The closest we’ve ever got to high-speed rail is still pretty far away

Yesterday, the federal government released a $20 million report into the viability of a high-speed rail link from Brisbane to Melbourne.

The landmark study, conducted by seven economists and engineering consultants, pronounced high-speed rail as “viable”. But not in the way you would hope.

The report believes construction between Sydney and Melbourne would take around 30 years, with three-hour trips between Sydney and Melbourne not expected to begin until 2040, or, under an accelerated, more expensive construction schedule, 2035.

The two-and-a-half-hour Brisbane to Sydney line, if commenced now, isn’t expected to be completed until 2058, or five years earlier under the accelerated schedule, at which point you’d expect everyone in the workforce today to be retired.

The study was promised by the government as one of the points of its agreement with the Greens in 2010. Nonetheless, Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese welcomed the report.

“High-speed rail has the potential to be a game-changer, transforming the way Australians live, work and take holidays.

“It also has the capacity to better integrate our regional and metropolitan communities, ease congestion on our roads as well as provide a new foundation for a low carbon, high productivity economy. Already this technology is being rolled out across the globe with clear economic, productivity, lifestyles and environmental benefits.”

High-speed rail is far from government policy. But the report contains plenty of reasons why it’s a good idea.

By building alongside the east coast, 80% of the population will have access to the bullet trains, which will pass by several NSW regional centres as well as the major capital cities. For every dollar spent, $2.30 is expected to be returned to the Australian economy, and the rail line could provide enormous environmental benefits.

High-speed rail will get more expensive the longer we hold off building it, the report states. That’s because over time, the natural spread of new developments will make it more expensive to build on the preferred route. The longer we hold out, the less the economics of the thing will add up.

But there’s little sense of urgency in the suggested timetable for the endeavour.

The authors estimate the legislation necessary for the network’s construction would be passed by 2019. This would be followed by two years of “concept design, environmental impact assessment and public consultation,” in turn followed by two years to acquire the necessary land. Then, four years to divert existing services (if you’re counting, we’re up to 2027). And then, an ‘implementation program’ (i.e. actually building the thing) of 84 months, followed by another 34 months for testing. This means the first public services could start in April 2035 along the Sydney to Canberra stage of the route.

That’s presuming there’s political will, and more importantly, political funding. Once built, if competitive rates are charged, the report believes the rail-line could cover ongoing operational costs. But a $98 billion funding gap for building costs will have to be borne by the government, it says, as the network’s low rate of return is unlikely to attract private financing.

Adding to the cost is that to operate a high-speed train network (high-speed rail typically travels at 300 km/h), you need to construct a totally new, closed network that doesn’t share lines with existing services, the authors write. They expect that when passing through capital-cities, the network would have to be constructed below ground.

Japan pioneered high-speed rail in the 1960s, and now, such networks operate in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, China, the United Kingdom, and Turkey, to name a few.

It boggles the mind that in one of the richest, most affluent countries in the world, one with such a high density of travel between our two biggest cities, if the government takes up high-speed rail, we’ll be almost a full century behind. At best. If all goes according to plan.


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