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October 8, 2011

A High Speed Train to Prosperity?

by Travis Marshall

Catching the TGV high speed train from Paris to Marseille would have to be one of the most enjoyable travel experiences the world has to offer. The swift but smooth motion, the vistas of the French country side and the comfort of the seats, all serve to induce a meditative state and a sense of physical and spiritual journey. High Speed Trains have been connecting the major cities and regions of Western Europe for decades, where it has become ingrained as an iconic form of travel for tourists and residents alike.

For Australians who have had such experiences, their return to the motherland comes with the disappointing realisation that our intercity train network is well below par on the international stage, and is routinely avoided in favour of travel by air. High Speed Train lines have captured the imagination of Australians since the 1980’s but none have succeeded. Has the time come for Australia to look to the future and begin one of the biggest infrastructure projects in our history?

Proposals for high speed trains began appearing in 1984 when the CSIRO outlined a plan for a link between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne using the same technology as France’s TGV. The latest feasibility study was commissioned by the Minister of Infrastructure and Transport, the Hon. Anthony Albanese, and proposes a high speed line that connects Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. At an estimated implementation cost of between $61 billion and $108 billion (in today’s dollar), this is a highly ambitious project and could have significant nation building potential.

One of the main reasons that Australia hasn’t built a high speed train network in the past is because of the extraordinary distances between our population centres. This has a considerable impact on the economic feasibility of the projects, especially when compared to the closely spaced population centres of Europe, China and Japan. But if you take a closer look, the majority of Australia’s population lives on a nice ‘J curve’ in the southeast of our continent and is where such a project could work, especially considering the significant growth in population expected over the next few decades. In addition to this, the Melbourne to Sydney route is reported to be the fourth busiest air service in the world, which makes it considerably more feasible when factoring in passenger volumes.

Australian population centres and proposed High Speed Train Route in yellow

The current standard for High Speed Trains in the world is an average speed of 350 kilometres per hour, which means you could get from Sydney to Melbourne or Brisbane in three hours, or Sydney to Canberra in under an hour. When considering this would be transportation from the CBD to the CBD – unlike airports which are often far away – this is highly competitive, if not better than air travel. The passenger will also appreciate a more comfortable ride in larger chairs, a closer view of the countryside as it flies by, and a casual visit to the restaurant carriage for a meal and a glass of wine. Such are the comforts and joys of train travel.

This is just the beginning of the advantages over air travel, which includes environmental benefits, regional development opportunities and huge potential for the tourism industry. Can you imagine tourists flocking to Australia to experience the ‘Great Australian Train Journey’, where a single ticket allows them to hop on and off to experience our eastern cities and regional centres? Tourism is one of Australia’s biggest growth potentials and this could become one of the major draw cards to expand the industry.

In terms of the environment, High Speed Trains win hands down when compared to air travel. First of all it is highly energy efficient, using eight times less energy per passenger kilometre than aircraft. Second, because they use electricity rather than fossil fuels it would produce nearly half of the carbon emissions. This could reduce dramatically in the future when we become less dependent on coal fired power stations and adopt low – or possibly zero – emission renewable energy sources. (See article on Geothermal power).

So if such a train line can bring these considerable benefits to our nation, why don’t we just get started? The simple answer, is money. The capital outlay to build the project is massive and will take a considerable commitment from the Government and private investors to make it happen. Before the tracks are even laid, the long corridors of land need to be acquired, the stations need to be built and tunnels need to be dug under our cities to provide a route into the CBD. The land itself is a considerable component of the initial cost with estimates of $6 billion at current values, and is expected to rise significantly in the future. Unfortunately, we can’t just use our existing train lines because a high speed track needs to be very straight with little rise and fall in elevation. One of the key recommendations of the report is that the identification and acquisition of the land corridors should be done as soon as possible otherwise the feasibility will diminish over time.

In a separate report issued by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and AECOM, they have suggested an incremental approach to the creation of the railway line. This breaks it down into more manageable pieces that can be instituted at opportune times in the economic business cycle, and where political circumstances allow through either bipartisan support or majority governments. The first section to be built would need to have the highest chance of economic success in order to set the scene for future expansion, and in the opinion of the author, it should be the Canberra to Sydney link. This is a small and manageable project that would have a large potential client base due to the short distances involved and therefore wouldn’t have serious competition from the air. Secondly, the Canberra airport has been proposed as the second airport for Sydney under the assumption that a high speed railway could connect the two cities in under an hour; therefore it would also meet this other purpose. And third, it would create the first segment in the Sydney to Melbourne route which – mentioned previously – is the fourth busiest air route in the world and therefore highly attractive.

From there the Sydney to Newcastle segment can be added as well as Brisbane to the Gold Coast, and in years to come they will all become connected by a single line. For this incremental plan to work, it requires each segment to be built with the expectation that it will be connected to an overall design and significant standardisation needs to be put in place.

Therefore, despite the considerable hurdles to implementing such an ambitious project, the indirect benefits to the nation in terms of tourism potential, regional development, the environment and the mobilisation of our population, will be worth it overall. With a resources ‘super cycle’ poised to offer Australia sustained windfalls for decades to come, the need to convert this prosperity into nation building infrastructure and opportunities is paramount. It may take decades of painstaking political focus and determination to turn it into reality, but as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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