HSR High Speed Rail

Jun 21, 2016

Is the High Speed Rail bandwagon slowing down?

In an astonishing display of sanity – especially during an election campaign – the Turnbull Government has backed away from its earlier enthusiasm for High Speed Rail

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Ages 6 - 12. Say no more
Ages 6 – 12 years. Say no more

The Financial Review reported last week that Federal Major Projects Minister Paul Fletcher says High Speed Rail (HSR) is not a sensible priority for Australia and the Turnbull government has no plans to build the touted East Coast HSR network.

The $114 billion price for a high-speed railway by the previous Labor government is considered by many to be “an optimistically low assessment,” Mr Fletcher told The Australian Financial Review’s National Infrastructure Summit.

“If you look at a country like Spain, it’s taken 30 years to get to point as having as many kilometres of track as will be proposed between Brisbane and Melbourne,” he said.

“So, newsflash: There is no commitment by the Turnbull government to that kind of funding. It’s just not a sensible priority.”…

This of course is a dramatic about-turn on the part of the Government; just a few months ago Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was all over HSR (Malcolm Turnback? Turnabout?). Back in March and April, Government backbencher John Alexander, who chairs the Parliament’s Infrastructure, Transport and Cities Committee, was vigorously promoting the vision of East Coast HSR funded by the magic of “value capture” (e.g. see here and here).

Mr Turnbull might be prone to passing fancies, but it’s a welcome U-turn. Let’s pause for a moment to consider briefly the cringe-making stupidity of spending $114 – 129 Billion of public funds to build East Coast HSR. It would:

  • Consume a generation’s worth of infrastructure spending. (1)
  • Replace a competitive public transport industry with a monopoly provider.
  • Bestow most benefits on business travellers (time savings).
  • Deliver very modest environmental benefits at an extremely high cost.
  • Produce regional sprawl, not regional development.

The Government’s sudden return to its senses on this issue is a hopeful sign that some element of rationality and honesty might still be possible in our political system. Both Labor and the Greens remain keen supporters of HSR, but from what I can see neither party has reacted publicly so far to the Government’s change of heart.

We now have the weird situation where the only parties who actively support HSR are the two with pretensions to progressivism. The party that’s turning down the hordes of rent-seeking financiers and suppliers is actually the one favoured by business!

There’s no chance Bill Shorten and Richard Di Natale will follow Malcolm Turnbull’s lead and change tack on HSR this close to the election, but they should at least let the Government’s moment of sanity go by without adverse remark.

If Labor and the Greens come out on top on 2 July, they should lead their supporters down a new path i.e. ” We’re sorry, but HSR doesn’t work in Australia; there’s no indication it will in the foreseeable future; and anyway it’s the sort of project progressives should oppose. Sorry we so cycnically misled you“.


  1. It’s possible construction costs might be lower now than they were in 2013 when AECOM completed the $20 million feasibility study for HSR boosters Anthony Albanese and the Australian Greens, but two things need to be borne in mind. First, East Coast HSR would take decades to build so a long-term view of costs should be taken. Second, early cost estimates like those prepared by AECOM are invariably way too low because they necessarily lack detailed technical knowledge.
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10 thoughts on “Is the High Speed Rail bandwagon slowing down?

  1. Justin O'Connell

    I can’t agree with any of the comments about the questionable worth of HSR. So Turnbull, Fletcher and their neo-liberal, car obsessed acolytes who are slaves to the car lobby and big oil are against HSR? Well knock me down with a feather!! I think that its time has come and to play the “me too” card about prioritising public infrastructure spend on urban centres misses the point and allows a good opportunity to be missed. Our urban centres are expanding, through infill or development by means of increasing population. There will always unfortunately be lag times in this area – Sydney or Perth. The existing Melbourne to Sydney air corridor is the 5th busiest domestic air corridor in the world. This for a country of 24 million. It is clear that HSR will need to compete with both road and air passenger travel. This is what HSR is all about – people not freight. This is another story and is probably another reason for the opponents of HSR to use as it leaves this important issue – freight – unanswered. However it is people which are important and while I am not a lover of business people or travel, unfortunately business is a fact of life and if something as environmentally friendly as HSR was introduced to service this class there is no valid reason not to support it. It’s like saying here in Sydney that you are against ferries because they service chiefly the upper-middle to upper class areas of the lower North Shore, the city and the harbourside suburbs of our east and inner west. Poppycock. I can’t understand Alan’s logic at times. You want to mount an argument under the pretext and pretence of social justice because its beneficiaries may be wealthier than average individuals? So you want to make travel times more uncomfortable for business or wealthier individuals at the expense of environmental benefit? Again Alan bangs on about cost but avoids the cost of the road routes and plane travel routes already existing in terms of their construction and maintenance, their social disruption and environmental degradation. HSR from Melbourne to Sydney and on to Brisbane would service millions and unfortunately after my visits to SE Queensland, I say that regional sprawl is well and truly underway and has been for many years. A rail monopoly or an air duopoly? What’s the difference?

    1. Alan Davies

      Justin, there’s nothing wrong with HSR as long as it’s implemented in a sensible way, as has happened in Japan and in (some parts of) Europe. The problem with East Coast HSR is that it would require massive sums of public money to compete with an existing public transport system; most of the benefits would accrue for free to business travellers; and it would be an extremely expensive way of producing environmental benefits .

