Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) High Speed Rail network, Spain

I guess it was only a matter of time before someone would see Tiger Airway’s current troubles as evidence Australia needs High Speed Rail (HSR) between Sydney and Melbourne.

That someone is a Mr Peter Appleton of Brown Hill, who wrote to The Age saying “with the halt of flights, we are back to Third World trains service – Sydney to Melbourne, 800 kilometres in 11 hours. French, German, Japanese and Chinese trains would cover the same distance in 2½ hours”.

It’s evidently escaped Mr Appleton’s attention that there are three other airlines still flying between Sydney and Melbourne – Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar. Mr Appleton doesn’t need to use the train. It’s puzzling why The Age even published this letter given there’s no logical connection between Tiger Airways current troubles and the “Third World” train service between the two cities.

Indeed, another interpretation is that Tiger’s troubles are evidence of effective competition in domestic aviation, leading to lower prices for consumers. Tiger’s particular mix of price and service evidently isn’t proving attractive to enough travellers (big surprise!), but even if the company withdraws permanently from the market, we still have three operators. History suggests the possibility of another entrant to the market can’t be discounted.

Of course three operators isn’t as good as four (and Qantas and Jetstar are related), but any High Speed Rail service on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne route would almost certainly be provided by a single (i.e. monopoly) operator, as is the case elsewhere.

The first stage of the Federal Government’s HSR study is due this month so there are likely to be more tall stories as the lobbying intensifies. The Age ran what was in effect an advertorial on June 24 for French electricity and transport company Alstom. Just what disinterested contribution the paper expected would be provided by a company that claims to have built 650 high speed trains over the last four decades is anyone’s guess.

The Age was happy to run with the line of Alstom’s Australian chief executive, Chris Raine, that “events such as the volcanic ash cloud from Chile (have) made it all too clear Australia could not rely on aviation alone to meet its transport needs”. Unless Mr Raine has evidence that global warming is somehow leading to more volcanic eruptions, he should acknowledge that the number of flying hours lost to volcanoes in Australian aviation history is miniscule. This reminds me of those who imply earthquakes are caused by global warming!

Unsurprisingly, Mr Raine said Sydney-to-Newcastle and Melbourne-to-Sydney would both be viable HSR routes running at a peak speed of 350 kph. In evidence, he offered the argument that “the populations and distances between Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney (are) similar to the Spanish cities of Barcelona, Madrid and Seville — which are linked by fast rail”.

In an environment where all rail projects are subsidised, that doesn’t necessarily say a lot about whether or not HSR is a good idea in other places (he should take note of the Alice Springs to Darwin rail line — getting built didn’t turn it into a sensible idea!). I’ve looked at the Barcelona-Madrid-Sevilla AVE HSR route before and noted then it’s not comparable with the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne route.

The Barcelona-Madrid-Sevilla line is really two services radiating from Madrid – a line traversing the 506 km from Madrid to Barcelona, and another covering the 391 km from Madrid to Sevilla. The key point is that Madrid, located between Barcelona and Sevilla, is a very big city – it has a population of 6.5 million. Canberra is 240 km from Sydney and 470 km from Melbourne, but has a population of just 0.35 million. That is a rather large difference.

Mr Raine also failed to note that the AVE system runs at a maximum speed of 300 kph (not the 350 kph peak speed he says is necessary on the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne route) and takes almost three hours to cover the 506 km from Barcelona to Madrid. The corresponding distance between Sydney and Melbourne via Canberra is over 700 km.

As an aside, Mr Appleton might care to note that the maximum speed permitted on all HSR services in China, including the new Beijing-Shanghai express, is now 300 kph due to safety concerns arising, allegedly, from corrupt construction practices. That’s well below the 320 kph average speed Mr Appleton assumes for Sydney to Melbourne HSR and well below the 350 kph peak speed Mr Raine says is required for HSR in Australia.

I’ve written extensively on HSR before – see Categories list in sidepane. In a nutshell, I don’t see the merit in replacing one form of public transport with another that, moreover, will reduce competition and require a huge subsidy compared to planes. I’d prefer to see attention given to the public transport needs of our cities.