Could high-speed rail between Sydney and Canberra be a reality?

By 27 August, 2013 36

train

By Rico Merkert

The announcement by prime minister Kevin Rudd and minister for transport Anthony Albanese on high-speed rail suggests both men at least want to maintain the momentum of the debate on the project.

Firstly, Mr Albanese released and praised an advisory report suggesting the viability of such a project.

Mr Rudd then committed to set up a high-speed rail authority as well as $52 million worth of spending on a business case and market testing of station locations and cost estimates (and possibly some land acquisitions) for the proposed Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne line.

In my last piece for The Conversation in May, I concluded that “high-speed rail in Australia would be very exciting indeed to have, but unless the government is prepared to make a strategic rather than a cost benefit decision on this project I don’t see any high-speed rail coming to Australia in the near future”.

Since then the fundamentals have not changed, other than Australia being very close to an election. The timing of the both announcements is not typical of the approach usually given to such strategic long-term decisions, particularly since the potential incoming government has not declared its support for such a project.

In terms of the fundamentals, let’s start with the positives. It would certainly make a lot of sense to break the proposed Brisbane-Melbourne link (worth $114 billion) into smaller pieces and Canberra to Sydney appears to be the most feasible first option.

Rail versus flight

According to the advisory report, this first leg could be up and running within 17 years and would cost some $23 billion. The report also suggests fares (single) on such a high speed rail service of around $42 to $69 in order to be competitive to air services.

While airlines (particularly low cost carriers such as Jetstar and Tigerair) will most probably be able to offer such a trip for less money, a key benefit of the high speed train option would be convenience. The high speed trains would connect city centre with city centre, with less hassle (security, luggage) compared to airports. Passengers would be able to work on the trains, which is particularly important to high-yielding business travellers.

The 300 kilometre distance would be ideal as the international experience shows that for trips of up to 400km, the total trip time (door-to-door) of high-speed rail is similar to that of aviation, assuming that both ends of the route are in the city centres of the cities in question.

Again from international experience we know that integrating high speed rail with airports drives demand and it is likely that there is large potential for travellers originating from Canberra’s CBD who would take a high-speed train to Sydney airport to connect with a long haul international flight.

The management of Canberra airport argues the same, just with opposite traffic flows (Sydney CBD to Canberra airport), which shows the importance of the terminal location in terms of CBD and airport connectivity and the need to conduct further research (at the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS) we are currently looking into such topics for the European context).

Again, breaking the project into smaller pieces helps to understand the details and complexities involved and is further useful to build momentum and public support. Whether the route will ever go beyond Sydney-Canberra is another matter.

Cautious analysis

This brings us to the points that require cautious analysis. The advisory report claims the project can be delivered for much less than what was indicated in the Phase 2 HSR Report released in April. Yet it still talks about exactly the same amount – $23 billion – for the Canberra-Sydney leg.

While I agree that this figure might be reduced a little by international tendering of the rail construction project, evidence from past projects shows that in almost all high-speed rail cases, the initial cost estimates had to be revised once the actual construction had started. Large cost increases could result primarily as a result of the problem of accessing Sydney’s CBD, apparently involving a 67km tunnel (and about 144km of tunnelling required for the entire 1748km route).

A really, really fast train

Such tunnelling is not only complex but also expensive. On top of those costs it will then also be interesting to see if the passenger forecasts will indeed materialise. Again, to make the high speed train competitive to aviation, it will have to be a very fast train.

The predicted speed of 350 km/h would be nice to achieve (in order to make the trip in 64 minutes) and may be possible in the future. Today however, most high speed trains have a top speed of 320 km/h and to achieve short travel times they hardly stop along the route.

For example, the Frecciarossa high speed trains in Italy connects the cities in the north (Turin – Milan – Bologna) with the south (Rome – Naples – Salerno) with a mostly non-stop service – and reaching hardly more than 300 km/h. (I tested these train services in July this year.)

The comfort in those trains is comparable to air services, with pricing depending on the cabin class. While some of the trains stop in smaller cities, the system works because of the “super frequency” of over 72 daily connections on that corridor.

As those frequencies are not likely in the Sydney CBD to Canberra CBD (with potential airport stops) context, the route would be an ideal candidate for a large number of non-stop services. It is questionable whether there would be sufficient demand to justify more than one stop, (The current proposal aims for one stop at Southern Highlands.) along the route for most trains, assuming the aim is to relieve the aviation system. If the aim is to connect regional centres (as in the extended proposal where there would be a lot of stops between Sydney and Melbourne and even more between Sydney and Brisbane), then the proposed number of stops along the route might be feasible but is unlikely to contribute much to relieving the aviation system.

