Why we’re not going to see a Very Fast Train any time soon

By 25 May, 2011 32

fast trains

The Economist have an interesting article on the economics of very fast trains, particularly comparing Japan’s Tokaido route with the planned San Francisco to Los Angeles train in California.

Considering that every five years or so a Lyle Langley wannabe proposes a taxpayer funded VFT linking Canberra to Sydney as a universal panacea this is a subject of enduring interest.

They had this to say on the subject of such trains more broadly:

The sole reason why Shinkansen plying the Tokaido route make money is the sheer density—and affluence—of the customers they serve. All the other Shinkansen routes in Japan lose cart-loads of cash, as high-speed trains do elsewhere in the world. Only indirect subsidies, creative accounting, political patronage and national chest-thumping keep them rolling.

But a bigger question is why we have to jump straight to bullet trains and maglev when we talk about improving rail infrastructure in Australia (and in particular to Canberra)?

Surely getting a proper railway line (that’s electrified dual track) to a transport hub in Canberra (at least a bus interchange if not Civic) is a precursor before we start snart hankering to sniff it through a cane on a supersonic train?

[Photo: CC Attribution Licence. Credit: BY-YOUR-?

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32 Responses to Why we’re not going to see a Very Fast Train any time soon
#1
random2:08 pm, 25 May 11

They can’t entirely get their story straight; here’s another article about the (high) profitability of TGV trains in France. (Apparently the high-speed routes subsidize local services.)

#2
johnboy2:15 pm, 25 May 11

article from 2008 and no subsidy analysis.

#3
p12:30 pm, 25 May 11

johnboy said :

But a bigger question is why we have to jump straight to bullet trains and maglev when we talk about improving rail infrastructure in Australia (and in particular to Canberra)?

It would be nice if they could have a pretty normal train system running from Canberra to Sydney (Melbourne to Brisbane Via Canberra and Sydney would be nice) which drops people centrally and has duel tracks (even if it isn’t electrified). Surely it would be able to support itself in moving heavy freight which would otherwise go inland on trucks?

#4
johnboy2:32 pm, 25 May 11

electrification really helps with the cost of freight too!

#5
Keijidosha2:39 pm, 25 May 11

I’m not an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that the train only needs to be faster than a car or bus with fares that are comparable to either, or at least cheaper than a plane ticket.
Build a dual line that runs from Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra and the snowfields and you have your freight/commuter/tourist market sewn up.

#6
Pommy bastard2:47 pm, 25 May 11

p1 said :

which drops people centrally and has duel tracks (even if it isn’t electrified).

They’d only end up fighting over it….

#7
basketcase2:55 pm, 25 May 11

Be nice if they had an ordinary rail service in and out of Canberra that didn’t take 90+ minutes to Goulburn. The rest of the trip is OK.

The simple fact of life is that there is no political will to sustain a loss making service, nor should there be.

Secondly, I am surprised that this subject should be aired now, election times are normally when these pipe dreams are trotted out.

#8
p12:56 pm, 25 May 11

Pommy bastard said :

They’d only end up fighting over it….

Touché

Doesn’t even really need to be a whole lot faster then Cars and buses for the tourist market, and defiantly doesn’t for freight.

#9
imnotmatt3:00 pm, 25 May 11

JB, given that one of the key reasons the current service is so slow is because of the poor quality track and alignment, and much of the capital costs in high speed lie in building new track and alignment, I’m not quite sure what’s the appeal of your halfway option.

Duplicating and electrifying the current track wouldn’t achieve much in the way of travel time reduction for passenger journeys, and I doubt it would help freight, as they’re not going to buy new locos unless you electrified the whole Mel-Bris-Syd freight corridor.

If you wanted to solve these problems by building duplicated/electrified track on a new alignment, then surely this is basically HSR.

#10
p13:00 pm, 25 May 11

basketcase said :

The simple fact of life is that there is no political will to sustain a loss making service, nor should there be.

If a rail network existed which could handle a substantial component of what now transits out roads, it would not necessarily be loss making when looked at from a holistic point of view.

Of course, after spending a few billion on setting it up, some smart politician would see a way to make a few million privatising it…

#11
Chop713:04 pm, 25 May 11

Keijidosha said :

Build a dual line that runs from Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra and the snowfields and you have your freight/commuter/tourist market sewn up.

