There must be a Federal election coming.
The Greens have declared their support for funding and building a full fast rail network on the east coast of Australia, serving Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne (as per the official study from a couple of years ago).
Yesterday Labor made a pledge to get started on buying the corridor for the same network.
And today the Coalition has pledged $2 billion for fast rail between Melbourne and Geelong – upgrades and additional tracks so that trains run at an average 160 km/h (rather than this being the top speed, as now). The investment would also include business cases for other projects.
The proposed east coast HSR network
The study is well worth a read if you’ve never had a look.
It would run between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Gold Coast and Canberra would both be served by spur lines. This means compromising on timetable frequency and operations. The study says this design reduces the required station footprints, and speeds up the journey for through trains.
Let’s assume this plan is the most feasible. Fast rail has shown proven benefits in many countries. If all this investment occurred in Australia, it could cut air travel and spark development along the route – at least in the areas served by a station.
But there’s a catch. There are doubts about HSR’s viability for interstate travel in Australia. Our geography – the distances involved – makes it really difficult.
Unlike in Europe or Asia, the planned line between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane is, I suspect, with current technology, a bit too long to be really competitive against air travel, with too few large intermediate destinations.
Will conventional rail technology increase speeds in the coming years? It’s hard to say. Regular service speeds of about 320-350 km/h seem to have been the maximum for about 20 years. (But I’m a terrible futurist.)
It probably makes sense to reserve the corridors, but I’m less sure about trying to build the whole east coast network right now – especially with such a backlog of public transport projects in major cities and along regional corridors.
What’s most viable right now?
Rather than try and take on building a full HSR system which might cost tens of billions of dollars with sub-optimal travel time outcomes, what if the most obvious portion, Sydney to Canberra, was the focus for now?
That’s the sector that’s relatively straightforward. At an expected 64 minutes by train, it is a short enough distance to be competitive with air (55 minutes plus transit time, which could easily be another 30-60 minutes), and long enough to be competitive with road (about 180 minutes).
There are also fast-paced improving local connections at each end.
It would be a good first project, and if done well, gain good political support for further extensions or lines elsewhere, thanks to serving Canberra’s politicians.
To be fair, the study actually said this should be the first section. I’m just not sure the politicians are paying attention.
Think local and regional
While we wait for east coast high speed rail, there’s a compelling argument for upgrades to the existing regional lines for intra-state travel (such as Melbourne’s commuter lines to Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour/Shepparton, Gippsland) to get ensure the existing fleet can attain and stick to their maximum speeds for more of their trip: full duplication, for a start, and provision and separation of metro services, especially to Melton and Wyndham Vale.
In this respect, the Federal Coalition’s pledge today makes some sense. It seems like quite a lot of money for only a moderate time saving – if the train fleet needs to be replaced, should they be aiming for higher speed than average 160/top speed 200?
Of course, assuming it includes track amplification, there would also be capacity benefits for Melbourne’s west.
With any of these plans, high speed rail needs to be accompanied by boosts to local public transport connections around the regional stations. If a major rail line is reliant on park and ride, that will severely limit patronage.
So, as always, excuse my rambling. What I’m trying to say is this:
A full interstate HSR network along the east coast has a lot of potential… eventually. But I suspect shorter distance projects are probably more viable right now.