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Slow to arrive, but will high speed rail be worth the wait?

East coast Australian cities could one day be linked by high speed rail, but with a price tag of $114 billion and a 40 year…

High speed rail travel could begin by 2035: but the plan comes with a price tag of $114 billion. shutterstock

East coast Australian cities could one day be linked by high speed rail, but with a price tag of $114 billion and a 40 year timeframe, according to a study released by the Transport Minister Anthony Albanese.

Under the plan announced today, the 1,748 kilometre network - including 144 kilometres of tunnels - will be completed in stages, linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

The Sydney to Canberra section would be completed in 2035. The last stage, linking the Gold Coast and Newcastle, will be finished in 2058.

The analysis is the second phase of a strategic plan announced in 2010.

The government says despite the large price tag, high speed rail is viable, estimating the network will attract 40% of intercity air passengers by 2065, with 83.6 million passengers expected per year.

We put it to the experts: it’s a long time to wait, and it will cost a lot. Is high speed rail worth it?

Matthew Burke, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University

The report estimates between 40-60% aviation passengers will transfer to rail. I’m not entirely sure that’s achievable.

If you’re in Coffs Harbour trying to get to Sydney, high speed rail makes sense. A travel time between Sydney and Canberra of an hour down from four makes that a very competitive service.

In a world where oil reserves are constrained, aviation gas may become much more expensive and there may be differences between relative costs. Under those scenarios high speed rail might stack up.

It would make sense to agree and preserve a corridor and plan for a future system but to commence construction only when it’s financially viable.

Should we be doing high speed rail at this point in time with Australian cities the size they are? On a world scale they’re pretty small, the distances between them a very large, and the cost to link them up is enormous.

At the very lowest the cost of high speed rail between Newcastle and Brisbane could be $20 billion, and as high as $40 billion. For $20 billion you could give Brisbane its cross river rail project. You could give the Sunshine Coast its first ever fixed public transport network. You can quadruple the size of the light rail on the Gold coast, and you could still have $10-30 billion left over.

A significant portion of the use that’s projected is for daily commuters who would come from ‘lifestyle’ cities on the outskirts of Sydney and Melbourne travelling to the major centres. These would become the most subsidized commuters in the history of Australian urban settlement. And I’m not sure you could call that travel sustainable even if it’s by rail.

Rico Merkert, Senior Lecturer in Aviation Management, University of Sydney Business School

This is not a new phenomenon. We have seen huge programs in Western Europe: in Spain, France, Germany, even the UK now has a high speed train program connecting London with the North of England. Japan, China and Taiwan do too. At some point we will see high speed trains in Australia. It’s just a question of how soon and at what cost.

It does require informed debate given the large cost and huge up-front investment.

The money could always be spent elsewhere. It would, however, at least in my view, be money well spent, with benefits of $2.30 per $1 spent. Many people will argue that these estimates are optimistic. Construction costs are likely to go up, but still it will still be sensible to look into this more seriously.

There will be quite a lot of demand, particularly on the east coast with Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra. Sydney to Melbourne is currently the fifth busiest airline route in the world. Brisbane to Sydney is not far behind. There’s quite a lot of potential here as a high speed train could get you from Sydney CBD to Melbourne CBD in under three hours. That’s quite an interesting proposition for a lot of business travellers.

It will be an alternative to airlines. It won’t replace air traffic, because it’s still a lot faster to travel via air. But some travellers based right in the city centre next to the train station might find the offer attractive. In terms of service levels they’re similar to a flight. If the government is not prepared to subsidise these train operations then the prices for these train trips will be slightly higher than those on a [air] carrier (most certainly if it is a low cost carrier, such as Jetstar).

Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability, Curtin University

The high speed rail system in Japan was started after the first oil crisis. We’re now up to the fourth or fifth. The European system has developed along those lines as well. You cannot continue to see a future where more and more oil is used. Some countries have made a serious effort to get off it.

I welcome any studies about getting people out of cars and planes and making a more sustainable transport system. If it’s electric it’s potentially much easier to link into the renewable energy system. We’ve got to get off oil especially diesel.

We’ve got to be serious about this, and I wonder how serious it is to propose a project that will cost $114 billion.

I’ve been looking at rail construction costs the past few years and getting more and more angry at how they have ballooned, which is due to unnecessary risk management.

