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Is high speed rail in Australia value for money?

There is no doubt that the creation of a 1748-kilometre high-speed rail network connecting Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne is an exciting endeavour. But given the large capital costs - $114 billion…

The European experience with high speed rail suggests there are trade-offs with aviation depending on the routes.

There is no doubt that the creation of a 1748-kilometre high-speed rail network connecting Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne is an exciting endeavour. But given the large capital costs - $114 billion - and impact on surrounding communities, as well as its potential positive impact on the economy, a national debate is urgently required.

The report on high-speed rail, launched by Transport Minister Anthony Albanese yesterday, hints at possible flow-on effects for the economy, suggesting that there will be an estimated $2.30 of benefits for each $1 spent.

The proposition of getting from the city centres of Sydney to Melbourne in less than three hours is likely to be an interesting one to business and leisure travellers. Given that the Sydney - Melbourne route is currently the fifth busiest route in the world with Sydney-Brisbane not far behind, there is certainly a lot of demand for travelling fast along the large centres of Australia’s east coast. But the process of implementing a high-speed rail network in Australia is no easy feat.

I am originally from Germany, where high-speed train connections between large cities are the norm. This is true for most West European cities, as is for China, Taiwan, Japan and Russia. But even German taxpayers — who are traditionally fascinated by high-tech engineering — often question the high cost involved with high speed rail and see conventional trains as better value for money. Given the distances involved (the proposed route is 1748 kilometres long), conventional trains are clearly not an option for Australia. Aviation might offer better value for money.

The proposed high speed rail route is interesting and, despite its complexities, I am sure it will be implemented eventually. That day might be quite some time in the future, so rail enthusiasts may have to curb their enthusiasm. The required tunnelling of some 144 kilometres around Sydney, as well as the rest of the fairly long route, will be subject to a lengthy consultation process with affected local communities.

Given the logistical challenges involved, the construction phase will be similarly lengthy. In fact, the first leg of the route (connecting Sydney and Canberra) is not to be expected to be in operation before 2035 — and that is if a government decision on this project would be made in the immediate future.

But Australian airlines should not be too afraid of losing some of their most important domestic routes. In the long run, the proposed high speed rail connection might be of some benefit to aviation. Given the amount of air travel between these cities with Sydney at the centre, high speed trains could actually help Sydney airport with their predicted capacity problem.

In Germany, the latest piece of high speed rail infrastructure built there was finished in 2002 at a cost of some 6 billion Euros. As a result of that high speed rail link, Lufthansa no longer flies the 150-kilometre route from Frankfurt to Cologne, but instead code-shares with the train operator and reserves an entire car on thirteen 300km/h high-speed trains a day. The experience in Europe has shown that airlines can use high speed rail to feed their hubs.

There are several assumptions in the report that need to be addressed. They assume that the train will run at 350km/h. The fastest trains in Europe run currently 320km/h and that is the maximum speed, rather than the average speed.

In order to be compatible with aviation, I believe that there need to be direct non stop connections between the city centres of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. That means the very fast trains would not stop anywhere else, which surely will create some opposition amongst communities that currently hope to benefit from a potential train connection in return for having a high speed rail in their backyard.

Finally, the report claims that the train operators would charge similar fares to the airlines that are currently operating the routes in question. By doing so, it is argued that the train operator would not require any subsidies. First of all, it is questionable whether the assumed 84 million train passengers will materialise.

When I mentioned SYD/MEL and SYD/BNE as some of the busiest airline routes in the world, then that translates into some 7 million passengers on the SYD/MEL route and not even 4 million passenger on the SYD/BNE route; in total, 11 million passengers on both routes in 2011. Even with the predicted strong growth in aviation, I have difficulties seeing where those 84 million train users will come from.

The evidence from Europe (particularly from Germany, where the high speed rail infrastructure is in many cases not even dedicated to high speed rail operation) points to the need for indirect subsidies of high speed rail operations.

And all that does not even consider the required $114 billion upfront infrastructure cost, which is likely to go up during the construction phase due to the huge amount of tunnelling required.

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 22 May 2013.

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29 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    And what of the environmental impact?

    Off the top of my head, a huge amount of diesel to be spent building the rail line, a massive amount of vegetation to be cleared for the rail line and access routes, a large amount of temporary accommodation for workers, a large amount of equipment to be transported to work sites.

    And after it has been built, it will not reduce human travel, but increase it, and any human travel increases fossil fuel consumption.

