High Speed Rail In Australia - Possible or Just A Mirage ?

The issue of a high speed rail line down the east coast of Australia has recently been raised by each of the 4 major political parties as a potential solution to Australia's need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce road congestion, promote regional development and cater for a population that is expected to increase to 36 million people by 2050. As a step towards an electrified transport system it would also help as a peak oil mitigation measure, though this aspect only tends to get mentioned by the Greens.

Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and AECOM recently released a report (pdf) urging the federal government to identity new rail routes and then buy land or put in place planning protections to ensure future land price rises don't make a high-speed rail network a prohibitive option in future (the study indicates the likely land corridor is valued at $13.7 billion at today's prices but will expand to $57 billion by 2030).

The report won praise in editorials in the Fairfax press, with The Age opining "Whenever the inaugural service glides along its 180-minute path from Melbourne to Sydney and on to Brisbane, it will be worth the time and investment. For too long, rail has been treated as a second-class method of passenger transport, with scant attention paid to its energy efficiency and seamless ability to link city centres. It is time to make it a reality.".

The report took eight months to produce and outlines an indicative corridor where the stations could be located (but suggests that engineering studies would be required to determine the exact location of new routes). It recommends the corridor be built incrementally and shared with different types of infrastructure such as water, electricity and the NBN (national broadband network) to make it financially viable.

The study notes a high-speed rail network allowing a 10-minute trip between Sydney and Campbelltown and a 50 minute trip from Sydney to Canberra would avoid the $15 billion cost of developing a second Sydney airport if construction begins within 5 years, helping the overall economics of the project, as traffic on the Sydney-Melbourne and Sydney-Brisbane routes could be offloaded. The report says "Travelling between Sydney and Melbourne - currently the third busiest air corridor in the world - could be reduced to less than three hours, showing the exciting capability of fast rail to relieve the pressure on this route".

High Speed Rail As An Election Issue

The recent federal election saw the campaign launch for The Greens party included a promise to use their likely balance of power in the Senate to urge the government to reconsider a high-speed rail link along Australia's east coast, pointing to a new poll showing 74 per cent of people favour the idea.

The Greens are demanding a new $10 million study into the feasibility of a high-speed rail link connecting Melbourne to Brisbane.

The Labor party followed up shortly afterwards with their own announcement of a feasibility study, promising $20 million for a study that primarily focuses on an initial link between Sydney and Newcastle.

There was some cynicism expressed about the Labor announcement, with commenters noting the endless link of announced but never built rail projects for NSW, and the fact that the Rudd government announced in 2008 that a Very Fast Train for the Sydney-Melbourne corridor, estimated to cost AUD$25 billion, was the government's highest infrastructure priority (only to fall silent on the subject for the rest of their term in office, up until this announcement).

Not to be outdone on the nation building front, the coalition decided to announce their own backflip on the issue, calling for a report into high speed rail in response to those of the Greens and Labor, with Nationals leader Warren Truss announcing in waishy-washy fashion "In government the coalition will build upon this study to consider the viability of possible passenger routes along Australia's east coast between Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane".


The Greens are claiming the following benefits for high speed rail, noting it reduces both oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions :

1. Provides accessible fast, reliable, ecologically sustainable transport for the 75% of Australia’s population that live on or near the east coast

Travel between Melbourne or Brisbane and Sydney would take about four hours (with comfortable seats, phone and internet access).

2. Helps to reduce transport emissions and dependence on oil

HSR can and should be electric. This means much lower greenhouse gas emissions and unlike air travel, the cost of train travel would be immune from inevitable and inexorable increases in oil prices. It also means that as renewable electricity displaces coal and gas derived electricity, greenhouse gas emissions from transport can be further drastically reduced. To hasten this process the Greens support increasing the Renewable Energy Target by an amount equivalent to the HSR’s electricity demand.

