high speed trains

Jul 8, 2017

Two missing but vital factors in High Speed Rail reporting in Australia

Why we need to get 'real' about high speed rail in Australia

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

[caption id="attachment_62697" align="aligncenter" width="610"] What's technically wrong with this 80's graphic of a VFT? Answers to COMMENTS please[/caption] 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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75 thoughts on “Two missing but vital factors in High Speed Rail reporting in Australia

  1. patrick kilby

    The other issue is to try a little bit of incrementalism. A $100m or so work on the Canberra-Goulburn leg would maybe reduce the train travel time to 3hrs and thus undercut the bus and drive, as well as improving freight capacity. Then some further work on Goulburn to Sydney may take another half hour off. That would buy quite some time before any high speed rail. However I won’t be holding my breath.

    1. John Jefkins

      No harm in incrementalism, but the real profit does not come until you win the 10 million/yr AIR markets of Sydney-Melbourne as well as Canberra.

      Get the line to MELBOURNE as soon as possible (for sub 3hr journey times there).
      Canberra would be about 45mins away for nonstop 350km/hr trains.

      And the same line could also take regular commuter trains too – that WOULD stop at a lot more stations – provided each station was 4 tracks to let the express trains pass. Hybrid trains could use existing lines through some places (where the new line bypassed them).

      The key would be to make commuter trains run fast enough to keep out of the way of the intercity ones – and to allow for future 4 tracking where necessary (eg into Sydney & Melbourne).

      1. John Jefkins

        And why wait so long for this too.
        The Sydney-Melbourne air market is ALREADY big enough to justify a line on that route
        with that line ALSO winning the Canberra air market and the M31 commuter markets.

        2 types of train. One limited-stop intercity doing Sydney-Melbourne in 2.5 hrs.

        Other commuter trains, that can use some existing line stretches too, stop at more stations (eg more than one 4 tracked Sydney stop) but be fast enough to keep out of the way of the 350km/hr intercity trains.

        1. John Jefkins

          So to “get real”, I’d say
          1) Get ON with it now – rather than waiting ’till you are all dead….
          2) The big market to fund it looks Sydney-Melbourne’s air market.
          By all means go for the M31 market too (with some stopping trains too), but get it built to Melbourne soon enough (eg 2025) to win that juicy air market too 🙂

  2. Anthony Holmes

    That looks more like a roller coaster than a VFT. I hope the passengers are safely strapped into their seats.

    1. Ian Fraser

      Some immediate reactions to the picture:
      1. Horizontal alignment of rail line (not flat enough)
      2. I can’t tell whether it is single track or dual track
      3. No viaducts to take it over farms and vegetation
      4. (Maybe) a pretty suspect bridge structure for the likely weight
      5. No security or safety protection
      6. Loco leading unit not recognisable from the history of units available by 1984
      Geez, I am not an engineer but how did I do, Ben?
      I note that it seems to have 9 carriages, which sounds feasible.

      1. Ben Sandilands

        Yes. It was the gradient evident in the permanent way. HR Rail would cut through the background terrain either using an open ditch, which is what you see on the High Speed One section of the Eurostar route from St Pancras to the start of the Channel tunnel, or through a tunnel.
        Anthony Holmes was also on to it in his earlier comment saying it resembled a roller coaster ride, even if the perspective into the distance was exaggerated.

        1. michael r james

          Well, it’s obviously maglev because it has no wheels and is low-profile. Maglev can easily cope with any gradient thrown at it so that hill, easy peasy.
          As to Zarathrusta’s comment, I can see fencing which goes into the water to even stop those well-know aquatic kangaroos!

        2. michael r james

          Speaking of hyper, futuristic fast trains, here is an extract from a Letter to the Ed (by Ronald Elliot), Fairfax Weekender. This is a HSR that Tony Abbott and Scott “coalballs’ Morrison can get behind, Steam (punk?) HSR:

          there is a proven and efficient solution that Malcolm Turnbull should have initiated with Theresa May and Angela Merkel.
          The British and Germans were capable of running passenger steam train services at 200km/h in the 1930s between their major cities.
          We simply hand over responsibility for the Melbourne-Sydney line to the Australian, British and German steam rail enthusiasts.
          We all know our future prosperity lies in burning coal, so surely, travelling inter-city in 1930s luxury Pullman coaches behind the engineering magnificence of German and British steam locomotives aligns perfectly.

      2. Zarathrusta

        Not sure what you mean by 5 in detail, but a big deal is no fences to keep cattle and kangaroos out. We know what a kangaroo can do to a car at 100km/h. At 300-350 km/h we are talking serious damage to the train.

    2. comet

      A roller coaster ride like that might become a tourist attraction, like the Scenic Railway. I’d give it a go, mainly to experience weightlessness.

  3. comet

    Government security fanfare is a problem in Australia.

    In Europe, you step aboard a high-speed super train just like any ordinary train.

    If they had HSR in Australia, no doubt the government would want to introduce security theatrics, just like they do at airports, to slow the whole process down. Metal detectors, visual bag checks, explosives checks, photo ID, passports, laptop checks, X-ray, ‘radio wave scanners’, aaaargh!!!!!

    1. John Jefkins

      Here in Europe, we DO have security for Eurostar and any Spanish AVE HSR train.
      Its MUCH faster than airport security though. A 2 MINUTE delay rather than the 2 HOURS you can spend in many airports.

      In Spain every high speed train station (on a 5,000km network) has bag scanners either as you enter the departure hall or at the top of the platform escalator. At the same time somebody checks your ticket, your bag gets scanned. Very quick. Very short queues.

      Far quicker than an airport as high speed rail is safer than air travel. A bomb on a plane kills everybody – as the whole plane then crashes. Bombs on trains have never even made them leave the tracks.

      On the subject of safety, billions of journeys have now been made by 200mph trains for over 50 years. Japan and France for example have both had them for 50 yrs and had ZERO deaths in accidents. Even including a German crash and the other 2 (Spain & China) that were actually running slowly on unimproved older tracks (lacking safety signalling) HSR has a better safety record than air (on a passenger km basis).

      There are now more passengers travelling short haul routes across Europe by RAIL than air too.

      1. comet

        I rode a high-speed train in Italy a couple of days ago and nobody checked my bag.

        I can also say from experience that Australia’s airport security is mostly theatrics. Expensive theatrics.

  4. Dain B

    Murrays operates 16-17 coaches a day with roughly 40 people on board paying about 20-30 dollars for a trip, most of which are getting off the bus at Sydney airport and trip takes 3:15.

    That’s how big is the market, whopping $40K of revenue per day, tops.
    Anyone still wants invest odd couple of billions ?

    1. Dan Dair

      “Anyone still wants invest odd couple of $billions ?”

      The issue isn’t about ‘will you get your money back’, so much as what is a fair price to pay for the infrastructure improvements.?
      Operator ‘break-even’ should be the primary goal & long-term profitability secondary, though also important.

      Imagine an hours journey between the two cities CBD’s, with perhaps one stop on the outskirts of each city a a significant spot & 15 minute departures at peak times.
      Would passengers pay perhaps $40-50 for that.?
      AND how many additional passengers would that improved service attract, who might otherwise use other forms of transport or not make the journey at all.?

      The ‘utility’ of an HSR service between any two cities will always have a value.
      IMO, the problem is to balance that utility-value against the cost of building & operating it.?
      I do agree with both Ben & yourself though, in that, if you can’t make the numbers work, there’s a very good chance you’ll build a white elephant and not a golden asset.
      Incidentally, train-sets of 200-300 seats might be more appropriate to such a route.?
      They would cost less to buy, less to maintain & require less energy to move. That might be a better fit for that particular route. Why run half-empty 600-seat trains when you can run almost full 300-seat ones.?

      1. Ian Fraser

        Sorry, but I have to answer the one as it is so obvious.

        The JR Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Osaka can carry 1,323 persons in 16 carriages. However, many train types (including the JR ones) are designed so they can be run in smaller train sets – so this is merely a design/specifications problem.

        The key to making the numbers work is road pricing, whether actual or notional.

        As an example, the Pacific Highway Upgrade from Hexham north to the border, as initiated by the Howard Government in 1996 has now cost the public $15-20 bn from then to the time they are currently forecasting its completion as merely dual carriageway (suggested as 2020). Yet no-one has asked for this to achieve a financial objective. Therefore, if even a notionally appropriate road price was incorporated in our analyses of high-speed rail then the case for “fast enough rail” would be clearer. If in future we are forced to price road usage because everyone drives cars that don’t contribute to fuel excise revenues, then also people will realise the governments had mis-analysed the high-speed rail case.

