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This is no silver bullet (train)

By Ross Elliott - posted Monday, 8 April 2019

A proposed High Speed Rail connecting Melbourne with Sydney and Brisbane is getting favourable press. But what are the hurdles and how would it compare with existing modes of intercity travel?

"We should bite the bullet and go for a high-speed rail connection not just through to Sydney but right through to Melbourne and then north to Brisbane," Labor's Infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese said earlier this year, adding: "It would be a real game changer – it is expensive, but nation-building requires vision."

Support, in principle, seems to be impartial with the Liberals' Cities and Urban Infrastructure Minister Alan Tudge saying "High-speed rail has to be part of the landscape in the future" - provided the states secured the corridor.


As distinct from regional high speed rail services (eg Geelong to Melbourne or Gold Coast to Brisbane) which are intended to permit long term commutes and regional connectivity, intercity high speed rail envisages an alternative to air travel between major capitals. Its intention is to serve passenger travel and does not include freight.

The arguments in favour of the intercity HSR are typically vague at this stage, until a business case is conducted. Many of the proponents seem to think that Australia needs a HSR rail project mainly because places like China and Japan have one. The proponents will need to do better than that to justify the many tens of billions of dollars the project would involve. The hurdles are many, here are just a few:

Is there intercity road congestion that needs to be solved by high speed rail?

No. There are no signs of commuter traffic congesting the highways between the major capitals to any extent that something like High Speed Rail would be needed. Proponents will need to accurately describe the problem it is trying to solve.

Is there an alternative?

There are two. Some people drive ("it's the journey not the destination.") The rest who need to get from one capital to the other, fly. (There is also an existing inter-city passenger rail connection but very few people use it due to cost and time).


Is the alternative faster or slower?

The existing alternative (flying) is quicker. Intercity flights are about one hour and thirty minutes. Services are hourly or better. HSR would take two or three hours and there may only be a few services a day in each direction. Each mode would have its own boarding and alighting procedures which would add equally to the trip time. Advances in air travel may further reduce travel times and emissions long before any HSR is built.

But don't we need an alternative when weather or other factors close down airports?

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This article was first published in The Pulse.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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