Tell 'em they're dreamin'!

Tell ’em they’re dreamin’!

We have an election on in Australia, the cradle of democracy, and as always in federal elections an enormous number of fringe political parties have crawled out from under their rocks. We have the Rotating Leadership Party, which is running on a platform of giving every person in Australia the chance to be prime minister for a day; the anti-Maritime party, which believes that floating on water is a satanic act and is opposed to all forms of shipping; and the Sex Party, which actually has pretty good policies. Who could be opposed to more sex? But in amongst these fringe parties we also have some single-issue groups, and in my opinion the most single issue of the lot is the Bullet Train for Australia Party. Their policies are reviewed here, and can be summarized very simply as: bullet train. This is pure science fiction at its best. Their slogan might confuse non-Australians, since it appears to advocate voter fraud:

Vote Bullet Train! Then vote as you normally would …

This is not because of special Australian laws giving nerdy train-spotters two votes each, but because of our complicated preference system, which is itself a work of science fiction and impossible for ordinary mortals to understand. But I think the Bullet Train for Australia Party has summarized their preference policy very nicely in that slogan. I also like the way their website has Australianized the bullet train by getting some pictures of Japanese bullet trains and sticking a kangaroo on them. Who could possibly hate kangaroos? And how can any technological or industrial advance be alien to Australia if it has a kangaroo on it?

The reason I think that this is basically science fiction is that there is no way a bullet train will ever be a profitable enterprise in Australia. We have 22 million people spread out over an area the size of the Magellan Cloud, living in little clusters of “civilization” separated by vast expanses of nothing. By way of comparison, Japan has 120 million people living in an area the size of Japan, with cities not too far apart that have populations the same size as Australia. That’s why they can run a train between those cities at light speed every 15 minutes, at something resembling a profit. But even then, catching a bullet train in Japan is no cheaper than flying – just enormously more convenient and comfortable. If you cut out all the in between stops (because no decent towns exist), doubled the distance between cities and then reduced the eligible population by a factor of 6 or 10, would it still be cheaper than flying? Especially given the electricity demands? And would it still be 8x more efficient than flying? And would you use a bullet train to get from Sydney to Adelaide? That’s a 21 hour bus trip at 120 km an hour, so probably a 7 hour bullet train trip. Or a 1 hour flight. Hmm, which would you choose? The only way that a bullet train would become an efficient program in Australia is if the Rotating Leadership Party were to seriously act on its on-again off-again “Big Australia” ideas, and double Australia’s population. Then, if the extra people settled in the right places, maybe it would work out.

Good luck with that.

As an aside, I am intrigued by the modern opposition to high speed rail in the UK, where it might actually be a viable investment. Apparently the HSR will cost 80 billion pounds to build, and this is a ludicrous amount of money that no modern government can afford. I haven’t done the numbers but I have a strong suspicion that the Japanese shinkansen would have cost a significantly larger portion of GDP when it started in 1958 than HSR would cost in the UK now. Had the Japanese adopted modern craven attitudes towards government spending, they would never have got the bullet train. Yet they have the bullet train, and somehow their society seems to have survived the massive fiscal impost. Could it be that sometimes massive government investment is a good idea? Which isn’t to say that the HSR is the best use of 80 billion pounds of British money, but “it’s a lot of money” doesn’t seem to me to be the best argument against it either …

Anyway, the Bullet Train for Australia Party are definitely pursuing a crazy science fiction policy, though it would be a pretty cool sight to see a bullet train heading through the desert – on the run from Darwin to Adelaide I imagine it would be able to get up to some pretty phenomenal speeds in the open spaces around Uluru. You could even build a tunnel through Uluru so it doesn’t have to deviate – then instead of climbing the rock, people can say they sped through it in a microsecond. Or you could lay the train nearby, and take iconic pictures of the bullet train shooting past the rock – contrast of old and new, etc. Japanese railways love the picture of a train running through rice paddies with hills in the background, this could be the Australian equivalent. Except that there would be only one person in the train, and enough energy to power the entire city of Darwin being used to propel it.

I think there’ll be a maglev on Mars before there is a bullet train from Adelaide to Darwin. But at least the Bullet Train for Australia Party have cornered the train-spotting vote!