It’s all aboard our high-speed train investigation to see what the new proposals for East Coast rail might achieve. Your conductor is Neerav Bhatt.

Children love trains and trams. It’s obvious from watching their excitement when waiting for the next arrival, how they have to be restrained by their parents from getting too close to the platform edge when it’s slowing down to stop. But at some point most people tend to lose their love of trains. There’s not much transportation romance in delays, commuter crowding and hairy late-night travel experiences.

As for longer distances, Australia has no “high speed” trains. A train is considered high speed if it is capable of travelling at over 200km/h on upgraded existing train lines, or over 250km/h on new tracks especially designed for high-speed rail.

Our fastest are Queensland’s Tilt Trains, which can travel at speeds of up to 160km/h. They run between Brisbane and Cairns, but the services are aimed strictly at tourists, not business travellers. And despite their theoretical speed, the journey of 1691km takes just five minutes under a full 24 hours. Average speed: under 71km/h. On the plus side they compensate by making the journey comfortable, offering deluxe sleeper cars with personal ensuites, a café-style lounge and lay-flat seats (like airline skybeds) in First Class, and flatscreen TVs for all seats with movies, news, sport, weather and music on demand. If you’re not careful you’ll miss out on the scenery. Nice, but no good for business users. Tourists aside, few people use trains to travel between Australia’s capital cities. They’re simply too slow and expensive for the service offered.

The need for speed

In a rare moment of agreement last year, the federal Labor, Liberal/National Coalition and Greens parties all supported a two-part “strategic study into a high-speed rail network on the east coast of Australia … looking at potential high-speed rail routes from Brisbane to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, as well as the economic viability of such a network.”

What sort of times are they talking? It’s not merely saving an hour here or there on current travel times … how about Brisbane to Sydney non-stop in three hours instead of 12? Sydney to Canberra in an hour, or Newcastle in 40 minutes? And see the predictions for Sydney-to-Melbourne travel just below comparing times by different forms of transportation.

Don’t pack your travel bags just yet, however. Even if they started to design a high-speed train network tomorrow, it would be many years before it could become operational.

altSYDNEY-MELBOURNE IN THREE HOURS!: The Sydney-Melbourne connection is the fourth busiest flight route in the world, according to analysts OAG Aviation. With such high demand for both business and leisure travel between the two cities, it would make a logical prime candidate for high-speed rail.With that in mind we compared the cost and travel time for travelling from Sydney to Melbourne by flying, driving, catching the NSW CountryLink express passenger train (XPT), and by Greyhound Bus.

By train, the XPT ticket quote was $130.26, with a total journey time (from our office to Melbourne’s Southern Cross station) of a decidedly not-very-express 12 hours 30 minutes. Driving from Sydney to Melbourne along the inland route (through Goulburn and Albury Wodonga) is also likely to take about 12 hours — assuming proper breaks for meals and driver safety! Costs vary depending on whether you own or rent the car. Catching a Greyhound bus is another 12 hour trip — if you score a direct bus. Otherwise the journey can be a more torturous 14-16 hours plus if the bus stops for lots of breaks. Fares aren’t that cheap either, starting from around $70, with some quotes over $100. 
No wonder so many people take the air option, which was quoted at $99.50 including taxes by Virgin Australia, for a total journey time from our office via Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport to Melbourne of four hours. But consider the estimated time for a non-stop Sydney-to-Melbourne high-speed rail quoted in the government’s Stage 1 report — just three hours, station to station.
High-speed rail would, of course, require a lot of cooperation between state and federal governments. That hasn’t gone well in the past. Australia’s early railways were operated by private companies, and by Federation in 1901, some 20,000km of track had been laid across all States except Western Australia. But three different gauges had been used. It took another 69 years (until 23rd February 1970) for the Indian Pacific to cross Australia from Sydney to Perth on one unbroken standard gauge track. Prior to that, cross-continent travellers had to change trains three times during the journey
Tracking costs

The first part of the federal government’s strategic study estimated a ballpark cost of between $61 billion and $108 billion, depending on the options chosen. That sounds a lot, of course, although it bears up against a comparable roads investment, as Richard Farmer, high-speed rail general manager at the Department of Infrastructure and Transport, told attendees of a Regional Development Australia forum.

“You build roads — inevitably it probably costs something like $250 billion on a national network… [This] is the same kind of proposition. We build it because we believe there is a benefit in transport choices.’’

Future analysis should also take into account the savings made from not having to spend as much money on roads, he said, also pointing out that high-speed rail could still be a great investment if it yielded faster commuting times between eastern Australian cities. Nevertheless he admitted that, “the dividend stream is likely to be so small, and over such a long period, you can kiss the $100 billion goodbye.”

There is also the question of opportunity cost. Existing public transport and freight infrastructure already need investments of many billions of dollars for maintainance and improvement. If the federal government decided to go ahead with a high-speed train system to connect cities in Eastern Australian states, this would divert funds and attention away from the many issues with existing transport systems.

Further, incumbent airlines Qantas and Virgin Australia, as well as private-equity airport owners around Australia, would likely put in strong lobbying efforts to scuttle high-speed trains, which would inevitably threaten their revenues.

Qantas told Geare that they “don’t have a position on the high-speed rail proposal. While it’s an interesting concept, it’s far too early — given it is still at the feasibility study stage — to say whether rail is a workable alternative to air travel along the east coast corridor.”