        To summarise, more has been spent on the Pacific Highway Upgrade than it might cost to upgrade Newcastle-Sydney rail to “fast enough” status; that is, fast enough transit “door to door” to get people shifting out of car mode onto rail. The M1/Pacific Highway’s “Average Annual Daily Traffic” (AADT) is likely to be only 25-30,000 vehicles a day over its full length (and only 10,000 in some parts) whereas commuter demand in the Newcastle-Sydney corridor was cast as over 40,000 in the Phase 1 HSR Study (if my memory serves me correctly – so don’t hold me to the exact number in that report without checking).

        1. John Jefkins

          I agree that this is more about CAPACITY than speed.
          To wash its face though, this line does need to capture AIR markets as well as road (commuter) markets.

          It thus needs more than one type of train. And the commuter trains need to be fast enough (and have enough 4 track sections) so they don’t get in the way of non-stop trains that take those big juicy air markets – such as Sydney-Melbourne.

        2. comet

          An $80 road toll on the Sydney-Canberra route would help the HSR case!

          1. Ben Sandilands

            Brilliant. In electorates where it is said most of the residents don’t make the taxable threshold, we can destroy what is left of the lives of marginalised, for whom the stations are probably on average many kms from where they live, and the trains exquisitely scheduled to avoid being even remotely useful.

      2. Dain B

        The thing is, and everyone who ever has to drive from Sydney to Canberra would know that, there’s barely any traffic all the way to/from Canberra once/until you pass exit from M31 to Picton. Most of the people driving cars between two is not because it is slower to get to Sydney by bus or will be faster by HSR, but because once they get to Sydney they will need a car, so I don’t think numbers of people travelling HSR will increase dramatically comparing to coach.

        Also you can’t compare HSR which will be ready in 20-30 years to what is available now, you need think of what might be available once it is ready. If there’s no major issues preventing adoption of self-driving cars in 30 years we’ll likely have massive fleet of autonomous vehicles, electric or not is irrelevant, capable driving on highways bumper to bumper at say 200 km/h and who would need HSR then ?

        1. ghostwhowalksnz

          Bumper to bumper ? The inherent safety standards in cars would mean the average distance between cars would the ‘distance to stop’, which is more than most drivers travel in heavy traffic.
          Do trains travel ‘bumper to bumper’ ? The very best ones get about 1- 2 min headway

        2. cud chewer

          Dain, you’re quite correct in pointing out that the heaviest traffic on the Hume is north of Picton. There is a useful resource here (its an interactive map of main road usage).


          What it tells me is that there is good reason for a Sydney to Canberra HSR line to be staged starting with the southern highlands.

          You might also notice (by inference) that a lot of the traffic that uses the Hume is actually going down the Picton Road to Wollongong. That’s another argument for delivering a fast train (45 minutes) to Wollongong since it has a knock on effect for the Hume.

          Highways are very important for freight and commerce. But they’re not as useful for freight and commerce when they are slowed down by private car usage. Have a look around that interactive map. Picton Road for instance is 78% cars and 22% trucks. This is fairly typical and it shows how the economic benefit of major roads and motorways is not being realised because too many people are forced to resort to private cars because the public transport network isn’t competitive on a door to door basis.

          Final comment. Physics won’t allow you to platoon cars at 200Km/hr, not on roads that have entrance and exit ramps. Even with the best software, cars have to slow down to allow merging. So for a given pile of cash, you’re still only going to get a fraction of the people moved, relative to rail.

          The real answer lies in improving the existing rail network and in having easy interchange between HSR and conventional rail at multiple points.

          Another point here is that automation of cars makes rail more useful by providing a better and more flexible solution to buses. We’re going to find ourselves moving away from having dozens of scheduled bus routes to having a few scheduled bus routes on major routes and automated mini buses and taxis providing a far more flexible service that will compete with the private car over the last mile.

    2. Ian Fraser

      Really the future of high speed or faster rail (“fast enough” actually, not just faster than the slow existing stuff) for our east coast boils down to being able to outrun / outcompete road usage. The Murrays example represents only a fraction relative to the quantity of car travel between Canberra and Sydney, so is a bit of a distraction – for if cars had to pay the full cost of the assets they use, just like people seem to be expecting of the high speed variety of modern rail, then the comparison would look quite different.

      Eventually, with electric and hydrogen cars, we will have to price road usage, then people will realise there have been faults in our analysis of any proposals to move to “fast enough” rail. And with firms like Volvo switching over to electric car production exclusively from 2019, there are signs that a move to formal road pricing on highways, city arterials and freeways might be needed sooner than people expect – Federal revenues from fuel excise might decline quickly once the transition takes hold.

      By “fast enough rail” I mean rail transit that, including getting to a connected rail station, stopping times on the journey, plus the time taken getting to one’s destination from the station at the end of the train journey, is made quick enough that enough people rationally choose to go by rail rather than drive. This is what I think Ben meant by “door to door”.

      Putting aside Victorian and Queensland possibilities, this would be feasible for Canberra to Sydney, for Newcastle to Sydney, and for Wollongong to Sydney BUT only if the facility is well enough designed to meet this criterion, AND CERTAIN OTHER CONDITIONS CAN BE MET. For Sydney this also means having the urban rail network developed to a sufficiently supportive stage so that the bulk of the journey distance can be accommodated by the rail trip plus (usually) no more than one rail platform interchange. That is one reason why fast rail east to west for Badgerys Creek could also provide the possibility of making HSR (or “fast enough rail”) from the south and north, so much more feasible.

      I therefore support what Ben says about the importance of this design feature, namely in-depth study and modification of how people can get to and from the chosen “fast enough rail” stations. BUT, the difference is I think it is possible to design such a system (other countries do it, to varying degrees of success) if our transport authorities actually start thinking about transit speed and travel times rather than just meeting a projected capacity as if a social service. In time, the driverless vehicle may even be the solution to this so-called “first and last mile” aspect.

      When we go to the question of rail versus aviation the matter is different and the only thing I want to suggest just now is that IA are right to allow for the “possibility” of a Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane link, by taking out a call option on it with the suggestion that Governments protect a sensible corridor or corridors. Land values being such as they are and have been, this call option should provide quite a positive payoff, even if the full east coast HSR is not enacted for a long, long time.

      I once was inclined to read all of Dr Paul Wild’s CSIRO analysis for the VFT, and when I compared his figures with those of the Federal Phase 2 HSR study, what I found was that cost estimates had gone up around 11% pa nominal compounding over 30+ years, which was about 7.5% pa in real terms – better than standard target return mandates for large super funds. This is essentially the same point IA are making except that they are concerned that it will get worse by encroachments if no protection is implemented. In retrospect it certainly would have been a valuable call option back in 1984, and I think Dr Wild did realise that – even though his political masters didn’t.

      If Dr Wild was right, then just going to faster rail without planning for true high-speed rail may also be to our detriment in the Melbourne-Sydney interval. That said, Ben does have a relevant point about mobility of assets; but that is a two-edged sword and I would prefer to not try and give the counter-arguments now because this commentary is already so long.

      If we start without trying to have rail compete with air travel over distances that naturally favour aviation (ie the 3 examples I quoted being OK, but not full Melbourne-Sydney), then we take less risk as taxpayers, and the situation as to aviation and airport capacity (which is more readily expanded than rail, within reason) and any future limitations to it, can become clearer given time. Remember planning rail and airports are a 100-year game, unless technology does something none of us can now rationally imagine.

  5. cud chewer

    Ben, you are quite right that the HSR discussion in this country lacks depth or credibility, starting with the pervasive and pernicious assumption that HSR can only be worthwhile if it recovers every cent of its capital cost through direct fare revenue. The other big mistake is to think of HSR as an intercapital air travel replacement.

    Its interesting that you refer to the “increasingly inadequate motorway”. What is the solution for increasingly inadequate motorways? More lanes? Wrong. The answer is HSR. Indeed if you want my opinion about where HSR should be built you only have to consult a map and look for 6 lane freeways. Everywhere you find a 6 lane freeway you’ll find a good reason to spend billions on HSR rather than spend billions duplicating or widening that freeway.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m an enthusiast for appropriate technology, for clever design and for getting good value for money out of your steel and concrete. But people who advocate for incrementalist fixes to our rail network have suffered too long from the condition known as “conditioned helplessness”. Yes there is the money to build HSR. Not Sydney to Brisbane, or even Sydney to Melbourne. But certainly Sydney to Newcastle, which by far has the most robust case for HSR, despite the engineering challenge.

