanish company Talgo has reportedly proposed a high-speed rail service using its tilt-train technology capable of operating with diesel, electric and hydrogen.

A lot of people are really quite happy to spend certainly 3, 4 hours on a high-speed train.

Dr Garry Glazebrook

“We have to look at all of these options, and see what we can do to improve things in Australia,” Glazebrook says.

James Whitten researches regional politics and urban planning in high-speed rail proposals at the University of Melbourne.

He says even moderately faster trains can foster regional development benefits, citing Victoria’s investments in regional rail services such as Ballarat and Geelong providing faster services (to between 100-150 kilometres per hour), better frequency, comfort and quality, which “provided a really big boost for regional cities connected to that network”.

Newman says, at 828 kilometres, The Overland would be a prime candidate for an electric, high-speed update.

There might be some straightening out of the lines in various places, the train modernised and engine swapped for battery-electric to increase the capacity and speed.

With his global experience, Newman believes such a transformation could be achieved within 5 years with governments and the private sector working together.

“Oh my gosh, people will flock to it. All of the evidence around the world is that people will use it.”

Patronage on The Overland is currently tiny compared with the more than 2 million passengers who travelled by air between Adelaide and Melbourne last year, according to statistics from the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics.

Even without an upgrade, passenger preferences might be shifting in response to increasingly expensive, and oftentimes unreliable air flights.

Scenery rushes past windows on a train
Credit: Petra Stock

Patronage on east coast intercity trains doubled late last year, according to The Guardian. And more than 23,500 passengers caught The Overland in the 12 months to April 2023.

That demand shift is part of the transport system changes needed to reduce reliance on fossil fuelled modes like cars and planes. Fast, electric intercity rail connected to local zero emission options including walking, cycling and public transport and interstate rail, Newman says.

It’s a shift already happening across much of the Northern Hemisphere.

“Rail is very comfortable once you’re in it. And if you can get to it and save time, you certainly will save money.”

For Williams, even the slow train is already her preferred option.

“For me, when I get to Melbourne, the public transport service is so efficient and effective that nobody has to meet me. I just go from one train to another. And then four stations later, I’ll hop off and walk down the road and in the front door.”

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