Could High Speed Rail from Melbourne to Sydney be as fast as air travel?

Sydney Central station

The Federal government’s High Speed Rail study assumes a route from Melbourne via Canberra to Sydney of between 823 and 842 km (mostly following existing highways), with trains reaching up to 350 km/h, and a three hour trip time from Melbourne to Sydney.

Some people who argue against the idea like to claim there is no way this estimated three hour travel time could be competitive with air, when the plane trip is only a bit over an hour.

But if the train was Melbourne CBD to Sydney CBD, how does plane compare to that?

On Thursday, I had a quick trip up to Sydney. Here’s how the trip up panned-out (times as close as I can estimate from photos, receipts etc).

9:04am. Step off suburban train from home at Southern Cross. Briskly walk towards the Skybus terminus.

9:10am. Skybus departs towards airport. (There were five more people aboard than seats available.)


9:31am. Skybus makes first stop for international and domestic flights other than Qantas/Jetstar. I stay aboard, though given the traffic in the airport, and the fact that the second bus stop is actually a little way past the Qantas terminal entrances, I always wonder if I should jump off here and walk the rest of the way to Qantas.

9:34am. Alight Skybus at the Qantas stop.

9:38am. Attempt to check-in. This doesn’t work and the machine tells me I need to seek assistance from staff. I don’t know what went wrong, but the staffer got it figured-out. It might have been because my boarding pass for the trip back was linked to a colleague’s who’d flown up earlier in the day.

9:45am. Go through airport security.

9:55am. Board plane.

Just after 10:00, after the last stragglers board and squeeze their barely-fitting carry-on suitcases into the overhead lockers, the plane pushes back.

11:20am. Plane lands. Apparently it’s a distance of 713 km (more or less, obviously since the exact flight path would vary), so if it’s a 75 minute flight, that would be a speed of about 570 km/h.

We (eventually, after aforementioned people struggle to get their suitcases sorted out) alight.

Sydney: Domestic airport station

11:33am. Find and enter the Domestic Airport station entrance.

11:37am. Buy rail ticket from the vending machine. By the way, it came with a compulsory receipt (which I needed to claim back from work), which unlike Myki receipts, did not include my name nor the bulk of my credit card number.

Sydney airport train ticket and receipt

11:38am. Go through station gate and down to the platform.

11:43am. Board train to city.

11:54am. Train arrives at Central station. (I stayed on for another 4 minutes, or two stops, to St James, which dropped me in the heart of the CBD.)

By air: 164 minutes. By rail: 180 minutes?

So in fact, the Melbourne CBD to Sydney CBD trip took from 9:10am to 11:54am, or 164 minutes, and that was without having to buy a Skybus ticket (I always buy them online to avoid the queues), without checking in baggage, without long queues at security (there were about 3 people ahead of me in the line), nor any significant delays on the flight, and with a short wait for the train (but I didn’t just miss one, for instance due to buying the train ticket).

I’m not a regular business traveller, but to my untrained eye, this trip appears to be close to the ideal Melbourne to Sydney plane ride. But CBD to CBD, it was only 16 minutes shorter than the theoretical fast train travel time of 3 hours — though one would need to take into account check-in and waiting time for train, of course.

On the train it is likely you’d be able to make phone calls, use the internet and any portable electronic devices one might have handy — with no “turn everything off” blackout period during departure and arrival, as on a plane. You’d also be able to move around more freely.

Certainly it would produce less carbon emissions. And the government’s study is predicated on a train also serving Canberra along the way, making trips to/from there more convenient.

There are significant hurdles to getting High Speed Rail built, of course, particularly the huge infrastructure cost. But in a busy air corridor like Melbourne to Sydney, it’s not hard to imagine that it might work quite well.

I suspect that once they proclaim me emperor, I’ll tell the airlines that starting in, say, 10 years, their flight paths between Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney will be cut by 10% per year. And I’ll recommend they start investing in and building a high-speed rail line to replace their planes, on condition that it’s a joint venture to maximise train frequencies (rather than split them between companies).*

And before you say it’s impossible, Lufthansa Airways is in the train business. (So is Virgin, of course, but Virgin’s into just about every business one can think of.)