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    1. Olav Muurlink

      Research Fellow, Griffith Business School at Griffith University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      True, Dale, and you make an worthwhile but unpopular point. However, eventually air travel will come to an end (unless there is some miracle innovation that defies current physics), and all travel will have to take place on earth as opposed to heaven... And rail is the most efficient form of moving bulk from A to B. My dad was a mechanical engineer whose masters was in steam (a long time ago), and he reckoned (low speed) rail could be run on the scrap produced by sawmills. So the carbon footprint produced by rail, once it is implemented, can be astonishing low. On another issue, I don't care what it costs--build it. This is what Kevin Rudd should have wasted the stimulus on...

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Olav Muurlink

      I’d like to see the figure for joules of energy spent building the rail line, and how long it will take to recover that energy spent by eliminating air traffic.

      As for projects, the IWI figures from the UN show Australia is barely breaking even. Its GDP growth is low, its improvements to human capital is low, and its natural capital is fast declining.

      So Australia’s IWI figure means Australia is probably not sustainable.

      This project will increase GDP, but it will have minimal improvement to human capital, and it will have a major negative impact on natural capital.

      Overall, it will be negative to Australia.

      I’d like to see Australia spending $114 billion on making the country more sustainable.

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    3. John Band

      Consultant

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      "it will have a major negative impact on natural capital"

      Exaggeration much? Standard planning assumptions are that this kind of infrastructure blights land for around 200m on either side of the line. So we're looking at 0.45km x 1750km = 800 sq km, or 0.01% of Australia's undeveloped surface area.

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to John Band

      If a company gets a contract to widen or build a road, they have to get permits to chop down trees, and they may actually have to pay out large amounts of money to get the rights to chop down a couple of trees.

      Environmental audits are regularly made by independent environmental officers, and every culvert will be inspected to see that surface water streams are not being affected.

      Now, we want to cut a 200 meter swath through the countryside, so people can get to their destination a few hours earlier, and spend more time at the hotel bar.

      I am fascinated why various environmental scientists have not objected to this project.

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    5. Eddy Schmid

      Retired

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, I don't know from where you've got your information from, but clearly, it is not gtom anyone withhands on rail per way building, may I suggest you avail yourself info from folks who do have such experience.
      "Massive amounts of vegetation ? large amount temporary accomadation, large amount of equipment to sites "
      Come on mate, what exactly do you call "large ". I've been a DRIVER of trains for 30 years now, and invloved with the building of the standard guage railway between Kalgoorlie and…

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    6. Eddy Schmid

      Retired

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Um how much of a negative impact on natural capital does the Darwin Alice Springs railway have ?

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    7. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Eddy Schmid

      I have seen a number of big developments that went financially bankrupt.

      Here is an example of a $750 million project that went bankrupt.

      http://www.townsvillebulletin.com.au/article/2011/08/26/260821_news.html

      There was also a past captain of an Australian football team who was fined for removing 14 trees from his own block, even though he planted 30 trees elsewhere.

      http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-07-28/gorden-tallis-fined-for-tree-clearing/922856

      So I am thinking “What is the certainty that this railway project will be economically viable, and worth chopping down so many trees?”

      I can’t think of much certainty.

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    8. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      A recent attended a Sydney Ideas talk by U Michigan's Olivier Jolliet included results of integrated life-cycle assessments showing high speed rail to be far less damaging than air travel (Gerard Dean take note!).

      Perhaps The Conversation could invite Prof Jolliet to contribute an article?

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  2. Darryl Coulthard

    university worker

    I took the train from Melbourne to Sydney recently and flew back. The time on the train between Southern Cross and Sydney's central station was 11 and a half hours. By plane it was five and a half hours. From the point of view of convenience, comfort and luggage, the train was far far better. Just improving the speed of the current train, reducing stops and so on would bring the time down considerably while not massively increasing fuel and infrastructure costs. The conductor told me the train's…

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    1. Olav Muurlink

      Research Fellow, Griffith Business School at Griffith University

      In reply to Darryl Coulthard

      I agree. And as you imply, getting from 'central to central' in any of the big major cities by plane involves a lot more add on time than by train--customs, check in etc.

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    2. Eddy Schmid

      Retired

      In reply to Darryl Coulthard

      Darryl, there's no reason on earth, the EAST-WEST line you are reffering too, could not run at 160 Km'hr other then the willingness of the Federal Govt to up grade the infrastructe for it to do so.
      Similarly, there's no reason the diesel electrics used to power those services could not be changed out with electric locomotives powered via electricity from natural gas powered turbines stationed strategicly along the route. Natural gas is found in abundance within close proximity.
      The problem with this, is the fact of the road transport companies and their lobbiests, who would stand to loose millions should transport be diverted from road to rail.
      It is their lobbying in Canberra that has so far hobbled the rail industry in this country, and of course the lucrative income from everything related to the auto industry as general revenue to the various stae and Federal Govts that most are reluctant to slow down or stop.

