The link between laundry and high speed rail

Having lived in Japan for two decades, it was so easy to take things such as this dry-cleaning message for granted. The way it was put in a plastic zip-lock bag with the item stuck to the docket. Complete attention to detail.

I didn’t realise how much I missed this part of the culture. Yet it transcends across every facet of life.

Take the bullet train. JR Central, the owner of the main Tokaido Line reported the following in its latest annual report.

In over 50 years there have been zero accidents. The railway has spent JPY3.5 trillion with a “t” ($35bn) in safety and maintenance alone. Safety and reliability are paramount to growing ridership.

The train runs 368 services a day servicing 466,000 passengers. It had an average delay of 0.7 minutes per train service. For the environmentalists, the Tokaido Line emits 1/12th the CO2 per passenger of a commercial aircraft. So there is a green lining too.

When attending the Australia vs NZ cricket on a hot day earlier in the month, “The Light Rail Service has stopped working. Buses will operate in their place” popped up on the big screen. The entire 30,000 crowd burst out into spontaneous laughter. How much bigger joke could this project get? How can it take 50 minutes to get to Randwick from Circular Quay?

In short, a French designed train built in India couldn’t operate because the temperature expanded the track causing it to become jammed. If being delayed for over one year wasn’t embarrassing enough, who knew Australia had hot days from time to time?

Our Sydney Metro has also been plagued by setbacks. Same situation. French designed trains made in India. Breaking down in tunnels and so forth. Driverless they may be but rudderless too.

Yet the Japanese are about to take the bullet train to a new level. The MAGLEV will allow passengers to get to Nagoya from Tokyo (300km) in 40 minutes! Imagine a trip to Canberra in that time? Tokyo to Osaka (500km) will only take 67 minutes.

If we think that Australia has grown its population by 2.2m (+10%) since 2013, our airports won’t be able to handle the extra expansion. At the moment, there are 54,500 flights annually between Sydney and Melbourne. On a daily basis around 27,000 people make this pilgrimage.

By comparison, the Tokaido Line runs around 78,000 passenger per day bettwen Tokyo and Nagoya. 145,000 between Tokyo and Osaka.

High speed rail is a no brainer for Australia. As a former ANU student some 30 years ago, I often made the journey from Sydney to Canberra. The distance between Liverpool and Campbelltown is around 20km. 30 years ago they were separated. Now housing has expanded from either direction along the Hume Highway such that the two towns are more or less connected by numerous new suburbs. The population is putting pressure on new housing.

Many public servants who work in the nation’s capitol, Canberra, now live in Goulburn, a country town some 45 minutes out. Shuttle buses now run between the two towns such has been the trend.

If the population keeps expanding at a 10% clip every 6 years, the infrastructure just won’t keep up. If Australia isn’t thinking about high speed rail for much longer, it will be too late. To think such rail infrastructure will take 20 years to execute.

The record tells us that the Japanese are the best partners to develop the HSR in Australia. Surely we have had enough bad experiences with the French to date to want to have them run another project. Trains or submarines. The Chinese have hardly ingratiated themselves by canceling visas of our politicians. They don’t have the safety record of the Japanese, either.

The Japanese build things to last. Is it any wonder the Japanese ensure the sleepers have higher volcanic ash content to ensure their long-life? Not in China. Hence why one of China’s high speed trains derailed in 2011 because of a cracked sleeper with lower ash content. Even worse the authorities ended up just digging a hole and pushing the crashed rolling stock in and burying it.

The Taiwanese have probably made the most sensible recent HSR investment. Ridership has grown from 15.5 million in 2007 to around 67.4 million today. Punctuality is also 99.8%. Sound familiar? It should do.

The Japanese-led Taiwan Shinkansen Consortium won the contract by a combination of soft loans and flexible structures. The Taiwanese government also introduced flexible depreciation, refinanced the debt terms and bought a majority of the publicly listed railway. It has now made capital gains on its investment! They bought Japanese rolling stock made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries which has been bulletproof.

So it is high time the Australian and state governments started to think about getting their act together on HSR. Japanese technology is the only sensible option. It is competitive, reliable and if you have had any friends attended the Rugby World Cup last year, they’ll all tell you how amazing the bullet train was.

Oh and the airlines should love the high speed rail as it will free up slots to use on better routes. Even better they could be partners to running the rail operating system.

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