3. Removes congestion and improves transport safety

The Melbourne-Sydney flight route is the fourth busiest in the world and business as usual projections anticipate high growth until at least 2020. The Pacific Highway between Brisbane and Sydney and the Hume and Princes Highways between Melbourne and Sydney have long standing reputations for being hazardous and accident prone, with heavy traffic congestion, which increases the risk of accidents.

4. Basis for future regional development

By reducing transport times relative to road-based transport, an HSR could open up new development opportunities along the route.

5. Opportunities for freight

In most instances traditional slower trains are likely to be the most cost-effective option for rail freight, however, there may be opportunities to use High Speed Rail for some urgent high value freight, such as mail.

6. Job creation

A High Speed Rail network would create a significant number of jobs during the construction phase as well as a smaller number of ongoing positions. During its peak construction period, the Adelaide to Darwin railway employed 1500 people. A larger number of people would likely be required for the construction of a HSR because there would be two tracks built to a much higher engineering standard.


The Greens are claiming the following costs for the proposal:

• For track work – a range of around $40 billion (inflated to 2008 figures) for a full double track the entire length. Savings could be made by partial use of single track – with variations in the range of -10% to +30%.The report noted that these estimates are in the lower half of international costs on a per kilometre basis.

• For rolling stock – estimate cost of a 400 seat train set around $50 to $120 million (2008 figures). These costs are for passenger stock, and not freight cars, which we could expect to be lower in costs.

• Operating costs assessed on average of about 7-9 cents (2008 figures) per passenger per kilometre.

The Department of Infrastructure and Transport notes that 2 previous studies (other than the recent AECOM/IPA report) have been conducted into high speed rail links for the east coast, however the earlier studies couldn't show the projects proposed to be "commercially viable" at the time (and continue to be used for ammunition by critics of high speed rail schemes).

The East Coast Very High Speed Train Scoping Study

A scoping study was commissioned by the Government in December 2000 to conduct a comprehensive examination of options for an East Coast very high speed train network connecting Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne with major regional centers along the way. The Study's Final Report was released in 2002 [PDFPDF: 41942 KB ].

Further information about this study can be found in the Executive Summary for the East Coast Very High Speed Train Scoping Study.

High Speed Rail: Strategic Information for an Australian Context

In 2009, the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Rail Innovation commissioned a study to synthesis the current knowledge of High Speed Rail in the Australian context and to provide directions for further investigation. This report was released on 13 January 2010, and can be accessed on the CRC for Rail Innovation's website.

Cross posted from Peak Energy.

Those studies. . .

Why would you risk a perfectly comfortable bureaucratic job by putting your imprimatur on a project of any kind?
Far better to hedge with study after study. Perhaps the problem will go away by itself in time.
Most of our pollies are drawn from legal cadres.Perhaps they know the legal ramifications of a decision.

Why do they have to go so fast?
What would a risk versus speed curve for theses trains look like?

Many moons ago, when I was a young Engineer, I became quite keen on the prospect of getting my then-employer (a large National organisation with extensive Australian transport interests) involved in the Very Fast Train project. (Which was mooted to stop Sydney / Bowral / Tarago (potential International Airport) / Canberra / Perisher Valley / Woodonga /Melbourne. It would have strung together a terrific collection of travel destiations, and the financing proposal was based on government clawing-back the increased property values near the stops once they were announced...)

But one of the older, crustier Engineers said to me:
"Son, there are actually three proposals, the 'V.F.T.', the 'F.T' and the 'T'.
...And it looks like they'll choose the T."

4. Basis for future regional development

By reducing transport times relative to road-based transport, an HSR could open up new development opportunities along the route.

They will need to build a lot more stops particularly between Canberra and Melbourne if they hope to achieve this. As teh proposal stands, it would only stop in Albury (which would suit me) but my nearest destination options are Canberra and Melbourne. There would be much more development take place if Wagga Wagga, Wangaratta, Shepparton and possibly even Bendigo are linked in. this could either be done through short haul fast inter city trains on the network or alternatively a second tier, moderately fast regional rail network for both freight and passenger services. This report is of course written from a city centric view that only travel between the capitals is important and that there is nothing but empty space in between.