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    3. Barry White

      Retired

      In reply to Darryl Coulthard

      Yes Darryl, your points are well made.
      The reason it is so slow is because when the line was laid in the late 19th century and early 20th the earthworks were done with horses and scoops. The result was they had to go around hills instead of putting in cuttings. The trains used are the same design as the UKs 125 expresses which run at 125 MPH on runs like the London to Edinburgh route.
      We could for a lot less money build a fast enough system by straightening out the track and bringing it up to UK standards.

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    4. Barry White

      Retired

      In reply to Eddy Schmid

      Not to worry Eddy, in the US freight is rapidly moving from road to rail.
      The same thing will happen here especially as the Brisbane Sydney freight line is finished. In the US the fuel costs are forcing the trucks onto CNG or LNG but the cost of the conversion and gassing stops is very significant.

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  3. John Band

    Consultant

    The author's point about speed is way off-beam: the permanent way, signalling, infrastructure for the newest generation of lines (LGV Est, LGV Rhine-Rhone) and trains (AGV) in use in France are rated for 350km/h in revenue service. At the moment SNCF operates them at 300km/h, but that's largely to maximise paths, which wouldn't be an issue here. In any case, given the duration of the civils work, procurement of trains and signalling wouldn't need to start for another decade, by which point there will certainly be 350km/h stock in operation worldwide.

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    1. Rico Merkert

      Senior Lecturer in Aviation Management at University of Sydney

      In reply to John Band

      I share your to point to the degree that by 2035, 2060 or whenever Australia will see HSR, trains will be able to run at 350km/h and more. But that was not my point. Rolling stock is not the issue now and will surely be no issue then. Even today the ICE 3 is authorized for 330 km/h but only runs at 300km/h because of infrastructure constraints (well, it can do 320km/h on French high-speed lines). In China, manufacturers will tell you that the trains can run at 350km/h (maximum and not average), but…

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  4. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired

    I cannot help wondering how fast we need to go before we will be satisfied. Perth to Melbourne in five minutes? There was a time when the speed of cars and planes were considered too fast for the human body to cope. Perhaps there will come a time when it be a reality for us to step into a capsule and allow Scotty to really beam us to wherever we need to go, instantly.

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  5. Ross Holding

    Agricultural Research Consultant

    There were two main issues with the Albanese announcement. Firstly, when I heard the potential for 84 million passengers (annually I presume) I too had doubts. Secondly, why would you connect to Canberra when the main hubs are obviously Melb/Syd & Syd/Bris? This

    Unfortunately, announcements of this kind in an election year tend to raise suspicions. Darryl raised a good point- just improve the present line(s) to achieve efficiencies and speed. Not only much cheaper but also probably more sustainable both economically and environmentally.

    I can remember being interviewed for my opinion of the (then) BHP consortium's plan to build a high speed rain line between Melbourne and Sydney (via Gippsland). It was a roadside survey in outer eastern Melbourne. Probably 20 years ago. Just imagine if that had gone ahead- it would be in use now!

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    1. Peter Kardashinsky

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Ross Holding

      Ross,

      I agree with you and Darryl, just improve efficiencies and speed of existing line. I am dumbfounded by the estimate of 84 million passengers....230,000 per day. ABS population projections show combined populations of Sydney+Melbourne+Brisbane to grow from 10.5m now, to between 16-20.5m in 2056 (so less than doubling) but, compared to the current traffic, 84 million passengers per year would imply the residnets of these cities would all be travelling on this route about 3 to 4 times more often than now. To what ends? This also begs the question as to what happens if/when the bulk of these 84 million are disgorged at the major rail terminals....like a football crowd every time a train arrives. I wonder if the consultants put any thought into what infrastructure modifications would be needed to absorb the extra people traffic.

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  6. Glenn Tamblyn

    logged in via Facebook

    I haven't read the report so these are sort of open questions.

    Does the report assume electric trains or diesel? If Electric, then they can potentially be powered from renewable sources in the future.So is the future cost that will be put on carbon included when comparing this project with rail? How does the economics of this compare if the only fuel source for aviation is biofuels or similar since fossil fuels are not available?