This proposal seems to be beyond any realistic cost to build. Yet we built the southern railway in Perth for $17 million per kilometer. It had tunnels and bridges, overpasses and is essentially high speed rail at 130 kilometre per hour. I understand the high quality track requirements but these numbers seem too high to me.

Phillip Toner, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Sydney

Everyone is in favour of more public transport. But there are a lot of other cheaper, intermediate options. Things like tilt trains that travel quite fast, they require relatively minor modifications to existing rail networks. These trains could cut travel time between urban centres by half.

Even in terms of transport, there a plenty of really high priority options such as improving the freight rail network between Melbourne and Brisbane, and Melbourne to Perth. That’s an absolute priority to get trucks off the road and significantly reduce pollution.

Something would have to happen with air traffic too. While you can get return airfares from Sydney to Melbourne for $100 that is a cheap option. Pollution generated by air traffic is a major problem now, but in the future they could be running on renewable energy. By the time they start working on fast train there will probably be developments in renewable energy such as the introduction of algae-based biofuel.

I can’t help think that the whole thing is to make the government look visionary and nation building. It’s hard to see the case for it considering cheaper options. You’ve just got to consider what else you can do with that sort money, such as investment in Gonski, higher education and the Australian science and technology base.

More reactions to come

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19 Comments sorted by

  1. Robert McDougall

    Small Business Owner

    mm.. 40 years with a cost of $114 billion (don't know if this is indexed for the forward period) works out to be $2.85 billion a year, about double what the coalition would like to spend on drones against asylum seekers.

    doesn't really seem like that much in terms of government level spending.

    I'd say we'd probably be better off to make the investment now than to put it off until fossil fuels become prohibitively expensive. If we do delay until this happens, how much more expensive is it likely to be just from the additional contruction fuel costs let alone inflation?

    How about we start thinking more long term than just the next news or election cycle? the NBN is an example of this, but unfortunately due to the aforementioned cycles, the focus is a blinkered "now" paradigm.

    Of course that kind of thinking would also require we get serious about renewable energy, climate change, food and water security etc etc.

  2. Wil B

    B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

    40 years to build would have to be the slowest and most pessimistic forecast ever, surely? Why on earth it would take that long is beyond me.

    1. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Wil B

      So that it doesn't appear in any budget papers that might lose someone an election.

    2. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      But in that sort of time scale it's chicken feed - this week in teh papers we were talking about the subsidy to the very rich of tax breaks from super, which are $30 billion a YEAR. Trim them by only 10% (a 16.5% tax on super rather than a 15% one) and you'd pay for it easily.

    3. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Wil B

      Sorry, you seem to be using rationality and logic. These are the chief enemies of politicians.

    4. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Wil B

      You need to consider the terrain of some areas and the numbers of tunnels/bridges that will be needed along the north coast, into Sydney and then back up through to the southern tablelands.
      Trains in Switzerland go through plenty of tunnels but if you go to the outer western European countries most fast trains run on more relatively flat coastal plains skirting the more rugged country wherever possible.

      And then of course, there is the resourcing aside from finance and the shorter a period of…

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  3. Aden Date

    Service Learning Coordinator at University of Western Australia

    This sounds like Perth's Metronet gone national.

    Firstly, comparisons to low cost air-carriers are laughable. With the rising social cost of CO2 emissions, it's simply inconceivable that you'll be able to pop over from Sydney to Melbourne and dump 300kg of CO2 in the air for a cool $100 ticket. Given this, it's apparent that high-speed rail will be essential at some point. I share Peter Newman's view, though, that the cost seems exorbitant.

  4. Joe Gartner

    Eating Cake

    I envisage that the rail will not replace air travel but road travel. At least until air travel becomes prohibitively expensive again.

  5. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    Eurostar services as an example have a capacity of about 800 passengers per train so to move 84 million passengers over a year you'd need about 280 high-speed trains a day at full occupancy which will never eventuate unless the airlines are shut down and 230 thousand people are frog-marched to the station every day with cattle prods.

    On a comparable note, the 1776 km Lanzhou-Urumqi fast rail in China began construction in 2010 and will be completed at the end of 2014 at a cost of about 150 billion Yuan.

    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Tony Xiao

      Costs and time required will be dictated by terrain and construction requirements as well as the workforce to be put on such a project.
      One reason China is more and more considered the factory of the planet is lower labour costs, mostly non unionised I suspect so A$25B or thereabouts in China for something near equivalent as far as a project goes is probably about right.

