» Long-studied project would cost upwards of A$40 billion and connect the country’s two largest cities in less than four hours. Though ruling Labor Party supported the project, it may not follow through with funding.
Among the long list of countries now moving towards high-speed rail (most recent adherent: Sudan), Australia is remarkable for the number of years it has been seriously considering an investment but repeatedly pulled away because of worries about cost, a dubious distinction perhaps shared only by its Anglo-Saxon peers in the U.S. and Canada.
Repeatedly pinpointed as the nation’s most promising route for fast trains, a 950-kilometer (600-mile) route between Sydney and Melbourne would connect Australia’s two largest cities whose combined metropolitan populations count 8.5 million people. The corridor is already the world’s fourth busiest air link, with about 950 flights a week, and it passes directly above Canberra, the federal capital ideally positioned between the capitals of the states of New South Wales and Victoria.
Now the Australian Green Party plans to promote an effort to make that connection via fast trains, a route that would cost more than A$40 billion to build but allow customers to get from 0ne city to the other in three to four hours. China’s Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed corridor, the train link with the fastest average speed in the world, covers a slightly longer distance in less than three hours. The Greens also suggest a line of similar length from Sydney north along the country’s east coast to Newcastle and Brisbane. The full system would connect three-quarters of the nation’s population.
The Greens, the country’s third-largest political party, has asked Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to agree to funding a year-long, A$10 million study of the project. Rudd announced in 2008 that a Melbourne-Sydney line would be at the top of his administration’s infrastructure priority list but has thus far made no commitment of funds to the program. The Greens have been articulating the advantages of a high-speed link since at least 2007.
With the fastest available trains connecting Sydney and Melbourne in more than 11 hours and the Sydney-Brisbane link taking three hours longer, there is certainly room for improvement, and it’s no surprise that most people choose to take the plane between the cities.
During the late 1990s, center-right Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard promoted a plan for a “Very Fast Train” using French TGV technology. The project had been studied since the mid-1980s but had stumbled again and again because of a lack of dedicated funds. In 2000, despite having commissioned detailed plans for a A$4.5 billion line from Sydney to Canberra that would have rushed commuters between the two cities in 81 minutes, Howard gave up, citing the program’s enormous expense.
The Greens’ new push could be the impetus for the project’s reawakening, but only if the ruling Labor party decides to back the rail link with adequate financing. The fact that Australia avoided most of the consequences of the worldwide recession last year suggests that it may have greater latitude to do so than more fiscally restrained countries like the United States. That global interest in high-speed rail continues to spread certainly won’t hurt the cause expressed by proponents of the project.
The Melbourne-Sydney link does not fit typical assumptions about what makes a performing high-speed link, since it would stretch further than the 300-500 miles corridor distance typically suggested as per the European experience. It’s also true that a four-hour travel time (based on average speeds of 280 km/h) between the cities will struggle to compete with the one and a half hour flight.
On the other hand, recent Chinese experience has demonstrated that it is feasible to operate trains at average speeds of more than 300 km/h, making a three-hour travel time theoretically feasible, though right-of-way acquisition and construction costs would swell substantially as planned train speeds increase. Nonetheless, those faster speeds may be necessary to provoke a major mode shift between air and rail; Eurostar’s share of the London-Paris travel market increased significantly with the opening of the United Kingdom’s High-Speed 1 segment, decreasing travel times between the cities be half an hour.
But Australia has a ready-made market for fast trains, and it seems foolish not to embark on a high-speed rail construction campaign between Sydney and Melbourne when there’s a preexisting rider base ready to take advantage of the service and when there are significant environmental benefits to moving passengers from air to rail. Everyone agrees there will be users, though: The bigger question is where forty billion Australian dollars will come from to pay for the thing.
Image above: Melbourne Flinders Station, from Flickr user melalouise (cc)