    What about considerations of not so high high speed - 200 kmh etc. How does the total project cost vary with proposed speed. Is it linear with speed of does higher speed disproportionately increase costs.

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  7. Alan Pace

    retired

    The Hume Highway #31 is still unfinished in the Holbrook NSW area and barely acceptable in bits of Victoria where at times one still encounters patched and uneven sections of the old highway doing parallel duty to the opposite direction's newer strip. The 'old' side soldiers on largely unchanged since I first drove it in 1961. And yet this Melbourne-Sydney highway is arguably the nation's major interstate road link. Have the temerity to detour to Canberra at Yass and you're on an ancient undivided…

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  8. Eddy Schmid

    Retired

    I notice many posters are suggesting the existing lines be utilised for HST. I'm glad that some of these posters are engineers, because that would mean they know what they are proposing is an engineering impossability.
    It is engineering FACT, you cannot build a HS railway to share with low speed trains.
    Go back to your slide rules and maths, you will quickly discover they are chalk and cheese.
    The W.A. Govt tried that during the construction of the standard gauge railway, they insisted the contractor…

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    1. John Doyle
      John Doyle is a Friend of The Conversation.

      architect

      In reply to Eddy Schmid

      I don't think your cornering explanation is correct, Eddy.
      My understanding is that as the train rounds a bend it moves to the outside edge of the rails.
      The flanged wheel edge then uses the altered diameters. the outside wheel runs on the bigger diameter and the inside wheel is on the smaller diameter edge. The wheels turn at the same speed but the outer one covers more distance which balances the extra length of rail. Otherwise one would need each wheel to not be fixed to the axle. It's obviously…

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    2. Paul McCarthy

      lawyer

      In reply to Eddy Schmid

      Are you saying that the rolling stock for low speed trains is designed for a certain degree of curvature on the track that a high speed train would not be able to handle because it would fly off the curve, and that low speed rolling stock would not be able to handle the shallower curvature of the track needed for high speed trains?

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    3. Barry White

      Retired

      In reply to John Doyle

      The trains currently used on the Sydney Melbourne service are the same design as the UKs 125 express trains.
      They run at speeds around 125MPH on tuns like the East Coast service between London & Edinburgh. We would very much like a service like that and the existing permway if it was straightened and upgraded to UK standards would do very nicely.

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  9. Shane Waters

    Student

    I just read through the executive summary on the report and I would just like to point out that while the report claims this rail network could transport up to 84 million passengers, the economics were calculated assuming 5 million passengers (i.e. less than half of current plane passengers between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne). Also the reason it won't be finished before 2065 is that the report assumes that nothing will be done for at least 10 years, and then the lines will be built piecemeal. One section at a time (as money becomes available).

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  10. Bill Skinner

    Research Professor at University of South Australia

    I've traveled on the TGV in France many times and have seen no evidence that a 200 m strip needs to be cleared. Also, in many section, the train uses sequestered existing track (at lower but still significant speeds) and, in built-up areas, it shares track with "normal" rail, dropping speed to match. It seems to me that, if Australia were really serious about this, a great deal has been learned in Europe (and Japan etc) about rail networks of this kind and integration with existing infrastructure where possible.

    Yes, there are certain infrastructure compatibility issues and the Australian environment and distances to be considered. Technology and engineering is not the problem. The problems have been dealt with over the decades such that, I'm told, the TGV record of ~575 km/h was set in 2007. My two greatest concerns are whether this has been brought up now as another electioneering exercise and, most importantly, who and how will the network be run?

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  11. Barry White

    Retired

    There is one factor not taken into account in the report or on here for that matter.
    Everything is based on the assumption of business as usual.
    Well it won't be like that.
    Long before the completion of the project the airline industry will almost certainly have collapsed into a shadow of its present size and will mainly be catering for top business and government travelers.
    The airlines are being squeezed at present by their fuel costs and from about 2017 to 2020 the cost will have pushed air fares to the point where most will not be able to afford the fare.
    Biofuels are not the answer because of cost and very poor Energy Return on Energy invested. As well in the future the diversion of food crops into aircraft fuels will probably not be allowed.

    The effect of much lower airline activity would be to improve very significantly the economics of the HST.

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  12. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    I am in sympathy with Dale's objections. However it is worth balancing the land-clearing and construction costs against those same costs involved in making new airports.

    My question is: should we be aiming at 350 km/h and a necessary very high level of railway engineering (and environmental impact) or is there a more-appropriate balance of speed and infrastructure?

    How much cheaper (and less environmentally damaging) would the system be if the target speed were 250 km/h sustained, rather…

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