    People need to start thinking about HSR as the 21st century version of a road. A road that for an equivalent sum of money, gets more people where they want to go, much faster. The M1 Newcastle to Sydney is now heavily congested. In the next 5 years or so the political momentum will build to the point where we are considering spending billions on duplication south from Gosford along with more widening (we’ll end up with 8 lanes north of Gosford).

    That’s an engineering task comparable to a full HSR standard rail line. Think about it.

    Why as a culture do we not blink at spending tens of billions on more and wider motorways when they are inefficient. They move fewer people, slower, for the same pile of dollars. Yet we are obsessed with the idea of HSR being an outright commercial enterprise. Why? Its just another aspect of cultural blindness. The obsession with the car as a birth right. Of course without cars, we’d not be a modern, wealthy nation with a high quality of life. There’s no disputing the fact that socialised spending on roads has been worthwhile. So what is wrong with socialised spending on high speed rail, given it is better value for money?

    In the future we will look back on the expenditure of tens of billions on HSR (pocket change in a nation with a GDP of 1.5 Trillion) as a good thing, even though it never had an internal rate of return that would satisfy the likes of Macquarie Bank. We will be fortunate to live in a society where distance does not mean isolation. Where more people enjoy more physical mobility, better access to health and education and most importantly (since we are social animals) more social connectivity. In short, we’ll have a better quality of life.

    All for the kind of money that would otherwise be used to “fix” those congested motorways!

    Now getting on to some practical details. We’ve not yet reached the level of maturity with HSR that we’ve seen in other countries. The 2013 HSR study (AECOM and associates) was an abysmal failure. It made the mistake of thinking HSR was about intercapital air competition. Net result: an alignment that shunned regional cities and put stations in the middle of nowhere. It grossly underestimated HSR mode share on medium distance journeys (Newcastle to Sydney, Brisbane to Gold Coast) to the extent that if their figures were true, the increase and travel market and car usage would overwhelm current motorways several times over. They simply do not have the capacity and there is in places (like Brisbane’s M1) simply no physical room to create the number of lanes needed, were the study’s figures correct.

    We stuffed it up. We need to start from scratch.

    Its also maddening that Infrastructure Australia (with all good intention) is making noises about HSR corridor preservation when we do not have a settled HSR alignment. In the UK, the HS2 alignment was forged in the cauldron of public scrutiny. Endless route options, detailed analysis of literally every detail and more to the point, it was hashed out publicly in a domain where 3rd party experts could contribute. We haven’t done that in Australia. Not even close. Very few people in this country have even read the 2013 report. None have had the opportunity to publicly criticise it as part of a formal process, or have it subjected to independent analysis. So yes, its a good thing to reserve a corridor, but its a bad thing to reserve the wrong corridor.

    I do agree with the “get real” theme in the sense that it doesn’t hurt to improve (some of) our existing regional rail lines. That’s especially true in places like Victoria. Much of the Newcastle line however is beyond redemption and the same is true of large parts of the Canberra line – and of course Wollongong.

    Folks, there is a sensible middle ground. And that’s start with the end game on paper. What would you like a completed HSR network to look like. And then ask yourself the question, what can you do now that would yield both good short term results and at the same time fit into the the longer term picture. We don’t need incremental changes that are obsoleted (We’ve seen quite a few of these on highways).

    For instance, take Wollongong. Two well chosen tunnels and using the currently on order new intercity trains would halve the transit to Wollongong to 45 minutes. No “high speed” train. Just a set of trains we are already paying for, operating at their maximum speed of 160Km/hr for much of the route. A few billion dollars is what it takes. It adds billions of dollars to the value of Wollongong.

    Newcastle? The same principle says that you can progressively reduce the transit time from the current 2.5 hours down to 90 minutes, with some new track and some track upgrades. Again, using nothing fancier than the currently on order new intercity trains. You can do this in a way that you’re not wasting money when you do upgrade to full HSR. You can also stage this process so that at one point you have a full HSR service to Gosford (bringing huge economic benefits to the Central Coast) and then a “fast enough” train to Broadmeadow.

    Likewise there are ways of staging Sydney to Canberra. You don’t have the go the whole hog in order to start reaping the economic benefits (and avoiding widening the Hume yet again). Even as far as the southern highlands would ease pressure on Sydney.

    I’m a bit tired of the debate that says that HSR is far too far in the future to even think about carefully. That its too expensive and it has to be paid for fully in farebox. And as a response to that we have people going off and desperately pushing minor incremental measures. And very often underestimating what it really takes to make enough of a difference. If you can’t compete with car travel (not planes, car travel) then you might as well give up. You’re talking about large changes to very small numbers if you don’t compete with car travel. $100M here and $100M there won’t cut it. Its time to start thinking about the billions a year we shell out on highways and on road charging in general.

    Finally let me just ask one question. Too often project analysis never asks the very obvious question:

    What is the cost of doing nothing?

    If we do nothing about HSR, we spend similar sums of money on the sacred automobile and we get much less value out of it. Do I mention the F6 here? Nah.. time for desert 🙂

    1. Dain B

      “What is the solution for increasingly inadequate motorways? More lanes? Wrong. The answer is HSR.”

      The answer is higher speed limits and autopilot that can control swarms of cars travelling in same direction at much higher speeds eliminating need of any distance between cars. You can literally quadruple capacity of any highway once your cars able to drive bumper to bumper at current speed limit and increase ten folds at higher speed.

      1. cud chewer

        Dain, even doubling the throughput of a road will not bring it anywhere near the capacity of an equivalent rail line – in terms of dollars of capital spent.

        1. cud chewer

          Even quadrupling for that matter 🙂

      2. Ian Fraser

        Dain B,

        My guess is you are not a student of physics. I think, however, you are talking about the concept of “platooning”.

        At a high level, platooning of vehicles on roadways, if taken to the ultimate physics-constrained limits, start to look as if they parallel the concept of trains in a station-less system; i.e. passenger transfer occurring by synchronising the movement of two trains, to create in effect a moving platform, in a system with more extensive rail networks (more arteries, just like roads).

        The key differences are:
        1. Autos don’t use physical space for their passengers as efficiently as a train;
        2. Roads don’t use physical space as efficiently as a rail corridor (hence land values matter);
        3. Speeds are higher for a HSR system than for road vehicles;
        4. Cars are actually fashion items not just non-personality based machines.

        This latter point is one thing I think proponents of fully autonomous vehicle theories seem to overlook, namely the human factor that people don’t want to all own the same looking vehicle (remember Henry Ford’s Model T; doesn’t the choice of autos look so much different to that nowadays?).

        Hence I suspect optimisation of your platooning system suffers from difficulties caused by human nature and by branding (every auto manufacturer thinks they can do it best, and they will all do it differently). Then the physics issues, I think.

        On the physics, to get vehicles moving at 200 km/h in a co-ordinated fashion, I think means that you need massively wide motorways. One simply can’t merge cars travelling at 30 km/h coming off side streets with cars moving at 200 km/h on a section of highway absent huge gaps between the higher speed vehicles – which I would suspect defeats your argument.

        The merging problem, even putting aside the differences caused by having trucks share the same roads as cars, is your major problem, then getting access to enough land space to cope with lanes necessary for the higher sought speeds.

        I might point out that I am not trained in physics, I am just a practical mathematician, so if there is a physics professor out there who can tell me the theory that works, I will have another think.

        1. John Jefkins

          The best place to see automatic cars is on a RAILWAY line – where we already have driverless metro systems that already merge in trains from different routes. It will be a VERY long time until driverless cars get trusted.

          So let’s get back to reality, and keep focused on improving Australian RAILWAYS.

    2. ghostwhowalksnz

      You still have to build the road, freight being the main factor.

  6. Jacob HSR

    Surprised neither the article nor the comments mentioned “population”.

    Just what will be the population of AUS? A few years ago they thought MEL will have 8 million people. Today, with mass immigration, the figures have been revised to 11 million!

    Unless Pauline Hanson or William Bourke has a PM over a barrel like the Greens had Gillard over a barrel from 2010 to 2013 – immigration shall continue at a crazy pace.