      The key point is there are vastly better ways to spend $114 – $129 Billion than subsidising city centre business travellers so they can save 15 minutes between Sydney and Melbourne. If Boeing invented a super-fast airline that reduced the trip by 15 minutes, would you think it reasonable for the government spend $114 to $129 Billion to subsidise a fleet of the new craft?

      1. Justin O'Connell

        Alan I can’t see how you would think HSR devised by intelligent people, experts in their field and carried out by skilled personnel would be anything else but sensible. Particularly given commercial parameters. Did you not understand that the Melbourne-Sydney air route is the 5th busiest air link in the world. its more than just business people that use this route. 5th busiest in the world!! One of the highest use per capita in the world. I would not find any consolation in the fact that Boeing develops a faster aircraft as they use a finite resource and create GHG while in operation. Also your analysis fails to incorporate the fact that continued and growing air travel requires new airports and hence the mess we have with Badgerys Creek. A HSR should have been up and running years ago precisely to prevent this impending disaster we are faced with in NSW with the consent of both major parties who have done such a wonderful job of stuffing this State up for years with their non decisions on airports, public transport and their obsession with cost shifting – witness PPT road projects. What is the damage that airlines are doing via carbon usage on this route? Same for cars. What’s their carbon footprint? You are excluding the carbon footprint of road and air in your analysis and I don;t doubt your figures on the cost of HSR. I think it is a price we need to make regardless and this must be produced along with the promised freight inland route which I would hope you support. All we have done is spend on road and air and cover over their real costs. Boeing can develop quicker air planes but they cannot build bigger ones and they cannot build them fast enough to cope with the large and growing passenger traffic between major urban capital cities in Australia and elsewhere. Japan is smaller geographically and managed to develop economically courtesy of US post war money otherwise they would be back in the Stone Age where they were bombed back to which is roughly where we are in NSW and I daresay other parts of Oz with our public transport and major infrastructure.

        1. Alan Davies

          Justin, I didn’t ignore the environmental dimensions; I say above that HSR would “deliver very modest environmental benefits at an extremely high cost”. A fuller explanation is available here, So high speed rail would increase carbon emissions?

  2. Duncan Gilbey

    The first sensible thing I’ve heard from this government.

  3. Peter

    Hello Alan,
    HSR does have a role in Australia, just not as currently conceived.
    Current proposals focus on travel between state capitals, regional development and competing against planes. Such an approach, I think, is completely wrong.

    Instead of competing against planes, HSR should be competing against motorway lanes. Cars are legally limited to 100-120km/hr on motorways. A train can easily travel at speeds twice or three times this. Trains also have around 10 x the capacity of a motorway lane. Higher train speeds also reduce labour costs to operate public transport significantly.

    This is where HSR would work extremely well – from capital cities to regions within 300km of a state capital. So perhaps from Melbourne to Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat. Or from Sydney to Wollongong, Newcastle and Penrith. Or from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast. The trick is to keep the train travel times within 1 hour and aim the services at the ordinary commuter.

  4. Jacob HSR

    Because the 12 submarines are a much better use of money.

  5. Ben Sandilands

    This outbreak of common sense by the key parties might just see the public discussion refocus on public transport priorities within significant or emerging metropolitan areas. For all of the good things about the NW Rail in Sydney there are some huge flaws, and protecting the rest of the system from them rather than contaminating and compromising its inbuilt strengths is a whole set of issues in need of urgent discussion. The rest of the country could learn much from Sydney’s mistakes.

    There may be merit in giving a distant nod to HST systems of the latter half of this century by protecting the odd access area. The original Sydney electric railway planners of the early 20th century actually left intact, to this day, ghost platforms and graded separations for joining tunnels for lines they thought might be built by the middle of the last century.

    I suspect that vision was right, but too optimistic by around 100 years, but the foundations that will facilitate them endure as in additional Manly-Warringah and mid North shore access to the current permanent ways, which do, surprisingly, contain space where existing lines can be duplicated, or surface excavated for shallow level cut and cover construction.
    The HSR fetish (with which I admit the odd dalliance) was a threat to the capital and planning needs of better city area public transport developments. It’s demise, for another half century or so, ought to be welcomed.

  6. Adam Ford

    Allow me to shamelessly self-promote my blog saying essentially the same …

    and a new post on suburban activity centres and possible rail network extensions to facilitate them.

    1. Alan Davies

      Haven’t read your piece on HSR yet but the article on suburban activity centres is fascinating. Must disagree with your claim though that:

      “Again the point needs to be made that the airport region is presently Melbourne’s largest employment center outside the CBD, and it is entirely unserviced by public transport.”

      It depends on how you define a centre, but by my methodology (see Where are the suburban jobs?), Clayton is considerably larger than the airport in terms of employment and is by the largest centre in suburban Melbourne. If you include the inner city, then neither the Clayton nor the airport come close to being the largest.

      The airport is served by SkyBus at 10 minute frequencies (and various other private bus operators) as well as the 901 orbital Smartbus service. Workers aren’t going to commute at SkyBus fares ($19 one way) but the company told me five years ago that workers get a concessional fare.

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