Why waste resources on a VFT which will benefit very few people? We urgently need upgrading and extending our freight train network in order to get heavy transport off the highways as much as possible.We need to electrify as much as possible of this network.

Passenger and freight trains have always shared the lines as this is the most cost effective way of utilizing the investment in track and right of way,especially over the long distances in Australia.When proper sleeping and eating facilities are provided long distance rail travel at conventional speeds is a very relaxing way to get to your destination.If speed is so important then air transport is the way to go.

While I generally support most Greens objectives their pushing of the VFT idea is just another example of the crack brained side of this party.

Yair...The first casualty of a fuel short world will be speed. Humans can survive and thrive without ever travelling at a hundred kays. We need to get used to a slower way of life. This fast train proposal is complete and utter B/S.

"While I generally support most Greens objectives their pushing of the VFT idea is just another example of the crack brained side of this party."

The problem is that we do not have enough public discussion about rail services generally which have been traditionally state issues. It is unfortunate that a VFT is the only thing that will draw in enough talent to work through the issues and maybe the result will be better general services. Electrification of rail will require a reassessment of the national electricity grid which also needs to be upgraded/ maintained properly. Along with communications(broadband) and water, these are the big infrastructure issue that are going to be an almost permanent political discussion this century.

I agree that the current rail system urgently needs upgrading but it would be stupid to invest huge amounts of money into a system that efectively locks us out of super duper high speed trains in the future if they are warranted. You can't know what your options are until you do the research and sometimes you end up with more questions than answers once you start to ask them.

quote "Why waste resources on a VFT which will benefit very few people?"

I totally agree. Why should we create a system where 90% of society has to pay taxes for something only 10% of the fortunate few will use?
You'd think such a proposal should be coming from some ultra extremist right wing group with a penchant for regressive taxation.
oh no. It's coming from the left. The irony is humorous.

I'm in favor of regular speed trains. That's something we can ALL use.

Why are high speed trains unaffordable for most people ? Do European trains only cater for the richest 10% of the continent's population ?

quote from article:
"In Europe as a whole (EU-27), rail accounted for only 6.1 percent of passenger travel in 2007, including travel by air and sea."

Why should the general majority pay for the privileged minority?

A couple of notes I forgot to include in the original post :

1. Greens support for the new Labor minority government was conditional on the high speed rail report being released by July 2011 - which is when the greens take control of the balance of power in the senate.


2. There are mutterings within the federal bureaucracy about the wisdom of the plan.


I can see it now, waiting on the platform while a gleaming new bullet train pulls in to whisk me away on my journey. I love travelling and part of that enjoyment comes from the travelling itself. I love to drive, watching the ever changing scenery and listening to my Doors collection. I love the feeling when a plane's engines roar and you race down that tarmac at 300ks. Even chugging down a river in my old tinnie gives me a thrill.

While holidaying in Europe recently I made the mistake of travelling between the cities I visited by plane. Between the transfers, lining up to check in, getting to gate, blah blah, it would've been quicker and less nerve racking to get on the Eurostar. Anyone I've met who have been on the high speed rail in Europe have had nothing but praise.

I agree with big gav when he says "Why are high speed trains unaffordable for most people ? Do European trains only cater for the richest 10% of the continent's population ?" I would consider myself well in the bottom half of the wealth tree and I would certainly use a VFT service if not just for time and comfort then also as part of my personal effort in reducing my carbon footprint. Even if a ticket costs $200 that doesn't seem like too much of a stretch for most of the people I know, hell they could easily spend that at the pub on a Friday night.

Come on decision makers lets just do it. If even a few of the Savinaresq prognostications come true then it will become harder and possibly cost prohibitive to do it in the future.

Whispers... "If you build it, they will come"

quote from Turnpike:
Whispers... "If you build it, they will come"
Are you sure about that?