Finding the balance between the two objectives by choosing how many non-stop trains to operate will be a key challenge (currently proposed are five non-stop and five regional trains per hour during peak hours).

Other legs doubtful

Despite the many open questions, today’s largely political events (the two announcements) may indeed lead to some more substantive investments on the Sydney-Canberra route, but it is to some degree doubtful whether such a rail link (should it ever materialise) will ever go beyond those two cities.

Again, by focusing on the Sydney-Canberra leg (shown by ITLS research as far back as 1996 and detailed in the 1997 SPEEDRAIL report for the Sydney-Canberra Corridor), the project becomes more manageable and should the economics of that route not work, one would still be able to stop its extensions to Melbourne and Brisbane.

Should the first leg become viable, there would then be a much stronger case for the minimum of $91 billion required to complete the Brisbane-Melbourne corridor.

It is in any case, with the future of a second Sydney airport uncertain, a worthwhile idea to preserve the necessary corridors. Whether this will help make the project economically viable is an entirely different question.

Rico Merkert does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

[photo by jonworth-eu CC BY 2.0]

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36 Responses to Could high-speed rail between Sydney and Canberra be a reality?
#1
watto2310:07 am, 27 Aug 13

I’ve found it very interesting to put costs into perspective this election. The cost of say fast rail look big, but its less then the total amount we spend on welfare each year. Now we probably need some of the welfare, but ideas like expensive maternity leave schemes that benefit the middle class and upper class to me is welfare we don’t need. Baby bonus, first home owners grant etc etc. I have no issue bringing them in for a fix, but they should be time limited, max of say 3-5 years.

The whole idea of calling each others policy a waste is ridiculous, because they are guilty of wasting money to win the election and see big projects like fast rail and the NBN a risk, because the other party will use the same lines about how expensive it is without actually looking at other costs.

Kind of like people complaining they don’t get paid enough but they smoke and buy a case of beer and a block of chocloate every week.

#2
Mysteryman10:53 am, 27 Aug 13

I want to see high-speed rail as much as the next person. I’d be first in line to use it, too. I love the idea.

But let’s be real. Labor has had 6 years to do ANYTHING about this. They weren’t interested at all. Now, 2 weeks before the election they make an announcement about how excited they are and how interested they are in getting on board. Meanwhile, their NBN (which I actually prefer over the Lib alternative) is running way over budget and significantly behind schedule. They’ve also presided over quite a run of budget deficits, so I’m not sure how they think they would pay for it. Perhaps they’ll just tack it on to the roughly $245b debt they’ve already run up?

Does anyone actually believe they’re interested in, or even capable of, delivering something like this? I certainly don’t. Which is a shame. I’d love the major East coast cities to be connected with high speed rail.

#3
Rawhide Kid Part311:02 am, 27 Aug 13

I’m just wondering whether all this talk about the VFT will just die down after the elections is done and dusted. And make another appearance at the next elections. I feel a dejavu coming on.

#4
switch11:07 am, 27 Aug 13

Mysteryman said :

Does anyone actually believe they’re interested in, or even capable of, delivering something like this? I certainly don’t. Which is a shame. I’d love the major East coast cities to be connected with high speed rail.

I’m sure you are right. State Labor in NSW always trot out “fantastic things we’ll do with rail if re-elected” that never eventuate. Except to appear again in the next election campaign.

#5
davo10111:17 am, 27 Aug 13

HSR does make our little tram look like a bargain. $23 billion amortised over 70 years is $1.4 billion a year. Virgin will fly someone to Sydney for about $130 so for the same amount of money we could give away free tickets to 10.8 million passengers a year (which is almost ten times the current number of passengers on the Sydney-Canberra route).

#6
IrishPete1:44 pm, 27 Aug 13

The article implies what I also suspect, that the cost is a gross overestimate, a gold-plated version involving unnecessary tunneling (like under Mount Ainslie).

Labor’s commitment of 50 million to it is a joke. A bad one. How much do we spend on NEW roads each year? A high speed train between Canberra and Sydney will postpone the need for a second Sydney airport. Expand it to the rest of the east coast cities, and the need for a second Sydney airport probably disappears completely.

And why do they want to pitch the ticket price at half the cost of airline travel? It could easily compete at equal cost, given how much more comfortable a train is than a plane. Especially if you give discounts for students and pensioners (though I don’t think people should be allowed to travel on it for $2.50).

But putting the terminal at the airport won’t work if the airport continues to charge an arm and two legs for parking, and there is no public transport to the airport. A light rail from the airport to Civic and the Parliamentary Triangle would fix that.

