HSR High Speed Rail

Sep 11, 2012

High Speed Rail: if they’ve got it, shouldn’t we?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

It was a hot issue at the start of 2011, but there hasn’t been much discussion of High Speed Rail (HSR) in the public domain since the first phase of the Federal Government’s study was released more than a year ago.

Exhibit: Where the passengers would come from – sources of patronage for High Speed Rail (source: Phase 1 report)

The numbers in the report had a chilling effect on some of the earlier enthusiasm for east coast HSR. In particular, the study estimated the cost to build a line from Brisbane to Melbourne would be $108 billion (plus rolling stock and 15% for procurement costs), none of which could be recovered from earnings.

The Global Mail took up the slack last week with this article, Fast times, fast trains (catch up Australia!) by Gordon Weiss. Another look at the issue is timely, because the second and final phase of the HSR study is due to be released later this year.

The Global Mail’s thing is public-interest journalism with “engaging analysis.” It publishes relatively long articles that provide its readers with “something more considered and less breathless” than the 24/7 news cycle.

Curiously, Mr Weiss’s piece is a breathless promotion of HSR with little in the way of evidence to support some highly contentious propositions. It’s boosterism plain and simple.

Be that as it may, there’s one argument Mr Weiss uses that warrants further discussion because it’s so pervasive and fallacious. It’s the proposition that simply because HSR has been built, or is planned, in other countries, it must make sense in Australia.

We’re told by Mr Weiss that the Japanese started laying tracks for their bullet train in 1958 and France’s TGV had “crunched 318 km/h” by 1972. The Germans have ICE, the Spanish AVE, the Portugese RAVE, the South Africans Gautrain, and the Italians ETR.

Even the debt-laden Greeks have managed to lay down a 200 km/h plus HSR track. Morroccan HSR is due to come on line in 2015, and Brazil’s the following year…..even the Russians have a HSR despite a plummeting population.

Notwithstanding “some safety and corruption concerns” there’s also China’s existing 10,000 km of HSR track. He says it is set to expand by a further 19,000 km by 2014. And then there’s California’s proposed HSR:

And just this July on the west coast, California lawmakers, although they preside over a state that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, authorised the raising of the initial $8 billion tranche for the first leg of a $70 billion HSR, scheduled to be completed in 2020, which will connect its most productive cities.

That all sounds very impressive (although I suspect Mr Weiss’s definition of “high speed” might be pretty elastic). But it doesn’t make the case that HSR would make sense in Australia. There’re a couple of issues this sort of assertion fails to recognise.

First, Australia is different geographically from most other developed countries. We have a small number of quite large cities located a long way apart. There’re few large towns in between.

It’s no wonder the Sydney-Melbourne air route is one of the busiest in the world. Air is more competitive over the long distances and low densities characteristic of Australia than ground transport, whether fast trains or cars.

Spain’s AVE is often cited as a precedent for east coast Australia because the track distance from Madrid to Barcelona (621 km) is longer than the estimated track distances from Canberra to Sydney (250-290 km) and Canberra to Melbourne (520-570 km).

This argument doesn’t stack up though. The critical difference is Canberra has a much smaller population (0.36 million) than either Madrid (5.8 million) or Barcelona (4.2 million).

The second issue is that just because many countries have built HSR doesn’t mean it was a wise or well-considered investment for those countries (much less Australia), or that the money couldn’t have been better spent in some other way.

Mr  Weiss’s unselfconcious reference to “debt-laden” Greece is an obvious clue. So is his reference to Russia’s plan to build HSR “despite a plummeting population.” So is China’s grand plan to triple HSR track despite “some safety and corruption concerns.”

HSR in the US is hopelessly mired in political manouvreing and no funding is forthcoming in California beyond the initial (public-funded) tranche. The leading builder of HSR in the world by far, China, is a Communist State – its so-called Ghost Cities are well-documented.

One estimate is there are 64 million empty apartments in China. Why would anyone assume HSR in China is a rational investment decision that’s insulated from these sorts of pressures?

Nor is HSR without its critics. For example, Christina Vasquez claims ecologists, trade unionists and sustainable development advocates see Spain’s grand HSR adventure (it has more HSR track than any other European country) as “a bona fide policy error typical of a nouveu riche nation.”

The fact that many countries have built HSR, or are planning to build it, doesn’t show that it makes financial, economic or social sense. Of course, it doesn’t prove that it doesn’t either.

However it indicates we need to be very careful about assuming because something high profile and glamorous was built in other countries it must’ve been a sound investment. We should be doubly careful in assuming that apparent success can be translated directly to Australia.

We should remember that many cities in the US removed their streetcars and built freeways in the 1950s. However it didn’t necessarily follow that it was the right course of action for them. And it certainly didn’t mean imitating them was the ideal solution for Australian cities.

There are other arguments for HSR, but I suspect it won’t work on the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne corridor for reasons I’ve elaborated before (see HSR in the Categories list). It might however have potential in the Sydney-Newcastle corridor where it could possibly attract patrons from cars.

Hopefully the (too) long-awaited final report from Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, will address all the issues and questions and provide some clear direction, one way or the other, on the future of HSR. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’ll be any less driven by political pressures here than elsewhere.

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40 thoughts on “High Speed Rail: if they’ve got it, shouldn’t we?

  1. Alan Davies

    For those who’re stuckfast to the idea that all glamorous major projects like HSR must be the result of rational decision-making, read this: Valencia: a Spanish city without medecine.

    Yes, Spain….where massive white elephant projects went unquestioned for a decade, and where the banks that funded them, boards stuffed with appointed politicians, have now gone bust. And where if you need some insulin from the health service, you had better hope you are the first in the queue

  2. David Walker

    Michael wrote:

    “AD is obsessed with econometric analyses; perhaps I am wrong but I suspect he would support HSR schemes or Metro PT schemes if they didn’t cost so much.”

    Yes, I suspect he would. So would I. So would a lot of other people, including many people in government.

    The problem is that HSR schemes do cost a lot. Greece and Spain had their own reasons for ignoring HSR cost issues. That mind-set does not appear to have been without problems.

    Calling Alan “obsessed” about cost-benefit schemes seems a little over the top, too – especially when you’ve just posted 16 comments in reaction to what seemed to me a very reasoned analysis.

  3. michael r james

    No one is disagreeing with you on that. But actually as (Mook I think?) pointed out, there is some action on freight, which is all I was saying.

    The AECOM Qld headquarters is just down the road from me in one of those new green glass buildings. Interesting about them taking over Maunsell, a Brit company but strong presence here too (and Asia). Mostly building bridges and the like. They built parts of the new bridges in Brisbane and the ICB. It explains why AECOM have connections in Bris. But AECOM the parent company is American based in LA. No doubt taking over various other companies during their growth.

