The announcement by prime minister Kevin Rudd and minister for transport Anthony Albanese on high-speed rail suggests both men at least want to maintain the momentum of the debate on the project.
Firstly, Mr Albanese released and praised an advisory report suggesting the viability of such a project.
Mr Rudd then committed to set up a high-speed rail authority as well as $52 million worth of spending on a business case and market testing of station locations and cost estimates (and possibly some land acquisitions) for the proposed Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne line.
In my last piece for The Conversation in May, I concluded that “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”.
Since then the fundamentals have not changed, other than Australia being very close to an election. The timing of the both announcements is not typical of the approach usually given to such strategic long-term decisions, particularly since the potential incoming government has not declared its support for such a project.
In terms of the fundamentals, let’s start with the positives. It would certainly make a lot of sense to break the proposed Brisbane-Melbourne link (worth $114 billion) into smaller pieces and Canberra to Sydney appears to be the most feasible first option.
Rail versus flight
According to the advisory report, this first leg could be up and running within 17 years and would cost some $23 billion. The report also suggests fares (single) on such a high speed rail service of around $42 to $69 in order to be competitive to air services.
While airlines (particularly low cost carriers such as Jetstar and Tigerair) will most probably be able to offer such a trip for less money, a key benefit of the high speed train option would be convenience. The high speed trains would connect city centre with city centre, with less hassle (security, luggage) compared to airports. Passengers would be able to work on the trains, which is particularly important to high-yielding business travellers.
The 300 kilometre distance would be ideal as the international experience shows that for trips of up to 400km, the total trip time (door-to-door) of high-speed rail is similar to that of aviation, assuming that both ends of the route are in the city centres of the cities in question.
Again from international experience we know that integrating high speed rail with airports drives demand and it is likely that there is large potential for travellers originating from Canberra’s CBD who would take a high-speed train to Sydney airport to connect with a long haul international flight.
The management of Canberra airport argues the same, just with opposite traffic flows (Sydney CBD to Canberra airport), which shows the importance of the terminal location in terms of CBD and airport connectivity and the need to conduct further research (at the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS) we are currently looking into such topics for the European context).
Again, breaking the project into smaller pieces helps to understand the details and complexities involved and is further useful to build momentum and public support. Whether the route will ever go beyond Sydney-Canberra is another matter.
This brings us to the points that require cautious analysis. The advisory report claims the project can be delivered for much less than what was indicated in the Phase 2 HSR Report released in April. Yet it still talks about exactly the same amount - $23 billion - for the Canberra-Sydney leg.
While I agree that this figure might be reduced a little by international tendering of the rail construction project, evidence from past projects shows that in almost all high-speed rail cases, the initial cost estimates had to be revised once the actual construction had started. Large cost increases could result primarily as a result of the problem of accessing Sydney’s CBD, apparently involving a 67km tunnel (and about 144km of tunnelling required for the entire 1748km route).
A really, really fast train
Such tunnelling is not only complex but also expensive. On top of those costs it will then also be interesting to see if the passenger forecasts will indeed materialise. Again, to make the high speed train competitive to aviation, it will have to be a very fast train.
The predicted speed of 350 km/h would be nice to achieve (in order to make the trip in 64 minutes) and may be possible in the future. Today however, most high speed trains have a top speed of 320 km/h and to achieve short travel times they hardly stop along the route.
For example, the Frecciarossa high speed trains in Italy connects the cities in the north (Turin – Milan – Bologna) with the south (Rome – Naples – Salerno) with a mostly non-stop service - and reaching hardly more than 300 km/h. (I tested these train services in July this year.)
The comfort in those trains is comparable to air services, with pricing depending on the cabin class. While some of the trains stop in smaller cities, the system works because of the “super frequency” of over 72 daily connections on that corridor.
As those frequencies are not likely in the Sydney CBD to Canberra CBD (with potential airport stops) context, the route would be an ideal candidate for a large number of non-stop services. It is questionable whether there would be sufficient demand to justify more than one stop, (The current proposal aims for one stop at Southern Highlands.) along the route for most trains, assuming the aim is to relieve the aviation system. If the aim is to connect regional centres (as in the extended proposal where there would be a lot of stops between Sydney and Melbourne and even more between Sydney and Brisbane), then the proposed number of stops along the route might be feasible but is unlikely to contribute much to relieving the aviation system.
Finding the balance between the two objectives by choosing how many non-stop trains to operate will be a key challenge (currently proposed are five non-stop and five regional trains per hour during peak hours).
Other legs doubtful
Despite the many open questions, today’s largely political events (the two announcements) may indeed lead to some more substantive investments on the Sydney-Canberra route, but it is to some degree doubtful whether such a rail link (should it ever materialise) will ever go beyond those two cities.
Again, by focusing on the Sydney-Canberra leg (shown by ITLS research as far back as 1996 and detailed in the 1997 SPEEDRAIL report for the Sydney-Canberra Corridor), the project becomes more manageable and should the economics of that route not work, one would still be able to stop its extensions to Melbourne and Brisbane.
Should the first leg become viable, there would then be a much stronger case for the minimum of $91 billion required to complete the Brisbane-Melbourne corridor.
It is in any case, with the future of a second Sydney airport uncertain, a worthwhile idea to preserve the necessary corridors. Whether this will help make the project economically viable is an entirely different question.