      Mind you, with our current upped relationships with China, contracting the Chinese to do a turn key project, bringing over their own workforce etc. might see a VFT built for about A$25B in five years or so if our Unions, protestors and local councils are just bulldozed out of the way.

  6. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    The big problem for rail is the capital cost and the ongoing considerable expense on maintenance versus airspace which costs nothing to build or maintain.
    In addition road travel competes for family groups. Whilst a single rail seat might be economic for a business person, 4 people in a car will be cheaper and when they get there they have transport.
    Can't believe that an 18th century technology has much going for it in the modern world.

    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Where have you been since the eighteenth Colin for train technology has changed somewhat and not as much need these days to have a soldiers carriage tagged on to deter those who might want to make attacks.

      Mind you, I agree any such proposal ought to have high scrutiny of the economics and of course as you say, family travel may remain more by car but even then fuel costs do not make a trip between even Melbourne and Sydney all that cheap, an LPG conversion being handy however.

      As for maintenance which ought to be reasonably minor if it is all designed well, you do always with Air Travel probably have what may be equivalent costs with the likely higher costs of running an airport compared to train stations and then for air likewise air traffic controllers and the complete control systems are probably not so cheap to run and maintain either.

  7. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " There will be quite a lot of demand, particularly on the east coast with Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra. Sydney to Melbourne is currently the fifth busiest airline route in the world. Brisbane to Sydney is not far behind. There’s quite a lot of potential here as a high speed train could get you from Sydney CBD to Melbourne CBD in under three hours. That’s quite an interesting proposition for a lot of business travellers.

    " It will be an alternative to airlines. It won’t replace air traffic…

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Greg North

      It won't replace anything because the customers are not and will not be there, as any fool can see.
      If it were otherwise the existing rail network would not terminate at Bombaderry, a mere 160 km south of Sydney,
      If you want the thrill of fast trains go and live in Europe which has the population densities to support them.
      Australians may be mainly of European descent but have a very poor understanding of the limitations of low population density.
      Fast trains are a case of wishful thinking for suburban marooned fantasists, increasingly isolated from reality.
      A tyranny of "distance", exacerbated by a cretinously parochial MSM, that no form of transport has yet overcome.

  8. Stephen Nicholson
    Stephen Nicholson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Town Planner

    I'd like this to be feasible, but it is being presented too uncritically.

    Three hours from Sydney to Melbourne! But where will the station be? How much extra time for local travel to/from the station? If we want to facilitate HSR connections with long-haul air travel, do we have to have the station under Kingsford Smith and Tullamarine Airports? I would suspect there will be trade-offs between optimal location and cost.

    Living on the NSW North Coast, I am aware of major environmental issues…

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  9. Clare Tuckerman

    logged in via Facebook

    What exactly is a lifestyle city? Our family's experience of long-haul commuting v working locally would vote with a resounding "yes!" to local work options. But isn't always possible and fast rail (as in Perth) gives families and communities more options for where to live and work. The other "fast" option for supporting employment options in the regions is of course the NBN, allowing us to access higher skilled work or develop locally-based businesses with wider appeal. Nice to see people unpacking the real costs and priorities of government, government-hopefuls and the lobbies that influence them.

  10. Geoff Taylor


    On the one hand there is the question of where the fuel for the motive power of aircraft might be coming from in 2035.

    But on a more immediate time scale why not spend the money upgrading and extending urban rail transport in Australia. For example, Metronet in Perth put forward by the ALP in the recent election remains the best plan for Perth. It is now up to the Liberal government to admit that and go for it, although first of all Tony Abbott needs to rethink his attitude to federal support for rail, given that it looks like fewer offshore gas revenues are going to go to states and more to the federal government because of the preference for floating offshore gas processing.

  11. John Kelmar

    Small Business Consultant

    Reduce the cost by putting those people without a job on chain gangs to contribute something to the development of this country i.e. Criminals in jail, illegal immigrants, those on the dole etc.

  12. Adam Rosalky

    logged in via Facebook

    It seems like such a large project should be considered in the context of an east coast growth master plan and the overall Australian population. Matthew Burke identifies populations on the outskirts of Sydney and Melbourne in satellite 'lifestyle' cities as some of the key users of the project. I agree, but rather than look at them in isolation, it seems the high speed rail would form the basis for the growth of new satellite cities.

    I can imagine an Australian population growth master plan that…

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