    So we have increasing overcrowding, and denials that the population density is high enough to run a 160 km/h train from Newcastle to Sydney or Canberra to Sydney. While spending $50-100 billion on 12 submarines which will only last 35 years each. And $10 billion per year on Negative Gearing handouts. While a high speed railway would be good for 100 years.

    1. cud chewer

      We might have spent tens of billions on a future proof fibre to the premise network. Something that would last over fifty years and do anything we ask of it, whether we presently are able to imagine it or not. An asset that would through direct revenue pay for itself many times over (let alone external benefits).

      Instead we are spending tens of billions on a temporary network. One without an upgrade path other than outright replacement. And then we’re going to spend tens of billions replacing it with the fibre network we should have built in the first place.

      There is a Newcastle to Canberra HSR network blown away in the biggest, dumbest policy failure ever committed by an Australian government.

      Jacob, we already have sufficient population in the Newcastle/Sydney/Wollongong conurbation. The big mistake has always been treating HSR as a premium fared airline competitor when what it should be is a commuter fared car travel replacement. That’s where the 2013 study failed miserably. Instead of HSR being an adjunct to the intercity commuter rail network, HSR should be the intercity commuter rail network, with existing rail lines filling in the gaps.

      1. Jacob HSR

        The thing with FTTH is that it requires no land acquisition – and that is why I felt the ALP went for it. Rather than something more challenging but just as important (HSR).

        One issue is that fans of FTTH kept saying “you will be able to work from home with FTTH”. I will be able to repair tyres from home? Amazing! Or just a lie.

        I agree that HSR should be seen as an alternative to road travel. And given that HSR was mooted in 1987 or earlier, I also agree that population density is not an issue.

        Cool video by British firm – stationless high speed railway:
        vimeo . com/25465925

        1. cud chewer

          A modern society listens to engineers and doesn’t spend tens of billions on something that isn’t already obsolete. Despite the arguments about working from home (something I’ve done most of my life), we are still a social animal and the things that matter still happen face to face. In other words we need both fast/high speed rail and a modern future proof network.

          1. cud chewer

            is already obsolete. I need to slow down!

  7. John Jefkins

    To get real, for starters any normal high speed train (ie today’s 320km/hr trains) would
    a) do Sydney-Canberra in about 45 minutes taking 100% of the 1.5m a year air market.
    b) do Sydney-MELBOURNE in under 3hrs (about 2hrs 45 mins non-stop) – a journey time that everywhere else in the world typically takes about 80% of that air market.

    Today’s Sydney-Melbourne & Sydney-Canberra air to rail transfer markets plus existing rail markets easily add up to almost the same as the current London-Paris & Brussels Eurostar markets (ie almost 10 million passengers/yr using the equivalent of 6 standard length trains each way per hour (as a mixture of non-stop Sydney-Melbourne trains and others that stopped at 4 stops like Canberra, Albury etc

    So, by all means get phase 1 built to Canberra within the next few years, but be aware that even India is about to build a line of similar length to the 750km Melbourne-Sydney route (Ahmedabad-Mumbia-Pune) and get it open by about 2024. Singapore-K L will be open soon after that too.

    The Melbourne-Sydney route is the worlds 3rds biggest air route. High speed rail of under 3rs around the world has taken virtually all of such markets (with 300km/hr trains) and conventional steel wheel trains are already running faster than that and being tested by the Chinese, Japanese, French and Spanish at commercial speeds of 360km/hr. Phase 1 of HS2 in the UK is being built to open in 2026 and cope with 400 km/hr trains.

    So, whilst the graphic shows too steep a gradient, you need to aim for Melbourne rather than just Canberra. By all means get to Canberra in the next few years, but to pay its keep that line needs to reach Melbourne as soon as possible.

    As for reaching the stations, its the same issue as reaching the airport. By all means take the line past Sydney Airport (to include long distance Sydney-Melbourne transfer air passengers and act as a new city-centre to the airport route too). Don’t wait. Just develop both urban and intercity high speed rail lines at the same time – just as everybody else does.

    1. Ben Sandilands

      It is certainty true that a HS rail line could take out 100 percent of the air travel sector between Sydney and Canberra. It would do that by taking as little as 20 percent of it and rendering the rest uneconomic for private, earnings focused owners of airlines. But that’s not the point I was hoping would be taken up in a discussion, which is what it will do to the much larger numbers of travellers who are driving between widely dispersed points of origin and destination across the metropolitan areas of Sydney and Canberra. They would have to spend more time making such journeys if they have to use a single HS rail point at either end, and deal with a schedule which might involve waiting half an hour, maybe even more than an hour, at each end for rail departures.

      1. Ian Fraser

        The answer to that is not to have just one terminus point in Sydney – which is a mistake the AECOM 2013 Phase 2 report made, and many people fall into that thinking because it has been adopted as the framework in some overseas cities. But they are all different to our capital, spatially.

        The issue with Sydney is that its (existing) CBD is over towards the coast, in the eastern segment of the basin. People who are promoting Parramatta as the 2nd CBD need to be listened to for long-term future efficiency in terms of operating the city’s transport infrastructure. This is one reason why faster and more effective east-west rail (including for Western Sydney Airport) will be vitally important in the long run.

        The best situation for Sydney’s specific geography would appear to be not to have a terminus at Central Station, but instead have Newcastle-Sydney HSR go through the central part of the population mass (currently, say, Olympic Park, but as time moves on, maybe Parramatta itself). Then for that HSR North to head down (as HSR South) towards Canberra – and in the interval as it passes through Sydney have several HSR stations where interchange to the urban rail system can happen.

        Planning ahead like this for a regional HSR should, as you rightly highlight, be based on in-depth study of “door to door” issues and, for the future, the role of autonomous vehicles in dealing with the “first and last mile” problem.

        Not having one terminus over in the east, at Central, will save tunnelling costs and also means that the system doesn’t have to take up huge space for resting trains (Q. Have you looked at images showing the size of Beijing South HSR rail terminus? E.g. see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing_South_Railway_Station#/media/File:Beijing_South_Station.jpg). [If there is a terminus at Central one is dealing with pretty close to our most expensive real estate].

        By having multiple HSR Stations as the system crosses Sydney north to south, the system can unload and load passengers much closer on average to their actual trip origins or eventual destinations. Then if the urban rail network is re-optimised for Greater Sydney Commission’s plans, then sometime into the future we will have good connectivity between a HSR system and the commuter rail plus the remnant inter-city slower rail.

        I could go on, but I won’t because there is a lot of technical detail needed to optimise such a system in terms of performance for its patrons.

        1. John Jefkins

          Totally agree with those points.
          We need 2 types of trains & 4 tracks through smaller stations.

          Some trains would take the car & commuter markets – and for those we DO need more than one Sydney station. Those hybrid trains need to be able to also run on existing lines and use some existing stations (where the new line bypasses some cities).

          Other intercity trains would be aimed at the AIR market, and limit stops.
          Both can share most of the same line – providing the hybrid trains are fast enough to keep out of the way of the non-stop trains.

          But it is worth reserving space for a future 4 tracks BETWEEN stations near Sydney – to allow for growth as the line gets busier.

      2. cud chewer


        HSR by itself does not provide a door to door solution. However you should bear in mind that 90 percent of those widely dispersed end points within Sydney are within 5Km of an existing conventional station.

        The solution has three parts:
        1. Seamless HSR to conventional rail interchange at strategic locations.
        2. Speed improvements within the existing Sydney rail network
        3. Last mile solutions that exploit new technology.

        Let me dive into the detail for a moment. The 2013 Phase 2 HSR study failed in part because of basic assumptions.

        – They assumed that a Sydney HSR station had to be a terminal station and they assumed overly generous dwell times. As a consequence they had 5 platforms servicing each of the Brisbane and Melbourne routes. 10 platforms uses a lot of real estate (they had to double stack them at Central). As a consequence, their estimate of the cost of a Parramatta station was prohibitive. A through station (non terminal) would require only 4 platforms and makes a Parramatta and/or Olympic Park station feasible.

        – They assumed that a HSR station to CBD transit would be via a slow conventional rail network, ignoring the possibility of a “fast enough” rail connection that would take you directly to the CBD. The sad thing here is that the present government is proposing a “Metro West” which, with good design, could be fast enough. And if it were, it would cut billions of dollars from the cost of a HSR network by obviating the need to approach the CBD and also not spending billions on a risky rebuild of Central. In any case, even with a HSR terminus Central station you still have to make yet another connection to the CBD. The alternative is a seamless transfer at (say) Olympic Park and then being taken directly to a station in the CBD and walking out onto George Street.