  4. Socrates


    I won’t bother debating your other rants, since you are obviously not interested in other viewpoints on this topic. However for the record I did not suggest Freight HSR (as implied in your comment 27), which would be a nonsense. the point of my closing comment was that much of Australia still has freight trains running on old lines with low load capacity and sometimes design speeds less than 60 km/hr. Then we wonder why they don’t compete with road transport. Upgrading the interstate freight lines to a good standard – double track, concrete sleeper, standard gauge, design speed 130 to 160 km/hr – would IMO be a vastly better investment than HSR.

    Also (and again I don’t work for them) AECOM is one of the largest employers of engineers in Australia. They may claim to be a broad services company now but they started off as an engineering consulting firm called Maunsell, and I would say the majority of their fees still come from engineering work.

    I mainly do planning work on passenger rail and light rail projects, but I haven’t bothereed reading most of your posts, because I find you too antogonistic to be bothered.

  5. michael r james

    FYI, some comparative info on Tramways. The ≈14 km extension to the T3 Tramway (called T3a) in the south-east along the border of inner Paris is under construction. Its estimated cost is €547m (AUD$680m) so if one subtracts the $170m cost of land resumption needed for the GC tramway (none required for Paris) then the cost of GC is $780m. So pretty comparable for a very similar length tramway. (Note, in my earlier comment I said that the cost of the GC tramway seemed “not too bad”.)

    The cost of the T3 tramway (which will eventually circumnavigate Paris following the Boulevardes des Maréchaux (follows the old city walls, inside the Peripherique freeway, at ground level) includes a lot of “greening” and improvement of amenity–making a green swathe with avenues of newly planted (but pregrown to 4-5m) trees. I am not quite sure if these broad boulevards were part of the Haussmann transformation of Paris but luckily (no luck really, planning) they are wide enough that it could sustain sacrificing one traffic lane (of 4-6 traffic lanes+parking) and they also widened the pedestrian footpaths to make the whole route much nicer (it is true that when I lived there, Cite Universitaire now on T3, it was a bit of an awful traffic canyon; T3 reduced traffic by 25%). No doubt the GC tramway involves similar changes, but not all tramways would cost as much.

    Let me also note here that the parts of the tramway that cross road intersections is being done by lifting in pre-constructed 18m concrete slabs that are complete (ie. with rails) so as to avoid any disruption to traffic during construction. I have proposed the same thing (without knowing if it had ever been done) for converting Brisbane’s busway into a lightrail network; ie. the idea is that one could do this conversion midnight to 5am without any disruption to its current use for buses. This desperately needs to be done because the busway became very popular but today the bus congestion and high fares have actually brought about a decline in ridership. This kind of conversion to a tramway should cost quite a lot less than either the GC or Paris T3 because there are no additional prettification works needed and apparently the busway was designed/built with possible conversion to lightrail in mind. The idea (or at least the sensible plan would be) is to turn existing busway stations into interchanges between feeder buses and the lightrail which would make the whole network much more efficient and functional. But of course with Newman as Premier and his old deputy Quirk as Mayor, forget it, even though it does not impact road users (the opposite, it takes cars off roads to make roads better for those who really need to use them).

  6. michael r james

    mook at 10.03 am

    I believe I acknowledged many of the points you made (eg. the Melbourne trams). I may agree with your point about the terms of reference etc notionally set by government. However do you have any feasible and plausible rationale as to why such projects end up being priced several factors higher than in France, Germany, Spain etc (we can’t really talk about China)? This is a common theme amongst anglo countries; seriously, I am not being a ranting troll, you must be aware of it. From the sudden and stupendous inflation in the cost of the Californian HSR, and ditto for the east coast NEC to that $7bn for the refurbishment of the WashDC Union Station. Just the Sydney terminal for our putative HSR is costed at several billion dollars!

    Clearly there are fundamental problems with specifying and tendering for these large public infrastructure projects in the anglo world. In Australia can you sincerely say that there is no overt or even unconscious collusion underway? As in all the upper echelon of boards of Australian companies there is a cosy merry-go-round of ex-government types. Remember the business with Andrew Peacock as head of Boeing. Max the Axe Wilton and Sydney Airports (not just KSA but the outrageous veto they have over the entire future develoment in the Sydney basin). Bob Carr’s “reward” by Macquarie was just beyond outrageous. But perhaps the most gob-smacking and clearest example of conflict of interest and abuse of position was Trevor Rowe being Chairman of both BrisConnections and QIC when the latter (custodian of most Qld public service superannuation funds) invested about $1bn in the former. There should have been legal action over that, but no, Trevor Rowe sails on untouched and is now on the Future Fund where he can exercise even more power over public funds!

    Now in NSW we have Nick Greiner distorting public infrastructure priorities by being appointed head of Infrastructure NSW and clearly abusing the position to implement his own priorities to build notionally privately-funded roads, roads and more roads. Greiner is now our equivalent of Robert Moses (an Oxford grad!), an unelected official with enough power to have senior public servants resign if they disagree with his unelected agenda. Do you seriously contest that public policy in Australia is not fundamentally corrupted by the cosy arrangements between politicians, senior public servants (who also often get cosy business positions) and business?

    So no, I disagree and believe that the whole process of specifying and tendering for such projects in Australia is broken (and ditto in UK & USA).

    As to why things operate better in France or Germany, or northern Europe more generally? It is no big secret and is much discussed in media, blogs, books and political discussions: in the Anglo world politicians are mostly drawn from the narrow pool of lawyers and liberal-arts while in France especially (but look at Merkel a PhD quantum-chemist!) they are drawn from a much wider pool of professionals almost always products of the grands ecoles. Some people (Judith Sloan!) think this is somehow elitist but actually it is one of the most meritocratic systems in the world (though Sarkozy is not a very good example, Hollande is a good example). I think it is no accident that France has some of the best public infrastructure in the world, and that such large projects are supported consistently in a bipartisan manner across long timescales. We could also make the same observation about China and their top administrators.

    Australia: PM and opposition leader both lawyers, both sides of politics are infested with lawyers at the senior level with almost zero scientific or other professionals represented (interesting that one of Australia’s most transformative leaders, Paul Keating, fits none of these moulds); US, president and contender both Harvard lawyers; UK: PM & opposition leader, both Oxford PPEs (the usual background of Brit political class), Blair did Law at Oxford.

    If you think I have gone off the deep-end and seriously off-topic then really I don’t know what to say. So, yes, I have a deep distrust of the profusion of consultancies and professional coupon-clippers (Macquarie et al.) and vested interests that are set up as the experts in Australia but would be laughed at in France where actual professionals specify and assess infrastructure needs and proposals.

    (Did you see the LNP announcement yesterday of promising to take $2bn presently earmarked for Sydney rail and use it on the Pacific Highway?)

    Incidentally I think the 13 km GC tramway is not so bad at $950m ($170m for land resumptions) but of course it is 3 or 4 decades late and was only done after all other possibilities were exhausted (ie. more roads); and I note that the Brisbane West End to Newstead 6-7 km tramway was costed at $150m in the mid-2000s. The city mindlessly dithered over it for years and lost the money (Howard gave it away to other projects.) One wonders what it would cost today? Based on the GC model, maybe $500m?

