HSR High Speed Rail

Aug 28, 2013

High Speed Rail: would it run down Australia?

Kevin Rudd is the first Australian Prime Minister to commit to High Speed Rail but it's no more sensible an idea for this country now than it was when first proposed by the CSIRO 30 years ago

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

High Speed Rail - a button for political desperates, cynical greenwashers and snout dippers to press?

On the face of it, High Speed Rail (HSR) is a politician’s dream. It appears to be visionary; it seems to be extraordinarily green; and it gives the impression it will deliver huge, “nation shaping” economic benefits.

And if you’re getting increasingly desperate like the Prime Minister, you can even pledge to build it in budgetary Never Never Land – which is exactly what Kevin Rudd did on Monday. Of course he was simply copying the promise made by The Greens earlier this month. (1)

The Prime Minister built his pledge around the report of the Advisory Group on High Speed Rail. The Group was set up in April at the time the $20 million HSR Study done by the AECOM-led consortium under the auspices of the Department of Infrastructure and Transport was released publicly.

Mr Rudd made much of the Advisory Group’s strong endorsement of HSR, but it’s important to appreciate how limited the scope of its deliberations were.

The Advisory Group hasn’t provided any new technical information or undertaken any technical analysis. Nothing it says contradicts the findings of the HSR Study; indeed the Group strongly endorses the HSR Study.

The terms of reference for the Group only required it to look at the views of stakeholders and provide the Government with “practical advice on the implementation of high speed rail in Australia”. Its purview is implementation; it has nothing substantive to add that improves (or weakens) the case made in the HSR Study.

That’s hardly surprising as the technical capacity of the Group is limited. It comprises a bureaucrat (chair), a regional Mayor, two industry lobbyists, a unionist, a professor of planning, a professor of sustainability, and a former politician (rail enthusiast, Tim Fischer).

Most of the report is simply a summary of the views of stakeholders, virtually all of whom would benefit in some way from HSR. Its main focus is on ways of marketing HSR better (“transformative” is mentioned 13 times!). Its key idea is that HSR should be presented as a series of smaller projects whose cost and timing are less intimidating than the overall $114 billion estimate provided in the HSR study.

The report reads like any early-stage pitch; it’s long on promising possibilities but short on substantiation. It repeats and implicitly endorses a number of untested assertions made by stakeholders with a strong interest in HSR proceeding.

For example, it says “international stakeholders with practical design and construction experience” have indicated the capital cost could be reduced by 15-20% if it were opened to “competitive global tender”. It says this brilliant innovation, which presumably it imagines didn’t occur to those who did the HSR Study, “should be tested”.

It’s the sort of over-the-top optimism that, given enough political excitement, leads eventually to an objective technical study designed to sort the facts from the fiction. Trouble is, we’ve already had the study to end all studies – it cost $20 million,  took two years, and was completed before the Advisory Group was set up!

Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm, it’s worth remembering that HSR is a crazy idea for Australia (see Is HSR a no-brainer or a boondoggle?). We know from the HSR Study that the best evidence shows :

  • HSR would cost tax payers a truly staggering $100 billion, none of which would be repaid (unlike the NBN). That’s more than five times what the Rudd Government outlaid to avoid the GFC!
  • The total value of negative externalities, including emissions, pollution, noise and traffic congestion, that would be avoided by HSR amount to just $2 billion over the life of the project.
  • The overwhelming quantum of economic benefits (90%) would come in the form of faster door-to-door trips for inter-capital business travellers and for regional leisure travellers journeying to the capital cities.
  • It would replace one form of public transport (airplanes) with another form of public transport (trains).
  • It wouldn’t replace the need for a second airport in Sydney.
  • Any regional development it facilitated would be sprawl by another name and would constitute a redistribution of activity, not a net economic benefit for the nation.

The key idea is that there are many other ways that public funds on this scale could be applied for a bigger social, economic and environmental pay-off and a fairer outcome than HSR would provide. For example, just looking at infrastructure, public subsidies could be directed at improving public transport in the nation’s cities or shifting electricity generation to renewable sources.

