New report labels East Coast fast rail an “expensive folly”

Dominic Giannini 27 May 2020 32
Goulburn train station

The Grattan Institute says regional towns have more pressing infrastructure needs than faster rail. Photo: File.

The dream of a fast rail corridor between Canberra and Sydney has been dealt a major blow by a new report that claims bullet trains are unsuitable for Australia and rail renovations are “unlikely to fulfil the overblown claims made for them”.

The report from the Grattan Institute has labelled the East Coast bullet train that would connect Melbourne and Brisbane via Sydney and Canberra an “expensive folly” that “would add to greenhouse gas emissions for decades”.

“While a bullet train may be a captivating idea, it is not realistic for Australia,” the report states.

“Our population is small and spread over vast distances; the countries most like us – Canada and the US – do not have bullet trains either.

“Nor would a bullet train be the climate saver we might imagine. Yes, once it was up and running it would emit far less than today’s planes. But construction would take nearly 50 years and be enormously emissions-intensive, hindering rather than helping efforts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Even at the best of times, it is a big ask for every taxpayer in the land to stump up $10,000 primarily for the benefit of business travellers between the east-coast capitals.”

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr says that it is important to distinguish between “faster rail” and “bullet trains”, as he maintains his push to reduce travel times between Canberra and Sydney.

“This is not about ‘high speed’ or ‘very fast’ rail, it is about improving the existing rail corridor, reducing travel times and making rail competitive with driving or flying,” he said.

“We know that Canberrans want and will use a faster train service [as] 57 per cent of Canberrans said they would be more likely to travel via train between Canberra and Sydney if the travel time was between two to three hours.”

However, the report also claims that the proponents have overestimated the possible benefits of the new rail to regional cities. While upgrades to existing regional passenger lines may have a positive cost-benefit analysis, it is unlikely to achieve “all that their advocates hope”.

“Rail renovations may make sense in Australia and may improve life for people in regional cities. But even so, they are unlikely to fulfil the overblown claims made for them: that they would take [the] pressure off crowded capital cities while at the same time boosting struggling regions,” the report says.

“Australia’s regional towns have more pressing infrastructure needs than faster rail, including better internet and mobile connectivity and freight links.

“Governments would help a lot more CBD commuters by improving transport options for people in the outer suburbs rather than the regions. Bullet trains are unsuitable for Australia [and] governments should stop using public money to continually study proposals for bullet trains.”

But Mr Barr disputes this, telling Region Media that regional towns would benefit greatly from the new connectivity.

“Faster rail along the Canberra to Sydney corridor presents a unique and significant opportunity to improve connectivity and strengthen the economic, service and social relationship between Canberra, its surrounding regions including the regional cities of Goulburn and Queanbeyan, and Greater Sydney,” he said.

“Better and faster rail services would not only expand and enhance the connectivity but would unlock further opportunities for tourism, freight and affordable housing along the corridor.

“Canberra and Sydney are centres for health, education and employment, and better transport connectivity between these cities is sorely needed.”

A 2013 feasibility study into the fast rail corridor concluded that the benefits would greatly outweigh its costs, a point which the Grattan Institute concedes on the caveat that this is not the case almost a decade later.

“It is unlikely that this would be the finding of a rigorous independent study now. That is because the 2013 result was skewed by a cherry-picked discount rate, by ignoring the question of how to pay the enormous costs of construction, and because the study was done before the decision was made to build a second Sydney airport,” the report says.

The construction costs for fast rail would be around $130 billion in 2019 dollars, with a ‘worst case’ estimate of $145 billion and a ‘best case’ estimate of $116 billion the report said, citing the original 2013 study.

Mr Barr and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian – who took the same position on fast rail to last year’s state election – have both lobbied the Federal Government to fund a business case that would look into decreasing the travel time between the two cities.

Infrastructure Australia (IA) – Australia’s infrastructure advisor – recently put the project on its 2020 Infrastructure Priority List.

It said the corridor should be prioritised to “provide more transport options for travellers, improve travel time reliability for rail passengers and reduce pressure on the air corridor”.

