#HighSpeedRail may not happen anytime soon, but it’s critical that the corridor be reserved

The Phase 2 Report from the High Speed Rail study was released last week — predicting that although HSR would cover its recurrent (running/maintenance) costs, it’d first take some $114 billion and 45 years to build it.

As I’ve said before, I think a 3-ish hour trip from Melbourne to Sydney would be time-competitive with flying.
Taiwan High Speed Rail
$114 billion is obviously an incredible cost, and taking decades to build it is a totally unambitious timeframe. I’m sure if you outsourced it to those who have built such lines elsewhere, they could get it running much more quickly and cheaply. Or if they got tough on the airlines and proclaimed a forced heavy future reduction in emissions, and particularly if oil prices skyrocket and a second Sydney airport is put on hold, they could coax Qantas and Virgin into the railways business.

(It’s interesting that much of the debate since the report was released has ignored emissions issues, and focussed on the benefits to existing rail passengers, not those currently travelling by air.)

But even if you assume it could be built quicker and cheaper, the question is: should one heed the calls of the optimists and start building it now? Or follow the cynics who say it’s all too expensive, that we don’t have the population, and we should forget it?

I’m not sure. Fact is, across the country, there are probably a lot more important infrastructure projects that need building first. That money (even if you assumed it could be built for half that cost) could solve a lot of other problems.

And realistically, the political and economic climate means there’s no hope of it being built right now.

But… as this piece in The Conversation says, they should definitely go ahead and identify and reserve the corridorjust like the roads people do all the time.

All that said, it seems prudent to plan and protect a corridor. It’s not overly expensive to work out a detailed alignment and preserve it from incompatible land development. This does little harm and ensures we can move forward if and when circumstances change and/or the time is right.

This is a must. Not doing so — even if actual construction work isn’t to start in the foreseeable future — could make it impossible for it to ever happen later.

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.)

Skybus

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.