What do we want? FAST TRAINS! When do we want ‘em? NOW!

What do we want? FAST TRAINS! When do we want ‘em? NOW!

Economics of Contentment Part 03 – First published on the Sydney Opera House Ideas website.

In Part three of ‘The Economics of Contentment,’ John Treadgold investigates Australia’s lack of High Speed Trains and laments forecasts that we’ll have to wait another 50 years to get fast/efficient transport up the coast.

I was on a train from London to Edinburgh as I read the press release, Final High Speed Rail (HSR) Study Released: “HSR connecting the nation’s East Coast capital cities has the potential to be a game-changer, transforming the way Australians live, work and take holidays.” About bloody time, I thought to myself.

Australia’s a big country and trains running the length of the East-coast would be sweet. But I snorted coffee all over my keyboard when I read that the forecast completion date would be 2065! That’s more than 50 years from now. Plus, the cost would be a cool $114 billion; I was finding it hard to breath.

The long-awaited report had cost us taxpayers $20 million, it was an election promise from September 2010 and at 500 pages it was thorough. The modeling suggested a travel time of less than three hours between Sydney and Melbourne, which would make the trip 20% faster than flying, due partly to the convenience of leaving from the centre of the city.

But why-oh-why are we going to have to wait so long? Now I’m all for thinking in long time-scales, and all too often our politicians pander to pay-offs in their four year terms, but transport is a problem now, the technology is available now and right now we have unprecedented wealth that’s crying out for major infrastructure investments. Surely the time is right…

My cynical side would suggest that this report is an exercise in avoidance. The labor government made an agreement with the Greens in 2010 to go ahead with the study, but as reality sinks in they may be hesitant to be burdened with the cost. The project commencement isn’t until 2027 and with a price tag in excess of $100 billion you’d be forgiven for thinking it may never happen.

A more pragmatic perspective may argue that the demand just isn’t here yet as our population is still relatively small and very spread out. But as our population becomes increasingly urbanized, and as young people head from inland to the coast we have seen 85% of the population huddling on the East coast. There are calls for a second Sydney airport and you don’t have to look far to find a story about demand for housing in our capital cities. An economy can grow only as quickly as its transport systems allow.

With so many variables perhaps a more incremental approach could be taken. Start with the Sydney to Canberra route and see how it goes, then extend to Melbourne (Sydney to Melbourne is the world’s fifth busiest flight route). Or link Newcastle to Sydney and ease the congestion on the roads that is stopping this regional centre from expanding. But instead we have this huge and expensive exercise in shock tactics.

When the report was released on the 11th April it received plenty of press. I read through a whole raft of clippings as I hurtled through the Scottish countryside. The Infrastructure Minister, Anthony Albanese had made a speech and there were PR stories about the economic and efficiency gains of the plan. I read it all with eagerness. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that there wouldn’t be opposition from the many vested interests, but I was genuinely shocked at the vitriol that was unleashed by right-wing conservatives.

The Australian led with headlines such as; Critics rail against $114bn fast train and No Fast Track for Trains; while the Daily Telegraph were at their editorial best with Anthony Albanese’s high-speed train dream as absurd as flying cars. I agree whole-heartedly that the time-spans and sheer weight of the plan may be ill-advised, but why is there so much negativity about rail itself? Who in their right mind would prefer to fly, when taking the train is faster and more comfortable? Surely the vested interests of airlines and trucking companies can’t be that strong?

It’s no surprise that conservatives would be against a major infrastructure investment that’s to be funded for by the taxpayer. But the efficiency dividend of HSR, making the populace more mobile, would boost productivity; the report suggests an economy-wide return of $2.30 on every dollar invested.

The Greens have been HSR’s biggest supporter for decades. The efficiency gains in terms of C02 emissions are considerable, but the impact of laying so many thousands of kilometers of electrified track is also considerable. “Greens adore the idea of high-speed rail, until they see the construction plans.” Anthony Albanese was quoted as saying. This is the only cogent defence that the right seems to come up with, that the raft of environmental impact statements will be prohibitively onerous.

It is suggested that, “one freight train does the work of 150 semi-trailers, saving 45,000 litres of fuel and 130 tonnes of greenhouse gases. If one compares a single road with a railway line, the former delivers around 2,000 passengers per hour, while rail can shift 50,000.” Travel up and down the East coast will double in the fifty-year scope of this project. In a carbon constrained world these efficiencies can’t be ignored.

Albanese’s report is careful to assuage suggestions that the rail project will remove the need for a second Sydney Airport. He suggests that congestion is an issue now and that other solutions will be required for that issue. This is both confusing and frustrating as rail is surely the best means of easing congestion NOW. Examples in Spain show a 40 per cent drop in flights between Madrid and Barcelona in the two years after HSR was built and between Paris and Lyon HST have completely replaced airline services.

We need rail today, not in 20 years. Right now we have congestion on all major transport routes up the East Coast, Sydney airport is operating at well beyond capacity, our economy is the strongest in the developed world, there are innumerable examples of foreign train systems to learn from and while the cost is huge so is the cost of trying to grow and prosper without new transport systems. I’ve probably asked more questions than I’ve answered in this piece but if a $20 million report can’t answer them then what hope do I have.

Public consultation on the report is open until June 30; let them know what you think.

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