The route between Canberra and Sydney currently takes more than four hours by train, while driving takes around three hours. IA flagged that upgrades in rail speed would also lead to a reduction in cars on the Hume and Federal highways as train travel would become a more attractive transport option.

The ACT and NSW governments have anted up $6 million and $5 million respectively to investigate the advantages of upgrading the rail line.


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32 Responses to New report labels East Coast fast rail an “expensive folly”
noid noid 10:37 am 30 May 20

Our family have taken the train from Canberra to Sydney return a few times now and it is now my preferred transport option. Its very relaxing and we can all enjoy the scenery and buffet. From my experience the leg from Canberra to Goulburn is the slowest due to the track condition or route, once you join the mainline at Goulburn the speed of the train improves greatly. I believe if the track was ungraded for the Canberra Goulburn leg alone there would be a time saving of 1/2 an hour in the overall journey

Leon Moudakis Leon Moudakis 5:25 pm 29 May 20

I believe the 1995 VFT’s original purpose was to connect and reduce travel time between Queensland, Sydney, Canberra and Victoria, and in doing giving opportunities for regional worker easy access to city work while still living in the regions. Also in the mix was a rail freight line to reduce highway trucking. Following the first feasibility study BHP offered to build the rail link free of charge in exchange of tax concessions, the Howard Government refused their offer, and since then we have had so many VFT feasibility studies, the money paid for those studies could have funded the rail links construction and we would not be having this conversation. The original rail link was going to be built above ground causing no imposition on animal grazing and avoiding the need to acquire farm land to build the rail

Max Leonard Max Leonard 11:23 am 27 May 20

That is ridiculous. The Sydney Melbourne air corridor is the second busiest in the world. Of course we need HSR. The Grattan institute failed to take in long term emission reduction and only focused on the 36 year short term construction cost. Many other more reputable business cases have found a positive economic benefit.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 2:38 pm 27 May 20

    Indeed the Sydney – Melbourne air corridor is very busy (just as the Paris – Lyon one was before the TGV wiped out the airline monopoly).The same will happen with the Sydney – Melbourne route.

    I note you don’t factor Canberra into the proposed route and that is a good idea. The best way for a new (maybe high speed) railway to go would be along the Pacific coast which has no rail and scant air services from Norwa in NSW to Bairnsdale in Gippsland, Victoria. The engineering would be so much easier and there is a lot of very appealing coastline to be developed. The southern highlands south of Sydney are already over-developed.

    Max Leonard Max Leonard 4:30 pm 27 May 20

    I agree with the premise, But I think we should go inland because of the simple matter that the ground is flatter. It would be easier to build (especially in Victoria) and would not have to face as much mountainous terrain. The south coast is in dire need of a rail line, but maybe the Eden rail extension will relieve that.

    JC JC 6:35 pm 29 May 20

    The coastal route has far greater engineering challenges not less. Engineering wise the general route of the Hume Highway offers the far easier route. It is also the route that connects larger towns and cities that have greater potential to grow. Places like Goulburn, Wagga Wagga, Albury etc.

    Canberra of course is not on any easy direct route between Sydney and Melbourne but again is an easy spur and unlike the coast route makes servicing the biggest inland city In the country possible and sensible.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 7:49 pm 31 May 20

    In what way are the engineering challenges greater going by a coastal route? For a start, the Great Dividing Range doesn’t have to be crossed or tunneled under, twice.

    Canberra should be left right out of the equation.

    JC JC 3:43 pm 01 Jun 20

    The great dividing range is not an issue and is not one that needs to be tunnelled through. I’m sure you have driven the Hume Highway and there are not massive tunnels or steep roads to get up and over it. The rise from Sydney to the ranges on the route is NOT sudden and steep.

    The only time it would become an issue is if the line went via Canberra and headed south but I don’t recall many of any plans where that was an option. Canberra as part of a Melbourne to Sydney line has always been a spur.

    As for the coastal route the engineering challenge
    Is most certainly the escarpment that’s follows the coast from Sydney to at least Bega and beyond. The coastal strip is very narrow and as we know after the bushfires is mostly bushland. As opposed to the more open inland route.