IP.

#7
thebrownstreak693:00 pm, 27 Aug 13

Mysteryman said :

I want to see high-speed rail as much as the next person. I’d be first in line to use it, too. I love the idea.

But let’s be real. Labor has had 6 years to do ANYTHING about this. They weren’t interested at all. Now, 2 weeks before the election they make an announcement about how excited they are and how interested they are in getting on board. Meanwhile, their NBN (which I actually prefer over the Lib alternative) is running way over budget and significantly behind schedule. They’ve also presided over quite a run of budget deficits, so I’m not sure how they think they would pay for it. Perhaps they’ll just tack it on to the roughly $245b debt they’ve already run up?

Does anyone actually believe they’re interested in, or even capable of, delivering something like this? I certainly don’t. Which is a shame. I’d love the major East coast cities to be connected with high speed rail.

Best post I’ve read in a while.

#8
Rollersk8r3:00 pm, 27 Aug 13

But aren’t we getting a very fast internet, so we never have to travel anywhere?

Seriously though, any project this big and distant (like a second airport for Sydney) will simply never happen. Instead of actually building it they just talk it up around election time – and throw 10 or 20 mil every few years into studies.

Plus look at the election campaign – all about stuff we cannot afford. How could any government sell a project that will not be complete for another 5 or 6 elections time?

#9
sjd19913:56 am, 28 Aug 13

OK let’s face it.
HSR would be too costly for Sydney-Canberra. I would agree if HSR can connect SYD-CAN-MLB but Qantas and other airline would be pissed off and I think they would make a huge impact on politics.

People take Murrays everyday and I dont see alot people take a train to Sydney because the train station is toooo far away.

Before you start HSR, why not try to move the train station to somewhere closer to city?

#10
IrishPete9:35 am, 28 Aug 13

sjd1991 said :

OK let’s face it.
HSR would be too costly for Sydney-Canberra. I would agree if HSR can connect SYD-CAN-MLB but Qantas and other airline would be pissed off and I think they would make a huge impact on politics.

People take Murrays everyday and I dont see alot people take a train to Sydney because the train station is toooo far away.

Before you start HSR, why not try to move the train station to somewhere closer to city?

At least part of the reason people prefer buses is that the train is slow, and consequently also infrequent. Sydney Central is hardly “too far away” from anywhere, so it’s only the Canberra end that is.

But good idea to better link the train station to places in Canberra that people want to go, though it could be done easily quickly and cheaply with better buses. Better still would be a light train loop linking airport, train station, city and Parliament (and the airport might help pay for it, in preparation for high speed rail). This would also create the possibility of a commuter rail service from Goulburn and all points in between.

I still don’t understand the reasons for the choice of the light rail route. It is guaranteed to have no tourists use it, which means it will be largely empty during office hours.

IP

#11
IrishPete9:36 am, 28 Aug 13

by the way, at the predicted speed and ticket price, commuting from Canberra to Sydney and v.v. would become viable. In the UK many people commute by train for well over an hour each way.

IP

#12
davo1019:44 am, 28 Aug 13

sjd1991 said :

, why not try to move the train station to somewhere closer to city?

The current plan is to move the railway station away from the city to the west side of the Monaro Hwy.

#13
Watson10:09 am, 28 Aug 13

sjd1991 said :

OK let’s face it.
HSR would be too costly for Sydney-Canberra. I would agree if HSR can connect SYD-CAN-MLB but Qantas and other airline would be pissed off and I think they would make a huge impact on politics.

People take Murrays everyday and I dont see alot people take a train to Sydney because the train station is toooo far away.

Before you start HSR, why not try to move the train station to somewhere closer to city?

It is way easier to get to, park or drop people off at the Kingston railway station than it is at Jolimont. It is easier to take a bus to Civic, but there are very frequent services to the railway station too. I don’t think it is a factor at all and I would be happy for the VFT to use the existing railway station.

As mentioned, the reason why people don’t take the train is because it takes way longer than the bus, there’s only 3 trains a day and it’s at almost twice the price (nearly 4 times if you get a $15 early bird ticket for the bus). Why on earth would I pay that much more for an inferior service?

#14
ToastFliesRED11:36 am, 28 Aug 13

Watson said :

As mentioned, the reason why people don’t take the train is because it takes way longer than the bus, there’s only 3 trains a day and it’s at almost twice the price (nearly 4 times if you get a $15 early bird ticket for the bus). Why on earth would I pay that much more for an inferior service?

