Australia High-Speed Rail

Australian Greens Promote High-Speed Rail for Melbourne-Sydney Link

» 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)

23 replies on “Australian Greens Promote High-Speed Rail for Melbourne-Sydney Link”

A 300 km/h average speed is not difficult for trains with few stops or slow zones. In fact, the projected average speed in California for nonstop LA-Sacramento trains is 290 km/h, which includes a major slow zone in the Tehachapis. On the straight-shot, tunnel-free Bakersfield-Sacramento route, CHSRA predicts 305 km/h average speeds. A Sydney-Melbourne route will probably not have as long a mountain crossing, allowing speeds on a par with those of California.

It’s only a matter of time before Australia’s housing bubble pops, just like in the US, UK, Spain, etc. When that happens, a major recession will take place and the government will probably stimulate, just like in the US. When that happens, I fear that the funds for high speed rail will not be there.

HS2 wasn’t built yet, CTRL is HS1.

As Alon pointed out, average speed above 300 km/h are feasible even without Chinese-style “overspeed” with sufficiently long slow-zone-free route.

I remember hearing that Australia is a major source of resoures such as iron and other elements for China so China might want to fund this project for Australia as some type of trade deal possibly.

The Australians haven’t even completed a four-lane highway between the two cities, and transiting neither Sydney nor Melbourne airport involves anything like the hassles associated with American or European air travel, so the case for high-speed rail in this corridor may indeed be rather flimsy…

Australians haven’t even completed a four-lane highway between the two cities

As of right now, most of the road between Sydney and Melbourne is either a freeway or divided highway with at grade separations. There are some segments with one lane in each direction in rural areas and small towns, and those segments are either being twinned now, receiving bypasses, or will receive them in the future. Mind you, much of the road will stay with at grade directions due to the opportunity costs of building overpasses for rural roads that may see one or two cars a week crossing it. The main safety problems are solved with dividing the road, and overpasses only become of use when the traffic counts start to justify it.

Regardless, it’s still a roughly a ten hour drive to cover the distance, so it’s about three hours shorter than driving to Chicago from New York, but without passing through any major metropolitan areas and through far emptier rural areas.

William – 7.24 million people fly between Melbourne & Sydney a day, or roughly 20,000 per day. Qantas offers half-hourly services every weekday from 6am to 9pm on 767s (250 seaters, not piddly little regional jets!) with 737s making 15 minute headways in peak times – we are not like the big routes in the US where they’re flying regional jets between New York and Chicago, New York and Atlanta to get the high frequency of flights they have over there. Virgin Blue fly hourly 737s from 6am to 9pm and half-hourly 737s in peaks and Tiger Airways offers 10 flights a day on A320s and Jetstar brings up the rear with 5-6 flights a day from Melbourne Tullamarine (main international airport) and another 5-6 from Melbourne Avalon (to the south west of the city).

Furthermore another 1 million people fly Melbourne to Canberra and another 1 million people fly Sydney to Canberra annually, putting the total number of people travelling in the Australian Capital corridor near 10 million (as Albury-Wodonga also gets approx 300,000 people flying into/out of it to Melbourne and Sydney ever year).

Coupled with the fact airlines achieve load factors of 85%+ just looking at the air traffic on the two end points in isolation – how can you say the case for High Speed Rail is somewhat flimsy?

Melbourne Tullamarine is located to the North West of the city where the majority of the population lives to the East – having a High speed line directly into the centre of Melbourne also has the added advantage of allowing people to use the current rail network to take them directly to Southern Cross where such a service would terminate – currently you have to pay $20 an hour for parking, catch a $15 express bus from the city centre and pay anywhere between $2-5 in Freeway tolls (From the south east of the city) just to get to the airport….

If a line was built in Australia – TGV-tech, with the line spec’d to run at 350kph, an express Melbourne-Sydney would be done in under 3 hours given it’s an 800-850km route via Albury-Wodonga, Canberra and entering Sydney from the South west.

Hi Tayser,

I’m absolutely not calling into question whether or not there are sufficient numbers to justify high-speed rail. Rather, what I doubt is whether or not there is enough political clout to drive such a massive one off investment.

As you point out, traveling between the two cities by air is currently very easy and convenient. One of the massive hurdles to overcome therefore is the “why bother?” attitude. The ecological argument is a powerful one, but as recent geopolitics has shown, it’s not an argument that seems to reach the voting Australian public.