        A good HSR network has thought through the door to door problem. It has multiple points of interchange with the conventional rail network and those points are well chosen to represent the sum of all outcomes. This is especially true of places like Newcastle and the Central Coast where the 2013 Study had precisely zero points of interchange north of Hornsby and zero points of interchange between Central and Southern Cross.

        A HSR network that interchanges with the conventional network near the geographic/population centroid of Sydney means the existing rail network is more valuable. It becomes part of the solution rather than just being avoided. Now, the existing rail network has its faults, but there are ways to improve upon it. This is too big a topic for a comment on a blog. But essentially you can put 80% of actual addresses within Sydney within 40 minutes of Parramatta. It does require money to be spent speeding the east-west axis and it does involve further rationalisation of the network into physically (not just logically) distinct sectors. That means also separating out the roles of shorter and longer distance trains and simplifying the timetable. And this simplification means less time spend waiting for the right train and the right connection.

        So, what about the last mile? We currently have a public transport network that simply does not care about what people want. People want speed and quality of experience. But the planners care about joining the dots and writing timetables. We have a public transport network designed with the attitude that its a second choice for second class people.

        What if we applied new technology to the last mile problem? We’d end up obsoleting pretty much every local bus route. We’d have an automated vehicle taking us to the doorstep.

        What does this look like in the real world? Seamless transfer from high speed rail to conventional rail and an automated, stress free transfer from a local station to your final address. High speed rail will not realise its potential without reforming the conventional rail network But taken together the sum is greater than the whole. The reason this is worth it is that our roads then serve a higher purpose, moving goods more so than people.

        1. John Jefkins

          Good point about how crazy it is to have a city centre terminal station.
          Through stations need half the platforms and thus twice the expensive real estate.
          Stuttgart is spending billions right now turning an old 17 platform terminal into a new 8 platform through station that will take more traffic than the old station – as it will be on the new Paris-Munich high speed line.

          I agree too that HSR also needs to integrate with existing rail & trams. Having some hybrid trains that can use the existing tracks through some existing cities to rejoin a new BYPASS line at the other side of the city would save money building new stations and expensive tunnels through smaller place that express trains would bypass.

          That could restrict expensive tunnels to just a few big cities like Sydney and Melbourne – where the new line could integrate with the old lines by having new THROUGH platforms underneath the existing station.

          1. michael r james

            John Jefkins, those concepts don’t even work in European cities. While Paris had plenty of legacy lines right into their mainline stations so they could repurpose lines for HSR they don’t share those ROW (though that took quite a few years for Paris-Lyon into Gare de Lyon in Paris, but it ultimately ran such a frequent service …). With, at last count, five TGV lines into Paris (including the InterconnexionEst that passes thru CDG airport) no expensive tunnels were required. It wasn’t true for London. Despite the spaghetti of lines around and into London, they were a mess of a legacy from the days of private rail and were not appropriate for HSR (wrong gauge, tight turns) –as the first 12 years of Eurostar and its crawl into Waterloo.
            While a HSR doesn’t need to be at full speed inside cities, our cities have become so expansive that you can’t sacrifice too much because it makes a mockery of building the HSR in the first place (as that early period of Eurostar showed). That is why London ended up building a very expensive line from Dover, looping eastwards (80% not on any pre-existing rail ROW) and using very long tunnels to get into St Pancras. In any case our cities (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane) don’t have any such legacy which means any HSR plan is going to have to spend big on whatever ROW into the city is considered. There simply aren’t the tracks into our cities, and certainly none “spare”. Brisbane has only two tracks on the sole river crossing into the CBD which is why they keep trying to get the feds to fund an absurdly expensive ($16bn) tunnel. This is why a huge chunk of the bloated cost of AECOM’s plan was in 64km of tunnel into Sydney! Indeed all of this appalling lack of planning for over a century in Australia is why IA is saying, hey guys let’s not keep doing this, seriously!

            And one thing I do agree with the planners: forget about “integrating” or any other kind of sharing of track with existing suburban services etc. That would cripple HSR. Of course there is an assumption that at some point (perhaps this century!) our big cities will get serious about a serious Metro. Note that none of the Euro HSRs stop in their city’s periphery, even though they are all much bigger cities than Sydney or Melbourne; for the obvious reason that these cities have highly developed functional Metro (& RER) systems to get people from those mainline (TGV) stations to wherever they want. London built a HSR station at Stratford but so far isn’t using it (maybe when CrossRail is complete?). Paris is planning on several TGV stations in the banlieus (and la Defense) but this is partly because HSR has become so popular that the central mainline stations are overloaded, though note too that it integrates with the Paris Grand Express expansion of orbital Metro & RER to the banlieus (ie. by the time there is TGV in the banlieus there will also be the local Metro to service those long-distance pax.). We are soooo far behind it is beyond comment and despair.

  8. ghostwhowalksnz

    Regarding the Wuhan and Guangzhou HST. The run times have been scaled back to 3 1/2 hrs from what you mentioned, even the now cancelled non stop trains could only do it in just under 3 hrs. But of course the high population served (Guangzhou region having a bigger population than Australia) means nowadays frequency is not far off that off Sydney suburban lines ( every 12 -15 mins)

    1. John Jefkins

      They plan to speed those Chinese trains up again to 350km/hr soon though.
      These newer trains (capable of 400km/hr) just started in service and they plan to shorten those journey times back to 3hrs.

  9. Ben Sandilands

    Cud Chewer,
    The erratic capacity of WordPress to suddenly ignore the sequencing of comments appears to have kicked in, with your last comment appearing at the top, no doubt to the mystification of everyone who has read your previous and much appreciated contributions.

    So I am hoping this comment from me appears at the bottom of the list, as the most recent, and it concerns your arguments for the staging of HS Rail through the highlands, and the attendant suggestion of multiple HS Rail projects just in this (and my) part of the world.
    I think everyone in the highlands would agree with your core suggestion. The revival of passenger traffic on the Albion Park to Moss Vale line via Robertson could be done tomorrow. The long standing proposal for a tunnel bypass for the Waterfall—National Park section of the south coast line has also received a separate work out in the Sydney Morning Herald in recent weeks, even though the transport minister didn’t seem to understand how straightforward and relatively inexpensive such an improvement would be.
    Major improvements in capacity and speed are readily available on the south coast and Albion Park Moss Vale lines, and could be replicated with similar good results all over the eastern Australian networks for a fraction of the moon shot costs of a single large HSR project, which I fear will for that reason never progress beyond being ‘desirable’ for umpteen generations.
    Where things get sticky in so far as the highlands are concerned is that supporters of HS Rail think the ‘village’ nature of the area will remain intact, with welfare the prime industry, followed by geriatric care, in a population where anyone under 70 is considered quiet young and almost out of place. I’m sure you get my drift despite the hyperbole, which at times around here, looks more like a rational observation than some might like it to be.

    The moment it is made clear that even improving the current lines (by duplicating them and sorting out a few meanders here and there) the local population will be swept aside by economic expansion, the enthusiasm begins to fall. The Marulan area alone could prove ideal for a renewable based technology city (being windy, sunny, dry, and flat, with a temperature range from +45C to -11C). A southern highlands well connected by rail to Canberra and Sydney that attracts new tech renewable based activity would easily gain a population of several million people inc the mid second half the century. But the current population wants the numbers to stay where they are now, for the fast trains to come, and the power house economic future of Australia to stay below the NE and SW horizons.

    The idea of Goulburn with a population of 500,000, Gundaroo and Collector around 100,000 each, and Bungendore another half million, with a widely dispersed Canberra cluster of centres at 3 million, not 300,000 as it is today, is a shocking prospect not factored into considerations of HS Rail.
    Of course such population growth might not occur. It could be as some demographers have argued, the expansionary phase of the early 21st century might not persist, and recede as it already is in Italy and Japan, and for that matter Australia under minimal immigration.

    If the 22nd century sees lifespans of 150 years or more as the norm, but with a very low birthrate, technological progress mightn’t stop. The human condition might improve remarkably, as it has compared to the shorter lived 18th century societies, but the numbers in relation to transport infrastructure and its necessary investments will all obviously become very different.

    1. Ian Fraser


      I just happened to get my Crikey Weekend gee up and was looking around not realising that a blog on rail rather than planes would have kept going so long.