I take the train when I can, when I have the time, the ride is more comfortable than the bus, there’s the buffet for meals and/or liquid refreshment, collection of rubbish by the staff, the ability to easily get up and stretch the legs during the journey plus the scenery of areas you don’t get to see when travelling down the highway. starting the journey from Sydney Central is nice and convenient but the downfall is being offloaded at Kingston Station as the location is not as conveniently located

#15
BimboGeek12:00 pm, 28 Aug 13

Kingston is pretty central so anyone complaining it’s too far away won’t be easily satisfied. There are few suburbs closer to the airport.

I’d happily commute to Sydney for the right job. I’m not big on long commutes but it’s nice to have the option. The price would definitely want to be at the lower end, though. Otherwise, why bother?

#16
davo10112:25 pm, 28 Aug 13

IrishPete said :

by the way, at the predicted speed and ticket price, commuting from Canberra to Sydney and v.v. would become viable.

Providing that:

1. You live within walking distance of the Canberra station
2. Your job in Sydney is within walking distance of the station
3. You can stomach paying about $25 000 a year in train fares

#17
IrishPete1:26 pm, 28 Aug 13

davo101 said :

IrishPete said :

by the way, at the predicted speed and ticket price, commuting from Canberra to Sydney and v.v. would become viable.

Providing that:

1. You live within walking distance of the Canberra station
2. Your job in Sydney is within walking distance of the station
3. You can stomach paying about $25 000 a year in train fares

err, no.

Not if you are drawing on my comparison with the UK, where people commute to London from hours away. They drive to a train station, park, catch a train to London, catch a bus or underground to their workplace. Maybe even bicycles are involved.

$42 each way translates to just over $19k for 230 working days a year (i.e. after removing annual leave and public holidays) and annual season tickets could greatly reduce this amount. If the salaries in one place are higher than the other, then that can make sense. London attracts a “London weighting” which helps a bit.

Where it also saves you money is not having to move house at great expense, plus not having to change your kids’ schools and so on. Of course you’ll only see your children on weekends. But obviously we are talking about people on high salaries – senior public servants, politicians and their sidekicks, financial types, earning six figure salaries probably starting with at least a 2.

It’s probably more likely from the Southern Highlands, or wherever they establish a regional station, than from Central Sydney or Canberra though..

IP

#18
A_Cog1:54 pm, 28 Aug 13

We don’t need superfast rail / very fast rail / bullet trains / quantum-powered locomotives.

We need the current train to go faster than the lazy 70kms/hr it currently does Canberra-Sydney. We could do it TODAY, and it would cost very little by comparison.

Europe has had trains which travel +150kms/hr since the 1960s.

Think about that.

#19
davo1012:41 pm, 28 Aug 13

IrishPete said :

err, no.

Not if you are drawing on my comparison with the UK, where people commute to London from hours away.

I think you’ve accidentally used the plural instead of the singular. The London commuter belt has a radius of about 60 minutes; but that’s the outer limit most commuters are inside the 30 minute ring.

IrishPete said :

$42 each way translates to just over $19k for 230 working days a year (i.e. after removing annual leave and public holidays) and annual season tickets could greatly reduce this amount.

$42 is the bottom of the range of possibilities. The season ticket from the outer reaches of the London commuter belt is about $7700 a year which even the Brits admit is a little pricey .

#20
damien haas3:23 pm, 28 Aug 13

A_Cog said :

We don’t need superfast rail / very fast rail / bullet trains / quantum-powered locomotives.

We need the current train to go faster than the lazy 70kms/hr it currently does Canberra-Sydney. We could do it TODAY, and it would cost very little by comparison.

Europe has had trains which travel +150kms/hr since the 1960s.

Think about that.

No we cant.

It is a 19th century gradient between canberra and sydney. Queanbeyan is a bottle neck to high speed anything. Look at a topographical map.

It is even worse around Yass, between Yass and Cootamundra is a marvel of 19th century railway engineering, the Bethungra Spiral.

The only way to build HSR is for engineers to determine the best route to link the major cities and ignore the existing line except where it may run parallel. That is an expensive option.

#21
gazket3:25 pm, 28 Aug 13

There’s more chance of Labour making a surplus and I haven’t seen one of those in 42 years of life.

#22
switch3:31 pm, 28 Aug 13

damien haas said :

It is even worse around Yass, between Yass and Cootamundra is a marvel of 19th century railway engineering, the Bethungra Spiral.

The Bethungra spiral was constructed during WW2.

#23
davo1014:08 pm, 28 Aug 13

gazket said :

There’s more chance of Labour making a surplus and I haven’t seen one of those in 42 years of life.