    As for Canberra why should canberra be left out? It is the largest inland city in this country, it is just off the most direct route from Sydney to Melbourne and that route also has all the other cities that have potential to grow, unlike the coastal route.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 12:11 pm 02 Jun 20

    You’re probably right JC but let’s face it, it will never happen what ever route is deemed to be best. In the meantime, the dream will benefit a few rent-seekers until the money runs out.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:09 pm 26 May 20

With traffic on the Hume too often resembling busy suburban traffic, upgrade of the existing Canberra-Sydney link should be, as the cliche goes, a no-brainer – even if it doesn’t quite meet current cost-benefit analysis standards.

As to the very, very fast stuff, the Grattan report will have done a great deal of good if it steers federal Labor away from the mirage of an Australian bullet train, and towards projects which don’t require substantial ongoing taxpayer subsidies.

    JS9 JS9 9:05 am 27 May 20

    Interesting you don’t want investment into something that would need ongoing taxpayer subsidies on one hand, but then on the other want more money pumped into roads, where users don’t pay for the true cost of their use either really…. and are inherent subsidised by all taxpayers on an ongoing basis as well….

Trish Roberts Trish Roberts 5:59 pm 26 May 20

And you can walk around, stretch yr legs and (hopefully) go to a buffet. By far my preference over flying.

Proboscus Proboscus 2:54 pm 26 May 20

How soon we forget the drought and fires. Any money federal and state governments thought of being used on the VFT should be siphoned (pun intended) to securing our water supplies.

bj_ACT bj_ACT 12:14 pm 26 May 20

It’s a complex one. I don’t think catching a fast train from say the southern highlands to the city each day would really reduce Sydney congestion and help regional centre population growth.

I imagine a fast train at 800 passengers per train could probably only commute around 20 thousand workers a day which only offsets a bit of the 100,000 people who move to Sydney each year.

I think the model is wrong and it’s probably better to invest in new jobs outside the centre of Sydney. Such a huge proportion of new jobs and businesses are happening in city centres and that has a downside as well as a positive.

Be interesting whether a bus only lane from the Sydney outskirts would be a better investment for faster travel. Certainly would help the Murray’s bus where I agree with Julie Macklin can get slow in peak.

Mark Scarborough Mark Scarborough 12:09 pm 26 May 20

As long as it is cheaper than flying.

Justin Watson Justin Watson 11:52 am 26 May 20

Yeah it wouldn't be too expensive to get rail travel down to 2 1/2 hrs between Canberra and Sydney. A 1 hr fast train would be expensive, but getting trains to travel at 160km/h isn't a huge expensive task, but politics can easily get in the way.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 11:47 am 26 May 20

The first VFT (Very Fast Train) was the Japanese one which was also called the Bullet Train. Anyone who can’t see that the term Bullet Train covers the French TGV, a VFT and any other name or acronym meaning trains in that class is being pedantic.

The Grattan Institute is correct and the same outcome (expensive folly and unlikely to fulfill the overblown claims) applies to the Canberra Light Rail as well.

    Max Leonard Max Leonard 4:28 pm 27 May 20

    Canberra Light rail has already significantly reduced congestion around Northborne Avenue and surrounding roads. We aren’t looking about how fast it goes, but about how much congestion it will combat in the present/future, and how many people it can carry verses a bus. It has proven to be economically beneficial, and to help gentrify new areas.

Rainer Busacker Rainer Busacker 11:40 am 26 May 20

VFT would allow commuting for work and expansion of the Min ago Canberra region

JS9 JS9 11:35 am 26 May 20

“Nor would a bullet train be the climate saver we might imagine. Yes, once it was up and running it would emit far less than today’s planes. But construction would take nearly 50 years and be enormously emissions-intensive, hindering rather than helping efforts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.”