Korea Train eXpress (KTX)
quote from article:
"When introduced in April 2004, KTX ridership was an average of 70,900 passengers per day, well short of initial expectations of 200,000."
70,900 / 200,000 == 35%

Taiwan High Speed Rail
quote from article:
"Original estimates foresaw an initial daily ridership of 180,000, which would grow to 400,000 by 2036."
actual ridership = 50,000
50,000 / 180,000 == 28%

Some of my thoughts on this issue is that we are discussing this topic with lots of emotion.
Yes it is nice idea (I like it my self and would use it) and I ask this question of you.
Where does the money come from and is it the best investment we can do with our money. We need to discuss this as YOU (individual person) are the financial planner for the household call Australia.

I have put some key financial points (not all but some) following.

Some key points Economic points
Track construction 20-30 million per km for double track with electrification to High Speed Specifications. See costs of Perth’s new suburban lines and known costs of High Speed Rail in Europe and China. Most of the route will be low cost as is relatively flat in country Victoria and NSW sections which won’t require major engineering works. The main engineering will be the Sydney to Canberra and Urban Centers.
Length of Line between Melbourne – Canberra – Sydney approx 900 km
Total cost $30m x 900km = $27 Billion.

Number of people who fly between Melbourne and Sydney per day on Virgin and Qantas is approx. 10,000 each way. Source No of flights between Melbourne and Sydney multiply by 150 as average for no. of people in a 737 used by Virgin and Qantas.

Ticket price of $125 per person. Estimate lowest cost of ticket between Melbourne and Sydney on Virgin and Qantas (not looking at specials).
$125 x 20,000 = $2.5 Million per day $900m per year.

Running Costs
If the Government uses a public ownership of the track and rents slots to private companies.

Private Company Costs
Slot Rental on the track $200m per year
Staffing costs $100 million (guess as average sized firm with approx 1000 people from station staff, on board staff and support staff)
Power Costs = 18 trains running at any one time at 8,000 kW with electric costs of 10c per kWh
18 hrs per day x 18 trains x 8,000 x 0.10c = $250,000 per day approx $100m per year.
Other sundry costs estimate $100m (eg. maintenance of equipment and stations)
Train replacement/depreciation costs of $100m per year
(40 train sets cost $75m per train set over est 30 year life of train)

Best Running Profit
$900m - $700 = $200m per year.

Government Costs
Slot Revenue of $200
Track Maintenance and Management: $100m per year for Melbourne Canberra Sydney
Return on investment: $100m

These are just some ideas that have been going through my head as to the way we should be discussing this issue.

quote from Lima Pronto:
"Some key points Economic points
Track construction 20-30 million per km for double track with electrification to High Speed Specifications."

*perhaps we should look at other projects around the world to get a 2nd opinion on how much HSR really costs*
Taiwan High Speed Rail
$18 billion / 335km == $53.7 million per km

*not HSR but light rail in Seattle*
Sound Transit Link light rail
2.9 billion / 14 mile == $129 million per km

These are projects which have been completed. Noticed the word "have" is past tense. So what that means is these are real numbers and not something based on Pollyanna predictions.

From the wiki article of the Taiwan HSR

Elevated railways and bridges make up 73% of the system, tunnels make up 18%, and at-grade rail makes up 9% of the total length.
I estimate 80% of the track between Syd and Melb will be at grade as is the Hume Hwy. No major tunnels or bridges required. The main area of engineering required would be the Sydney Canberra section to get over the Blue Mountains.

The Seattle light rail line
4.4 miles (7.1 km) on elevated tracks, 2.5 miles (4.0 km) in tunnels and 7 miles (11 km) at grade.

What we need then is costing for each of elevated tracks, tunnels and at grade and how much percentage the line from Sydney to Canberra and Melbourne will require of each type.
We need to compare apples with apples rather than a fruit basket.

please tell me where is this $20 million per km HSR that you're talking about, I'd like to know honestly!

