Out of the planes and onto the trains: is high-speed rail a real alternative?

The volcanic ash cloud proved how dependent we’ve become on fast intercity transport. Ian Salas/EPA

The High Speed Rail Study, released last week, moves us just that little bit closer to fast trains on the east coast. But will HSR really get us out of aeroplanes?

A fresh tilt at HSR in a changed climate

After a number of abortive attempts, there are suggestions that this latest effort might just be serious.

Certainly, things have changed since previous attempts to introduce HSR. We’ve increased attention to sustainability, capacity is constrained at our east coast airports (Sydney airport in particular) and energy security issues are looming.

All this seems to suggest that HSR is a viable way to offer more sustainable intercity transport. This is regardless of the enormous and presumably unrecoverable sunk cost that will be realised in providing the required infrastructure.

But can HSR really compete with aviation in Australia? This is an important question, since the report’s results are predicated on HSR taking a sizeable chunk of the intercity passenger market from air.

Switching contrails for riding the rails

The study suggests fares would be kept to a level comparable with those being offered by the airlines. If it’s true, there’s good reason to believe that many passengers would indeed switch to HSR. This has occurred elsewhere around the world.

There is plenty of comparative evidence to demonstrate this point. In some cases, HSR has even replaced airline services between cities, such as between Paris and Brussels.

But one of the biggest unknowns is whether pressure on Sydney airport (and other capital city airports into the future) will really be eased by HSR.

There is a view that, with a 40 minute journey from Newcastle to somewhere near Sydney’s CBD, Williamtown might serve as a second Sydney airport. This could make the “second Sydney airport” dilemma redundant.

There is obviously political point-scoring to be had here. An approximately one-hour journey time to Canberra can also be factored in.

Lots of questions still to be asked

More research is probably needed to find out whether a leisure and business travel market would accept this as part of a journey to Sydney from interstate, or indeed overseas, especially if a CBD station is not possible. It’s currently hardly more than a 15 minute rail journey from Kingsford Smith to the CBD.

But increased congestion above Sydney airport, with all the delays that this entails in the air and on the ground, might make a 40-minute rail journey more appealing than currently.

All this, of course, assumes HSR won’t be perverted by a compromise solution that tries to please everyone, but undermines its full potential.

At present, there is some latent confusion in the study about HSR’s main aim. Is it to reduce our dependence on carbon-constrained inter-capital air transport? Will it serve as a mechanism to bolster and nourish regional Australia and perhaps even encourage greater urban disaggregation?

If there is too much insistence on the latter, there is the very real danger that inter-capital journey times will not be as competitive as they might otherwise be.

How much more sustainable is HSR than air?

That HSR is more sustainable than air transport is accepted as a given. If we’re talking emissions, we shouldn’t ignore building the infrastructure associated with HSR.

That said, HSR has the potential to be emissions-free (although 100% renewable energy in Australia does seem a long time away, a carbon tax notwithstanding).

The assumption is that air transport will continue on in much the same environmentally unfriendly way as it currently operates, with increasing conventional fuel prices making airfares increasingly prohibitive. This will effectively relegate air transport, once again, to only the wealthy.

Yet there is no reason to believe that air transport will not become more efficient in time. Biofuels have already been trialled effectively for use in jet turbine, as has liquid hydrogen. Liquid hydrogen is almost zero emissions if renewable energy is used, though its widespread use would entail major changes in infrastructure and indeed aircraft design. More radical aeronautical developments are also on the cards.

A different focus: transport as a public good

The recent ash plume from a Chilean volcano demonstrates that we cannot rely on air transport alone for intercity travel. These sorts of things don’t happen often, at least in the southern hemisphere, but they may become more frequent in the future.

Modern air transport is not particularly resilient to a range of phenomena outside human control. Fog, heavy weather and dangerous solar activity can all disrupt planes.

Air transport will continue: there should be no doubt about this. But many journeys currently being served by air would be better served by genuine HSR.

At the very least, the ash cloud event and the ensuing public outcry demonstrates the degree to which fast intercity transport has become something akin to a public value. If this holds, the federal government should ensure that this value is adequately safeguarded into the future.

Overall, providing HSR in Australia is largely about accepting that intercity transport must now be regarded as public transport, and therefore warrants substantial governmental subsidy.