Did said analysis also take into account the emissions intensive construction of well just about anything one wants to build? plenty of embedded alternatives in the 3 sets of planes and the new airport to be built, and the buses etc…

All I want as a starting point is a true program of continuous improvement on what is there now. Build a work plan to in 5 years have done lots of incremental improvements to improve what we have – get it down to 2.5 or 3 hours – comparable to other transport options. Just faster rail please, doesn’t have to be stratospherically fast, as wonderful as that would be.

I’d love a bullet train, but we all know that is fairy dust unfortunately, given both sides of politics at the federal level have done nothing in 40 years of said discussions. But this nonsense from Grattan doesn’t help anyone.

If you had of applied their logic broader to history, we’d still be running around on whatever was used for transport before the wheel was invented…. its an absolute nonsense, cherry picked view they are putting forward.

Daniel Duncan Daniel Duncan 11:33 am 26 May 20

who funds the Grattan Institute? is it the Air lines?

Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 10:58 am 26 May 20

I didn't know the conversation had been about "bullet trains". I thought it had been about faster trains. First time I have heard of "bullet trains' being mentioned.

Paul Hannelly Paul Hannelly 10:55 am 26 May 20

We just need better rail infrastructure and maintenance so the current trains can reach their full potential

Wayne Gartner Wayne Gartner 10:44 am 26 May 20

Caught train between Syd/Qbn and its nearly an hour slower than bus. That's where issue lies.

Plus Melbourne to qbn is via bus anyway. Which isnt much fun :(

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 10:56 am 26 May 20

    Unless the bus is caught in thick Sydney traffic, as has happened to me, making a five hour trip.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 7:16 pm 31 May 20

    James Dof If it takes you 40 minutes to get to Civic, then as a bus leaves Civic (R2) every 15 minutes that goes by the station at Kingston and takes 15 (or maybe a minute or two longer) to get there, I don't see where you get the three hours.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 11:57 pm 31 May 20

    James Dof A bus every 15 minutes from Civic. In practice thought I imagine most people, even if there is a regular bus from where they live, would get a taxi, as they usually have luggage. The train though would be better to have a station in central Canberra; in Civic. Would make parking more difficult though, if the station was moved to the city centre. Even without luggage, most people don't catch buses, so where the train is would make little difference to them. In fact, having the station in the city centre with more difficult parking, might make it even less attractive to them.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 1:36 pm 01 Jun 20

    James Dof, I take the train, because I like the train much more than the bus. I can get up and move around, plus there's a canteen. Being a senior I now get half fare. This avoids driving in Sydney traffic (and adding another car to the traffic) and the hassle then of finding a park. Same reason that I take the bus/tram (before Convid) in Canberra where it's too far for me to walk or cycle to in a reasonable time. But people who use buses in Canberra are sadly in the minority.

Anthony Stewart Anthony Stewart 10:19 am 26 May 20

Just need faster trains then what we all ready have and improve the tracks to support it. There should be more support for using train now in cbr/qbn as more people could use it.

astro2 astro2 9:04 am 26 May 20

As the Chief Minister has said, there is a difference between “bullet trains” and an improvement to the current rail trip so that it can take a little under three hours rather than 4 hours and ten minutes. That would undoubtedly improve conditions for the regions in between the two cities. The Institute report appears to be a pointless exercise in criticising something that is not being put forward anyway. Perhaps they should keep up with the conversation. There is definitely a need to improve rail connections between the major eat coast cities.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 8:34 am 26 May 20

There’s no question that the MEL-CAN rail line should debouch onto a cow-paddock outside of Yass, while the CAN-SYD rail clunker dawdles five hours on 19th century rail alignments. It’s best OECD rail practice, and exactly what Dan n Gladys mean by “global cities”.

I salute Grattan for their emissions calculations, for closing down this highly un-Australian discussion. Planes n buses 4eva.

    Max Leonard Max Leonard 4:35 pm 27 May 20

    Australia has a vast rail history, why the Melbourne tram system is the largest in the world! And the Sydney trains system is nearly twice the size of the London underground. The Grattan institute is correct in saying that emissions would go up in construction, but incorrect in thinking that a HSR would not reduce emissions in the long term. Planes and buses are unsustainable for population growth, and only contribute to congestion and Carbon emissions.

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