Oh yeah simple and direct route just tunnel through those mountains in a dead straight line, should take mo more than 1000 years. Thanks for keeping the dream alive

#12
p13:17 pm, 25 May 11

Chop71 said :

Keijidosha said :

Build a dual line that runs from Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra and the snowfields and you have your freight/commuter/tourist market sewn up.

Oh yeah simple and direct route just tunnel through those mountains in a dead straight line, should take mo more than 1000 years. Thanks for keeping the dream alive

We will also need a stop at the canal that lets ocean in to flood central Australia so it is an inland sea again, that way people can go boating.

#13
imnotmatt3:24 pm, 25 May 11

p1 said :

basketcase said :

The simple fact of life is that there is no political will to sustain a loss making service, nor should there be.

If a rail network existed which could handle a substantial component of what now transits out roads, it would not necessarily be loss making when looked at from a holistic point of view.

One of the issues is that the government operates the Hume and Federal Highways at a substantial loss. It’s difficult to migrate traffic from road to rail when one’s free and the other’s not.

#14
johnboy3:25 pm, 25 May 11

and yet somehow, over 100 years ago, the railway ran all the way from Sydney to Cooma.

#15
Keijidosha3:38 pm, 25 May 11

johnboy said :

and yet somehow, over 100 years ago, the railway ran all the way from Sydney to Cooma.

Somehow the crafty buggers also managed to tunnel the Snowy Mountains Scheme 50 years ago.

#16
Mysteryman3:59 pm, 25 May 11

What a poor article. Claims like “All the other Shinkansen routes in Japan lose cart-loads of cash, as high-speed trains do elsewhere in the world. Only indirect subsidies, creative accounting, political patronage and national chest-thumping keep them rolling”, without any evidence to back up the claims?

What the author doesn’t realise (or neglects to mention) is that the Shinkansen network in Japan is divided into different regions, each being owned by a different private company. These companies are traded publicly, with investment from other large companies, such as banks. With that said, the Tokaido Shinkansen is owned by JR Central. Profits from that line do not offset losses on Shinkansen routes in other parts of the country. Are we supposed to believe that the profits posted and forecast by the other JR companies are the result of “creative accounting” and that in reality, these companies are haemorrhaging money year after year for the fun it? Not likely. JR East, last October, posted profits of 255 billion yen. They don’t operate the Tokaido Line. They do operate all the rail (both high-speed and conventional rail) in their region, and there is a possibility that the conventional rail offsets the Shinkansen cost, but I can’t comment on that without some actual data.

High speed rail also provides benefits to local economies, both financially and in terms of man hours saved due to travel times. These benefits are often hard to calculate but no doubt exist.

Something else in the article made me think the author doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. “Having worked for many years in Tokyo, with family in Osaka, your correspondent has made the two-and-a-half hour journey on the Tokaido bullet-train many times. It is clean, fast and highly civilised, though far from cheap. It beats flying, which is unbearably cramped by comparison, just as pricey, and dumps you an hour from downtown at either end”.

An hour from downtown? Maybe if you’re walking! I’ve been to Tokyo and Osaka a few times, and the line does not stop an hour from downtown. Shin-Osaka is about 20 minutes (at most!) by train from the centre of the city, and the Tokyo station stops right in the heart of Tokyo – 15-20 minutes from all the other major centres.

#17
p14:12 pm, 25 May 11

Mysteryman said :

It beats flying, which is unbearably cramped by comparison, just as pricey, and dumps you an hour from downtown at either end”.

An hour from downtown? Maybe if you’re walking! I’ve been to Tokyo and Osaka a few times, and the line does not stop an hour from downtown.

I think you might have miss-read that bit. I read it as the plane dropping you an hour from down town.

#18
Mysteryman4:14 pm, 25 May 11

p1 said :

Mysteryman said :

It beats flying, which is unbearably cramped by comparison, just as pricey, and dumps you an hour from downtown at either end”.

An hour from downtown? Maybe if you’re walking! I’ve been to Tokyo and Osaka a few times, and the line does not stop an hour from downtown.

I think you might have miss-read that bit. I read it as the plane dropping you an hour from down town.

Yep. You’re right. It makes more sense now that I re-read it. Thanks!

#19
Chop714:19 pm, 25 May 11

johnboy said :

and yet somehow, over 100 years ago, the railway ran all the way from Sydney to Cooma.

Now we spend $43 Billion on faster internet so we won’t have to travel outside our front door.

#20
p15:09 pm, 25 May 11

Chop71 said :

Now we spend $43 Billion on faster internet so we won’t have to travel outside our front door.

