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A view on: high-speed rail in Australia

Welcome to the second in our new series of video collaborations with SBS. In this episode, Dr Rico Merkert, Senior Lecturer in Aviation Management at the University of Sydney, gives his view on the Australian…

Welcome to the second in our new series of video collaborations with SBS. In this episode, Dr Rico Merkert, Senior Lecturer in Aviation Management at the University of Sydney, gives his view on the Australian federal government’s plans for high-speed rail.


For trips of less than 400 kilometres, the door-to-door travel time on high speed trains doesn’t differ all that much to flying. And the longer trips - including the proposed Sydney to Melbourne route in under three hours - may be hindered by communities on the way demanding a stop of their own.

While the environmental benefits are also often cited, there are also some hidden environmental downsides - not to mention cost. Merkert proposes that, as the European example shows, high-speed rail complementing air travel may be the more viable option, if it ever happens in Australia.

Full video transcript:

Modern high-speed trains are very fast, comfortable, reliable – they connect city centre with city centre.

Because these trains come with power sockets, free WiFi, stable mobile phone operation, people can spend that travel time working on the trains.

High-speed train travel offers less waiting time at airports and substantially less hassle with security, check-in and luggage. Given that Sydney-Melbourne is the fourth busiest airline route in the world, there is quite a lot of demand for high-speed travelling along Australia’s east cost. But the process of implementing high-speed rail in Australia is no easy feat. High-speed trains require high-speed infrastructure.

I’m originally from Germany, where high-speed trains connecting the large cities are the norm. This is true for most Western European countries, China, Japan, South Korea and even Russia.

Australian airlines shouldn’t be too afraid with losing some of the most important domestic routes. I actually think high-speed trains can help Sydney airport with its predicted capacity problems. Airlines in Europe actually use high speed trains to feed their long haul international routes through the hubs.

Many people talk about the potential of transforming Canberra into a second Sydney airport. Giving what we have seen so far in Europe it would make a lot more sense to connect Canberra’s city centre with Sydney airport with long haul international flights.

First of all it is questionable whether the assumed 84 million passengers would materialise. Also all the evidence that we have from Europe suggests subsidies that will be required particularly for the infrastructure operation.

The question is then if the government should spend tax payers money on a service that is already provided by the private sector at a profitable level in the form of aviation.

The required tunnelling of some 144 kilometres is not only costly but will bring with it a substantial amount of consultation. Many people claim that high speed trains emit a lot less CO2 emissions compared to an aeroplane but, of course, you would have to also factor in the energy intense construction phase, you also have to consider the energy mix once the high speed train is in operation.

They assume that these trains were run constantly at 350 kilometres per hour, the fastest trains in Europe, China and Japan currently run at 320 kilometres maximum. We would have to have non-stop connections between the city centres of Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane this is because it takes a while to slow down and also to accelerate. This is not only time consuming but also very energy intense.

These trains wouldn’t stop anywhere else which would surely will create some opposition amongst the communities that currently hope to benefit from the train stop in exchange for having a high speed train going through their backyard.

And all of that doesn’t even consider the A$114 billion upfront infrastructure cost that are likely to go up given the amount of tunnelling that is required.

High-speed rail in Australia would be very exciting indeed to have, but unless the government is prepared to make a strategic rather than a cost benefit decision on this project I don’t see any high-speed rail coming to Australia in the near future.

The Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney Business School will host “HSR in Australia forum – is it value for money?“ on May 22, 2013.

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26 Comments sorted by

  1. Richard Olsen

    logged in via Facebook

    There is the problem though. In order for high speed rail to be viable in Australia, we would need a larger population. Not only that, but this population would need to be spread out more.
    It would most probably be more advisable to start with the small stuff first. We need to break the states up into smaller parcels. Each with their own capital city.
    Then we can start to think about bringing in high speed commuter rail. Ideally Wagga Wagga would be an ideal stop, as it's close enough to both…

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  2. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    As much as I would like to see a high speed train along our Eastern seaboard, I agree it is unlikely to be built for many years.

    I do agree with the funding for a hopefully thorough study into viability, the route options etc.

    1. Barry White


      In reply to Henry Verberne

      There are two factor usually missing when the HSR is discussed. The effect of higher fuel costs are making airlines become to expensive for the non business traveler. Eventually airlines will become non viable and we will depend on rail.
      The second factor is the cost will be beyond reach because of the worldwide credit problem and debt. However there is a very reasonable alternative. The fast enough trains.
      When the existing lines were built the earth moving was done with horses and scoops. They had to go around hills instead of cutting straight through. This is the major cause of our slow trains. If the tracks are straightened and the specifications of the track brought up to say UK mainline standard speeds such as experienced on the UKs London to Edinburgh service could be achieved between Brisbane Sydney Melbourne.
      The cost would be a fraction of the HST.

