Troll rail

People like trains, and things that run on rails. They’re big and they make clackity-clack noises. Some people love them and know a lot about different trains. A few people have feelings about rail that go a little bit beyond love and spill over into the rest of their lives. We all know about Ayn Rand’s feelings about railroads and her characters’ emotions about powerful locomotives. The Reverend Wilbert Audry loved trains so much that he created an entire Isle and a fictional universe for Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends. Audry was truly the Tolkien of Trains.

Now literature is one thing. It’s also fine when people with rail fetishes hang around on train platforms with telephoto lenses sitting upright in their laps—that’s a respectable hobby. And there’s nothing more healthy than grown adults playing with model trains in the darkness of their garages, right? It’s when you mix people’s love of rail vehicles, though, with proposals for the urban design and planning of our cities you get something quite unique, different and frustrating: the troll rail project.

Alon Levy’s wonderful term refers to projects which are “rail projects that probably have critical constructibility and cost problems, but not obvious ones”. Sydney-Los Angeles? Silly. Those points can obviously not be connected with a train. But a Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne high speed rail? Yes, those are all points on a geographic plane which could, in theory, be connected with a rail link—if you leave aside any question of how or why you’d want to do it. Alan Davies has covered the issues with Australian HSR in detail, so I won’t expand on high speed trains.

It’s low-speed trains which offer a far more pervasive illusion of progress. Sydney has three troll rail projects going at the moment, for those of you counting them: there’s the succintly named Light Rail to Randwick which would go where it says on the website (and indeed, would follow the route of an early 20th century tramline). There’s the City of Sydney Council’s proposal for a Central-George Street-Circular Quay loop in its 2030 plan. And finally, and the troll-iest, in my view, there’s the proposal that the frequent lobbyists at Ecotransit have come up with for Parramatta Road trams.

Leaving aside that all three of these routes are already heavily trafficked by well-patronised public transport services (including, in the case of Central-Circular Quay, by an underground heavy rail loop), even a brief read of the proposals should throw up a few immediate questions. For instance, how is a tram service on Parramatta Road going to maintain a frequency of two to five minutes, given that that’s within the intervals of the existing traffic lights? Even if every tram can carry as many passengers as they say, is every tram going to carry that many passengers? Just how did they come up with the laughable figure of $600 million for construction, rolling stock and no-more-on-road-costs? Are maintenance and wages included? My own favourite line I think is the assertion that light rail provides “a confidence in its permanence that ephemeral bus routes can never have”.

Well, you can’t argue that buses don’t travel on permanent rails. I’m not even going to try. And I’m quite certain that every argument I could possibly bring up would face a rejoinder from the tram-backers: you could give the trams priority at the lights, for instance. And you could alter the form of the road. And you could operate the route with massive subsidy so that the frequency could be kept up, with a corresponding wages bill. You can’t argue details with the vision of people who want a transport system for a city that requires the city and economy to be altered in its favour. They’ll always come back with a response that proves we need a tram.

I’m not also going to try to argue that Sydney doesn’t have transport problems. We’ve got plenty. We’ve underinvested in public transport for generations and we’ve got a bizarrely complicated system of routes and fares. There’s an historical unwillingness on the part of drivers to pay upfront for automobility in the form of tolls or road pricing, which means that we all pay for it in the form of congestion. We silo our departments so that, for instance, Roads is in charge of building Roads and all they are interested in is building Roads. Worst of all, we make transport plans, we don’t build the infrastructure because the Treasury says we can’t, then we tear the old plans up and make new plans.

The alternative though isn’t “trams”. The alternative is long-term planning which sets out some basic questions like “Where do people want to go?” and “What’s the most efficient way of getting them there?” and “How fast and how often do they need to get there?” and only after that starts to get into details of technology. The best way of getting people around might be trams, or it might be buses. It could be double-decker buses, it could be pneumatic tubes or zeppelins.

The fantasy of troll rail, and of Reverend Audry, is that we can pick a technology that we like and enjoy for our own reasons, and then imagine up an urban form, an economy, and a ridership which will suit it.


Image by loudtiger via Creative Commons Licence

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