HSR - passenger loadings 2036 (from High Speed Rail Study - Phase One Report)

The exhibit above is one of the ‘money’ graphs from the High Speed Rail study – Phase One report released on Thursday by the Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese. In my last post, I concentrated on doing a broad but quick response to the report and questioned the wisdom of spending mega dollars on a project that doesn’t reduce either travel times or the cost of travel.

Now I want to start exploring some issues the report raises. One of those is that, up to this point, the focus of the HSR discussion has largely been around travel between major cities, especially Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne, with some residual claims for regional development (see Categories in the side pane for previous posts on HSR).

The Phase One report however shows regional trips are a very large component of the travel forecast on the complete Brisbane to Melbourne HSR network in 2036. In fact regional travellers – those who are journeying between regional areas and one of the major cities – comprise an extraordinary 75% of forecast demand in 2036 (see exhibit). These are the sorts of trips that are almost all currently made by car. A significant proportion are also “induced” trips – in the absence of HSR and the greater accessibility it provides, they wouldn’t otherwise be made.

Only a small proportion of regional trips are for business purposes. The vast majority – 85% – are for private or leisure purposes i.e. to visit friends or relatives, holidays, entertainment, sport, shopping, education, personal or health-related purposes. The study assumes leisure passengers will pay a lower fare than business travellers (who are concentrated on the inter-city services, e.g. Sydney-Melbourne, where they account for 50% of passengers).

Regional trips are also shorter on average (they comprise half of all HSR passenger kilometres), so the contribution of regional travellers to total revenue is much lower than their 75% share of patronage. Even so, as with airlines at present, their contribution is vital.

There are a number of issues raised by the high level of forecast regional patronage. One is that leisure travellers are sensitive to the cost of travel. The study assumes HSR fares are pitched a little lower than air fares, but if this assumption proves optimistic the demand for HSR could be much lower. Unfortunately there’s no estimate provided for regional travellers, but for inter-city travel the study says a 10% increase in fares will reduce patronage by 10%, and vice versa.

In estimating demand, the study compares the cost of travel by HSR between the regions and the major cities against the car, but doesn’t allow for the usefulness of having a car when travelling within the big smoke. HSR will certainly suit people going (say) from Seymour to the MCG – they can drive to their nearest HSR station (they’ll be about 100 km apart in the regions), disembark at Southern Cross and take a local train/tram combination to get to the G. If however they’re not going to the city centre – perhaps they’re attending a wedding, a party or staying overnight with one of the 90% of the population who lives more than 5 km from the CBD – they might prefer the convenience of having a car for travel within Melbourne.

The car will be a more attractive option the closer regional residents live to the city, although anyone familiar with Canberra will know of the large numbers of young people who commonly drive to Sydney on weekends. Another thing to note is car occupancy for leisure travel is much higher than it is for commuting (where solo driving predominates). Two people travelling (say) to Sydney from Gosford for a concert would pay $26 each per one-way trip on HSR i.e. a combined total of $104 to get to and from Central station. Once the novelty of HSR has subsided, driving could be a more attractive alternative for many.

The big issue to my mind though is just why we as a society would want to spend so much money to improve the leisure travel options of regional populations living along Australia’s east coast. Doubtless they deserve it and would appreciate it, but they already have pretty reasonable travel choices. Last time I drove the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne (about five years ago) it was divided carriageway practically all the way. Large centres like Wagga Wagga and Albury-Wodonga have pretty good air connections to Sydney and Melbourne. There’s already (an admittedly slowish) train service connecting Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Some will put the decentralisation argument and there’s no doubt HSR would make regional life more attractive. However it has limited potential for commuting other than in the Sydney-Newcastle corridor (where a massive additional subsidy is assumed e.g. the non-business HSR fare from Gosford to Sydney is $26 one-way but the commuter fare is $14.25). I’ve argued before there’s little serious decentralisation potential in HSR. I don’t think this report changes that broad conclusion, however I will look at that topic again shortly in the light of the new information in the study.

Most importantly, it’s not hard to think of other ways money on this scale could be invested to produce a higher social dividend. Improving public transport in the capital cities would provide big economic benefits for business, commuters and leisure travellers – I expect it could provide a more equitable outcome, too. Or the funds might be spent on social policy, on education or on improving the nation’s response to climate change. Perhaps it could be applied to accelerating the transition from coal-fired electricity to cleaner sources of energy – a much more cost-effective way of addressing carbon emissions than HSR.

In fact I wonder if there’s a risk HSR could actually make regional populations elsewhere worse off by prompting airlines to reduce the frequency of country air services. For example, to the extent the lucrative east coast corridor currently enables airlines to cross-subsidise marginal country services in other parts of Australia, competition from HSR might actually lead to cost-cutting elsewhere, or provide an excuse to reduce services. At the least, a reduction in services on trunk routes could make it harder to make connections to country flights. This is an issue I’ve previously suggested should be looked at in the current study and I trust Phase Two will look closely at the impact HSR would have on aviation in this country.

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