Two missing but vital factors in High Speed Rail reporting in Australia
Why we need to get 'real' about high speed rail in Australia
Jul 8, 2017
Why we need to get 'real' about high speed rail in Australia
HS Rail is back in the spotlight in Australia because of lack of corridor protection for trains that could run between Melbourne-Sydney or Sydney-Brisbane in just under or over three hours respectively.
It’s undoubtedly an urgent talking point in 2017. As it was in 1987, or earlier. No-one does the urgency of nation building projects quite like Australia! However as the consequences of inaction over publicly useful transport infrastructure becomes more painfully apparent in the major cities, the discussions remain guided by interests from all perspectives, for or against, that ignore two fundamental considerations.
There is zero analysis of door-to-door trip times, as in the real-life performance of existing and proposed transport solutions, and similarly, no recognition of the mobility or immobility of the assets that underpin rail, road and airline activity.
Yet both factors will cause the making or breaking of transport projects that depend on attracting enough punters paying the right prices to survive, notwithstanding the very significant but hard to realistically model side benefits of increased general economic activity arising from better people moving services of any form.
Take the Sydney-Canberra situation. The increasingly inadequate motorway between both cities is pounded by thousands of daily users for whom air travel offers a slower journey time from their starting points between typically an hour or two away from the airports at either end of what in theory can be flown in 30 minutes, and is generally scheduled at just under one hour.
A high speed rail service from say Civic in Canberra to Central (or nearby) in Sydney could also readily connect those locations in just under an hour, using new rail lines that avoid the historic, scenic, and semi-paralytic routing that currently renders the trip around four hours in duration, and often gets snared up by congestion from freight trains and suburban services.
While the road trip can take more than the often claimed three hours 30 minutes, it gets a traveller from a residential starting point to a decentralised campus, or technology park, or business location as much as two hours sooner than would be the case fighting cross town traffic to Sydney Airport, stuffing around in the terminal and of course the time wasting airline lounge at either or both ends.
It doesn’t matter how fast the train might be between Kingston (Canberra) and Central (Sydney) if your journey is to Macquarie University or North Ryde or Parramatta.
A high speed rail service between Canberra and Sydney, even if it departed every ten minutes, and travelled at the speed of light, wouldn’t be competitive in terms of time with a door to door journey.
There is a serious lack of published research into the real nature of Sydney-Canberra road trips. Those who want to boost the notion of a Sydney-Canberra high speed train run away from the risk of not having enough customers for high frequency departures. And if you make anyone wait up to two hours for such a train, you are, to be blunt, a fool. The aircraft that fly the route often come with less than 100 seats (and very uncomfortable ones too), and their operating economics do not require filling the 600-800 or more seats that are common on successful European and Asian high speed rail services.
However to make real money, for their owners, rather than society as a whole, high speed trains need to rack up the same levels of utilisation as airliners.
Which brings us to the mobility of assets, the other vital yet ignored factor in the Australian high speed rail discussion. Aircraft that can’t find enough customers to offer a high frequency schedule between two given points can of course be flown on other routes, often in different time zones, to ‘feed’ on a much more reliable source of revenue.
High airliner utilisation means labour and maintenance costs are far more efficiently spread. The sunk costs of high speed permanent ways don’t exist for jets. If a route, or indeed an airline, tanks for whatever reason, the movable assets have a realisable value. They can be returned to leasing companies, or sold, or leased to other carriers.
The flexibility of aircraft, and their inherently superior operating costs over surface transport, means that rail cannot compete with them over shorter stages like Sydney-Canberra.
However those advantages to airliners are seriously challenged by high capacity high speed trains operating in most cases on a city centre to city centre basis on a journey of around 900-1200 kilometres, because self-driving falls out of the frame.
A dozen departures from Melbourne’s Southern Cross rail hub to Sydney’s no doubt purposefully rebuilt or extended Central station doing the trip in two hours 45 minutes (similar to what is achieved between Wuhan and Guangzhou in China) would drastically erode jet patronage between Australia’s two largest cities.
Given the unpleasantness of air terminals these days, the general mucking around that goes on in handling and security, and the deliberately reduced amenity of airliner seating and the rubbish that passes for ‘complimentary’ meals, a spacious train rapidly connecting inner city locations less than three hours apart in rail terms will easily sell itself as the superior option even if the seat price is higher.
However the problem of poor transport access to centralised rail terminals remains for Australian cities. No-one seems to be giving serious thought to building greatly improved access to future high speed rail stations, so that the benefits of a three hour interstate trip are accessible without the purgatory of a two hour hassle just to get across part of the Sydney or Melbourne sprawl. By good fortune, and history, cities like Tokyo, London and Paris built their metropolitan transport links to rail hubs long before the notions of high speed rail services took root.
In short, the high speed rail discussion in Australia lacks depth and credibility, and is avoiding asking fundamental questions about demand, access and asset mobility (which in turn begs the questions about its ownership structure).
We need to get ‘real’ about high speed rail.
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