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RiotACT Face Off: Light Rail or Bullet Train

By Canfan - 11 August 2014 35


Talk of a bullet train between Canberra and Sydney has been bubbling away for some time now. How do these plans compare to light rail and which is more important to Canberra? We asked Damien Haas (Chair of ACT Light Rail) and Tim Bohm (President, Bullet Train for Australia Party) the following question and their answers are below.

Given the current financial climate, are our municipal funds better spent on light rail or a bullet train?

Damien Haas
Chair of ACT Light Rail


Comparing the two is the classic apples to oranges cliché, as they are very different transport solutions with little in common aside from rails. However, that is what Riot Act has requested.

For the short and long term benefit of the ACT ratepayer, it is better to build Capital Metro from Gungahlin to Civic, and eventually across Canberra, than a bullet train.

Planning and engineering studies for light rail are well underway. Construction costs can be estimated, as building light rail is a standard and routine engineering task in Australia. Aside from conceptual feasibility studies, no similar work has been performed for bullet trains. If it was ever built, it may never come here, instead running directly between Melbourne and Sydney.

Investing in light rail is not the challenge many believe. The ACT will receive 4.4 billion dollars this year from the Federal government, an amount rising incrementally every year. In this context a public transport investment of 600 million over 4 years is fiscally prudent and a sound long-term investment in a growing city.

Light rail has strong electoral support, with the parties taking it to the 2012 Assembly election forming government. Individuals campaigning for bullet trains attracted a handful of votes, as bullet trains provide few clear benefits. Regular polling conducted since consistently shows a majority of Canberrans supporting light rail. Canberrans understand the short and long term benefits.

The use of public money for any project requires careful consideration using triple bottom line analysis – economic, environmental and societal. In each area Capital Metro delivers immediate and long-term benefits to Canberra, that bullet trains can’t match.

Light rail will provide direct economic benefit in the ACT enhancing productivity, freeing families from needing a second car and allowing parking space to be better used. Increased patronage and retasked
ACTION buses will lead to a decrease in the public transport subsidy. Many construction jobs will be immediately created.

Transit oriented development will act as an economic growth driver. Businesses will establish themselves along the corridor knowing that parking wont be required for all staff, and that clients can visit them with ease.

Light rail will alleviate road congestion, mitigate future road construction costs and lead to a reversal in falling public transport patronage by attracting new passengers. Tourists visiting the nations capital will no longer get lost on the wrong bus.

Increased density along the corridor will lead to more walking, and a rise in the number of small businesses to service the needs of new residents. As Capital Metro expands across Canberra, this will be

The longer term benefits of light rail will be seen as its influence in shaping Canberras growth and culture emerge over several decades. Those preferring a suburban house and backyard will still have that
option, but people seeking an apartment style of living will have that option in more quantity, and at lower cost.

Bullet trains may be wonderful technology and one day in the future deserving of finance, however the immediate priority for Canberra’s ratepayers is not visiting Sydney in 30 minutes, but commuting to work
in 30 minutes.

Damien Haas is the Chair of ACT Light Rail, the Capital regions peak public transport lobby group. It has been lobbying for light rail and improved public transport since the early 1990’s. It has a webpage at and a very active facebook page at ‘Light rail for Canberra’

Tim Bohm
President, Bullet Train for Australia Party


23 mins to Gungahlin or 57 mins to Sydney?

I want to state from the start that I think light rail would be great to have. But do we need it right now? Light rail from Gungahlin to Civic will be great for 20,000 Canberrans, whereas a Bullet Train connecting Canberra to Sydney will benefit 400,000+ Canberrans and surrounding residents.

Light rail and high-speed-rail (HSR) have very similar benefits. Jobs, environmental benefits, economic benefits, cutting the reliance on cars etc etc. The main difference being, all benefits are magnified for high-speed-rail. The latest Federal Government report stated that investment in HSR would return $2.30 to the community for every dollar spent, whereas the light rail is being reported as being as low as $0.43 to $1.02 return.

Why does Gungahlin to Civic need a 12km light rail route? Surely a dedicated bus lane with an express service down Northbourne would be just as quick as light rail, cost less and be more flexible.

