• Despite having the planet's three busiest stations, run by a mix of private corporations and different levels of government, everything runs smoothly in Japan. (Andrew K.Smith/Flickr)Source: Andrew K.Smith/Flickr
Metro-style mass transit systems like London's Underground have spread across Asia in the past few decades. Avowed train fan Dom Knight, asks if we'll get on board to give Australians the kind of lifestyle freedoms that come with a world-class rail network.
By
Dominic Knight

7 Oct 2016 - 12:53 PM  UPDATED 7 Oct 2016 - 12:58 PM

As a kid, I loved trains. When we lived in central London during the late 1980s, nine-year-old me became obsessed with the Underground, the network of fun-sized trains that has transported Londoners around their city since the 19th century.

I prided myself on keeping much of the route map in my head, and adored visiting the Transport Museum (nearest station: Covent Garden on the Piccadilly Line). My tolerant parents even bought me a book with interesting (well, to me) facts about every station. It's little wonder that I ended up supporting the only football club with a Tube station named after it, Arsenal FC.

Thirty years later and the interest hasn't subsided. My family are always bemused when we’re on holidays and I insist that we lug heavy bags around on airport trains, and when honeymooning in Paris, I definitely spent too much time talking about which Metro lines ran on rubber tyres.

But mass transit also means freedom. I’m talking about trains that run with only a few minutes between them, and have stations everywhere. In a big city with a good network, you can rapidly skip around, exploring neighbourhoods the same way locals do.

And when doing so, sure; I appreciate the cleverness of good design, both of the stations and the network itself. Tsukuru Tazaki, the hero of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, is an obsessive who designs train stations, and is delightful nevertheless. Maybe I too am a train nerd.

But mass transit also means freedom...In a big city with a good network, you can rapidly skip around, exploring neighbourhoods the same way locals do.

Tokyo surely has the world's most comprehensive train network, and most residents don't need to bother with cars. Despite having the planet's three busiest stations, and being run by a mix of private corporations and different levels of government, everything runs astonishingly smoothly. The Yamanote (downtown) loop line alone has nearly 4 million riders a day, and trains arrive every 3 or 4 minutes.

Japan’s example has been taken up across Asia. When I first visited Singapore in 1987, its metro had just opened – now there are 102 stations. Bangkok’s Skytrain only opened in 1999 and its MRT underground network in 2004, while Hong Kong’s MTR has not only expanded extensively in recent years, but now operates numerous systems elsewhere around the world, including Sydney, Melbourne and London.

'Art in Transit' transforms French rail with scenes from Versailles
A splash of culture for your commute.

But it’s China where mass transit has really taken off this century. In 2001, Shanghai had only two metro lines. Now it has the world’s longest network, with 14 lines and 362 stations. Beijing’s also only had two lines in 2001 – now there are 18, and it’s the world’s busiest single network.

During this period, Australia’s rail development has been relatively limited, and some lines have even closed.

Queensland has built its Gold Coast line, and airport lines have arrived in Brisbane and Sydney, but much of our network still dates before World War II.

Of course, our population is smaller and less densely arranged than the Asian cities that have seen such rapid grown in their mass transit networks, but given our relatively high rates of car ownership, we have tended to favour roads over rail.

Reversing this bias has led to the ironic situation of Sydney rebuilding a light rail network along the same roads where one of the world’s largest tram networks once ran.

It’s hard for me to be objective about rail, given my childhood fascination with it, but its advantages are considerable. It’s a highly democratic form of transport, with affordable ticket prices.

It uses dedicated corridors that generally aren’t affected by other traffic, which inherently makes rail faster than roads, even though this often isn’t the case in Australia due to design shortcomings. And they allow the rider to read, catch up on work or watch a screen, whereas drivers have to give the road their full attention.

Malcolm Turnbull is often photographed travelling by train – sometimes in a selfie. There’s something reassuring about seeing a PM travelling to a football game alongside the rest of us.

Our prime minister also seems to be a rail buff. Despite having access to an official driver and his own personal resources, Malcolm Turnbull is often photographed travelling by train – sometimes in a selfie. There’s something reassuring about seeing a PM travelling to a football game alongside the rest of us.

I’m not enough of an expert to know whether metro-style rail – which is more frequent in terms of trains and stops than conventional train lines – is the right solution for Australia's future.

There are certainly infrastructure projects underway in a number of cities, like Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel, Sydney’s Metro line and the Gold Coast Metro Rail. All I know is that I hope they lead to a more comprehensive network, because they’re certainly my favourite way of getting around.

And I’m not alone in this. The London Underground's original template for affordable, frequent and convenient public transport has made its mark all over the world, just as it made its mark on nine-year-old me.

 

Discover a great journey with 'Great American Railroad Journeys' on SBS On Demand.

Find a book on public transport? It's yours to keep
A new organisation is spreading their love of reading across Melbourne.
Finnish commuters taken aback as Helsinki trials driverless buses
Finland's all aboard the driverless bus technology with a new Helsinki trial set to continue through September.