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There are few Australians that have not felt the grief, the loss, the hopelessness, of the ongoing tragedy of the consequences of road trauma. Every day the media chronicles the sad litany.
A recent study commissioned by the Australasian Railway Association on the cost of road crashes has revealed the cost in blunt economic terms (1). Previous estimates have been conservative underestimates; this latest rigorous systematic study has revealed the costs of road fatalities and trauma to be in the order of at least thirty five billion dollars annually.
This figure is going to increase rapidly as the road injury management costs continue to climb. There is a much wider social cost to be added but for now let us just consider the economic impact of the road trauma.
This road trauma cost is a drain on our economy. It is not sustainable. It is now clear that as a nation we must move to safe sustainable transport systems for people and bulk freight. Investment in safe public transport through infrastructure and operating subsidies actually saves money. This is a lesson transport planners and governments everywhere must heed. The massive expenditure on roads is leading to unmanageable cost impacts. Investment in safe transport systems is actually saving money. Next time you are held up at a railway crossing as a packed peak hour commuter train passes, give out three cheers. Those passengers are saving you and Australia ultimately a lot of pain.
Rail is approximately 40 times safer than travel by car. Travel by bus is about 10 times safer than travel by car. It is clear that we need to start maximizing use of our rail networks, and support those networks with bus transport to feed rail stations where possible. A major project such as the Cross River Rail Tunnel for Brisbane is actually going to return huge savings. The tunnel is equivalent to a 30 lane road highway in terms of passenger capacity. Why haven’t we started the actual digging?
The rail network in south east Queensland is underutilised. It is time to increase train frequency on all the major lines. Ideally no less frequent than 15 minutes in off peak periods during the day, peak times more frequent as loadings demand. Weekends, holidays and after 9pm at night no less frequent than 20 minutes. Properly support the increased rail frequency with a coordinated feeder bus network. Make travel by public transport attractive. The present rail timetable in South East Queensland has one of the worst train frequencies in Australia and for comparable size cities worldwide. A high frequency rail service makes bus rail connections much more functional and encourages people to get out of their cars and onto safe transport.
The social isolation of cars is something we seldom consider. In the 1950s, family trips to visit relatives in the country or city were usually by rail, an adventure and sharing an experience with others. There was a feeling of community and belonging and the opportunity to meet new folk. Many encounters on public transport have endured as long lasting friendships. The social isolation of cars is not conducive for a healthy community. The increasing demand for anti-depressant medications for example is a sign of an increasingly unhappy nation. Little wonder when one considers the terrifying impact of the road toll. Regular travel by public transport is a community experience. There is social contact and a feeling of belonging. Most journeys by public transport involve an element of active transport, walking or perhaps a bicycle ride to and from the bus or rail stations at departure and end points of the public transport ride. This active transport leads to healthy outcomes. There is a reduction in obesity and diabetes, both conditions that are costly for our communities and health care.
We need roads, but we must start to correct the imbalance in funding that is road centric. There are signs that those in government are starting to hear this message. Recent commitments for the long overdue Petrie to Kippa-Ring railway in Queensland and the railway from Parramatta to Epping in New South Wales are very welcome. But much more needs to be done. In south-east Queensland here are some immediate rail priorities: extend the Gold Coast railway to Coolangatta, duplicate the Sunshine Coast line from Beerburrum to Landsborough and eventually to Nambour, full duplication of the Cleveland line beyond Manly, Coomera to Helensvale duplication, Lawnton to Petrie triplication, Kuraby to Kingston triplication, Darra to Redbank triplication, and electrification from Rosewood to Gatton. These improvements are needed to provide the backbone of a safe sustainable public transport network for a sustainable future.
To augment the heavy rail network, bus rapid transit and light rail has its role. The Gold Coast light rail is going to herald a change in our thinking. Modern light rail is a superb people mover. The loss of the tram system in Brisbane in 1969 can only be described as a disaster. If the tram system had been kept operational it would have evolved as has the tram network in Melbourne which is now the greatest tram system in the world. However, in the years to come there will be opportunities to return modern light rail to Brisbane, and it is the Gold Coast light rail that will alert citizens to what is possible. Continued support for active transport options is also very cost effective. Expansions of the bicycle path network are sensible, but also improve the amenity for pedestrians, the walkers.
The most important factor in driving public transport uptake is frequency. The train frequency can be increased very quickly. The other projects will take a little longer. Now is the time to start to shake off the economic straight jacket of road trauma. We must, the costs of road trauma are breaking our nation.
1. Australasian Railway Association Inc The cost of road crashes: A review of key issues Dr Richard Tooth http://www.ara.net.au/UserFiles/file/Publications/TheCostofRoadCrashesReport.pdf
Mr Robert Dow is the administrator and founder of RAIL Back On Track http://backontrack.org a web based community group that advocates for sustainable transport solutions.
Robert is by profession a Medical Scientist, and is a Life member and Fellow of the Australian Institute of Medical Scientists.
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