Does Canberra need quicker and faster interstate travel options? YES. Would increased access to Canberra help stop public service jobs and departments being shipped interstate? YES. Would HSR open up Canberra to new tourist markets and interstate commuters? YES. Does Canberra and Australia need a brand new industry now more than ever? YES.

Over 1 million people fly between Canberra and Sydney every year and with SYD to MELB being the 5th busiest route in the world it’s hard to claim HSR would not have the passengers to support it. Where as Light Rail from Gungahlin to Civic will be flat out trying to get enough passengers to ensure the whole thing doesn’t turn into a billion dollar white elephant.

HSR will happen and when it does will the ACT be able to fund it’s share of the costs along side the NSW, QLD, VIC and Federal Governments or will our commitment of $65 million per year for 15 years for a 12km of track between Gungahlin and Civic mean we can’t afford it?

The government should be looking at all public transport options and future needs of the city rather than blindly committing to 12km of light rail just to be in power for 4 years. Lets not waste a billion dollar opportunity, if Gungahlin to Civic goes ahead and fails, no government in the ACT will ever spend the same amount of time, money and resources on public transport ever again.

Our local and federal politicians have the opportunity to make HSR happen now for all Canberrans and all Australians. All it would take is for the government to put in half as much of the energy and resources that they have into light rail and I am confident we would be on our way to getting Australia’s next and most important piece of infrastructure up and running.

Alternatively, our politicians could continue to think in three and four year election cycles, play games with each other and completely ignore the need for HSR and the huge benefits, it would bring to every single Canberran now and for future generations.

A born and bred Canberran, Tim has been waiting his whole life for high-speed-rail, sick of waiting Tim and some friends set up the Bullet Train for Australia party.

What’s Your opinion?

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35 Responses to
RiotACT Face Off: Light Rail or Bullet Train
Grail 2:15 pm 11 Aug 14

PS: Hyperloop hasn’t even left the drawing board yet. There are no prototypes, the technology hasn’t even been trialled much less proven and commercialised. Don’t hold your breath.

Building a HSR from Brisbane to Melbourne will ensure that the real estate is available for a hyper loop, with the hyper loop tubes being built above the existing HSR tracks.

So build the HSR in the next five years, the over-build or supplement with hyper loop once the technology is actually available.

Grail 2:13 pm 11 Aug 14

If it was my money, and I had to choose between one or the other, I’d go with the high speed rail option first. The extra traffic this would bring to Canberra (mainly from using Canberra as Sydney’s second airport) would then drive the demand for a local light rail system.

Of course there are caveats. The HSR would have to be able to link Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne airports as directly as possible, and those links would have to provide easy access to local transport such as busses, taxis, trams, light rail and rental cars. Brisbane airport has a great set-up: you get off the plane and the airport train is right there for you. Sydney airport has connections to the light rail system: one station each for international and domestic airports.

But where will the HSR fit? Sydney real estate is at a premium, and HSR needs a 100–200m wide clearway. It’s likely that most of the cost of a HSR would simply be gaining access to the land required to build the railway between Campbelltown and Sydney, crossing the harbour, then linking to Newcastle and Brisbane. Rails, trains, power contracts? Chicken feed!

Of course all these things come with externalities: a high speed rail link from Brisbane through Sydney and Canberra to Melbourne has many opportunities for regional stations: Marulan is a half way point between Sydney and Canberra with some professional couples I know living there because one commutes to Sydney, the other to Canberra. For some people, a HSR will mean that housing affordability is achievable by moving to where housing is affordable and commuting to work via HSR and LR.

The HSR will be a great economic boon for towns where it stops: if you can get from a home in Marulan to an office in Canberra in under an hour-and-a-half that it currently takes to commute, you’re on a winner. Even exceeding that hour and a half might be a good value proposition if you have facilities such as WiFi and a cafe or kitchen so morning commuters can have breakfast and catch up with their morning newsfeed on their commute.

Thus the HSR would improve housing affordability for people with jobs in Canberra, without requiring a devaluation of the Canberra housing market.

But that’s just my uninformed opinion.

El_Mariachi 2:08 pm 11 Aug 14

This is a pretty spurious set up, the two projects are completely unrelated. It is within ACT capacities to deliver lightrail, whereas east coast HSR would be the biggest, most complex, most expensive infrastructure project the country had ever embarked upon. It speaks volumes that Mr Bohm thinks getting elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly will give him any say in anything to do with HSR.

mabinogi 1:52 pm 11 Aug 14


But the ACT government doesn’t have the power to create a high speed rail network. They do have the power to create a light rail network.