You’re probably too young to remember 73/74 and 74/75 but you should be able to remember 87/88, 88/89 and 89/90. Anyway getting a hospital pass from your opponents and then getting hit by the GFC steamroller is a rather unfair test; I doubt the Smirk would have done any better.

#24
dustytrail4:08 pm, 28 Aug 13

Another Kevin Rudd thought bubble! The Federal Government has been talking about a VFT for at least 25 years. There have been numerous “feasibility studies” on the idea over the years. Nothing has become of it but the idea gets dragged up periodically.

It wouldn’t surprise me if someone announces that the Canberra Airport will be upgraded to International Standards (it needs Customs there). It would save them arguing about where the second Sydney Airport should be … another idea that has been going on for decades! Mr Snow would be up for it, I am sure.

#25
IrishPete6:28 pm, 28 Aug 13

davo101 said :

IrishPete said :

err, no.

Not if you are drawing on my comparison with the UK, where people commute to London from hours away.

I think you’ve accidentally used the plural instead of the singular. The London commuter belt has a radius of about 60 minutes; but that’s the outer limit most commuters are inside the 30 minute ring.

IrishPete said :

$42 each way translates to just over $19k for 230 working days a year (i.e. after removing annual leave and public holidays) and annual season tickets could greatly reduce this amount.

$42 is the bottom of the range of possibilities. The season ticket from the outer reaches of the London commuter belt is about $7700 a year which even the Brits admit is a little pricey .

People do commute from places as far away as Devon or South Wales. They even used to have things like language classes on the trains, to use the time productively. At least this was when I last lived in London up to late 1997.

We are not talking about a lot of people, but some.

IP.

#26
A_Cog6:59 pm, 28 Aug 13

damien haas said :

The only way to build HSR is for engineers to determine the best route to link the major cities and ignore the existing line except where it may run parallel. That is an expensive option.

Wrong. The route can easily accommodate 150km/h for Campbelltown to Bungendore, then slow down into Queanbeyan and Kingston.

#27
AgentK7:54 pm, 28 Aug 13

Unless alternatives to jet fuel are delivered soon, air travel is going to become increasingly expensive.
We should be marching forward with HSR across Australia. Furthermore, we should be looking at ways of powering it using our vast clean energy resources.

Another good thing will be the boost to Canberra house prices! Whoop whoop.

#28
caf9:57 pm, 28 Aug 13

A_Cog said :

damien haas said :

The only way to build HSR is for engineers to determine the best route to link the major cities and ignore the existing line except where it may run parallel. That is an expensive option.

Wrong. The route can easily accommodate 150km/h for Campbelltown to Bungendore, then slow down into Queanbeyan and Kingston.

This is just rubbish. The existing steam-age alignment is not suitable for any kind of moderately high speed, particularly through the southern highlands. The existing XPTs that run between Sydney and Melbourne are allowed to go up to 160 km/h in regular service (they’re actually capable of about 190km/h), but they don’t get up to those speeds until closer to Albury.

#29
Darkfalz4:09 am, 29 Aug 13

This is the kind of thing you do when you’ve got $70bn in the bank after a decade of surpluses, not when you’re $300bn in debt. Or you could waste money on deadly pink batts schemes, school halls and $900 pokie/TV donations instead.

Labor was elected in 2007 after promising new and exciting ways to spend all the money the Liberals had saved. Our money. Now they really want you to believe they’ll dig up $100bn+ for this and somehow finish their $95bn NBN sometime this decade, while paying off the debt with magical fairy money from a Green energy boom, and a fanciful 800% increase in the European carbon price and Aussies paying 400% what they pay now for Internet and cable TV access. Thankfully the NBN is going to make us a country of IT moguls and doctors who perform surgery from the other side of the country, we won’t need manufacturing or farming anymore.

#30
A_Cog11:07 am, 29 Aug 13

caf said :


The existing steam-age alignment is not suitable for any kind of moderately high speed, particularly through the southern highlands…

Mate, like Damien Haas, you’re flat-out, completely wrong. The Italians (among several European countries) have used tilting trains + reinforced trackworks AND KEPT THEIR CONVENTIONAL TRACKS.

We could buy a tilting train like the Pendolino which have been in use since the 1960s (yeah, for FIFTY YEARS ALREADY), and were designed to reach high speeds on conventional tracks. By high speeds, I mean +200kms/hr.

This would mean Canberra-Sydney in 90mins by train, compared to [10mins drive to airport] + [20 mins airport check-in] + [40 mins flight] + [10 mins disembark] + [20 min journey from Sydney airport] = 90 mins anyway.

The route could stay exactly the same. The trackworks would cost something, but not $XYZ billion.

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