Who doesn’t love high-speed trains? They engulf the landscape at almost three miles per minute, they take you from city center to city center, they’re comfortable, stylish and exciting, and their safety record is second to none.
High-speed trains require a dedicated track with the smoothest curves and gradients of just a degree or two, which means a very smooth ride. Tracks on Japanese Shinkansen trains, for example, are laid in long sections and welded to reduce vibration and wheel impact on the joints. There is no indication that you are going nearly 300 km/h until you pass another oncoming train, and a 400 meter long train just passed in just under 2.5 seconds.
And as we look out the window at the passing world, a fantasy sets in. Why can’t we have that here?
Numbers don’t stack
Before the pandemic, air travel between Melbourne and Sydney was one of the busiest air routes in the world, with more than 9 million passengers traveling between the two cities each year.
Even today, it ranks seventh among the 10 busiest air routes. Assuming that a significant number of these air travelers could be converted to rail, added to the existing number of rail travelers and some who would choose rail over driving, the number of high-speed rail travelers between Melbourne and Sydney could reach 10 million per year. This suggests an average of around 14,000 passengers per day in each direction, who could be transported on 11 Japanese Shinkansen-type trains or 18 French TGV models.
However, this is below the number of high-speed trains running between major cities around the world. Up to 32 TGV trains make the Paris-Lyon one-way journey each day. The Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train line connecting Tokyo and Osaka sees a daily average of 182 trains running in each direction.
The most popular proposal for a high-speed rail line in Australia runs from Brisbane to Melbourne. From north to south, trains would stop at Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Newcastle, the Central Coast and Sydney. Continuing south, stops would include Mittagong, Wagga Wagga, Shepparton and Melbourne, with a branch line to Canberra. Adding the populations of all the proposed stops along this line, you get about 15 million, spread over a total distance of 1750 kilometers.
For a high-speed rail system to make economic sense, it needs volume, and that population is far below what is needed. At the other extreme, the Shanghai-Beijing railway line is 1,318 kilometers long and about a quarter of China’s population – some 350 million people – live near the railway line. This is why the high-speed train between the two carries an average of 600,000 passengers per day.
The countries where high-speed trains work best are those with large and concentrated populations – mainly Western Europe, Japan and China. Both the United States and Canada have demographics similar to ours – widely dispersed urbanized populations – and this militates against high-speed rail networks.
The only US state showing interest is California, which is building a 170-mile (275 km) high-speed rail line through the state’s central valley between Merced and Bakersfield. The state’s High-Speed Rail Authority hopes it will be the precursor to another high-speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, California has a population of 40 million spread over an area slightly more than half the size of NSW. It is a population density which is not far from that of France.
Travel time between Sydney and Melbourne on the proposed 900km high-speed rail line is expected to be around 150 minutes. This would require an average speed of 360 km/h. The average speed of the Paris-Lyon TGV is 263 km/h. The Shanghai-Beijing service, the world’s fastest high-speed train, averages 306 km/h. If the Sydney-Melbourne train were to travel at a more realistic average speed of 300km/h, the journey would take three hours, and this could be problematic if the railway depends on luring business travelers away from the airlines .
The ecological argument
Apart from the bicycle, the train has less impact on the environment than any other means of land transport. But building a high-speed train line generates a lot of emissions. The requirement to create a relatively straight and flat track means there are tunnels to be dug, viaducts lifted over valleys, embankments constructed and involving millions of tons of concrete and steel, and the Cement production is estimated at 4-8 percent of global man-made carbon emissions. Almost all excavation, material transport and construction work would be done with conventionally powered vehicles. It would take decades of operation before the benefits of high-speed rail travel would bring the environmental balance sheet back into balance.
Who benefits and who pays?
With very few exceptions, such as the Beijing-Shanghai service, high-speed rail lines do not earn profit, or even pay for their journey. Only two of these lines have recovered their construction costs, the TGV Paris-Lyon line and the Tokyo-Osaka line.
In the 1990s, a government-sponsored feasibility study estimated the cost of a Brisbane-Melbourne high-speed rail line at $33–59 billion. A Rudd government study in 2013 cost the same line at $114 billion. More recent studies cost $200 billion. The May 2020 Grattan Institute’s comprehensive high-speed train fever report puts the cost of building a Melbourne-Sydney high-speed line at $10,000 for every Australian taxpayer.
Once built, operating costs are high and few survive without government subsidies, often enormous. While every air traveler between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane pays the full cost of their trip, for every traveler on an east coast high-speed train, someone on the ground would be digging into their pocket.
As the Grattan report points out, “taxpayers in Western Australia and Tasmania may be particularly unhappy when they realize that the main beneficiaries will be business travelers between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane”.
Another big loser if this happened would be Qantas. The airline would take a big hit from a Sydney-Melbourne high-speed rail service. Anyone who thinks Alan Joyce is going to abandon a highly profitable route without shedding blood is underestimating the airline’s chief executive. It would also be a failure to understand the function of the Qantas Chairman’s Lounges, one of the ultimate status symbols, whose members include many high profile politicians.
See also: Inside the invitation-only Qantas lounge that rejected Jacqui Lambie
See also: France’s incredible fast trains are something we can only dream of