I wish this system was in place when I lived in Canberra. Being able to travel to Sydney without flying or a slow bus would’ve been awesome. Similarly, it would have been great to travel to Melb. without having to fly either. I say build it.

@ David: the housing market is pretty stable as Australia is the only advanced economy to avoid a recession from the downturn. The reason: natural resources, good gov’t planning/regulations compared to the U.S., an attractive place to invest in as well.

Just one nitpick: Israel avoided a recession as well, for similar reasons as Australia. (Well, not natural resources, obviously, but the Israeli government has been vigilant about bank regulations for nearly 30 years; if anything, the Chicago-trained economists in charge of policy and the Reaganite Prime Minister/Finance Minister Netanyahu have strengthened the regulations.)

The Very Fast Train Project was first proposed and thoroughly studied in the early 1990’s! The original proposal was to be entirely funded by private sector interests with one proviso: they needed the tax laws changed to allow depreciation of investment in railway lines (I believe still currently not allowed). Much of the value creation was to be from retail property development along the lines and at railway stations. The market research indicated travellers believed a four hour journey was acceptable given the travel time to Tullamarine in Melbourne and Kingsford Smith in Sydney. One of the reasons (some believe) it was stopped was that Qantas had been merged with TAA and the government wanted to float the merged entity. The VFT between Sydney and Melbourne threatened the revenue projections of the “new” Qantas, especially as Virgin Blue (funded by Richard Branson) was also entering the market. The number of new trains required, if built in Australia twenty years ago, would have also positioned Australia as a global supplier of high technology trains. A missed high tech export opportunity.

By the way, the VFT was also going to change the pattern of urban development in Australia. It would have avoided the current problems with fringe urban development in Melbourne and Sydney by encouraging regional centres within reasonable travel time from central business districts. It’s not just about transport policy; it is about urban planning and national economic policy as well.

I’ve lived in Sydney for 3.5 years, travel constantly for work, and have trouble believing in this project. Flying is really, really easy in Australia. There’s enough competition to keep fares down, “security theater” is moderate, and flights between the big capitals are so frequent that you don’t even worry about catching a particular one, unless you have the super-cheap ticket.

Melbourne’s airport is a ways out of the city but Sydney’s is practically downtown, with trains every 10-15 minutes that take barely 10 minutes to Central Station. And there is serious topography in the way of this HSR line, mostly between Canberra and Melbourne. Nothing like what California HSR is dealing with, but then, we’re not talking about California-sized cities either.

The HSR proposals that seem to be closest to the front burner are for shorter lines. Sydney-Newcastle is popular but the topography there is just horrendous. Sydney-Canberra, though, looks good. It is four hours by train now, a hour by plane, and can easily be an hour by HSR. But Canberra isn’t big enough to anchor it, so this line will probably only get built as part of a concept for building a new international airport for Sydney out that direction, and using HSR to bring people into the city. Sydney airport is incredibly conveniently located but it is near capacity and there is no agreement on a second airport for a region that’s expected to hit 6 million in two decades. So there’s some logic to a new airport near Goulburn, with high-speed rail links, or even using Canberra as the second airport. This would tie into the current debate about how to handle a growing population, where there is increasing interest in founding new smaller cities rather than continuing to grow the big ones.

Newcastle/Sydney is an ideal distance for a rapid rail line, but with the Main Northern speed limited so that the V-Sets cannot even run at their top speed of 130km/hr, and developer interests trying to rip out the corridor into the Foreshore and Newcastle Beach destinations, things seem to be running in reverse on that corridor.

Another nitpick but the picture at the top of the article shows Flinders St Station (the suburban rail hub) while intercity and interstate trains depart from the new Southern Cross terminal, as would any high speed line.

This line should be built between Sydney and Canberra to avoid the need to build a second Sydney airport at enormous cost. Not only would a high speed line remove 90% of Sydney-Canberra domestic flights from the existing airport, it would also allow Canberra International Aiport to function as Sydney’s second airport.

The fact that Sydney’s airport is nearing or at capacity actually makes a good argument for HSR. If capacity used for Melbourne-Sydney traffic can travel via HSR, that would open up quite a bit of space at Sydney for future medium/long haul growth.

A”think big” scheme is needed. A basic “cross network” through Canberra, linking Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane/Gold Coast and Melbourne could have huge implications for population decentralisation. Rural inland cites on the network, of Tamworth, Orange, Albury and Mildura would become major inland cities and would be within one or two hours of state capitals. Canberra would be the HUB of the network. The only thing lacking is political vision. Good on the Greens. Use the French to help the project get underway.

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