  7. mook schanker


    I’m not sure why you would suggest it reasonable to go directly to Alstom for HSR. Someone has to do the business case and feasibility studies which can conflict them out of downstream business. Secondly, competitive tenders would not exist if we went direct to a HSR supplier, they would also love to nail us for proprietary systems as well I bet…

    As for Cross River Rail, AECOM did the business case (elements of btw) within the constraints given by the Queensland DTMR, so why complain about the cost when you don’t mention the terms of reference given or even the scope of business case to support your point of view? AECOM will be conflicted out of a majority of the downstream CRR work hence I see not much incentive to rort figures or scope.

    I think you’re dreaming if you think some other global organisations can somehow provide assets for cheaper. Siemens and Alstom have offices here and will easily enter consortiums with Constructors, Operators & Investment organisations and bid for work (like they’re doing right now). In fact, your best friend Alstom, was recently in a consortium with Macquarie (and Veolia) for Gold Coast Rapid Transit; design, build, operate & maintain contract, though they lost that bid to Bombardier and friends…..

  8. michael r james

    I can’t find anything from their website about the managers etc of their Oz operation. But it has made me more paranoid (which of course, as you know, does not mean I am wrong) because I see that they are also responsible for the truly outrageous $16 billion proposal for Brisbane’s Cross River Rail. These guys are getting their talons into Australian infrastructure projects and I don’t like it one bit. And I would definitely like to see who their Australian players are.

  9. michael r james

    mook at 8.16 pm

    With or without conspiracy theories (Bob Carr approves no end of private freeways in his long tenure then joins the board of Macquarie on retirement; is that a theory or just plain fact?), I think if I was going to install a HSR in my backyard I would ask someone who has actually built a few–thus the French and Chinese.
    It is Alstom who builds them, not SNCF, and they are world #1–it is their train that holds the speed record at 574.8 km/h, also world #2 in trams (including the new ones in Melbourne); they also have 25% of the world powergen business. Alstom has also purchased the Italian Pendolino company so that is potentially a game changer because their intention is to bring much higher speeds to bendier track–as the Pendolino already does but the French want to make TGV trains extend deeper into the non-TGV-track part of their vast network to make the entire network speedier and more efficient. This kind of thing might be particularly relevant to the Brisbane-Sydney HSR if it is ever done. AlstomTransport operates in 60 countries.

    AECOM is a management/services company–ie. a jumped up services & consultancy company.

    Oh, I also reckon at these ridiculous bloated prices they should check out Siemens to see if their MagLev might now be competitive. They built the world’s only commercially operating MagLev for the Shanghai airport 31 km link to the city. (All sorts of advantages & savings in running a MagLev if you can cope with the high initial capex.) Now, I don’t believe this but if the Chinese claimed cost of their maglev was really “only” US$1.2 bn then Canberra-Sydney would be only $11.2 billion.

    Now you may say that a consultancy can do the initial job of preparing a feasibility report (indeed they probably could not avoid using Alstom engineering) though a brief search does not show very much depth in aecom themselves delivering on transit projects. (I have book that gives details on about 100 transit projects in the USA which lists all companies involved–it being a publication of the peak body Am. Public Transportation Assoc.–and Aecom are not in the book in any capacity. By comparison the really big engineering conglomerates like Alstom and Siemens have all the technology, engineering, project management and vast experience in-house and I would go direct to them. Especially given the context of infrastructure projects in the anglo countries (UK, USA, Australia) becoming one of vast overblown cost, and less than stellar delivery.

    All that stuff you wrote about oversight and benchmarking (next you’ll be invoking Key Performance Indicators!), I don’t think even you believe it. (just one word: Clem7).
    About the bike schemes, I agree and did not imply it was free. JCDecaux* is an outdoor advertising company so the deal is that they get a lot of advertising in return: on the bikes themselves, on those fancy rolling-display units at the bike stations and elsewhere (and ultimately as in Paris, probably in goodwill). Perfectly fair trade IMO, though some NIMBYs still complain, but really it is nothing like those huge billboards on our roads etc. (In fact, to be boring, no accident really since their stuff was developed to avoid spoiling the beauty of Paris at street level. Have a look at almost any picture of Paris and you’ll probably see a piece of JCD gear.)

    * oops another French company #1 in its field; as AD knows, I have a slight bias having witnessed 10 years of British incompetence in large projects (the list is gigantic but in this context I still marvel at the Brits ability to take 12 years from the opening of Eurostar to extend the HSR from Dover to London, at a cost that almost exceeded building the entire tunnel/line Dover to Paris!). In my 10 years across la Manche I picked up a confidence in the French ability in such projects.
    As for the Americans, one only has to cite Tom Friedman who titled his last book “We used to do that” in reference to all the infrastructure and large projects the Chinese undertake but which his own country seems incapable these days.

  10. mook schanker

    Sorry Michael, getting a bit too conspiracy theory for me, you can view the board on the AECOM website. Several bidders competed for the HSR work and I would think AECOM went into cahoots with one or more subbies to complete the work (probably detailed in their report). I don’t think it’s right for Government to dictate Chinese or SNCF involvement, they can just easily add to the Request for Proposal criteria, ‘global expertise’, ‘benchmarking’, yadda yadda to emphasis the objectives. You also have to account for the scrutiny any HSR report will expect, and based on the initial release, the assumptions have to have some rigour as politicians ar*es are on the line, just see how news ltd and crikey tore shreds post release…

    A lack of proper diligence in Clem 7 patronage forecast kills investors full stop and scares the public sector no end which doesn’t help the overall public at all.

    As for the bike hire, having not knowing anything about it, I can just general say Capex isn’t free, and I’m guessing leasing payments would be made, say at a guess, a Design, Build, Operate & Maintain Model. Capex is one thing, the Opex over the Lifecycle is usually more, which again the HSR report will include in its BCA.

  11. michael r james

    mook schanker at 2:47 pm

    Some good points. (Of course I’m saying that because I already mentioned most of them!)

    The argument about costs is because to so many Australians it over-rides everything else. AD is obsessed with econometric analyses; perhaps I am wrong but I suspect he would support HSR schemes or Metro PT schemes if they didn’t cost so much. (I just came across an old blog in which he also dismissed city bike-hire schemes on the basis of cost–even though in most schemes including Brisbane, the capex is covered by JCDecaux.

    Cost is one of the big issues that causes timid local, state and federal governments to forever postpone necessary infrastructure. Thank goodness the NBN somehow escaped this narrowmindedness! It will also drive the wrong decisions–so for example either there will be no serious commitment by this government (we don’t have to worry about Abbott or any conservatives, they will never initiate such projects unless it is to send large amounts of public money into private pockets), and if there is any project greenlighted it will be the cheapest which by no means will be the most rational. Quite possibly the Newcastle link, but of course not true HSR, probably some stupidly compromised half-arsed version at speeds that the rest of the world achieved in the 60s. That, in itself could poison future HSR because people will say “we paid this much, for this pissant improvement?”. As I tirelessly point out, the first project must be one that convert all the defeatists, the Luddites, the nay-sayers and road-lobbyists by being a knock-out success regardless of cost. In the way that Paris-Lyons did in 1981 within months of opening.