  • *Footnote: sadly all of this paragraph is unlikely to ever happen.
  • The high speed rail study did say that they looked at a Sydney terminus at Parramatta or Homebush, which would cut costs, but obviously lengthen the travel time to the Sydney CBD.

Australia’s airport trains and buses compared

I’ve done a quick comparison of the main airport to CBD public transport in Australia’s biggest cities.

Brisbane Airtrain at the Domestic Terminal

Brisbane and Sydney have trains at premium fares. Perth and Adelaide have normal route buses. Melbourne has a premium bus.

Mode Bus Train Train Bus Bus
Distance (km) 23 8 13 6 13
Travel time 20 10 23 23 38
Peak freq 10 7 15 15 15
Off-peak freq 10 10 30 15 30
Weekend freq 10 15 30 15 30
Last 24-hour Midnight 8pm* 11pm 11pm
Adult one way (peak) $16.00 $15.80 $15.00 $4.70 $3.80
Child one way (peak) $6.00 $10.40 $0.00 $2.30 $1.50
Speed 69.0 48.0 33.9 15.7 20.5
Adult $/km $0.70 $1.98 $1.15 $0.78 $0.29

*Update: Brisbane Air-train now runs to 10pm. Some prices have changed.

I’ve used all but Perth’s — which is worth noting serves the domestic airport, but not the international one.

Melbourne’s Skybus is the most expensive, but is also by far the longest distance, and is also the trip that runs at the highest speed, with the second-shortest travel time. It’s also the most frequent, apart from during peak hours when Sydney beats it. Skybus does get overcrowded at peak times, too.

Sydney’s works well, being frequent and quick, but the price makes it an extremely expensive 10ish minute journey, and the highest per kilometre cost.

Adelaide’s per kilometre price is higher than Melbourne’s because Adelaide has flat fares. People who want Melbourne to have a single zone might do well to note that upwards pressure has put the single trip $4.70 ticket is above the $3.80 cost of Melbourne’s zone 1, 2-hour ticket (though Adelaide also has an off-peak ticket at $2.90 which would also be valid for this trip between 9am and 3pm).

One thing Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide’s airport services have that the others don’t is good frequencies. We timed our trip on Brisbane’s train well going from the airport to the City, but that was luck more than anything else, and it’s difficult to control. We could just as easily have had to wait half-an-hour. Landing back in Melbourne, we just missed a Skybus, but it didn’t matter because of the ten minute service.

So which is best?

That’s a hard question to answer.

I wonder if for occasional travellers (including visitors to our cities) the distance and the speed isn’t really something they think about too much; it’s more about the frequency, cost and travel time… though leisure travellers sometimes don’t even worry about those — I remember the slow infrequent expensive Rome airport train (circa 1999) was packed full of us tourists.

Of course, trains have qualities that make people prefer them to buses. Something about prominence, (perceived) permanence, space, freedom to move, and ride quality.

For frequency, Melbourne and Sydney clearly win out, with Adelaide not far behind. But I’m amused that (despite the high price) Melbourne is per kilometre cheaper than any of them except Perth.

They’ve all got good points really. Ideally, like any other public transport, you’d want high frequency and speed, good comfort levels, and low cost. And ideally to make it usable you want it serving tourists, business travellers and airport workers (of which there are thousands every day).

The important thing for Melbourne, if airport rail ever gets the go-ahead, is to ensure the service quality (particularly frequency) remains high — otherwise you won’t get locals and regular/business travellers to use it.

Thoughts? What do you use? Did I mess up anything in the table?

Water taps

I’ve seen these water taps in hospitals and airports.

Water tap

It’s great that they’re provided, but the problem with them is you basically have to stick your head into the wall to get a drink out of them. So if you’re not very coordinated, you’ll probably bump it, as the space isn’t overly generous.

Surely they could provide just a little bit of space outwards — or upwards — to make it easier to use?