There are two big problems providing for workers/commuters. The first one is the route length. If places are close enough to reasonably commute, then they have commuter trains. The other is the curfew.
There are regular calls for a higher quality of service (comfort, travel time) for the more distant reaches of the interurban network, not so much from Monday to Friday commuters (because the current travel time is impractical for most sane people), but from the semi-regular user base (i.e. the Monday and Friday (only) users). This group of users is a perfect target market for regional rail services - it is a market of reasonable size, the level of the fare is not so critical because the passenger is only paying it twice a week or so and they are likely earning a reasonable wage, time of service is not critical as long as it meets basic requirements (that is - the train doesn't need to arrive at 8:59 and depart 17:01 - early inbound and late outbound shoulder timing is fine) and the additional level of service offered with regional trains is valued. A rail service operating in this role has a number of competitive strengths over road (which is currently has the biggest market share) in terms of avoiding road congestion and providing more utility time for the traveller, and a clear advantage over air in terms of cost and many other quality factors.
If regional rail is to survive, it is markets like these that need to be pursued.
This is where we really disagree. I see rail's main competitor as buses, and their main market to provide CSO PT services. The main reason we have trains is people like them. They prefer them to buses and this is reflected in the way people vote.At the risk of focussing on a detail, I've certainly travelled on coaches with arm rests.
This is why I advocate things like (some) 2+3 seating and a more basic service. No arm rest? Shock horror!! Do you get one on a road coach?
Trains shouldn't try to compete with the airlines, they already cherry pick those willing to pay more for a faster/better service. For rail to have a future I think it needs to do two things:
- offer a cost base at least comparable with road coaches
- off a service that is better than buses.
On the latter point, it only needs to be a bit better, not substantially better.
A real preference for a particular mode, that is - where a passenger actually makes a decision about which mode to use - is based on a full range of attributes about the competing services, not just in-vehicle comfort (not that I think current NSW regional fleet seating offers much over a typical long distance coach - the comfort benefits of rail are more around being able to get up and walk around and perhaps a greater seat pitch). A critical attribute of a service is its cost. When you say people "prefer" trains to buses, you are not describing a real choice - you are simply looking at one attribute of the service. If the artificial insulation of passengers from the real cost of the rail service was removed (or the subsidy was equivalently applied to other modes) then real choice would indicate a very different "preference" for many of the current services.
Otherwise, when you say people "prefer" rail over buses, you are simply stating something along the lines of "I find first class air travel much more comfortable than economy air travel". Of course it is more comfortable, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to choose it! It is the real choice that is important.
I agree that trains shouldn't try and compete with the major airlines on the major air routes - it hasn't a chance in terms of time or cost. I disagree that air is cherry picking in these times though - look at the aviation versus rail passenger statistics I listed above - that's not cherry picking - that's taking the entire damn tree and leaving just a stump in the ground.
Given that - relying on votes to secure a future for rail is a strategy that will fail one day. Voting is ultimately about the rule of the [hopefully] benevolent majority. In NSW the majority live in places that for which regional rail is pretty much completely irrelevant. The rail versus aviation travel statistics above then go to show that even in the regions, regional rail in its current form is becoming increasingly irrelevant, catering for a diminishing minority of users. In terms of the benevolence aspect - there are arguments around accessibility to transport being a good social thing, but those arguments are around transport modes in general, not rail specifically, and are more focussed around local services rather than travelling interstate or past you nearest major regional centre. Something can also be well and truly accessible without it having to be very cheap for everyone. The social benefit of the services don't compare favourably with their cost to society.
The reason that we have regional trains is not because they deliver a vital community service today - the reason that we have regional trains in many cases today is because we had regional trains eighty years ago, back when they were a vital service because there was often no other practical choice for passenger transport. Arguing about community service obligations and whatnot in today's environment is just retrospective justification, their existence today is due to inertia, inertia that will one day cease to be sufficient to keep them running. If regional rail wants a sustainable future then it needs to find a role such that its prospective users will make a real choice for it over competing modes.
I also think the financial leverage associated with higher density seating is limited. Higher density seating is used on the shorter distance services in order to maximise set capacity to accommodate demand, plus very practical aspects such as being able to fit trains into platforms. Comfort is far less important to mode choice when you are only spending 60 minutes or so in-vehicle. Those aspects are nowhere near as significant for regional rail, and travellers place far more importance on comfort. There is a capital and operating cost consideration to the area occupied by each seat, but if you went down that path I think you would lose more in revenue, even with the level of subsidy today, than you gain in cost savings. There is no point running an empty train.