    For myself I really don’t believe capital costs are such a big deal–especially when Howard declines a PT project because it cost $1bn then spends maybe twice that on the Pacific Solution (and look what great legacy that left, and what the current reincarnation will leave behind). If the government were serious they should have, in addition to the American company (aecom), one Chinese company and one French company (and maybe one German, even Swiss ABB but definitely no British though I don’t believe there are any anyway) to advise on costings and feasibility. Of course the local office of AECOM will have some Oz ex-politicians on the board or even as CEO while those others won’t. People who accuse me of being paranoid about AECOM or whoever Australian governments get to advise on such projects are wilfully blind; as Mook (and I) said, just look at Clem7 (or Sydney east-west tunnel) and any number of large public infrastructure projects in the US (LA metro, Boston’s Big Dig, Washington’s Union Station refurb. etc etc).

  12. mook schanker

    Wow thread still going eh.

    When I first read the Aecom report I thought the initial Capex estimates were a bit low, funny that. And If I remember correctly, Aecom also did the patronage forecast for the Clem (and rumuor is they are getting sued for it). I’m not sure why all the argument about cost in this thread, the anticipated report as a BCA will include the necessary externalities (certainly a pile more included than what’s been mentioned in this thread), plenty of historical global & local information on this. I do remember the bleating of business (in the name of productivity) in London influenced the business case for extending the Jubilee line through Canary Wharf. Shame there is no similar business support here so far….

    Socrates – greenfield would be cheaper than brownfield for HSR as all the rail systems & infrastructure would need replacing (eg. dynamic signalling, substation supply & OHW, the whole track form) all amongst operational services, let alone talking about grade separating every rail level crossing, removing freight from the route, significant upgrade or remove regular pax rail services, re-aligning the route to HSR spec (gradient, radius & axles loads), etc etc – just no! Look at Regional Rail Link, the easiest part is the 25km greenfield Deer Park way to Werribee. And in reference to freight – look at Inland Rail Corridor – i think its been shelved for a bit but will do exactly what you’re asking – Mel/Syd/BNE dedicated freight route.

  13. michael r james

    AD at
    “It’s not an AECOM conspiracy.”

    Prove it!
    The onus is on whoever is proposing something in Australia costing multiples of costs elsewhere who needs to justify clearly, why. Like the arguments over huge markups on so many consumer items, even online, there is very little validity, and even less attempt at justification. It is just the fatuous “it just is”.

    “we’re not France, we’re different. Contrary to the mythology, we’re an urban country.”

    I have no idea what that means. France is an urban country too. What you are doing is an extremely intellectually lazy and sweeping dismissal of learning anything from other countries on the juvenile observation that “we’re different”.

    michael r james:

    Whew! Gettin’ a bit bolshy there, Michael 🙁 AD

  14. michael r james

    In fact there is better planning underway, even actual physical work underway, to improve freight rail. (Freight HSR doesn’t make any sense other than for post and light mail-order type stuff which has been done by the French on TGVs from the beginning.) But if passenger HSR was built, it would enable a simpler and faster freight network. Because by definition HSR must have its own clearway (which is a fair part of its expense) the freight network no longer is constrained by or needs to giveway to pax trains.

  15. michael r james

    Socrates at 9:05 am
    “The distances are too far, the populations too low..”

    Sorry but I could not read further or take anything you write seriously if you begin a discussion with that tired old shibboleth. My articles of 3 years ago in Crikey & Age dealt specifically with that nonsense, as does the Global Mail article. It is exactly the same ridiculous statements by the US conservatives and road lobby which clearly has many corridors screaming out for HSR links because of population density, modest distances and current air and road congestion. (NE corridor, Texas triangle, California, Miami-Tampa).

    How do you expect me to react seriously to anything else you write if you just shut your eyes to this? It can only mean that you are ideologically opposed to HSR. “Honest” about the cost! Just read and google the utter nonsense about their proposed cost of the Sydney terminal (which is one of the few “hard” costs one can pin down and it falls to pieces under examination). So, instead of asking questions about AECOM or our governments, why on earth do you not wonder at how places like Germany, France, Spain and Italy can build HSR for a fraction of those costs over quite comparable distances?

    And an argument that “instead of HSR” we should spend on city rail. Arrrgggh. We must do both, and at the same time. Do you really believe nation building should be some kind of weird stop and start round-robin: this decade we’ll do roads, next decade we’ll do inner-cities, the one after we’ll do airports then in 50 years maybe inter-city links? We should stop building hugely expensive roads & tunnels for roads and focus on reconfiguring our cities for the future before it gets even more difficult and more expensive.

    Another ridiculous thing you wrote was about Brisbane’s CRR–did you not read what I wrote? Haven’t you been paying attention to the holy row over Queensland’s budget this past week? Newman is clearly not going to support it (he just cancelled a measley $35M for property purchases for it, while reaffirming the $1.3 bn for the next big road tunnel). That is why we actually have to stop building roads–because while I know our cities still need a better road network (they always will, one NEVER can complete road networks–it is physically impossible, pace LA or even Dubai), the reality is as long as we are obsessed with them we will never build rail. With this mentality if the $600 bn that the Productivity Commission (or whoever) says we need for infrastructure catchup, somehow magically appeared, the current lot would spend all of it on roads (and you know that is not a joke, it is sadly true). And after about 70 years neglect of rail it is now urgent beyond anything I could say. It’s the second decade in the 21st century!

  16. Socrates

    I spend my day job planning public transport (I am not “pro-road”) but I agree with the scepticism about HSR in Australia. The distances are too far, the populations too low, and the cost is too high. The main reason the cost would be so much higher here is that we don’t have an adequate existing rail network to upgrade, meaning we would have to buy new corridors with a huge land cost.

    Michael, I don’t work for Aecom, but why would they want to inflate the costs? As consultants you would expect they would love to justify more work and fees by exaggerating the feasibility of HSR. To their credit they have been honest about the cost.

    THere are so many more pressing problems that need money before we blow billions on HSR. What about fixing our urban commuter rail systems?

    Melbourne rail needs the entire catenary power system replaced and the city centre tunnel and track capacity increased. Huge outer suburban areas have no service at all.

    Sydney badly needs more CBD track capacity and NW rail. The Parramatta metro also made good sense. HSR to Newcastle might be logical vs F3 upgrading.

    Adelaide is still trying to electrify their old diesel system. Badly needed.

    Brisbane /SEQ badly needs more cross river rail capacity and a line to the Sunshine Coast.

    Perth is trying to build an inner light rail system to cater for population growth.

    All these projects are existing needs, beside which HSR looks like an expensive waste. If you really want to improve interstate rail, let’s get decent double track lines to take the freight off trucks. That would save far more fuel than is used in air travel

  17. Alan Davies

    michael r james #22,23:

    Nah, it wasn’t me who said HSR should be lower speeds, but it might’ve been me who said that’s what the politicians will probably end up preferring.