  3. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Railways for long distances have been superseded by air travel. They are inflexible 18th century technology only useful in very densely populated areas. Imagine the lunacy of steel fixed to the ground and large holes in hills, when a winged vehicle can fly over everything.
    Any truly impartial, financial feasibility study always hits the reality of the capital cost and operational cost.

    1. Barry White


      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Colin, it is a dream, the airlines are gradually becoming unviable.
      There is no answer to the increasing oil prices and the rate at which airlines are already folding and merging can only increase. Before the HST could be built Qantas will be struggling to survive on business and government traffic.

    2. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Barry White

      Airbus reckons on over 4% growth per year going forward. In the past air traffic has doubled every 15 years. 20-year world annual traffic growth 4.7%.
      Qantas is not a good example try Air Asia.
      Domestic and international flights to 78 destinations spanning 25 countries in 17 years since establishment. Fuel is getting cheaper with fracking.

  4. Dale Bloom


    So, the trains won’t stop in rural areas.

    But they will impact on the environments of rural areas.

    Seems like a continuation of the same: Extract from rural areas to feed the cities with money, food, water and everything else, and damn the environments and the people in rural areas.

    If the trains also have “WiFi and mobile phone operation”, it brings into question why people would want to travel between cities anyway.

    Why can’t they do their money shuffling and paperwork online back at their office, without any need to travel to another office in another city.

    Seems like ants scampering from one ant’s nest to another.

  5. Roger Keyes


    I wish that we could have some research and discussion on the feasibility of an efficient and "not-so-very-fast" rail service around the country. There may well be a good market for such a beast. I note that even the current XPT trains between Sydney and Brisbane are usually pretty well patronised when I occasionally go on from Sydney having arrived from Adelaide on the Indian Pacific. We would need to upgrade the rail roads and other infrastructure of course, but that expense is unlikely to be…

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    1. Barry White


      In reply to Roger Keyes

      Dead right Roger, the XPT is the same design as the UKs 125s which are mainline 125 MPH expresses (hence the name).
      Their design is at least 15 years old and the UK trackwork is much better than the NSW trackwork so there would be a lot of work needed there.
      i have traveled on the 125s to Edinburgh and their speed is a revelation of what can be done at a very reasonable cost.
      It was interesting to watch motor cycle riders trying to keep up with the train.

    2. Michael Hay


      In reply to Barry White

      I cannot say that I am a fan of VFT. It seems to me that if the funds allocated for a VFT were put into intracity public transport, a lot more people would be favourably affected.

    3. Barry White


      In reply to Michael Hay

      Yes Michael, I don't think people realise just how costly the VFT would be, The track has to be almost line of sight, it cannot be used for other trains and tunnels at those speeds have a lot of problems. Just imagine trying to get a line of sight track between say Hornsby and Gosford ! It would require bridges larger than the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A lot of tunnels would be required between Campbelltown and Goulburn.

      I think they should try and get a rough idea of the cost but I just cannot see it happening.

    4. John Doyle


      In reply to Barry White

      Why do we need such speed anyway? Seriously,"84 million" people/pa are not likely to be that into speed.
      Life is not a destination, we already too obsessed with speed. Fast internet connections are one thing but until we sort out teleporting it'll never be fast enough travel for some. We already are finding out how bad fast food is for our health. As someone sagely remarked " the major source of our problems is solutions"
      We'll do well if we just make the high speed rail roughly time comparable with road traffic and we can do that with upgrading much of our existing networks. And it would work with freight if trains were easy to load/unload containers.

    5. Michael Hay


      In reply to Barry White

      Ah ! let it die a quick and certain death. Let us start with overhead rail tracks in all our cities and their extensions. No more level crossings or pedestrians to contend with and a new upgraded signalling system built in. Yippee !!

  6. James Doyle

    Student - Australian National University

    HSR in Australia is a solution in search of a problem.

  7. Donald Runcie


    HSR can be very noisy. I would hate to have a HSR line within 2 kilometers of where I live.

