August 25, 2008
It seems to be one of those “big ideas” that get put forward now and again. A project of vision that will simultaneously inspire and drive economic prosperity. It also sounds so good. But does it make any sense?
On one level rail must be better than air travel, as lifting a massive weight off the ground is energy-intensive beyond our normal ken. We accept it because we don’t really think about it, but it’s simply the worst way to move things around. It depletes energy resources far quicker than any other form of transport (short of rocketry), dumps greenhouse gases at higher altitudes (where they can do their worst) and imposes immense noise footprints on anyone nearby.
On the other hand air travel is unimpeded by geography, so the path is shorter and has far less impact on what’s below. There is less disturbance to land, landholders and the environment overall. Plants and animals remain blissfully unaware of aircraft passing almost silently, high above them.
So it’s actually not as simple as it seems. We have to do some sums here. Let’s take a fast train proposal from Sydney to Melbourne and peel back some layers. What does a fast train really mean?
Well it’s going to be a new line, or a partially shared line that’s largely quarantined from the existing lines. To achieve fast speeds – and we are looking at 250-300kmh – it will have to be straighter than the existing lines with gentler curves. It will also need to be level, or rise and fall more gradually than current track. So it will need massive viaducts and embankments. And it must not intersect with roads or other, slower rail traffic, so it must go over or under any such obstacle.
So it’s going to duplicate existing track with a higher-quality, impeccably welded, ballasted and maintained track that will displace existing landholders, both suburban and country, as well as probably pass through national parks. These are not insurmountable challenges but they are costs that must be factored into any assessment. We would have to be careful to allow plants and animals to traverse over and under these tracks and maintain our biodiversity. We would have to reimburse farmers and other landholders, or tunnel for extended distances at massive cost.
Indeed I can imagine massive tunneling works at both the Sydney and Melbourne ends, for starters. To put new above-ground track down in populated suburban areas would be impossibly expensive and the noise generated would not be tolerated. If you don’t allow the trains to go near full speed right into the cities then the time advantage is eroded.
So what is the time advantage? Current air travel is roughly 3 hours CBD-to-CBD, but who actually travels that route? Presumably trips start from all over, and siting the fast train terminals would be an opportunity – and a choice. Do you replicate airtravel “convenience” of location and interchange, or site away from existing airports to attract different customers? Indeed are you seeking to reduce airtravel by direct competition, or looking to take cars and trucks off the roads? Depending upon how you answer those (and many other) questions you may end up with an 850km track and a 3.5hour journey time. So you are ‘in the ballpark’ but have an opportunity to be different as well.
Of course if you do manage to cannibalise airtravel you’d incur the wrath of the airlines and the airport owners. So I suspect you’ll end up compromising somewhat.
And then there are the fares. Having built massive new infrastructure – let’s face it, it’s not going to be just a few billion, is it? – you then have to decide how you recover that cost. Let the government (ie you and me) absorb it as a project of national importance? Or charge a fee that actually recovers costs over say 20 or 30 years? Do we privatise the service and let the government carry the can on track costs?
Of course spending money on a fast train means we can’t spend it on existing rail, or education, or hospitals – or anywhere else. That’s opportunity cost for you. We will have to think carefully about what we want here. Indeed, why not invest in improving our existing rail network, for example? Or site a new airport somewhere else in Sydney, to reduce congestion, travel time and cost in getting passengers to the current Sydney Airport?
My point? As seductive as a fast train sounds, we haven’t even started to think about the costs and ramifications yet. Just look at volumes. Air travel between Sydney and Melbourne is roughly 90,000 people a week. If you grab 30% of that market (say 30,000 a week) you are spending umpteen billions to shift a relatively small number of people between 2 places. If the gods smile upon you and you grow the market, you may double that number. It still looks like a bad investment to me, given that you’ll probably rob Peter to pay Paul here anyway. The airlines will compete with you and you will have even fewer people travelling on existing lines. Which will leave us where? With an immense white elephant?
Of course airtravel may just die a natural death anyway, with fuel costs going through the roof. But that doesn’t mean we have to replicate what smaller-by-area and denser-by-population countries such as France and Japan do with their fast train networks. Just for comparison with our 30,000 passengers a week scenario, Japan’s Shinkansen carries around 350,000 passengers per day. I may be totally wrong with my off-the-cuff analysis but I suspect that Australia has no truly compelling economic – let alone environmental – reason to even want to shift that sort of number of people between any 2 cities. But we may want to make some improvements to the rail infrastructure within our cities and improve our commute times between a much larger number of locations. Now there’s a thought.
It’s your money, spend wisely!