HSR short-listed station sites, Melbourne (DIT/AECOM)

I’ve had an admittedly rushed look at the Executive Summary of the High Speed Rail Study – Phase One, released today by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese. I’ll have a closer look at the full report shortly, but for now here are a few initial thoughts.

Today’s report is Phase One. It looks at infrastructure costs and forecast patronage. The really important bit – the analysis of the benefits and costs and how the project might be financed – must wait for completion of Phase Two. So for the moment difficult questions like “is HSR a good idea?” are side-stepped.

This study was done partly because The Greens and Independents required it be done. But given how popular the idea of HSR is, it could be up there with the NBN as one of the Government’s smarter moves politically. One way or another the Government’s going to support it and find a way to make it look plausible. After all, it reeks of ‘vision’ and no significant outlays will probably be required for at least two terms. But the risk is it won’t be examined seriously.

Mr Albanese is certainly talking up HSR. He is quoted as saying high-speed rail would be an “attractive alternative” for many, particularly those fed up with airport scanners introduced after the 9/11 attacks. It’s a pity he didn’t see recent reports of Al Qaeda’s interest in trains or recall the Madrid train bombing.

As is now seemingly obligatory, Mr Albanese also cites the success of the AVE system in Spain in support of HSR. ”In Spain, the line between Madrid and Seville is so popular, it carries more people between those cities than cars and airplanes combined”, he says. I’ve pointed out before that AVE is a questionable analogy, at least for routes like Sydney-Melbourne  and Sydney-Brisbane – Madrid has a population of 6.5 million and is only 391 km from Sevilla.

The report says the estimated cost for the most likely route between Brisbane and Melbourne is a cool $108 billion – and there’s a 10% chance it could be higher (ignore the lower $61 billion figure published in the media as there’s a 90% chance it’s too low). These estimates don’t include planning and procurement costs – so add another 15% – and nor do they include the cost of buying and operating the rolling stock.

The estimated cost for the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne leg is a whopping $45-$50 billion, depending on whether it goes via Wollongong. And of course, add procurement and operating costs.

The study is upfront in making it clear the capital cost can’t be recovered from revenue. International experience, it says, “suggests it is unrealistic to expect the capital cost of a HSR network to be recovered”. Of course that’s par for the course with public transport, but in this case we already have a competitive airline system transporting the public between Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. So the cost to the taxpayer of replacing one form of public transport with another is no idle matter.

One reason the capital cost is so high is because the investigators have concluded an HSR network is only sensible if it provides for speeds as fast as 350 km/hr in non-urban areas and 200 km/hr within cities. They have assumed a dedicated two track right of way, with tunnels from the urban periphery to the CBD in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Based on these speeds, they estimate the travel time between Sydney and Melbourne CBDs at around three hours, making it competitive with air for city centre workers. That seems ambitious – I’ve noted before the maximum permitted speed of Spain’s new AVE system is 300 km/hr. China’s extensive HSR system is also limited to a maximum speed of 300 km/hr for reasons of safety.

Although other candidates are being considered, the most likely city centre station in Sydney is Central and in Melbourne Southern Cross (the alternative is North Melbourne). Suburban stations are also being examined e.g. Parramatta. Stations deep underground are ruled out, so it could be a challenge to accommodate new works in the CBD.

It will come as a surprise to many that HSR is not capable of serving either Sydney or Melbourne airports due to differing operational requirements. It’s possible however than a Melbourne Airport train and HSR could share the same infrastructure, e.g. own tracks but same tunnel. One of the most interesting aspects of the report is that a second Sydney Airport doesn’t appear to even be mentioned. Regional stations are assumed to be located at approx 70-100 km intervals.

The study assumes inter-city HSR fares would be the same as air fares – it doesn’t calculate a fare that recovers costs, not even a portion of operating costs. On this basis it predicts eight million passengers would use HSR between Sydney and Melbourne in 2036, equivalent to about half the forecast air travel at that time. Half of these would be business travellers.

Demand for travel to regional centres is assumed to make up an extraordinary 50% of all patronage, although 85% of these passengers would be cost-sensitive non-business travellers. The study assumes a high proportion of this demand will either be induced or come from cars. Two tracks could be a significant constraint given there might need to be a complex array of stoppers and expresses to serve this large regional market.

The plausibility of the regional demand assumptions and the value to the community of these regional  trips – given how much they the cost the community – is an area I’d like to look at more closely. I’d also like to know more about the assumptions underlying the estimated number of CBD to CBD business travellers. HSR is a very politically charged issue – I note an independent review commissioned by the California High Speed Rail Authority following criticisms of its patronage estimates has just found the Authority’s forecasts are over-optimistic.

As I said at the outset this is just a quick look. The really interesting stuff will be in the Phase Two report, which will also refine much of what’s in the current report. It’s nevertheless important to be clear about what this proposal means. For example, in the case of the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor, what’s being proposed is a public spend of $45-$50 billion (plus 15% and plus probably a half to two thirds of operating costs) to provide a new monopoly train operator to compete against the four established airlines, without reducing either fares or  average travel times. Phase Two will want to set out some pretty good reasons why that makes sense. I’ve looked at what some of these benefits might be before and not found anything compelling (also see HSR in Categories list in sidepanel).

I plan to look more closely at this (Phase One) report over the weekend.


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