    Escalating construction costs is a major international phenomenon and seems to be worse in the US and Australia (I’ve discussed this before e.g. here and here). No one fully understands why and it’s doubtful there’s a single reason, but nevertheless it’s the current reality all current projects have to account for. It’s not an AECOM conspiracy.

    I’m not “defeatist” about decentralisation – that would imply it’s obviously a good thing. I question (a) that there’s a need for it in Australia in the forseeable future and (b) that it could ever work in Australia in the forseeable future – we’re not France, we’re different. Contrary to the mythology, we’re an urban country.

    Of course we do planning in Australia! And we’ve a long history of intervention, some of it quite bold. We’re pretty good at getting the balance right on economic policy in particular. We “just piss on any vision”? Sometimes no doubt, but lousy projects are not visionary.

  18. michael r james

    AD, (just before my laptop runs out of juice).
    I am also irritated by your defeatism about decentralization. The main thing that stops it is exactly that attitude. In France (as usual) they show how it is done with government programs and persistence in policy across decades and across political parties. The wonderful provincial cities of Toulouse and Montpellier are the two fastest growing cities and economies in Europe. There are others including Grenoble (physics & other hi-tech), Lyons, the Lille linear city region etc. TGV network was just one aspect of their devolution plans begun almost 40 years ago.

    But we don’t do planning in Australia. It is too hard and .. socialist. We just piss on any vision and make sure it won’t get up … unless we can drive our V8 and pimped up SUVs on it.

  19. michael r james

    AD at 12.50 pm

    Amtrak of course want 350 kmph but the white-anters, road lobby, freight-rail vested interests have always managed to kill such ambitions. (Am I doing an injustice or was it you who suggested Australian HSR should settle for lower speeds? Because it is … cheaper?) The Amtrak trains are currently capable of about 135 mph but the track owners so cripple their operation that average speed is 75 mph with stretches of <40 mph.

    As to the cost of the Californian HSR, that is precisely my point. There is a lot of discussion and anger on the blogs by engineer types who think American construction of any public infrastructure has reached outrageous levels of ineptitude and corruption. I wonder if AECOM is involved? Probably–it is based in LA. I wonder if they were involved in the LA Metro system which has also blown out beyond anything sensible–for all the wrong reasons.
    Over on the other coast the refurbishment of Washington's Union Station (terminus of that Amtrak) has reached $7 billion. For one station. Refurbishment!

    I forget which exalted consultancy provided the traffic projections and overall econometric analysis for Brisbane's first road mega-tunnel (Clem&) which of course went bankrupt, taking over a $1bn in super investment money (and half a bn of direct govt money) with it.

    So, two different standards of accounting and justification, a fantasy one for roads and a ridiculous one for rail and PT. Why, I seriously wonder, would you want to believe just one of these?

  20. Alan Davies

    michael r james #17,#18:

    I’m not in any way surprised you don’t agree with a single one of my points when it comes to HSR. But then you think the AECOM consortium’s costings are a conspiracy to “make the project fail”!!!!

    Update: Re your comment at #19, the Amtrak plan IS for 350 km/hr max HSR. And I’ll think about changing my name as you suggest if you change your handle to “HSRUnabomber” 🙂

    Update 2: I see the estimate of $10 billion for California HSR you cited in your 2010 article is now officially $70 billion.

    Update 3: Re your comment at #20, the old internal/external costs trope peddled by Seer is ridiculous. Externalities ARE the focus of the analysis and discussion of east coast HSR in Australia. It’s just that they don’t seem to add up. And as for this comment by Seer: “As long as we think that HSR needs to be accounted for like buying an appliance”. Fortunately Australia isn’t a church – huge outlays of public funds SHOULD be justified, not taken on faith or blind hope.

  21. michael r james

    I can’t help it. Here is one of the better comments from that Slate article (it is one of >800 posts and I had copied it into my file; you’re welcome): Seer Clearly sounds like an economist (except he is talking too much sense!):

    Seer Clearly Today, 8:17:55 AM
    Bill, the answer to your question as to why rail “loses money” and why private investment won’t build HSR is quite simple: all the financial models for rail internalize costs and externalize the benefits that the rail creates. The end result is that it looks like a money pit. Only when you escalate financial responsibility to an entity that can keep both the costs AND the benefits on the same books will you see that rail pays off. There are precious few rail systems in the world that pay their internalized costs from their internalized fares (Shanghai HSR is one.) However, around the world governments are building HSR as fast as they can because at the regional level, HSR pays for itself with economic development and avoided costs for other forms of transport development like highways, bridges, airports, etc. As long as we think that HSR needs to be accounted for like buying an appliance, we won’t build any. And countries like Germany and Japan will continue to enjoy a much higher return on their public spending on transit, as well as a higher economic multiplier for total societal spending on transit than we ever could hope for. And the ratio will keep getting better the higher the price of oil runs. It’s all an accounting problem: you can make any statement by manipulating the accounting reports that you’d like to make, so as long as we choose to make rail look bad, it will. But delegating it to private enterprise that only sees the internalized costs without collecting any of the externalized benefits is one sure way to keep it looking bad.]

  22. michael r james

    Alan Davies at 11:14 pm

    About the NE corridor: “Also, projected ridership in 2040 is 43 million, but revenue is only $4.9 billion. There’s no source of funding at this time.”

    The pax estimate would almost certainly be a big underestimate if real HSR (>300 kmph) was built.

    No one really knew how many would use the first European TGV (HSR) the French built between Lyon and Paris but it passed the first millionth passenger in very short time (a few months). At its 25th anniversary it had carried 1.2 billion passengers and today (its 31st anniversary this month!) it is more than 1.5 billion, and they are planning a second line on completely different route to cope with forecast traffic (and that will include transAlpine TGVs to Italy).

    The US NEC catchment has a much bigger population and though the US doesn’t have quite as big a tourist trade as France, on this particular route (ie. Boston, NYC, Philly, WashDC) it might be higher (than Paris-Lyons), and I for one would never fly between them ever again. Check out blogs on this topic and you discover that every single American who has used a TGV thinks the same way; and also does not buy the “won’t work in America” bs.
    For that reason with the ever more crowded air routes and airports it makes impeccable economic sense; I don’t have the specific city-pair stats but the NEC airports handled 229 million pax in 2011 (in fact it also make sense to extend to Atlanta since it has the US’s busiest airport, 92 million pax). I mention this for the obvious reason that wherever HST has connected city-pairs within 3 hours travel time the result is that HST captures most of the inter-city traffic; eg. London-Paris; most recent dramatic case is Barcelona-Madrid where the air route collapsed in the first year to inviability. In the US this preference by pax would be even more dramatic (if possible) if only for the fact that domestic air travel in the US is so shitty.

    And none of this is to suggest air travel doesn’t make sense for some, perhaps many, routes, though with continuous improvement in HSR it is now competitive with ≈4h travel time. But the US is going to gain another 100 million population (402 million by 2050) and, despite the road lobby and the willfully ignorant, there is movement towards solutions other than building more airports and yet more roads to service yet more ex-urban sprawl.