      Then I saw this contribution by you, which is another insightful post that accords with my own observations. Especially this sentence:

      “Where things get sticky in so far as the highlands are concerned is that supporters of HS Rail think the ‘village’ nature of the area will remain intact, with welfare the prime industry, followed by geriatric care, in a population where anyone under 70 is considered quiet young and almost out of place.”

      A year or two ago I attended a gathering in Mittagong where the locals (I am not one) happened to be discussing future ideas to improve the Highlands in all sorts of respects. I noted the age structure of the attendees. I was also told the very point you made, namely that a high-speed rail station in the area would only be supported if the village structure of most of the south part of the Highlands were left untouched. Yet they all wanted quicker ways to get to Sydney, and were frustrated by the poor, slow and inconvenient rail services they are burdened with. As happens in many communities, progress cannot be achieved by sticking to the past. However, the village structure of most of England shows that historical ways of life can be sustained side by side with modernised means like HS2 bypassing villages but connecting towns and cities.

      I have several friends who are rail engineers and it must be one of the most frustrating of professions because they are not allowed by society to apply their skills to dreams of advancement. Some become road engineers instead to get and maintain work. Then they build us more motorways and fail to solve basic transport physics problems (I have an affinity with physics as you might have gathered from my comments).

      Because my father and uncle had worked decades for the railways, I actually suggested to a few politicians and bureaucrats up Newcastle way that, with Newcastle being historically a steel city with local rail manufacture presence, even though the latter had declined, the establishment of a college of high speed rail engineering there would do wonders not just for budding young engineers, but also for their chances as a city of getting the rail link to Sydney brought up to modern standards. The HS2 project has brought about this notion for Birmingham and Doncaster (see https://nchsr.ac.uk/). So, I see no reason why we can’t do the same, particularly as our country would be quite attractive to Indo-Asian students, who probably can’t understand why, with such a large land mass, we are ever worried about population growth.

      Which brings me to your point on population. And here I have some background through having studied some university-standard demographics techniques. I maintain a fairly crude database for personal interest where I examine population growth rates for different parts of the world and some major cities. So I can tell you that, though Australia is growing fast it is from a low base, and is quite sustainable for some time. However, it is a shadow of the growth rate even now in India and some other parts of the world. In 2016 alone there were (from memory) about 44 million births just in India and China combined – almost twice Australia’s present population, and they will all seek education, jobs and a better lifestyle. Our own growth rates are substantially augmented by net overseas migration, but all population projections by ABS and State bureaucracies seem to assume that this will not persist at the same levels of influence beyond a few years or immediate decades. Why?

      Granted there are kneejerk reactions to media highlighting of immigration and cultural balance shift, and that may impact on government policies (we are after all the country that had a White Australia policy some time back). However if one does demographic projections what matters most is the long-term and, in that sense, we probably cannot be like a King Canute, holding back the tides of immigration from newly modernising nations to our north. So, to cut a long story short, I think for transport planning we should always assume a high population growth future. That certainly does support HSR being a priority (as well as extra airports and urban rail investment, and kicking the habit of the road-widening drug).

      Finally, to your point about a population scenario of a population cluster as much as 3 million in growth towns and cities surrounding Canberra, I want to point out some physics of HSR. This is that with a HSR line it will carry greatest passenger load between the biggest cities on the route. Then it will pick up others as commuters as the trains get closest to those biggest cities. So, if all cities are equal sized then the system has a built-in potential over-crowding effect as it approaches its end point (for views on terminus problems see previous posts). Ergo, if we were doing Canberra-Sydney as a HSR Stage then the system could cope with having its largest (population-wise) intermediate station stop at about the population-weighted ‘mid-point’ (if I can get away with calling it that) of the HSR line. It will not work optimally if there are several equal sized cities, like in the CLARA plan.

      The corollary is that for Melbourne-Sydney, it is likely the Canberra locus should be its largest intermediate city (necessitating a feeder structure for the future, too) and that mid-way (in population gravity weighted terms) between those two intervals should be the largest planned intermediate city. This is a hard argument to convey without graphics, but I hope you get the gist. Effectively, what I am saying is that if future population is adequate to meet patronage level requirements, then the design of population targets for intermediate station locations should take account of the physics of future capacity availability (longer trains and even duplex carriages can assist that, but at a cost) and the above-mentioned overcrowding effects of commuting demand. In theory master planning of towns and cities along the route can be mathematically optimised if one knows the likely commuting versus leisure travel habits. The Japanese seem to have this stuff down to a fine art, and it was their Railway Technical Research Institute that first piqued my interest to make that suggestion to Newcastle-based political players a few years back.

  10. cud chewer

    Ben, I should point out that I’m one of those who does want to see humans get to Mars to find out what is there. I just get myself into trouble on Mars forums for saying that the human race needs to be a bit more civilised before we even think about colonising another planet!

    I don’t subscribe to the idea that rail will forever be the poor stepsister funding wise. The reason I feel optimistic is that year upon year we’ve sunk billions into the Pacific and Hume highways and very soon now, those projects will be (more or less) complete. That opens up a funding opportunity.

    I do think full intercapital HSR is the end game. What’s more pressing though is regional intercity transit. We also need to stage HSR because we just aren’t culturally ready. We need to build some for people to understand it and understand the benefit. It really is a matter of priority. We are after all a 1.5 Trillion dollar economy and the money does exist. We also have the money to have an aerospace industry. Its just a matter of culture and priority.

    I have my own intuition about whether people will accept moving inland. Maybe that’s just my bias (I love beaches) but we’ll see. Certainly Canberra has the capacity to spur satellite cities. Maybe Goulburn will grow. Maybe a lot. But I think Wollongong could be huge and the Hunter could settle another 2 million – if the transit time is right. Yes, you do have to get the local transport networks right, not just build HSR.

    I often disagree with people who suggest incremental improvements to rail lines and then are (I think) too optimistic about such modest time savings changing the game and getting people out of cars. Again, its that door to door thing. And if the only parameter you have to play with is speed, well, you have to crank it.

    I don’t often get to say this but there’s a cusp issue. You spend a little, all you do is make large changes to a small number (number of rail users). Its only when you get to a certain point that the changes you have made mean a game change. Where taking rail really is a better alternative to driving. Sometimes that’s easy. Often its really expensive. There’s no option but to rethink what we are setting out to achieve and making politicians aware that yes, spending billions on rail is worth it. I just hate the idea that HSR is for grey suited types travelling in a club car to their next corporate meeting. (That swanky train on the Hunger Games movies had me falling out of my chair). For one thing, housing affordability is the single biggest issue in this country and we’ve yet to wake up to the fact that cramming more people into Sydney is just an expensive thing to do per new house (wires, pipes etc).

    Oh and finally. I’m going to put in a plug for good engineering. Sometimes creative and clever design actually make a difference. AECOM just didn’t get it.

  11. Dan Dair

    Regarding safeguarding the corridors for HST,
    Surely it would be much better to secure them now, rather than wait another 20 years & find there were no-longer ANY complete corridors available.
    (As has already, effectively happened, for the routing into the Sydney CBD, for the proposed Sydney – Melbourne line)

    As car manufacturers move closer & closer to all electric vehicles, I can foresee a time in the very near future, when cities or at least the CBD’s & maybe local town/city centres, ban all private cars & they are replaced with a free or cheap-to-hire one to four-seat ‘citycar’. You pick it up like a taxi, at a ‘rank’ & drop it of at the nearest ‘rank’ to your destination (taxis would still exist for non-drivers & the intoxicated) & pay only for the time you’ve used it for.
    IMO, such a vehicle-fleet would fulfil the ‘first & last mile’ criteria very well.?
    (perhaps, if these vehicles were ‘self-driving’, they could move themselves to where they were needed, rather than needing a person to ’round-them-up’ every now & then, when they’d got ‘out-of-place’.?)

  12. 40years

    Surprisingly, no-one in 39 comments has mentioned the word ‘Freight’. One of the prime uses of our interstate highways is the transport of goods, not people. Similarly for present day rail. By Air, less so, except for light and less bulky items, although the freight revenue from an intercity flight may often be more than that derived from the passengers on that flight. Without considering that variable (movement of freight) would not the various calculations posited above be a little rubbery?

