Staging of the preferred HSR system – commencement of operations
AECOM’s preferred staging of the east coast HSR system – commencement of operations (source: DIRD HSR phase 2 report)

All the clichés about nation building are being trotted out again now that Malcolm Turnbull has put High Speed Rail (HSR) in the news.

Writing in the Fairfax papers yesterday, former BHP executive Peter Knight gave a short course in HSR rhetoric, High-speed Rail: the mother of all infrastructure projects.

HSR, he wrote, would be “transformative”, “twenty first century”, the equivalent of the “Snowy Mountains Scheme”, an “economic game-changer” and would increase “innovation, productivity, competitiveness and growth”.

Sure, he missed a few – e.g. visionary, nation building – but he more than compensated for that with this zinger: “high-speed rail is the mother of all infrastructure projects”.

His commentary was more notable though for his assertion that east coast HSR would cost $30 Billion to construct and could be completed within seven years.

$30 Billion? Seriously? That’s a lot of money but it’s not even remotely close to what the rest of the world estimates it would take to build 1,738 km of twin track rail line and 20 stations, three of them in the centres of the largest capital cities.

Mr Knight’s estimate is wildly at odds with the finding of the $20 million study completed in 2013 by engineering firm AECOM at the behest of HSR boosters, then Minister for Transport Anthony Albanese and the Australian Greens.

AECOM concluded that east coast HSR would cost between $114 Billion (P50) and $129 Billion (P90) to construct. The study also concluded it would take until 2058 to build out the line completely. Construction of the first section – from Sydney to Canberra – wouldn’t start until 2027:

International experience of large infrastructure developments shows that approximately ten years could be required for planning, consultation and environmental approvals, and five years for preconstruction and procurement activities.

Back in 2012, the Greens put the estimated cost at $80 Billion and the benefits at $48 Billion (see What are the benefits of east coast High Speed Rail?).

A year later when AECOM’s final report was released, the Greens didn’t question the $114 – 129 Billion cost estimate. But the party said it would adopt AECOM’s “acceleration option” to bring completion forward to 2035 (without acknowledging this would reduce the estimated benefits from the project). See Is High Speed Rail a no-brainer or a boondoggle?

And just last month, perennial HSR booster Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) put the cost of east coast HSR at $84 Billion. BZE isn’t the sort of organisation that’s inclined to err on the high side.

It’s the same mob that two years ago insisted to universal disbelief that the 9 km Melbourne Metro could be built for $3 – 4 Billion when the acknowledged cost at the time was $9 Billion and is now officially $11 Billion nominal (see What does urban rail really cost to build?).

So Mr Knight’s claim of $30 Billion is way out of line with the even the most optimistic estimates. And he includes an additional line to carry high speed freight that no one else included in their calculations!

AECOM’s time-line might seem overly conservative but seven years from go to whoa is in another dimension. Note that detailed planning for the considerably more modest Melbourne Metro started in the time of the Brumby government and the line isn’t expected to be completed until 2026 at the earliest.

I don’t doubt Mr Knight is sincere and well-meaning but he’s just plain wrong on this one. And he’s not a bit wrong; his estimates aren’t even remotely within the ball park.

This isn’t a minor issue. Exposure of misleading figures in prominent mastheads like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age could have a major impact on the terms of the public debate around HSR.

Sadly, this is a case where Fairfax’s pretensions to publish quality papers – papers of record – have been embarrassingly exposed. This article shouldn’t have survived even a basic credibility test. It’s as if there’s no one at Fairfax anymore whose responsible for actual sub-editing.