    As to the funding, this of course is entirely because of the road and oil lobby which results in rail receiving less than 1% of road transport budgets. And this in the richest country in the world.

    We have discussed on these blogs any number of times of how lamentable most American cities are, particularly in the Sun Belt–or at the very least how they are set up for future grief. I think you must be blinded by the unsustainable economic model of the US and want us to repeat all the same mistakes.
    Hey AD it just occurred to me: you should rename your blog “ex-urbanist”. It is more appropriate and has a nice double entendre 🙂

    Meanwhile here is some more reading for you–including a lot of good comment (I know I am hopelessly optimistic in thinking I can convert you. You know, on the old maxim that first they say you are wrong, then they say it is irrelevant, then finally they agree but say it was what they meant all along…)

    Off the Rails
    Why do conservatives hate trains so much?
    By David Weigel
    Posted Tuesday, March 8, 2011]

  23. michael r james

    No doubt this shows a bit of a swelled head but I am pretty sure that Saul Eslake (one of the few economists in Oz who seems to make sense most of the time) was inspired by my article on AVE. Either that or my points are simply blindingly obvious to anyone willing to open their eyes on the issue.

    The Question: Is Australia too big for a high-speed rail network?
    April 30, 2011

    First, the cost of congestion of our road networks is high and rising. Last year’s State of Australian Cities report cited estimates from the former Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics that the avoidable cost of congestion in Australian capitals would rise from $9.4 billion in 2005 to $20.4 billion by 2020. This increase could be moderated by getting at least some inter-capital people and freight movements off the roads.
    Second, the competitiveness of high-speed rail relative to air travel is likely to increase. The rising cost of jet fuel, ………
    Third, the drive to reduce carbon emissions is likely to increase the attractiveness and, depending on how we price carbon and our ability to generate ”clean” electricity, the economics of high-speed rail relative to air travel and long-distance road transport.
    Finally, emerging trends in high-speed rail technology in Europe are beginning to undermine the conventional wisdom that has informed this debate in Australia over the past two decades. For example, the Spanish AVE system now runs from Barcelona via Madrid to Seville, a distance of just over 900 kilometres, compared with just over 700 kilometres from Melbourne via Canberra to Sydney, and serving cities with a similar combined population of about 8 million.
    The economics of high-speed rail don’t stack up right now. But there’s an increasing probability they will within the next 20 years. It would be foolish to wait until then to begin investigating the possibilities.]

  24. michael r james

    Yikes! (AD 11.03 pm) Did you seriously want to admit that you believe anything—no matter how dumb just because it is commissioned for a few million bucks from any of the dozen guns-for-hire economic consultancies, and written up in some fancy report? It’s the difference between an economist and a scientist; that “64 million apartments” always seemed very suspect and sure enough when one tries to track it down it turns into a mist and wafts away on a breeze; and have you noticed what has happened to those so-called China experts with their perpetual braying of a property-based bubble implosion followed by the end of the world as we know it? China is still there, still building and the braying has quietend to a whisper—in fact just Wednesday night one of them was making the point I made in my scribblings on the subject: there are about 400 million Chinese peasants about to climb up the economic ladder and become urbanites in the next decade. (And in my world, no it is not up to me to prove such loose statements are untrue, it is up to those making them to provide convincing evidence.)

    I don’t think I can agree with a single one of your points. You are either completely wrong or just chasing strawmen.

    On the cost of building HSR in Oz, I would not be such a sceptic if their figures were not so grotesquely out of whack with well established costs in countries that actually build HSR–which incidentally does not include a single Anglo country! You know, a 20% difference or maybe even 50%, what’s a few billion between friends/countries but the estimates were over the moon. They are an obscenity. And unsubstantiated (I have the full report.) You apparently choose–I mean you actually choose–not to look at the evidence world wide (of course other than other Anglo countries who similarly have a oil+road lobby dead set against rail and none of whom have built HSR). Besides which I have previously discussed the truly stupendously OTT costs AECOM proposed for the termini. One can only conclude that these outrageous costings are made to make the project fail (possibly in collusion with the politicians; and if by some miracle a project gets approval then AECOM, itself being in the game, would make a motza).

    I have never justified HSR in terms of being “cleaner” though of course it is. Next you’ll tell me it wouldn’t be cleaner or more efficient (not to mention other significant externatilities like congestion and road repairs) if we moved more of our freight by rail (which even the USA does). NSW is talking about allowing B-doubles and triples on city roads! (someone else can pay the cost down the …road).

    The other issues were in relation more generally to rail versus road in Australia. As Ben’s post discussed, this complacent country needs heavy investment in all forms of PT to make it work.

    And yes I can say critics of HSR are to a man pro-road. Just like in the new NSW transport plan 100% of funds for the forseeable future will go to giant roads schemes and PT will be given lower priority forever (it is implicit in the plan which is why the head of the transport department, Les Wielinga, resigned the board of Infrastructure NSW–the entity chaired by Nick Greiner. Wielinga was going to be used as a token PT guy who they would parade as having signed off on the report.) How can you say that road spending has nothing to do with overall transport decisions–it has everything to do with it. Are you really blind to what is happening in all three states? Or do you honestly believe the bullshit rationale as to why every single dollar must be spent on roads? (But then I keep forgetting you make arguments for sprawl, want to increase fares on PT, make spurious cases against rail to airports and believe the US SunBelt is a model to follow.)

    I say it again, sadly, you are a typical defeatist when it comes to the infrastructure we really need. Infrastructure that would support the country for the next century (unlike all the roads in the world which cannot solve the problems of our big cities.) It is the easiest thing in the world to take an extremely narrow econometric approach (because there are more intangible externalities involved than the actual construction or even running costs) to block large projects and support those that appeal to the immediate gratification of drivers though with false promise of solving their problems. (And this is just one reason, but a pretty bloody good one, of why it is not ad hominem to equate pro-road as anti-rail, HSR or Metro rail; as it happens the same types are also pigheadedly against cycle paths. In Australia I do not know what more evidence you would need to convince you of these depressing facts.)

    So you cite those ridiculous costings, repeat Weiss’s stupid claims and the utterly unsubstantiated wild guesstimates of 64 million apartments, all cited uncritically! Why? (And just as I thought you were making progress on this blog!) And you have done again what I have criticized in the past: cited/linked to previous articles as if you had proved your point in those articles when I and others have often demolished those arguments, especially on these topics.