    1. cud chewer

      Depends on what you’re referring to specifically. If you had a fully developed intercapital HSR network it may be able to compete with air freight, subject to capacity constraints closer to Sydney. If the question is, does high value freight add to the case for a completed intercapital HSR network then the answer is yes, it could enter into it, but overwhelmingly the patronage on a HSR network will be over short to medium distances. Newcastle to Sydney and so on. Again, there is a need to avoid the temptation to think of HSR purely in terms of direct revenue, and not its value externally (less congestion of/spending on roads) and other benefits.

      The other way that HSR affects freight is that by taking passenger vehicles off major roads it speeds the flow of freight vehicles. See the RMS site above. Note that this is not so much on the remoter parts of intercapital highways but on the roads into major cities.

    2. John Jefkins

      Around the world, one of the CAPACITY arguments for HSR is that it releases capacity on the old parallel line so that line can take more of the slow freight and commuter trains. For example here in the UK, one of the big arguments for HS2 is how it “upgrades” 3 old north-south lines where each intercity train gets in the way of four slow trains.

      So for each fast train moved to the new line, the old line gets to carry FOUR new commuter or freight trains. Express trains can also carry a bit of high value freight (such as express mail and parcels that TGV France does carry), but bulk freight would no doubt stay on the freed up old slow lines. Here in the UK, freight trains use our Channel Tunnel and are allowed up HS1 at night (when they don’t get in the way of the 190 mph trains). The track was built strong enough to cope with both types of train.

      1. Letterboxfrog

        Noting the number of delays on the Sydney-Melbourne and Goulburn-Canberra lines that are experienced today due to freight breakdowns (I had an au pair sit for four hours in Goulburn station until 2am for the “XPT”), I can’t see freight or commuter traffic improving with the development of separate HSR. It’s Australia!

        1. John Jefkins

          Having a 2nd pair of tracks built along a new route creates a “plan B” for when those freight trains breakdown then.

          It can be cheaper to build a new line on a new route than have the disruption costs of closing the old one for years whilst it got “upgraded” (at lease we found that was true here in the UK when comparing options for HS2), AND when you open the new line, you can use it to divert traffic whilst you THEN upgrade bits of the old line too.

          1. cud chewer

            Absolutely. There are places to curve ease old lines. But in a lot of places its simpler to build a new line on a new alignment because mucking around with live rail lines is an incredibly expensive process. Expensive, time consuming and risky (cost wise). A lot of schemes to “fix up” old rail lines miss this point.

      2. cud chewer

        This is also true of HSR to Newcastle where there is presently too much conflict between freight and passenger use. It also depends on how good the HSR design is.

        I’ve proposed a HSR network that has interchange with the conventional rail network at Tarro, Broadmeadow, Morisset, Gosford, Woy Woy and Hornsby. In other words it takes over the role of the intercity commuter rail line. The conventional line is then the next tier, connecting all the minor stations. As such it does not have to run a high frequency and there is less conflict between freight and passenger services on the conventional line.

        Now what did AECOM do? They had a station at Hornsby. But then they bypassed the rest of the conventional rail network. They had a station at Ourimbah that only serves park and ride. A station at West Wallsend (right out the back of Newcastle) which again is a park and ride. And of course no interchange with the Hunter line even though it passes over the line.

        Net result is that their HSR network would be an adjunct to the conventional rail line and used by a subset of users. The conventional rail line would have to continue running more or less as it currently is. No freeing of capacity on the old line. Again, AECOM was obsessed with intercapital air travel replacement and had completely missed the point about HSR replacing car travel over medium distance. As a result they ended up with an expensive rail line that fails to gather people from Newcastle and the Central Coast.

      3. michael r james

        John Jefkins wrote:

        Here in the UK, freight trains use our Channel Tunnel and are allowed up HS1 at night (when they don’t get in the way of the 190 mph trains).

        As I understand it, the speed of Eurostar in the tunnel is restricted (160km/h) so as to keep in line with the freight & cars trains. A line that has different (high) speed trains on it is an operational nightmare.
        Looked at today it looks a bit peculiar: two separate tunnels (three counting the service tunnel) but only one track in each! The cost differential in making bigger bore tunnels would mean today they would make a least two-tracks if not more (much bigger diameter and you can do double decks tracks). The Chinese contractors who are quoting for a proposed Sydney cross-harbour road tunnel (as part of the endless WestConnex) have said that the city should really pay an extra $100m or so and get a bigger double-deck tunnel which could provide for future rail-under-the-harbour. In finest Australian tradition we won’t do it (not least because the road lobby will veto it.)

  13. Dan Dair

    Who’d have thought that a story about trains would generate this much interest on an aviation blog.???

    1. John Jefkins

      Who said this was about “aviation” though – apart from how all the big short haul (sub 1000 km) air markets around the world have now switched to high speed rail these days – except so far in Australia.

      Why do you think Sydney-Melbourne is the world’s 3rd biggest air market?

      Its because all the others have already become TRAIN markets.

      That said, it is important to run the new line via whatever airports are planned to be hub airports – so that people can (a) use the train to reach the airport and (b) people can switch from long haul air to short haul rail – eg it is probably vital to run the line via Sydney airport.

  14. Ben Sandilands

    It’s the best discussion yet to arise here to any Plane Talking post on rail.
    The occasional interest taken in rail stories reflects to some degree my own interests in mobility. As in by ships (I was the last full time shipping cadet on the Sydney Morning Herald, in the sunset days of the great ocean liners) and by trains, as well as developments in space travel.
    Mobility has been taken from my life by cancer, which came unexpectedly and at times painfully earlier this year. The interest in these things remains strong. In the next day or so the Juno probe will pass directly over the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. That may attract so much general media coverage there is nothing that might be reasonably added by Plane Talking. But having been privileged to interview the early moon walkers, Neil Armstrong and Pete Conrad (when he was leading McDonnell Douglas) I’m writing for those of us intrigued by space flight, as the perhaps risky age of rocket joy rides by projects like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShips approaches a moment arguably similar to the barnstorming thrill rides in flimsy aircraft that helped raise the curtain on regular mail and passenger services 100 years ago. I grew up with parents and their circle of friends who saved ten shillings and sixpence or a handful of silver American dollars to take off from fields on the outskirts of small corn belt towns and sheep runs on the other side of the Blue Mountains just to touch the face of the future. So Yes, there will be rail stories from time to time, especially where they touch the airline and airport businesses as either competitors or facilitators in the pursuit of mass mobility.
    My thanks to all who have participated in this on-going conversation. It shows that social media can host civilised and informed conversations at times, in contrast to MH370 for example.

    1. Dan Dair

      My comment was most certainly not intended as a criticism.!

      Simply a reflection upon how much (informed) interest this item had garnered, particularly considering it’s an aviation, not rail-oriented blog.

      1. Ben Sandilands

        Your comment was much appreciated, since it gave me an excuse to rattle on about space, shipping and mobility in general.

    2. Rais

      Thanks for the opportunity for discussion Ben. Here in Perth there’s not much prospect of fast rail to anywhere, we’ll be flying or, for the hardier ones, driving interstate for a long time yet. But if fast rail could take most of the Eastern cities’ interstate load that would probably have a positive environmental effect.
      Hope your illness has been effectively treated.

    3. Ian Fraser


      Hearing that you may have, or have had, a plight with cancer is so, so sad. What would we do without your practical, insightful posts. I do hope things will work out better for you, maybe with the advance of science which you seem to always support.

      1. Ben Sandilands

        My thanks to you and others in the discussion about my own issues. Cancer changes the lives of so many people I can’t lay any claim to be surprised. It just has to be dealt with. This week I had some good indications from a review that the chemo is achieving its desired effect at this early stage. But there is a long way to go before or if it can be made to go away.

  15. [email protected]

    I am also a fan of public transport. My strongest interest is in railways and I have been driving trains on and off since 1980. However, I also find aviation most interesting with emphasis on the management in a cut throat non subsidised environment. Ships and ferries are marvellous, being the lowest cost per head method of transport (afaik) and delightfully slow. Buses are just straight up practical without any fanfare (or comfort).
    I despair at all the talk of HSR in Australia. We have the “ribbons of steel” extending to most major cities of this country but in recent years the management of these tracks has been woeful. Melbourne to Sydney in particular is a disgrace. The track was rebuilt by the Government owned body ARTC. They proposed a cheap method to insert new sleepers which would enable more replacement to be done for the same money. As is so common these days, University educated engineers win out with their paper driven models against the men on the ground who argued the method they were using would damage the track bed forever. End result is that they have spent over $1 billion trying to fix the mess and the tracks are still the worst in the country.
    The worst result with a HSR is to build new tracks just for high speed passenger trains and neglect even further the freight rail. In its current state, the Melbourne to Sydney line carries about 7% of the freight task with the rest on road. Compare that with the Nullabor line to Perth where the figures are reversed, rail carrying 93% of the freight.
    What we need is to do what the Victorian Government did regionally in 2003 and rebuild tracks for 160 kmh running. Insist on all freight operators having one more locomotive than required to cover breakdowns and share the tracks. Then incrementally step up the standards to 250 kmh and beyond. This can be done without breaking the bank in one big project.