Nearly 30 years have elapsed since the CSIRO proposed the idea of a very fast train between Sydney and Melbourne in 1984. Now it seems HSR is just another button for political desperates, cynical greenwashers and trough-draughters to press.


(1) Anthony Albanese’s claim that ‘Labor HSR’ would create 10,000 jobs is distinctly lacklustre compared to Adam Bandt’s claim that ‘Greens HSR’ would create 200,000 jobs.

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15 thoughts on “High Speed Rail: would it run down Australia?

  1. Kym Lennox

    HSR is a commercial undertaking in Japan requiring no public funds – in fact JR Central just announced they are proceeding with a $51B 350km long maglev capable of speeds above 500km/h. They can do this as they make $3B a year in profit from ticket prices that would make Australian’s choke.

    The Japanese HSR started in 1964 and is still expanding, it will stretch to Hokkaido in 2016 and has expansion plans reaching into the 2040s. The point is that HSR starts relatively small and with the exception of Japan and China, they all start using existing corridors, rails and stations inside the large urban centres (they cost too much otherwise).

    Instead, as we have a Federal/State divide that meant the option to use Sydney’s suburban network was quickly dismissed. You might suggest that Sydney’s network can’t fit HSR into it, this is certainly the response from Transport NSW to the HSR team. Yet, HSR was part of the planning within what was described as the ‘Christie plan’. The MREP rail project announced in 2005 considered the interlining of HSR. We designed and tested HSR integrated train plans for Transport NSW on the Strategic Transport Model as recently as 2010.

    Unfortunately, since then train planning has taken a particularly Hong Kong perspective and lauded the benefits of Metros, the potential for HSR to integrate has been fading. I’d be one of the first to say Sydney needs a Metro network, but that doesn’t mean you cannibalise the Suburban network to get one.

    A 7 million person Sydney that hasn’t got the space to simply spread like a London or Paris needs a transport network to suit. As noted in other comments, this means recognising we have a significant topographical barrier encircling the Sydney basin that needs to made more porous. In order for Sydney to thrive in the 21st Century and provide its residents with an increasing quality of life we will need the growing population and they will need to be able to access the jobs and education.

    However, we do not have the capacity let alone the will to redevelop the inner regions of Sydney. The result is that we must follow the path of linking regional centres to Sydney and use the competitive advantage that arises when the link is not too costly to operate (note, operate not build). Car travel is too costly, plane travel is too inflexible.

    I chair a charity focused on climate change – do I see long commutes as sensible. Of course not – I actually walk to work. Yet, the commercial activity of Sydney demands a pool of employees that don’t fit inside the Sydney basin, so I don’t get the choice. In time we will see more density, but the pace of this process even if it is doubled from the trend of the last decade isn’t fast enough.

    While a smaller proportion of the population may commute from outside the basin, the absolute number will grow considerably. I don’t want to see in 10 years time that because we didn’t start HSR now, we are beginning to build a duplication of the F3 simply because to fund the building of the new road and tolling both of them is well understood.

    I led a study on HSR looking at the question of why, rather than how (http://bit.ly/10h3wV2). The issue with the current process is that it hasn’t worked out what the problem is that HSR is trying to solve.

  2. Alan Davies

    Jacob HSR #12:

    Yes, I know you don’t mean BRT. I was thinking of demand responsive systems (e.g. taxis), although I see by your link that PRT is about podcars (Hyperloopish?).

  3. Tom the first and best


    North Melbourne is connected to Southern Cross by rail. On weekdays about half the trains go direct between the 2 stations.

  4. Jacob HSR

    Alan, PRT, not BRT.


    In London they built it because they felt it is better/cheaper than running buses (to go from Terminal 5 to the carpark).

    Tel Aviv is planning to build one soon.

    Given how cheap it is to build, could it be used to fill gaps in Public Transport or save people from having to go into the overcrowded city in order to change lines?

    ie, connect Jolimont Station to Richmond Station or North Melbourne to Southern Cross.

  5. suburbanite

    Are there other more modest improvements that could be made to existing interstate train trips. I have been interstate on bus – never again, unless I was a desperate fugitive, rail in the days when they allowed smoking and air and spent most of the travel time trying to get to the airport and waiting for the flights in over-crowded uncomfortable airports. If this is as good as it gets then the future looks pretty depressing. Travelling on trains in Europe however was enjoyable.