  25. Alan Davies

    michael r james:

    (1) I’ve discussed the full Barcelona-Madrid-Sevilla system before (see here).
    (2) The AECOM consortium is better placed than anyone to estimate HSR costs in the east coast corrisor. I’ll be guided by their estimates unless I’m shown they’re wrong. Just asserting their estimates are “absurd and criminally grotesque” doesn’t cut it.
    (3) The comparison with Greece was made by Gordon Weiss. Those who argue that if Greece (and Spain) can do it or are planning to do it then we should too, are the ones making the comparison. In any event, all countries can learn a lot from the experience of Greece (and a few other European countries including Spain).
    (4) You haven’t shown the 64 million vacant apartments in China claim is wrong in your linked article, or shown that over-building more generally isn’t occurring.
    (5) The “nation building” argument for east coast HSR is spin and blind hope (See here and here). That’s a religious argument, not a rational argument.
    (6) The decentralisation argument for subsidising east coast HSR hasn’t been demonstrated and is unconvincing in the Australian context (see here).
    (7) The emissions arguments for subsidising HSR are thin – it would be one of the most expensive ways of reducing emissions imaginable (see here).
    (8) How’s subsidising east coast HSR going to save us $66 billion in oil imports (that’s all Australia’s oil imports isn’t it?)?
    (9) How’s subsidising east coast HSR going to eliminate $20-$30 billion in congestion costs? That appears to be total national congestion costs!! Next you’ll be claiming, as Weiss does, that east coast HSR will generate congestion savings equal to 2% of GDP! East coast HSR is primarily an inter-city transport system (that’s why it would compete against air) not an intra-urban or metro transport system. In fact if it goes ahead it would bleed infrastructure funding away from metro areas.
    (10) Spending on roads is only a sideshow in the argument for and against east coast HSR (relevant to Sydney-Newcastle HSR though, but then I’m relatively positive about that). You can’t attempt to portray critics of HSR as pro-road. That’s ad hominem (and spin).

  26. michael r james

    AD, on this particular issue you continue to ignore the real arguments for fast rail. For example your point of comparing Barcelona-Madrid with Sydney-Canberra, no that is only half the argument. I believe I may have been the first in Australia to make the public case using the Spain AVE comparison, but it was the Seville-Madrid-Barcelona axis relative to the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne axis (together with maps and distances etc):

    A very fast train is a model of sustainability
    March 26, 2010

    But the best model for Australia to follow is Spain’s, which has built two HST lines of 1161 kilometres linking Madrid to Seville (540 kilometres, opened 18 years ago) and Barcelona (630 kilometres). These distances, and as it happens the total population served by the trains, is quite comparable to the Australian SCM axis (see graphic). Based on the current French estimate of Euro 10 million/km ($A15 million/km) to build those lines today would be about $A17.4 billion; even allowing several billions more for stations and train sets it would be a struggle to spend even half the fictional $60 billion, perhaps $20-25 billion.
    Since that article the AECOM report arbitarily doubled the cost again! And I’d like to hear the careful justification as to why building in almost empty Australian countryside should be so much more expensive than France or Germany which have much less land which is much more expensive and difficult to drive train corridors through? It should be cheaper here not 3 or 4 times the cost. (I well remember the arguments about the TGV Atlantic to Bordeaux in which the French government ceded to the powerful viniculture organization and built a tunnel under a vineyard rather than a simple cutting.)

    And AD you continue to accept totally uncritically the absurd and criminally grotesque estimates of cost, as I alluded in the above extract. And as mentioined by Ben Sandilands in his comment above. And by many other reasonably informed commentators on this issue. And you don’t do yourself any favours, making Campbell Newman-like pronouncements comparing us with Greece (the poorest European country versus the one of the richest in developed world). To me the really, really irritating aspect to such an “argument” is that it is so self-defeating. And worse, it seems deliberately defeatist. So yeah, let’s delay it for another decade and guess what, it will get even more expensive.

    Along the same lines why on earth would you raise such flimsy arguments re China? (If you can tolerate any more of my scorn have a read of my disdain at the totally flimsy claim of 64 million empty apartments in Crikey.

    Then there are the other nation-building aspects to such a project (decentralization out of Sydney & Melbourne, growth of Canberra, Goulburn, Albury-Wadonga; solution to the Sydney airport nonsense etc) for which it is impossible to put a value on (discussed here in 2009). Then there are even more externalities such as the estimates of our annual $66 bn oil imports within the decade (Ok, an arguable estimate from beyondzerocarbon but look at one year’s actual figure from ABS of $26bn when the oil priced had peaked). And the cost of congestion estimated at $20 to $30 bn p.a.

    I must admit I am weary of rebutting the (weak and defeatist) arguments of the nay sayers. Our three east coast cities are embarking on a new round of huge spending into the future on mega-road projects which of course have zero chance of doing what their sponsors claim. What is it about the Australian and Anglo mentality that just wants to go on believing, against all the mounting evidence, that endless expenditure on roads (or planes) is the unavoidable future?

  27. IkaInk

    Also, projected ridership in 2040 is 43 billion, but revenue is only $4.9 billion.

    Something is way off in that sentence.

    IkaInk: Indeed, thanks for spotting it. HSR should be extraordinarly successful in the corridor, but not that attractive! AD

  28. Alan Davies

    Here’s Amtrak’s proposal to build HSR in the densely settled Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington DC corridor. It envisages a 350 km/h max speed, giving a Boston-DC travel time over 450 miles of 3 hours by 2050. Should be perfect for HSR, but trouble is estimated cost in 2011$$ is $151 billion. Also, projected ridership in 2040 is 43 billion million, but revenue is only $4.9 billion. There’s no source of funding at this time.

  29. mook schanker

    To respond to Gordons piece with subsequent cherry picking of facts & figures really lets this article down and doesn’t provide much to the debate except that yes we should be wary about implementing HSR (which is a course of due diligence that should be done).

    Key to such a debate is what is the critical metric of value for HSR in comparison to other modes? Choosing ‘demand’, ‘competitive’ or ‘cost effective’ metrics provides little to the overall value in the business case and in comparison to other modes of transport. (Also, earlier HSR reports have some real lacking in this dept and the assumptions used). Hence why I argue Newcastle to Sydney HSR is a furphy, sure lots of demand but the scale of procurement of infrastructure assets and fleet to service the demand, timetabled durations & headways in comparison to say existing express services I would think would hardly result in a good benefit cost ratio, especially in comparison to a ‘fast’ express service that can be implemented for billions less. Considering ‘Newcastle’ was a mandatory requirement of the HSR study already has tainted the report somewhat, but the other more critical factors will hopefully be articulated…

    francis, that’s pretty fanciful stuff, enough said…

  30. Alan Davies

    It’s supposed to be about HSR, but this thread seems to have taken another route – driverless cars! That’s something that’s been discussed here before:

    Are driverless cars coming?
    Are driverless cars a game-changer?

    I need to revisit this topic. Enormous implementation problems, but history suggests they’ll be overcome sooner than we think.

  31. francis vierboom

    A lot of cynicism! I feel like it’s obvious. Google has developed the technology, and several US states are working on legal frameworks already (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomous_car#Legislation). It would be surprising to me if there was not a self-driving car for retail sale in Australia in 15 years’ time, and the benefits on day 1 are so numerous even while sharing the road with human users (replace the entire taxi fleet, replace all car-share schemes, replace designated drivers, sleep through an overnight journey to a holiday house, allow canberra-sydney commuters to work the whole way) that I would expect that in 20 years there would be calls for assigning dedicated lanes on major freeways for autonomous cars to let them go faster. It might not be 200km speed limits by then – but to me it’s already a massive dent in the already very shaky case for planning HSR, which is also on 20-30 year timelines.