I also don’t understand where this idea that it’s only happening because the Greens held the government to ransom over it.

Labor went to the election with a policy for light rail – the agreement with the Greens may have modified the resultant policy a little, but it’s pretty much bordering on outright bullshit to imply that the only reason Capital Metro exists is due to the Greens.

Matt_Watts 1:35 pm 11 Aug 14

I agree with Damien that comparing Light Rail to Bullet Train is apples and oranges. One may as well have a debate about education or health care. Each has a different function.

Felix the Cat 12:10 pm 11 Aug 14

How about a bullet train from Gungahlin to Civic? Best of both worlds then!

Seriously though, I don’t think light rail or a bullet train would be financially viable. Reasons why light rail isn’t viable have been bought up a million times already, there is no need for me to repeat these.

No one seems to have worked out the cost to build a bullet train system,though a quick Google search brings up a proposal for one in America from LA to San Francisco – so similar in distance from Canberra to Melbourne – at a cost of US$68B. Then there is the ongoing maintenance and running costs (inc staff + amenities, replacement trains every 10 (?) or so years).

There would need to be a reason for people to use a bullet train rather than fly or drive. A plane trip from Canberra to Sydney (not including driving to airport or parking costs, but you would have these with bullet trains anyway) costs around $300 and takes about an hour.

Driving a car takes about 3 – 4 hours and uses maybe $40 -$50 fuel. So a bullet train would need to be faster and cheaper than flying so as to attract clients.

Seems unlikely the cost of a fare would be able to match or undercut the airfare given the capital investment required to start it off.

Not sure about the speed of a bullet train and how many stops it would be expected to do between Canberra and Sydney but I expect it would be slower than flying. So if this is correct, then why would you use it?

martin75 11:37 am 11 Aug 14

+1 Bullet Train
Why don’t we have high speed rail yet?

Next face off: Bullet Train v Hyperloop!
or even sport based face off: GWS Sponsorship v Raiders /Brumbies Sponsorship

switch 11:30 am 11 Aug 14

In an ideal world, the final approach to Canberra would be a line suitable for both a high speed train (which won’t be travelling at high speed so close to the Canberra station stop) and a commuter service (because 99% of the time there won’t be a high speed train anywhere near Canberra). It could also service a lot more than Gunners.

Public transport planning in Canberra is far from an ideal world.

Reprobate 11:19 am 11 Aug 14

Damien Haas: “Tourists visiting the nations capital will no longer get lost on the wrong bus”.

Welcome to the bottom of the barrel in the justification for light rail.

Reprobate 11:16 am 11 Aug 14

All common sense comments so far, but… Labor isn’t reliant on retaining government by doing a deal with the Green (sic) party for high speed rail, so strike that off the list.

Sorry people, Mayor Rattenbury has decided his legacy to our city to be a short, restricted, destructive, disruptive, unviable, uneconomical, ugly tram system; we just have to accept it and pay for it. Apparently.

BTW: Mr Creosote in Sydney?

YouGoonie 10:43 am 11 Aug 14

High-speed-rail all the way! Of course both would be great but honestly having the high speed rail should be the priority for Canberra. It changes everything and for a city pushing to get its population over 500,000 this needs to happen for the future of our city. Its viable – Its time – Canberra lets make it happen! #bullettrainforcanberra

VYBerlinaV8_is_back 10:42 am 11 Aug 14

Based on the discussion presented it’s bullet train all the way for me.

maureen52 10:31 am 11 Aug 14

Bullet train +1

justsomeaussie 10:16 am 11 Aug 14

Personally I’d be much happier waiting 5 years and seeing how the Hyperloop technology progresses before choosing a high speed rail option. From the technology perspective we are still hurtling large and extremely heavy objects through the environment for transport. A concept like the hyperloop where passengers go inside of pods in an semi depressurised tube over comes a lot of the huge costs associated with pushing a train in the open air.

So my advice is to wait to see what China and the US do with it because there is zero chance of course that we’ll be pioneers in new technology.

Holden Caulfield 9:57 am 11 Aug 14

Bohm 1 – 0 Hass

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