Sadly, while the NBN might be the end of the adult DVD sales industry, people will still have to go outside to go to work.

Same as they will have to print things and put them in paper files.

#21
nobody5:37 pm, 25 May 11

I’d like a dual line train service into Canberra that terminates into a public transport hub. Electrified from non-polluting energy would be nice too. We don’t need a VFT, just a standard service will be fine for now.

One of the main reasons rail transport is considered less economical to road is all levels of government subsidise road infrastructure creating a large market distortion. Rail can be an efficient way to move large volumes of freight and people over long distances.

#22
arescarti426:00 pm, 25 May 11

It is a pretty poorly written article.

Saying that high speed trains are no good because they require subsidies, and then comparing them negatively to the airline industry is an absolute joke. You think airlines would run if there weren’t massive government subsidies involved? In almost a century of operation the airline industry has made a cumulative LOSS when you take into account all the government help it gets.

And whilst population density is a legitimate factor when you are talking about transport solutions within a city, it has nothing to do with anything when you’re talking about intercity transport. All that matters is the demand for transport along the route, for comparison, the Sydney to Melbourne air route is the fourth busiest in the world. A Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney high speed rail link would serve over 9.2 million people, about 42% of the population of Australia.

And JB i think you’ll find the only commercial passenger anything that has ever traveled at supersonic speeds was Concorde.

#23
johnboy6:38 pm, 25 May 11

Someone needs to listen to more oasis

#24
allyroger7:01 pm, 25 May 11

if there was a fast rail link built between brisbane and melbourne, i would move to a country NSW town and put money in the country economy whilst still commuting to Canberra or Sydney on a daily basis. Infrastructure investment is what’s needed in Australia more than anything.

#25
arescarti428:19 pm, 25 May 11

johnboy said :

Someone needs to listen to more oasis

Ah, I get it now.

#26
WonderfulWorld11:39 pm, 25 May 11

8 years too late, not due to the ACT and decision but Commonwealth Decisions which have not prioritised this initiative. May I add this is also not the fault nor should any blame be placed on the “high speed rail” project. Their hearts and visions (not mushroom ones) have been in the right place to support but difficult when up against so many other states, territories and pollies.

Hats off the the HSP team and hope.

#27
Holierthanthou9:13 am, 26 May 11

Only indirect subsidies, creative accounting, political patronage and national chest-thumping keep them rolling.

that and the citizenry patronage and tourist patronage and that it gets you from major city to city with no fuss and if at Kyoto station you can pick up up fantasic food at very reasonable prices to eat on the train and generally get off right in the centre of the city or right on connections with a major transit system and everything else. And who would take a plane from Tokyo to Osaka… that would be just silly… check out the Hyperdia.com and try to make taking a plane any sense at all.

The Canberra train station location is not very convinient at all, this needs to fixed if punters are going to get weened off planes. Surely a train has to more ecnomically viable than planes? Or am I missing something.

We don’t neccessarily need a very fast train to Sydney, even a reasonably fast train would be faster than a plane when you take into account getting to the airport, checking in, security, negotiating the terminal and gates (trains platforms are a lot closer together than airport gates)….. and then reversed at the other end. Sydney now has a reasonable rail link to city, but at Canberra the airport doesn’t even have enough taxis to cope. Someone should run shuttle bus from the airport to the city centre, but I imagine the airport would want to extort a ridiculous fee per passenger.

#28
Thoroughly Smashed9:16 am, 26 May 11

johnboy said :

Someone needs to listen to more oasis

Remember kids, when someone offers you oasis, just say no.

#29
Sgt.Bungers1:14 pm, 26 May 11

Shame that no significant investment has been made in rail in Australia for… well ever.

Many tracks haven’t been realigned since the steam train era.

How attractive would air travel be today if no investment had been made in aeroplanes since the Wright brothers design?

No we don’t need a national VFT system with our low density population. A RFT (reasonably fast train) system would be a start though!. Something between Sydney, Canberra/Ski Fields, Melbourne that’s ~50% faster than driving, 50% cheaper than flying, and runs more often than twice a day.

#30
ForReal1:41 pm, 26 May 11

johnboy said :

and yet somehow, over 100 years ago, the railway ran all the way from Sydney to Cooma.

And 90 years ago (this year) to Bombala! http://www.nswrail.net/lines/show.php?name=NSW:bombala

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