Can you name even one project anywhere in the world that *has* been completed recently which meets such specs?

I have placed my examples forth with a link to a source isn't it only fair that you provide me with an example hmmm?

I have used the same examples you have sited for my calculations. I have just gone into the projects and estimated that different sections cost differently.
Tunnelling very expensive
Elevated railways and bridges expensive
At grade cheapest construction costs.
Taiwan mostly constructed with tunnells and bridges there for expensive.
Seattle over 50% constructed with Tunnels and Elevated railways and bridges there for expensive.
The link in Australia would mostly be at grade there for it will have the cheapest construction costs.
I estimated that the average cost would be from 20 to 30 million per km using published figures for the Mandurah railway and Chinese High speed rail system. There is no exact figures for an Australian System as costs blow out and inflation will always changes the final cost by the time the system is completed.
Until a detailed Engineering study is done all we can do is use previous similar projects over similar terain and estimate what the cost would be (a prediction). The cost will end up being more than estimated at the start but what major infrasture project hasn't run over costs and time in Australia in the last 50 years.
Is this project worth it at 50 billion or 100 billion? (Melbourne - Canberra - Sydney link)
All we can do is use past published data to predict what the cost could be for an Australian project.
What do you think the project could cost and would you consider it worth while finacially for the country to do it?

What do you think the project could cost and would you consider it worth while finacially for the country to do it?

I guess it's time for me to reveal my hand.
When I asked you to name one HSR project anywhere in the world (just one) that meets the $20 million per km spec, it was not a simple task.
It was in reality a Herculean task that never could of been completed.
The answer of course is......it does not exist.
Of course you were smart enough to know that I was being dishonest by pretending to ask a sincere question.
Then again you were the one who lied first by mentioning the impossible $20 million per km HSR spec.
Since we both lied to each other I guess that makes us even.
No hard feelings right? *grin*

Ticket price of $125 per person. Estimate lowest cost of ticket between Melbourne and Sydney on Virgin and Qantas (not looking at specials).
$125 x 20,000 = $2.5 Million per day $900m per year.

Thanks for this rough guide Lima Pronto, but as you say, an in depth study is required.

Your estimate here is probably out by a minimum of $25-50 (maybe more: see below) depending on where you live and how you get to the airport, being the cost of transport and possibly parking. That puts your estimate here past 1 billion.

Possibly a slightly different issue but there is also the % of passengers who have arrived (and are transiting) at either end of this trip via a regional airline, where tickets are much higher. And while the Melb-Syd tickets may be cheap, as prices increase regional travelers will be the first to abandon flying, this surely must then have a flow on effect...

Surely this should be included in a debate about the wider implications of regional rail linking into a fast network.

The regional airlines issue is indeed a considerable point. There may be much more intra state travel that would benefit from more frequent but slower rail service in order to take cars off regional roads and highways which are very expensive to maintain. In the grand scheme of things, only a very small percentage of Australian travelers are going between the capitals and these trips are usually planned well in advance so there is plenty of time to consider the options. Replacing the air travel systems with what is effectively a ground mounted aeroplane will only serve a small part of the population whereas spending the same investment in expanding the 100-200 Km/h regional trains, with more stops will probably yield much more economic advantage for more people, along with boosting freight rail.

I am a fan of HSR from my days in the UK 20 years ago when I used to travel on the Intercity 125 (old GWR lines)

Conceptually the idea of 3 hours Southern Cross to Sydney Central is very appealing
Personally I would rather take the train

Southern Cross to Roma Street
I would rather fly

What happens if the airlines fight back (compete against HSR) ?
Can HSR survive without getting the vast majority of passengers ?
(and vice-versa with the airlines)

Airlines can easily reduce flights which results in less profit, but are still economically viable. HSR needs a minimum passenger $ figure (which probably equates to the vast majority of passengers moving from air to rail) just to pay back the significant infrastructure cost. Its a tricky one.