  8. Iain Brown


    Could you imagine if our trains travelled at 150 kms per hour! Well they could if we straightened out the track.In the 1970's the State Rail Authority were invited by the Roads & Traffic Authority to contribute towards creating a right of way between the freeway that runs from Sydney to Canberra. This didn't mean building the track but setting aside a route that would compliment the gradient requirements of rail and road. The rail track would be built later. Fast forward to June 2013. The Holbrook…

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    1. Eddy Schmid


      In reply to Iain Brown

      Iain Brown, can't speak for N.S.W. as my last visit there 15 years ago their rail system was in a shocking state back then, I was surprised to discover local suburban trails on standard gauge were running at 60 K'ms PH or even less in some locations.
      Here in W.A. we have a fast interurban train running to Kalgoorlie twice a day, this train travels at 130-140 K.H. track work permitting. Even our Bunbury train, twice a day on narrow gauge runs at 130 K's. For standard track shared between freight and heavy mining industries, these are excellent speeds, and demonstrate if there is a WILL, a way will be found.
      All local suburban electric trains run at 130-140 KMH, nothing to poke a stick at my friend.
      People need to get out of the box, and look at issues with an open mind.

  9. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    Part of the logic for high speed rail is based on the assumption that planes will struggle to get fuel once governments start banning fossil fuels. However, if we have clean power, water and nitrogen from the air well established technologies can be combined to produce renewable, low impact liquid ammonia - which can be used as a fuel in both internal combustion engines. Well established technologies can also produce renewable, low impact methanol, gasoline, diesel etc from clean power, water and CO2. (If necessary the CO2 can be extracted from sea water.)
    What this means is that effectively unlimited amounts of renewable fuel can be produced using these established processes without threatening either food supply or the wild environment.
    THe need to reduce GHG need not be an issue when deciding whether building high speed rail is justified. See:

  10. Frank Moore


    The guts of the argument for a HSR surrounds the policy paralysis of Australian Governments, current and past, relating to the comparatively simple problem of providing adequate airport facilities for Sydney.

    Exactly how fast - in real terms - would a peak hour service from Melb to Syd take - given adequate facilities at both ends? Where planes incoming to Syd are never delayed?

    If the combination of Federal and NSW State Governments cannot quickly and effectively deal with a simple problem…

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  11. Jason Bryce

    logged in via Twitter

    Australia is different to all the other countries cited in this article. Our people live in a few very huge cities surrounded by a few quite small regional cities.
    Our regional cities desperately need fast rail connections to their capitals and the debate is obsessed with grandiose, horrendously expensive Melbourne - Sydney - Brisbane ideas that we can't afford.
    Places like Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong, Albury, Wagga, Canberra, Wollongong, Newcastle, Dubbo, Coffs. All these cities need fast train connections. Plus it is affordable and there is demand.

    1. Eddy Schmid


      In reply to Jason Bryce

      Agree with you totaly Jason.
      There is no reason on earth, why current existing per way cannot be upgraded to run trains under 200 K's per hour, which IMHO as a retired Train Driver, would be sufficient until population growth called for further upgrades.

    2. Frank Moore


      In reply to Jason Bryce

      Hate to prick your bubble of enthusiasm Jason Bryce, but... Our State and Federal Governments cannot afford to properly run simple train sets and road networks.
      They cannot afford to run them because, we the people, bloating our cities, are not producing goods and services that are internationally competitive and therefore exportable...

      Throw a net over any newly created suburb that has replaced viable import replacement market gardens and count the dollars exported to pay for the imported goods…

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    3. John Doyle


      In reply to Frank Moore

      So what's new? This is what we have always done. Right back to the gold rushes. When we did say sell our wool crop we damaged the land. We have become a wealthy country by flogging it, but of course we can't do things that way forever. The population bomb will see to that - the exponential equation.
      We will never have the gumption to change while it's been so easy, relative to most other countries. We actually work hard and aren't lazy but don't place a high enough value on creativity and innovation or foresight.
      Those that do struggle against the tide of indifference. We are wealthy now so why bother? "She'll be right, mate"
      The future is going to be very different when all these pressures, of population and resources, come to a head.
      We can only hope to see this scary future coming in time.

    4. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Jason Bryce

      Agree with your views, Jason. The reason we are not able to achieve fast train connections between cities and even distant states is simply due to our innate lathery as a nation. Our politicians are not thinking of long term national good, and national development. Cronyism, short-term party politics, etc, are perhaps some of the hurdles that keep us down. Singapore's MRT may not be our solution but I am envious of their daring foresight and marvellous transport innovation. Enjoy this link and see how sad you can get about our inability to reinvent our transport system.

    5. Frank Moore


      In reply to John Doyle

      John Doyle, your vision is of course, correct. And the tragedy for many, will be the inevitable calls for Repatriation and forced repatriation at that.