How often do Australians catch the train?

Angus Kidman 25 November 2016

SydneyTrains_Shutterstock

The official figure is 843 million journeys a year, but that's a rubbery number.

I'm a serious train junkie, as anyone who followed my Opal-hacking adventures earlier this year will know. As an obsessed lunatic, I want to know I'm not alone. I realise that passenger train traffic is dwarfed by the Australian obsession with cars, but just how often do we catch the train?

These are the numbers for 2014-2015, as compiled for the annual Trainline report. This covers heavy rail (trains) and light rail (tram) services in capital cities; it doesn't look at regional train networks like V/Line or tourist services like the Indian Pacific, but proportionally they will, for the most part, be a blip.

CityHeavy rail (m)Light rail (m)
Sydney291.96.1
Melbourne227.5182.1
Brisbane51.6
Perth64.2
Adelaide10.98.9
Total646.1197.1

That's a grand total of 843.2 million passengers journeys in year on trains and trams in Australia. As you'd expect, the bigger cities dominate. Add Sydney and Melbourne together and that's 707.6 million journeys right there.

These figures are, however, unusually rubbery for every major city. Because train services operate at state level, there's no national standard for how to measure journeys (and not much incentive to develop one). So the Brisbane figures don't include Airtrain journeys, which cuts out not just the airport but also trains to the Gold Coast. Similarly, the Sydney numbers don't include intercity services which run to Newcastle, Wollongong and the like, though we're told these may be included in future years. In both cases, the numbers are definitely on the low side.

Melbourne and Adelaide have a different problem, in that the figures overestimate the likelihood that people will pay to get on a service. In both cities, trams are free in the CBD area, and I know from experience that this option is very enthusiastically adopted by cheapskate locals and tourists alike. Adelaide's high proportion of tram usage (nearly as big as its entire rail network) is largely due to this aspect, I imagine.

So the numbers aren't perfect, but they do indicate that trains will continue to have an important role to play in transport. Developing new lines is often more a matter of politics than necessity, but if you suddenly shut down every train line, you'd need a hell of a lot more road capacity to make up for it.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears Monday through Friday on finder.com.au.

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