    1. John Jefkins

      There is no need for HSR to cause anything else to be “neglected” unless it has good reason.

      HSR typically brings new profits that then help SUBSIDISE loss making other lines.
      It brings the money in to help fund your freight lines. It also frees up the parallel existing lines so they can take more slow trains, and many high speed lines are also built string enough to also carry freight trains at night.

      “Rebuilding existing tracks” could cost a lot more than building a new line in a new place.
      That was certainly the lesson experts found with HS2 in the UK. Upgrades can cost more.

      And you really cannot incrementally bring the speed up to 250km and beyond without building very straight tracks – ie again doing something along a NEW ROUTE.

      So, we need to decide that new route, integrate it into the new airport and safeguard it.
      And of course express local trains (eg to the new Sydney airport) should share it.
      It needs to integrate with OTHER capacity improvements (metro, express local trains etc) and have its line SHARED where practical.

      So that means in the Sydney area, probably upgrading capacity on lines into the Centre and building a new bypass line via the new airport and M7/M4 to Hornsby, but tunneling under Blacktown to put platforms for local trains at Blacktown and Hornsby (where it would join existing lines and later have a new high speed route created north).

      That would create a new box around Sydney used by BOTH circle line airport express trains (stopping at places like Blacktown) and express HSR trains that would only stop at either the airport or city centre as they ran Canberra-SYD-Newcastle or Melbourne-SYD-Brisbane.

      That new box line would mirror the motorway box (but tunnel under Blacktown to connect with new metro lines). Many HSR stations have fast tracks through them to allow express trains to bypass stopping trains. Around the Sydney box, speeds would be limited to about 200km/hr. Outside the line speeds up to 350 or 400km/hr max.

      1. Ben Sandilands

        While the extent and depth of concurrent action you propose is very attractive in almost every respect, I’ve been kicked in the teeth metaphorically speaking in trying to deal with certain realities. One of them is the unavailability of anything remotely like the number of skilled engineers and designers and project managers required to do these things in parallel, or at the very least, similar time frames. Another is the unavailability of the necessary capital, public or private. Turning to the UK or Europe as examples of such challenges, there is no evidence I can find that anything proportionately similar has ever been undertaken in the UK in such an integrated manner. The Elizabeth line, formerly Crossrail, has a history of plodding along to outside observers like myself which by extension suggests that Brexit will just create a Little Britain in which f*ck all actually gets done. Australia is also a federation, and no matter how the capital structure of the desirable HSR investments are addressed, the public component will have to compete with the needs of the entire country.
        From my point of view, getting on with the job to put it bluntly, needs the selection of a critical, and demonstratively beneficial set of objectives that matches the human and financial resources available, and doing something brilliant, like fixing the Sydney-Newcastle situation. That won’t happen in less than 15 years, given the scale of that modest task, from the moment there is a full throated start on the work subsequent to the approval of the details.
        Australia has seen some notable expansions of the airline sector simply because that involved assets and skills that exist, are highly mobile, and can be literally flown into and out of the country and which have very obvious and immediate economic effects. Including adding to the case for sensible but determined HSR and related public transport infrastructure work.

  16. [email protected]

    What are you smoking?
    HSR bring profits?

    1. John Jefkins

      TGV France typically earns a BILLION Euros profit each year and has repaid costs on older lines (eg the 750km Paris-Lyon-Marseilles route) many times over.

      Japan’s 3 private rail companies have made billions in profits from Bullet trains (for 50 yrs) and again have repaid costs of their older lines (Tokyo-Osaka) many times over.

      But most income goes to the government in the form of increased TAX income from a boosted economy. Any improved transport infrastructure boosts an economy. If you halve journey times you double business hinterlands for sales or recruitment of talent to create more jobs in ALL sectors and increase income & sales tax to the government. In the UK the canals, Victorian railways and the motorways were proved to have done that. HSR does too.

      But it does matter that the HSR has a sufficient potential market. Domestic routes between a country’s top cities with big existing air & road markets and a new journey time of 3 hrs or under make the best profits.

      Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Newcastle-Gold Coast-Brisbane is perfect for that.
      It has two of the worlds busiest air markets (the only couple not already taken by HSR), some smaller air markets too (eg Sydney-Canberra etc), two busy road markets (M31 & M1) AND opportunities for shared commuter trains, airport express trains, and shared use of a new Sydney circle line route via the new airport too.

      1. michael r james

        Cud Chewer, I’d be happy to contribute taxes to fund an Australian Mars shot. As long as we put Abbott and his DelCons and other assorted conservatives on board. Couldn’t cost more or take longer than HSR and, with them gone, it would facilitate building HSR here back on (civilised) earth …

      2. michael r james

        John Jefkins. I don’t know about €1bn profit–too lazy to check but I recall that last year it made a small loss, however the first in a while since it normally makes a profit. However, let’s not get carried away. It makes an operational profit, ie. without considering the capital cost of its construction (I’m not even sure if it covers maintenance, maybe.) But that is ok. As you and others here, and me, keep pointing out, HSR and other public transit delivers hugely to the economy in many ways.
        Incidentally, Ben’s discussion of the economics of airlines kinda glossed over the fact that overall the world airline industry has never produced a positive cash balance! ie. it has always lost money when everything is accounted for. One wonders how it continues to operate since it continues to burn investors money. Airports are the same deal. Except where they were built by the state then sold for under their value to private industry etc. However even there, the true economics can be seen when expansion is necessary: Heathrow’s third runway is estimated at £18bn and no way can the private owners of Heathrow fund that–it is muttered sotto voce but the reality is that the UK govt will be called upon. Ditto for Sydney’s West airport which Kingsford-Smith’s private owners say is uneconomic and unfinanciable by them (but I’ll bet they’ll be happy to take it off the govt after all the risk and capital expenditure is done).
        I don’t think anyone on this blog needs lessons in this kind of nation building but Ben’s fellow blogger on that nameless site, with an article published the same day is persisting with his incredibly narrow econometric view that says HSR is beyond ridiculous. And that explains why Australia still doesn’t have, nor look like getting, HSR. Beancounters with as much vision as a lump of coal.

  17. Timothy Newton

    I think we have moved passed high speed rail, its hyper loop and new technologies wee need to be looking at.

  18. michael r james

    its hyper loop and new technologies wee need to be looking at.

    Interesting typo, because “wee” or a close synonym, is exactly what I think of when I read about Hyperloop 🙂

  19. Ben Sandilands

    The discussion is being messed up quite a bit by the inability of WordPress to keep to a straightforward chronological order when it comes to comments where people, including myself, use the ‘reply’ button. There are efforts being made to redesign this.
    However in relation to the current metro project in Sydney, the NW Rail Link, it was ideology that made the government decide to narrow the tunnels including those running under Sydney Harbour so that they couldn’t take a future upgrade to double decker or duplex trains identical in maximum dimensions to all of the state owned metropolitan lines.
    This is the same idiotic and infantile logic that sees Sydney’s much bungled George Street light rail to Maroubra designed to choke existing road capacity while providing less seating capacity per hour than the current buses.
    To relate this back to HS rail, nothing is being done to Sydney’s existing metropolitan rail system that will facilitate efficient access to HS rail platforms whether the main hub is at Central, or scattered among a variety of locations including the Sydney West airport. I did this post to emphasise that the determining factor in the success or failure of a HS rail network in SE Australia including of course Sydney-Canberra will be door-to-door trip times.

    Unless overall trip times from start to finish can compete with today’s cars, or tomorrow’s automated vehicles, HS rail will fail, either by not getting financial backing, or in use when the demand forecasts are exposed as hype.

    Sydney will of course pay a very high price for this infantile stupidity, as will the generally aging population that expects to have a seat on lines that may comprise more than three dozen stations and extend further physically than most of the London underground lines. Sydney’s network reflects the sprawling nature of its suburbs with stations that can be kilometres rather than a few hundred metres apart. Eventually many new stations may have to be built between existing stations.

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