  32. Tom the first and best

    Automation does not fix most of the problems with urban car use. Indeed it increases the cost of them for everyone who does not currently employ a driver.

    Automation does not fix the traffic congestion or space requirements more than a fraction. It certainly does not fix the energy or materials usage.

    Automation will benefit taxis the most as they have the highest cost driver to passenger ratio both in terms of wages and vehicle space. A standard automatic taxi could have up to 6 passengers.

    Automation also benefits PT as if you can automate cars you can automate trains trams and buses. Trams and especially trains are also easier to automate than cars.

    It will reduce the advantage of rail freight over trucks.

    PT will still outdo cars in urban areas come what may.

  33. marcfranc

    Probably because of the existing role of rail transport in Australia, the discussion about HSR in this country is often couched in terms of freight (e.g. Gordon Weiss’s article in the Global Mail) and commuter passengers (the implication of the Urbanist’s suggestion that Sydney-Newcastle might be the only viable route in Australia).

    From experience in Europe, I’d say the major market for HSR is business travel, weekly commutes and recreational travel in that order. (It doesn’t seem to have a significant role in freight transport.) HSR is too expensive a solution for carrying thousands of modestly paid commuters between Newcastle, the Central Coast and Sydney.

    But it would be ideal for travel between Sydney and Canberra because the pattern of travel between the two centres fits the European model. Like many others, I would happily pay $50-100 one way for a TGV-style service between the two cities, and use it frequently.

    I suspect that potential demand for HSR on this route may be underestimated because the analysis is based on taking share from air travel, ignoring the major role of car travel.

    Many people prefer to drive between Sydney and Canberra because (door to door) driving is at least as fast as flying, and the cumbersome trip by air doesn’t offer much more productive use of time than driving. And it’s not just people like me for whom the cost of travel comes off the bottom line. I know many people for whom their travel is paid for by another party who still prefer to drive.

    Notwithstanding this, Canberra-Sydney HSR offers another benefit over Sydney-Newcastle. Within a short space of time, it would free up to 60 weekday slots a day at Sydney Airport (based on current weekday flight schedules). Once the train started to eat into air travel’s share, the existing high frequency shuttle arrangement would decline, and even if some people preferred to fly the limited availability of continued services would make this a much less attractive option.

    As an aside: as a long-time resident of Melbourne who now divides his time between Sydney and Canberra, I’ll make the point Melbourne just doesn’t seem to get Canberra and, more particularly, its deepening links with Sydney. But as your fellow blogger, Ben Sandilands of Plane Talking, has noted, Canberra is well positioned to take on significant share of Sydney’s potential growth in the face of its struggling infrastructure.

    And note that while the ACT’s population is only 370,000 there are another 100,000 people in New South Wales within an hour’s commute – many of whom are closer to Parliament House than people in outlaying parts of Canberra itself. The metro population growth rate is well above the national growth rate.

  34. Steve777

    Sydney’s road infrastructure has pretty much grown organically over 200 years from roads initially built for pedestrians, buggies and bullock carts with little overall planning. What plans there have been have tended to be cancelled or changed part way through, driven by Federal, State and local authorities with different and often conflicting agendas. Adding private consortiums to the mix in recent years has complicated and I would say stuffed up some of the more recent efforts at building transport infrastructure.

    So in 20 or 30 years time our road infrastructure would have evolved from what we have now. Even if we had 200km/h driverless vehicles, there would be few places for them to go.

  35. suburbanite

    Driverless cars in 20 years time travelling at 200km/h? There are so many problems yet to be solved for that red herring it’s not funny. Then you have the normal turnover of existing vehicles. There are many 20 and 30 year old vehicles still on the road.

    The cost of building dedicated roads for these high speed cars would also be prohibitive since you couldn’t safely mix regular cars travelling at 100km/h with high speed driverless cars travelling at double the speed. At least HSR actually exists and is in active service, driverless cars are still in demonstration.

  36. Ben Sandilands

    Having spent considerable time in France pre and post TGV, and even when the Paris metro had first class cars, and the very first RERs began,and being a rail tragic all my life, as well as the author of Crikey blog Plane Talking can I make an urgent plea.

    Pay attention to fast train terminal locations, and supporting metropolitan rail infrastructure. By historic accident, Paris, London, Tokyo and no doubt other locations, built what are by Australian standards, outstanding metro rail connections over a very long time to the grand 19th century old rail cathedrals that now host fast and sometimes very fast rail services.

    They render the start and end points of HSR highly accessible, thus making total trip time calculations highly attractive, in ways that a Sydney Central HSR terminal would not be highly attractive without some inspired and timely investments in improved metropolitan rail. Which are investment we need whether or not we ever build HSR.

    One other plea. Ban excessive financial engineering. When close to 80% of the road toll, and similarly high station loadings for the Sydney Airport rail joke, apply to repaying fees to the promoters or final owners of these complex consortiums, you ought to know that something is seriously wrong in our recent public private partnerships.

    The combination of high product charges based on financial engineering robbery and difficult or relevant access come together, the result could kill HSR in this country stone dead after the initial funding scandals occur.

    We need to make the cost of infrastructure engineering in this country come down to those of say Germany, or the UK, never mind in China, to get things going.

  37. Dylan Nicholson

    We won’t have self-driving cars travelling at 200 km/h available to most of the population within 20 years (at best I’d expect maybe a third of all vehicles to be driverless – mostly for transport not passengers – and speed limits to be as they are now). But I do suspect you’re right that such technology will *eventually* make long distance rail uneconomic. Potentially it could ultimately make nearly all ground-based mass transit uneconomic, and I might even see that happen in my own lifetime (I reckon I can hang on another 50 years if all goes well!).
    Either way, much as I love the idea of HSR in Australia, it does seem the money would be much better spent on other things.

  38. francis vierboom

    Proposals to build HSR also ignore the fact that in 20 years it’s quite likely it will be obsoleted by self-driving cars that can safely travel at over 200kmph and take their passengers anywhere they like at any time! It’s too bad we didn’t build it in the 50s but it’s too late to get it now.

  39. Steve777

    Population density seems to be the reason why HSR wouldn’t work in Australia. At a cost of $108 billion it would need to generate over 5 billion in profits each year over the cost of running it to make it any sort of rational investment. This would be a margin of about $2,500 per customer per year if it had 2 million customers. It’s hard to see how this could work. Fares would need to be prohibitely high or it would require a heavy subsidy.

    Just look at some of the examples given: France – nearly three times Australia’s population in an area about two thirds that of NSW. Japan – about six times Australia’s population in an area less than half that of NSW. Similar comparisons apply to other counties mentioned as having or planning high speed rail. Our potential market is just not big enough.

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