Speaking during a wide-ranging discussion on economics and the environment, McNaughton said that just extending existing infrastructure to maximise capacity is not enough to substantially increase rail's modal share over the next 40 years.

"We have to build new," McNaughton said. "We have to double, we have to quadruple our capacity by 2050. If we're going to do that we are going to need products that are accepted by the community, whether it is like Perth in Western Australia where they are running in the middle of the highway, or whether it is new construction techniques which do not harm the countryside. These are areas of massive opportunity."

McNaughton was responding to a comment from Mr Michel Dubromel, a board member of French National Railways (SNCF), who said that concerns over the impact on landscapes and farmers may hinder rail construction in the future.

Balancing environmental concerns with extending railways to meet future public transport demand was a central part of the discussion. Mr Bryan Nye, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association, said environmental concerns had "dropped off the page" in Australia since the global financial crisis despite Australia only suffering from one month of economic decline. He argued that railways must do better to make the environmental case when competing for funds.

"Not enough people are standing up to say why rail is good," Nye said. "We need to convince policymakers that we deserve that funding."

All panelists agreed that the environmental friendliness of rail will be a major selling point in the decades ahead. Mr Masao Uchida, vice president of RTRI Japan, said that light rail's ability to beat congestion as a clean transport mode is the secret of its longevity in Japanese cities, while Mr Josef Doppelbauer, vice-president for project management and chief technical officer at Bombardier, argued that for young people the car is no longer the status symbol it once was. He added that railways need to provide the IT services now so prevalent in the modern world to capitalise on this strength.

Inevitably research will remain crucial to achieving these goals, yet as McNaughton pointed out, this must be conducted with a view of eventually being implemented by railways. Developments must also be designed to be recyclable so that 2010 technology is not being used in 2050.

"We have the opportunity if we radically cut the energy we use, if we cut the weight of the trains dramatically so they perform better, then we have a breakthrough that is not Victorian rail," he said.