  6. suburbanite

    Alan #4:

    It seems John Kay would agree with you on HSR anyway. High time to abandon the spurious case for a high-speed railway

    The case he makes against HSR could be easily used to argue against other large projects like the East West link.

  7. Alan Davies

    Jacob HSR #8:

    I’ve been meaning for a long time now to write about PRT using some Brisbane data. Just haven’t got there yet.

    I doubt SSA is a boondoggle. Seems to be a clear need with no viable alternative.

    Given the only serious alternative is cars, fast rail systems to serve commuters is a different issue to inter-city travel. You’d have to think though about the wisdom of subsidising commuters so they can live even further away in even larger houses at even lower densities.

  8. Jacob HSR

    Alan, can you write an article about PRT, Personal Rapid Transit?

    How about one on Sydney’s 2nd Airport, is that a boondoggle too?

    There is a green belt around London, and there are calls to chop some of it down for housing. But by building HSR, people can live outside the belt and commute in.

    Sydney has almost run out of land too, there may be calls to chop down some of its natural reserves if we dont build HSR.

  9. Russ

    IkaInk, Alan, the time-frame for the cost/benefits should really be separated out by type. A right-of-way into an urban area is useful for as long as the settlement exists; there are Roman roads thousands of years old, even most Australian rights-of-way have been in place over a hundred years. The cost of land increases with population as well as inflation, so it isn’t necessarily cheaper later either (as we are discovering). The rolling stock and tracks on the other hand shouldn’t extend more than 20-30 yeas past the build date, although some will last longer. There is a huge difference between a cost of $100 billion of which $80 billion is tunnels and land that will always find some use, and $100 billion of which $80 billion is specific to the project.

  10. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #5:

    I don’t think that’s right. I’m not in a position to look at the HSR Study right now, but I’m pretty sure the 50 year period starts in the 2030s and goes until the 2080s.

    Update: Figure 8.6 on page 366 of the Stage 2 report starts counting the benefits from 2035 (opening of Sydney-Canberra) and goes on to 2090.

  11. IkaInk

    @Alan – One big quibble The total value of negative externalities, including emissions, pollution, noise and traffic congestion, that would be avoided by HSR amount to just $2 billion over the life of the project.

    This $2 billion figure is made up of the 50 year period that the HSR study covered. 50 years seems like a long time, and I agree that extending the timeframe beyond this is fraught with a lot of problems; however that same study assumed a 40 year build! Therefore they’ve calculated the benefits for only 10 years after the project is actually finished.

  12. Alan Davies

    suburbanite #3:

    Exercises like John Kay’s are highly selective. Could you argue that Hadrian’s Wall was a good investment? Or the Great Wall(s) of China? Was all that investment in the Pyramids socially useful? Was Napoleon’s invasion of Russia a good investment? What about any number of essentially experimental medical procedures that were state of the art in times past? What about all those misinformed scientific theories that had official endorsement in their day but we think of as rubbish now?

  13. suburbanite

    Whenever I read your carefully argued columns about HSR I always get reminded of this article http://www.johnkay.com/2013/01/16/london’s-rise-from-sewer-to-spectacle

    Is it possible that you might be indulging in a bit of short-term analytical overreach?

  14. Alan Davies

    Column in the Fin Review today by the Economics Editor Alan Mitchell on the Advisory Group’s report.

  15. pjrob1957

    High speed rail is a great idea and its time Australia stopped lagging behing on this one.
    I was in China a few months ago and there was a high speed rail servicing the little city I was in and Beijing.
    But who would have thought the Chinese would be already doing this?
    Then I found Sth Korea was also. It turns out just about every advanced country is getting into High speed pail.
    Its a long time ago, 1988, that I was in Japan and on the Shinkanzen. I could see how it had been around awhile by the way everything in it was a very dated brushed alluminium and I thought back then when are we going to catch up?
    If it solves the rigmarole of what you get put through at airports…
    …easily worth it.

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